Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Friday, October 27, 2017

Shakespeare & Martin Luther's 500th Reformation Anniversary

500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses — and lit the fuse that started the Protestant Reformation.

I have an intriguing question.

Was Shakespeare a Lutheran?

Maybe. It is entirely possible — although it is probably impossible to prove.

Was Shakespeare inspired by the life and works of Martin Luther?


Martin Luther
 by Lucas Cranach der Ältere, painted in 1528
Wikimedia Commons

To support my theory, I would like to share some of the persuasive evidence I have found.

Even if Shakespeare did not consider himself a disciple of Luther, he must have drawn great inspiration from Luther’s life story.

Luther was born to upwardly mobile parents, who were Catholics. His father was a businessman who was also involved in the local civic council.

Shakespeare was born to upwardly mobile parents. Despite the fact that his mother’s family were Protestants, the household in which he was raised was arguably quite Catholic. 

Shakespeare was probably raised more as a Catholic in secret, than as a Protestant, as was expected by English law at the time. I contend that the religion in the house was Catholic, because that is what his father would have wanted. 

Shakespeare’s father had a glove business, and held many civic offices, from ale-taster to constable. He was even the mayor of Stratford. 

Hans Luther wanted his eldest son Martin to go to university and become a lawyer. 

John Shakespeare probably wanted the same thing for his eldest son William. He may have planned to send him to the University of Oxford, which was only about a day’s travel from Stratford.

Martin Luther went to a law university, as his father had planned. 

William Shakespeare did not go to Oxford, for a variety of reasons. There were probably financial problems, which may have stemmed from crippling fines against John Shakespeare had to pay, as punishment for practicing his Catholic faith. 

Also, at Oxford, William would have had to swear a new religious oath, to conform to the Protestant Church of England. Raised a Catholic, he would not have been able to swear such an oath. 

There is a deeper question here: was Shakespeare a Catholic or a Protestant? I don’t know the answer. I don’t think he even knew the answer to that question. From what I can tell, he spent his life in search of an answer. I think he had far more questions than answers.

But regardless of whether or not he was a Catholic or Protestant, there is one answer of which I am certain. He was a Christian. He believed. Shakespeare had a firm faith in God.

How do I know that?

Because Martin Luther and William Shakespeare were both given a sign, which they both knew to have been sent from Heaven. Their faith told them the sign was sent from God.

One day, on his way back to law school, Luther was scared to death by a thunderstorm. He was almost hit by a lightning bolt!

Because of this near-death experience, he made a life-altering and history-making decision. He abandoned his studies as a lawyer. He chose to devote his life to God, and become a monk.

I have found an event in Shakespeare’s life which resembles this.

In early November 1572, the whole world became witness to a very bright light in the sky — a “new star” never before seen. Even Queen Elizabeth had the event studied, to determine its meaning.

What the whole world saw was a supernova — an exploding star going through a fatal and cataclysmic eruption of light and energy. 

Supernova 1572
photo: NASA

It was the first supernova the world had seen in over 500 years!

There have only been about 8 ever witnessed in recorded history. There has only been one seen since then, visible to the naked eye, without telescopes. 

It has been over 400 years since the last one. (It makes you think that we are due for one any day now!)

At the time, in 1572, the entire world did not know what the “new star” meant. They had to figure out its meaning without the science and technology we have today. 

What would that supernova mean to William Shakespeare, who was 8 years old at the time?

For most people living in a community like Stratford in the 16th century, such a celestial event would have not been confusing at all. There would be only one answer — it was from God.

I don’t think young William Shakespeare thought that he had to immediately devote his life to God, like Luther had with the lightning bolt.

But since the light of the supernova lasted for over a year, it must have given him a lot of time to consider what he could do in order to serve God.

I like to think that it inspired him to be a better student at school, where he had just begun his education.

I like to think that the “new star” gave him a voracious and insatiable appetite for language and literature — all of which was invaluable to him as a playwright and poet.

As he went to school, and grew up, he would have learned about the birth of the Protestant Reformation, and Martin Luther of course.

It is inconceivable to me that Shakespeare would not have seen himself in Luther, and Luther in him. The stories of their early years were so similar. 

Shakespeare’s dreams and hopes of going to Oxford were dashed, but he probably didn’t mind too much. He probably thought that if Luther could do without law school, then so could he. 

In the years before Shakespeare went to London to start his career as a playwright and poet, he must have been searching for a way forward, a path to follow. These were his so-called “lost years.”

