by David R. Brown
Many people often think the plays of William Shakespeare are boring, too difficult to understand, or simply not relevant for our time. Some may object to the Elizabethan language. Others say his plays are too sophisticated. Then, there are those people who, after attending one bad performance, come to the conclusion they will never enjoy seeing a Shakespeare play again.
Too many directors do not understand that Shakespeare wrote from a Biblical perspective. When a play is presented without a thorough understanding of the principles applied by Shakespeare to the plot and dialogue, the performance will often depict vulgar or overt sensual actions never intended by the playwright. It is true that some of these ideas are present in subtle form, but never intended by the author to be depicted in specific detail.
Shakespeare also had one primary motive in developing his plays: to entertain. Many playwrights do not follow this principle. They choose to write plays that appeal to what is politically correct or put forth a moral agenda. If the primary objective of a play is something other than entertainment, the play will appeal only to a limited audience and fail to bring in a broad base of patrons. Some directors today do the same thing with Shakespeare plays. They work into the presentation their own political agenda. Unless audiences are in agreement, they will react with confusion or disgust.
Because Shakespeare understood good business principles, he was prepared to compete at the highest level of theater, the London stage. He probably learned how to run a business successfully by observing his father’s success as a tanner and seller of leather goods in Stratford. If the shop did not make money, the family was in trouble. Also, he became part of the London theater scene at an opportune time. Most plays on the Elizabethan stage at that time were vulgar and/or filled with overt sexual content. Most of the playwrights did not comprehend the necessity to write for people in all classes. Shakespeare wrote for both royalty and the common man. Because of his ability to intertwine the principles he had learned from Scripture into his plays, often with subtle innuendos, he developed a depth in his writing never before seen on the London stage.
It is Shakespeare’s incredible depth of understanding of the human condition and the need for salvation that causes the serious student to desire a more advanced study of the Bard’s creative and stimulating work. When I discovered how much I could learn by an intensive study, I was dedicated to a lifetime with the greatest playwright of all time. That is the reason I enjoy seeing these wonderful plays over and over, as well as reading through each script. After many years of teaching college and high school students, as well as my annual lectures on each play at Ashland, I was offered the opportunity to direct As You Like It. The theme of this play is “conversion from the world.” Two very evil men, before the story has ended, have been changed from their evil intent and wicked character to men dedicated to help others.
Character development is another important aspect of the development of drama. Shakespeare sharpened this skill throughout his writing career, and he achieved this by showing in the characters of his plays their detailed personality traits intertwined with their moral character in such a way that audiences often identify with some of his characters. This identification may be one of like or dislike, trust or distrust, and in some cases, love or hate. Hamlet, Lear, Richard II, Dogberry, Falstaff are merely characters in a play, but they become so alive on the stage that they seem almost real to the student, who has invested a deep interest in the drama.
Shakespeare often developed the theme of evil and its consequences in his plots in such a way that it becomes apparent that he drew his basic understanding of evil from the Bible. God created man in His own image and said that this was very good. But God also gave Adam total free will. That is, Adam was free to obey God’s commands or to follow his own desires. Since God had commanded Adam not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam was free to obey or disobey. When Satan tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, she not only ate, but also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Here we can see an important event in Macbeth. In this play, Macbeth is an honorable man who becomes corrupted by listening to the predictions for his future made by the three witches. He ignores the impending danger and deliberately walks into Satan’s territory. This mistake begins his long struggle, aided by his ambitious wife, into the depths of evil.
The role of the fool often plays a strategic part in the Bard’s works. Shakespeare may have been inspired to develop the character of some of his fools by reading I Corinthians 1:27: “For God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty.” The fool in King Lear is a fine example of this principle. It is the fool who helps the king through his prolonged periods of suffering and anguish over his mistreatment by his evil daughters so that Lear emerges a wiser man. When Lear reaches this point of wisdom, he realizes that Cordelia is his only faithful daughter; but it is too late to save her from death. The principle at this point of the play is that repentance makes us right with God, but it does not keep us from bad consequences.
Spiritual values are an essential ingredient for Shakespeare’s plays. His plots and characters have often been formed from principles taught in Scripture. However, the works of the Bard of Avon are not ecclesiastical. That is, they are not usually based on anything specifically from the Bible or show a particular theology. These works are universal, and so the themes can relate to men from any background.
The spiritual values found in Shakespeare inspire truth, beauty, and goodness. Life, however marred, is not seen to be contemptible or futile, but infinite and promising, even in the most tragic circumstances. Hamlet is a tragic character, because he waits too long to carry out his mission. However, the theme of this play is based on Psalm 8:4: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” The reason this is my favorite play is based in the philosophical study of man’s purpose in life. Hamlet is a play in which the study of man revolves around Hamlet’s seven soliloquies. The more I study the character of Hamlet the more I learn about myself and where I am going.
The records that are available which give us clues to the life of William Shakespeare point to a man of great spiritual strength. He was a family man and a man whose life was guided by God. He was successful in his business, and his works have become immortal. At the end of his life, he stated in his will: “…I commend my soule into the handes of God my Creator, hoping and assuredlie believing, through thonelie merittes, of Jesus Christe my Saviour, to be made partaker of lyfe everlasting. . .”
In my book, Shakespeare for Everyone to Enjoy, (2007 published by Ascribed Books, Daly City, CA) I have written in much greater detail and also have documented the facts concerning Shakespeare’s life in the Appendices.
David Brown has many years experience in acting and directing plays, and is the author of the book Shakespeare for Everyone to Enjoy. He has directed three of Shakespeare’s plays and has lectured on the plays presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon, for the past 35 years. He has taught high school and college classes in Shakespeare, and was the founder and superintendent for 11 years of Christian Heritage Academy, Fremont, California, a K-12 private school. He has been a pastor for over 50 years, and is the pastor of Danville Presbyterian Church, Danville, California.