Thursday, October 23, 2008

Godless Shakespeare?

If Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens set out to write a book on Shakespeare, it would be [Eric] Mallin's Godless Shakespeare. Mallin isn't just an atheist. He is an aggressive, militant atheist. He's an angry atheist. Mallin offers readings of selected plays, organized, clumsily, by the tripartite structure of Dante's Comedy, and occasionally intersperses his interpretations with cynical reflections on contemporary Christianity. Everywhere, Shakespeare gives us godlessness—a godless hell of religious hypocrites (strange, that: doesn't Jesus consign hypocrites to hell?), a godless purgatory of failed Messiahs, a godless heaven promising pleasure and sex. But who needs evidence from the plays? Mallin knows before he begins that believers are animated by "aggressive certainty," that orthodoxy is small and mean and religion an inflexible system posing senseless riddles as if they were divine profundities. Religion is rigid; Shakespeare is flexible. Religion is certain; Shakespeare richly doubts. Religion justifies immorality by invoking God; Shakespeare is rigorously moral in a Kantian sort of way. Religion gives answers; Shakespeare poses questions. Religion is small; Shakespeare expansive. We know before we crack the First Folio that he was at best a religious skeptic. QED—that is, "Quite Easily Done."

Mallin accomplishes less than his title promises. Godless Shakespeare reveals not Godless Shakespeare but Godless Mallin. The back cover copy has it right: The book doesn't prove Shakespeare an atheist, though Mallin's may be the "first book to discuss Shakespeare's plays from an atheist perspective." That Augustine's mood is as interrogative as Shakespeare, that Christianity has impressive resources for self-criticism, that his own atheism is as stiff a collar as any orthodoxy—all this is lost on Mallin.

from Bardus Absconditus
Shakespeare is the Rorschach test of English literature.
by Peter J. Leithart

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