I think the memory of that supernova would have been all the light he needed to follow. I don’t think he felt lost at all. I think he was practicing his faith, which was intimately connected to his creative writing, and to his future career as the greatest playwright in London.

He probably spent time reading and studying — anything and everything he could get his hands on, like Homer, Virgil, Hesiod, and so many others. But most of all, he read the Bible, over and over again. 

The supernova was his lightning bolt. It was the heavenly light that made Shakespeare decide to devote his gift with words to God. 

After all, poetry has its origins in religion. The great epic poets, Homer and Virgil both considered themselves inspired by the gods — for they believed that the gods breathed into them the divine spirit and gave them the gift of poetry.

I am often surprised to find so little attention paid to Shakespeare’s faith, and firm belief in God. More time is spent looking at him as a playwright, in theaters and taverns, drinking and carousing. More time should be spent considering his time spent at Church, and on his knees in prayer -- at Old St. Paul's Cathedral for example:

Old St Paul's Cathedral in London
from Early Christian Architecture by Francis Bond (1913)

How could anyone write so many plays and poems, that captured the hearts and minds of so many of his contemporaries, without a faith in God?

Homer and Virgil had audiences in the thousands — and have been read by millions more in the centuries since. They did not accomplish that because they had no faith. Rather, it was precisely because their faith was so strong.

Shakespeare did not have audiences in the thousands, and millions since then, because he was without faith. Quite the contrary.

Why would Shakespeare make Hamlet, his greatest hero, be a student at the University of Wittenberg — where Martin Luther had been a professor of theology?

I think Shakespeare’s 36 or so plays should be considered his version of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses.

Just as Martin Luther was posing questions, and stating theories, with his Theses, Shakespeare was also asking questions.

The character Hamlet, who has more questions than answers, is a great examination of who and what was Shakespeare as a person. I think the character embodies much of what Shakespeare faced in the last years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, when there was so much doubt and fear.

The question is not whether or not Shakespeare read the Bible. The real question is which Bible he preferred the most.

According to Naseeb Shaheen, an American scholar who was the world’s authority on Shakespeare’s use of biblical allusions, Shakespeare used at least 7 different Bibles — from the Geneva Bible to the Coverdale Bible to the Bishops’ Bible to the King James Version, and others.

He also found that Shakespeare frequently used language from 5 translations of the New Testament — from the Tyndale version to the Rheims version, and others.

That’s not counting Shakespeare’s allusions from the Prayer Book, or from the Book of Homilies, and from all of the other religious writings he could get his hands on.

Shakespeare’s comprehensive knowledge and use of so many religious works strongly suggests a man who was on an epic journey of faith.

Also, I have already written about how the Hamlet character is directly based on Shakespeare’s closest friend and artistic patron, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Wikimedia Commons

   Essex was executed in early 1601. In the weeks and months after his death, I think Shakespeare wrote his Hamlet play based on Essex, and for Essex.

The likeliest date for the very first performance — the world premiere — of the Hamlet play was on Essex’s birthday — 10 November 1601.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Martin Luther has the same birthday, 10 November.

Was the premiere of Hamlet that day — on a cold November in London, at the Globe Theatre — as much a celebration of Essex’s life, as it was a celebration of Martin Luther’s?

In conclusion, I think that Shakespeare sought to have an influence on the world, as consequential as Luther’s. 

Shakespeare must have been thrilled to think that he could change the world with words -- just like Luther had.

Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses, by Ferdinand Pauwels
Wikimedia Commons

Instead of hoping to have a good life, Shakespeare wanted to have an important life, not just for his own pleasure, but for the benefit of the world.

Shakespeare did not become playwright by accident. No, he had a patient and determined faith in himself, based on his faith in God.

Shakespeare clearly succeeded in his goal. His global impact is incalculable.

There have been efforts to understand the impact that Luther has had. Wikipedia has an entry about the legacy and the consequences of the Reformation. Here are just a few of the good things that Luther gave us:

— Higher literacy rates.
— Lower gender gap in school enrollment and literacy rates.
— Higher primary school enrollment.
— Higher public spending on schooling and better educational performance of military conscripts.
— Higher capability in reading, numeracy, essay writing, and history.

There are also some negative consequences. But the good developments greatly outweigh the bad.

I like to think that Shakespeare had a similar positive impact, especially as far as reading and history in school are concerned.

So, was Shakespeare a Lutheran?


Were both Shakespeare and Luther inspired by God to learn for themselves, in order to teach others, and therefore the world?



David B. Schajer

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