Was the Bard godless?

Was Shakespeare not a fan of religion — and did he use his plays to get across his disdain for the hypocrisies of the 16th century church and its promise of deliverance through prayer?

Shakespeare scholar Eric S. Mallin of the University of Texas at Austin thinks so and will substantiate that view with insights into the Bard's characters and plots at a presentation at 7 p.m., Monday, July 20 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Carpenter Hall.

Mallin, author of "Godless Shakespeare" in 2007, says Shakespeare was likely raised Catholic and belonged to the Anglican Church but like everyone else in those days, was unable to speak up about his doubts — so he would have characters act them out.

"It's an unanswerable question, how religious he was. He left no narratives, commentaries or letters about his plays," said Mallin in a phone interview, "but I strongly suspect, judging from his favorite writers (Ovid and Montaigne), who were profoundly skeptical of human ability to live up to divine ideals, that Shakespeare was the same way.

"They all shared their culture's lip service to religion," says Mallin, "but they questioned the notion of the sacred, of an infinitely forgiving but infinitely punishing God and the contradictions in that. But if you said that in Shakespeare's time, you would be arrested and executed."

On several occasions, noted Mallin, the Bard would portray religious characters praying for divine intervention, but within 20 lines they are "ignored or reviled by events and almost immediately punished."

"In his plays, there is little reward for religion and there's a lot of hypocrisy shown for those who claim religious stature," Mallin said.

Shakespeare shows the range of religiosity in his characters, but no one becomes more religious in his plays except Hamlet and, "strangely, he becomes more vicious as he gets more into God's will," Mallin said.

The Bard can't be said to be an atheist but he comes across in his plays as "skeptical to negative" about religion and gives many clues that he's not inhospitable to the supernatural — demons, ghosts, uncanny things that can't be explained by science, even today."

Mallin says he's one of the scholars who opposes the "new fundamentalist" trend claiming that religion plays a huge role in Shakespeare's works. In reality, the theater in Shakespeare's time was in direct competition with the church "for the same paying customers," he said.

"Shakespeare uses religious imagery and occasionally a character will spout religious ideas, but the sum total of religion's effect in his plays is that it's negligible or harmful "¦ and it doesn't help any of his characters," Mallin said.

Tickets are $10, available at the door or online at www.thejeffcenter.org. Students with ID are free. The Jefferson Center is a non-profit educational organization promoting "critical thinking and a secular, humanistic world."

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