George Bernard Shaw, the great Irish playwright, famously coined the word bardolatry as a way to ridicule lovers of William Shakespeare. Expanding on the way Voltaire described Shakespeare as simplistic and savage, Shaw denounced “the Bard” as intellectually sterile. G. K. Chesterton, the celebrated apologist known as the “Prince of Paradox,” was a very good friend of Shaw’s and, at the same time, his bitter ideological enemy. Chesterton criticizes Shaw’s disdain for Shakespeare and explains how Shakespeare’s work is fundamentally Christian through numerous essays. In responding to Shakespeare’s detractors, Chesterton manages to issue a partial defense of the truths of Christianity while showing how part of the greatness of Shakespeare stems from his reliance upon Christian thought.
Chesterton’s analysis of Shakespeare is built upon his observation that his works are essentially Christian. He says, “Shakespeare is possessed through and through with the feeling… that truth exists whether we like it or not, and that it is for us to accommodate ourselves to it.” In Shakespeare’s works, there is a sense of an unchanging moral law to which both his characters and the audience must conform.
To fully communicate Shakespeare’s alignment with Christian thought, Chesterton contrasts him with Milton, another famous English poet, arguing that while Milton wrote to “justify the ways of God to men,” Shakespeare wrote to conform man to God. In a single sentence, Chesterton isolates a key distinction between Milton’s and Shakespeare’s literary Christianity. He states, “Milton’s religion was Milton’s religion, [but] Shakespeare’s religion was not Shakespeare’s.” Unlike Milton, Shakespeare’s Christianity contains no innovation of his own. The sense that truth exists and that man is powerless to disregard it is ever-present in his plays, pointing the audience, however subtly, to the One who is Truth.
Having established that Shakespeare’s works are permeated with an authentic Christian idea of truth, Chesterton addresses Shaw’s criticism that “the Bard” fails to address modern social problems. Chesterton maintains that social ills are a direct result of an individual’s shortcomings, pointing to sin as the problem and a proper understanding of human nature as the cure. Using the tragedy he considered Shakespeare’s greatest, Macbeth, Chesterton explains its modern philosophical significance and its timeless theme. In the play, Shakespeare presents a man whose ambition drives him forward despite a constant inner battle with guilt. Chesterton writes, “The lawless man never breaks out; he breaks in. He smashes a door and finds himself in another room, he smashes a wall and finds himself in a yet smaller one. The more he shatters the more his habitation shrinks. Where he ends you may read in the end of Macbeth.” While they may appear to offer happiness, lawlessness actually limits rather than frees us. Every time we break the moral law, we paradoxically find ourselves increasingly constrained and less free. Chesterton holds this theme up as an example of Shakespeare’s keen insight into the truths of the human condition.
Chesterton also contends that Macbeth is the ultimate Christian tragedy, comparing it with Oedipus, the greatest pagan tragedy. He writes, “It is the whole point about Oedipus that he does not know what he is doing. And it is the whole point about Macbeth that he does know what he is doing. It is not a tragedy of Fate but a tragedy of Freewill.” Macbeth is a play saturated with the Christian understanding of free will and sin, and the titular character is no pagan tragic hero, dragged by fate to his doom after one mistake. Macbeth is Christian, and he is brought to destruction by a myriad of deliberately sinful choices. In order for Shakespeare to write Macbeth, he must not only have fully grasped Christian thought, but also have wholeheartedly believed it.
Chesterton’s defense of Shakespeare is inseparably linked to his Christianity. Chesterton, on the other hand, thinks Shakespeare’s plays succeed by tapping into primeval aspects of human nature, the knowledge of which is essential to Christian thought. Christianity understands the relationship between human nature, free will and sin; Shakespeare is exceptional in that his works masterfully reflect this. By attacking “the Bard,” George Bernard Shaw really attacks the Christian idea of truth and human nature. Both he and Voltaire regard Christian thought as irrational and unsophisticated and, by extension, see Shakespeare the same way. Chesterton, however, comes to his defense, giving greater credence to the truths of the Christian faith.