Shakespeare lived during a period of religious upheaval known as the Reformation. For centuries Europe had been united under the religious leadership of the Pope, head of the Roman Catholic Church. In the early 1500s, however, a new religious movement known as Protestantism broke within the Church. Whereas Catholics believed salvation was achievable through good works, Protestants believed salvation was only possible through true faith. Europe divided along religious lines, with most of northern Europe becoming Protestant while most of the south remained Catholic. In the 1530s, Henry VIII broke from Catholicism and founded the Church of England. Henry VIII’s daughter, who would rule as Queen Mary I from 1553 to 1558, violently restored Catholicism to England for a brief time. But in 1559, soon after her accession to the throne, Queen Elizabeth I reestablished the Anglican Church as the official religion of the land. By the time Shakespeare was born in 1564, Protestantism reigned. But Catholicism didn’t die in England. Catholics continued to worship in secret, and Catholic radicals, bolstered by the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570, felt justified in their pursuit to assassinate the queen. Catholics were feared and hated by many people in the Protestant majority.
As with other biographical details, we have little certainty about Shakespeare’s personal beliefs or how the Reformation affected them. We do have evidence that Shakespeare’s father was a “recusant,” which means that he either failed or refused to attend Protestant services on Sundays, and hence had his name added to a public list and had to pay for each service missed. We also know that Shakespeare’s mother belonged to a family with various Catholic ties, and hence she may have harbored lingering Catholic sympathies. As for Shakespeare himself, recent biographers have speculated that he may have had Catholic loyalties, and that these loyalties may have brought him into conflict with the escalating anti-Catholic campaign of a local gentleman, Sir Thomas Lucy. If this is true, then it would help explain why Shakespeare left Stratford in the late 1580s and sought out safety in the comparative anonymity of London.
Despite these speculations, the historical evidence for what Shakespeare himself may or may not have believed remains thin. Thus, the best resource for understanding how the Reformation influenced him lies in his writing. If Shakespeare recorded his own feelings about religion in his plays, then he did so in indirect and complex ways. In Hamlet, for instance, the protagonist is a student at the university in Wittenberg, which is the very same university where Martin Luther set the Reformation in motion by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses against Catholicism to the church door. Yet if Hamlet’s place of education signals Protestant sympathies, Shakespeare complicates matters by having the Ghost of Hamlet’s father claim to speak from Purgatory, a Catholic concept that few Protestant denominations officially recognize. Whereas Hamlet indicates an ambivalent relationship to religion, The Tempest assumes a mocking tone, as when the drunken Stephano holds out a bottle of liquor and demands that Caliban “kiss the book,” caricaturing the Catholic practice of kissing the Bible during mass. Other plays, like King Lear and Cymbeline, take place in pre-Christian England, making their relation to contemporary debates about faith especially ambiguous.