With Godless Shakespeare, Eric S. Mallin fills an important gap in Shakespeare criticism by examining the possibility of looking at Shakespeare’s plays from a purely agnostic or atheistic standpoint, and seeing in what ways the works can resonate with that worldview. What emerges from this is a fascinatingly off-kilter rereading of the canon, engagingly and often humorously written, that is deeply thought-provoking even if it does not quite succeed in living up to its title.
At a mere 120 pages, this ‘minigraph’, part of the Shakespeare Now! series, is an easily read if not necessarily easily digested book of fourteen chapters divided according to Dante’s view of the universe into Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, though the definition of each of these scarcely accords with orthodox religious thinking. Rather, they represent ‘the psychic and spiritual characteristics of place and person’ ‘in the ordered afterlife of a godless cosmos’, reaching towards a purely secular enlightenment. Refusing to restrict himself to purely scholarly methods of argument, in line with the series editors’ aim of offering ‘intellectual adventure stories’, Mallin does not refrain from changing form to best make his point: thus his chapter of King Lear is a three-page fable, that on Romeo and Juliet a mere page mostly occupied by a quotation from Friar Laurence, and that on Titus Andronicus unashamedly opens with a quotation from South Park. Along the way, Mallin delves into the various ways that Shakespeare challenges conventional religious views, opening the door to uncomfortable thoughts for the orthodox: Friar Laurence speaking of ‘Their [Romeo and Juliet’s] God’ rather than his own while instinctively thinking of material rather than spiritual eternity; the nature of the Eucharist in Titus Andronicus, a play in which Mallin finds more truth in Aaron than in any other character; how Measure for Measure dramatizes substitutions that find parallels in the Christian story, and in doing so calls the latter into doubt; how various homosexual Antonios sacrifice themselves for their friends while insisting that their sacrifice be recognised, leading us to wonder how sacrificial such Christ-like gestures actually are, as opposed to self-serving; the dictatorial fundamentalism that enables Hermione’s resurrection in The Winter’s Tale; the contradiction between Hamlet’s agonising over suicide and his cheerful willingness to kill anybody other than himself; and Cleopatra’s successful self-deification, among others. Each chapter offers points of view I have rarely if ever encountered elsewhere, and each of these points of view is worth careful cogitation.
As iconoclastic as his views is Mallin’s down-to-earth presentation of them: he leavens his sometimes academic vocabulary with a sense of humour that suggests he must be an excellent instructor in the classroom. Few scholars would dare refer in print to Pericles as ‘God’s bitch’, let alone name a chapter thus; and I think it more than plausible that Mallin is the first person to argue, at some length, that Macbeth is Shakespeare’s funniest play. Even more refreshing is Mallin’s utter refusal to pretend that he finds any of Shakespeare’s characters particularly likeable, with the possible exception of Bottom: his evisceration of their morality, however lightly done, is both delightful and generally unanswerable. The chapter on Measure for Measure is especially good in this regard: it is difficult after reading it to grasp how anyone ever successfully defended either the Duke or Isabella as paragons of righteousness – or even as righteous at all.
Yet there are curious lapses in this book, where Mallin leaves himself open to attack on the grounds of insufficient consideration. Nowhere is this more evident than in the chapter on The Winter’s Tale, where he discusses Paulina’s continual torture of Leontes. Taking the eminently sensible view that there is no actual resurrection in the final scene of the play, rather the endgame of a 16-year con-job, Mallin accuses Paulina of torturing Leontes over something she knows to be untrue, that is, Hermione’s death. Yet there is little sense that Leontes might in fact be deserving of some punishment. And while it might be possible to quantify Hermione’s suffering at Leontes’s hands and the latter’s at Paulina’s, and decide that at a given point they had reached equality and that Leontes might therefore be reprieved; but Leontes has done more than merely try his wife for adultery (a crime which, lest we forget, was punishable by burning at the stake at the time). He has sent his daughter to be exposed, and despite Apollo’s prophecy, as far as anyone knows she is dead. In doing this, he has also sent one of his counsellors to death-via-bear. And it is clear that he is responsible for his son’s death. The idea that keeping Leontes convinced for 16 years that his wife is dead is ‘so much worse than anything he’s done in his mad jealousy’ is wobbly at best. More to the point, the entire lack of Mamillius, not to mention Apollo’s oracle, is beyond questionable in a book looking at The Winter’s Tale and the existence of deities, even if the chapter is focusing on the nature of miracles.
Which leads us to the matter of how well Mallin makes his argument for a ‘Godless Shakespeare’. There are two possible meanings to this title, and though Mallin seeks to prove one he comes closer to convincing us of the other. It depends on whether we take the first or the second word to be the more important of the two: are we looking at a Shakespeare who is godless, or are we coming to the works from a godless perspective?
Mallin is careful to state that he is not suggesting any biographical atheism on Shakespeare’s part, but he does propose a deliberate questioning of received religious truths in the plays. To do so, however, he often omits or disregards the evidence to the contrary. Of course, this is both a short book and a polemical one, and the religious aspects of the Shakespeare canon have been studied to death. Rehashing them would have been a waste of space. But in proposing an absence of God in the works, Mallin fails to provide a properly atheistic reading by ignoring the places where God (or at least a god) is present. These passages could quite likely be worked into an atheist worldview, but Mallin does not do so.
The problem hinges on the dual meaning of the word ‘godless’: are we to understand the inexistence of God in the world, or the refusal to recognise a god’s authority? Mallin seems to want the first, but the second is more defensible. But here we run into problems, as sympathy for god-challenging characters in a god-ruled universe must be limited by the recognition that they are wrong – unless we see them as heroic rebels against injustice, if the god is unjust.
And certainly Mallin provides good grounds for considering the latter in a Shakespearean context. There is after all a distinction to be made between God and religion that debates surrounding atheism tend to miss: the question of whether religion is a positive force in the world is not the same as the question of whether a god exists, or for that matter the question of whether, if a god exists, it is a force for good or ill in the universe. The hostility towards a deity that Mallin perceives in Shakespeare is clearly in the latter camp. But unfortunately he does not answer the question of what Shakespeare might be proposing in religion’s place. One of the most irritating clichés in anti-atheism discourse is the concept that morality is dependent on the existence of a higher power, that a non-supernatural morality is impossible without an authority to codify what is good and what is ill. Irritating though it is, it must be answered, and Mallin does not do so on Shakespeare’s behalf.
Despite these caveats, however, Godless Shakespeare is well-worth reading, if only to shake the cobwebs from better-accepted views of the place of religion and belief in the canon. I give it full marks for its debate-inspiring abilities. But one should not hope to find proof here that Shakespeare’s works describe an atheistic world.
What Mallin does provide, however, is evidence suggesting that there’s a strong case to be made that the deity of Shakespeare’s world is a jackass.