William Shakespeare

On this date in 1564, William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. The master playwright was eulogized by 19th-century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. In one of his famous lectures, Ingersoll said that when he read Shakespeare, “I beheld a new heaven and a new earth.” (The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Interviews, Vol. IV.) “Think of the different influence on men between reading Deuteronomy and ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear.’ … The church teaches obedience. The man who reads Shakespeare has his intellectual horizon enlarged,” said Ingersoll in Vol. VIII.

No one knows Shakespeare’s personal religious views, although he certainly was not orthodox. He was born under the rule of Elizabeth I, who was Protestant and outlawed Catholicism, and was succeeded by James I, who continued Elizabeth’s policies despite his mother Mary Stuart’s Catholicism. Shakespeare’s parents were likely covert Catholics. His father John was close friends with William Catesby, father of the head conspirator in the Catholic “gunpowder plot” to blow the Protestant monarchy of James I to smithereens in November 1605.

Shakespeare put many different types of sentiments into the mouths of his characters. The bard’s philosophy seems most succinctly described in the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from “As You Like It,” which begins: “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances …” ending with “mere oblivion. / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

In “King Lear,” the Duke of Gloucester laments in Act 4, Scene 1, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” Victorian poet, playwright and novelist Algernon Swinburne put it this way: “Shakespeare was in the genuine sense — that is, in the best and highest and widest meaning of the word, a Freethinker.” D. 1616.

Freedom From Religion Foundation