Almost everyone in England in Shakespeare’s day was Christian. Everyone would go to church on a Sunday, or even more often. Most people believed in Hell as a very real place, and that the Devil was a specific person.
Queen Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII, broke away from the Catholic Church in Rome and became head of the Church in England. Across Northern Europe at this time groups of people ‘protested’ against the Roman Catholic Church - they were known as ‘Protestants’. They did not obey the Pope. In England people were martyred on both sides. They were often burnt at the stake.
Religion was a big political issue – being the wrong religion at home could get you imprisoned, tortured or executed. It also affected relations with other countries. Spain, a Catholic country, wanted England to return to Catholicism and the Spanish king sent an Armada – a fleet of ships - which tried to invade. Because religion was so closely associated with politics, playwrights had to be very careful. Shakespeare avoids talking directly about Christianity, but throughout his plays we see references to Heaven and Hell. Hamlet, for example, can’t bring himself to kill his uncle while he is praying, because he will go straight to Heaven – the opposite of what Hamlet wants!
There were a few small Jewish communities too. King Edward I expelled the Jews in 1290, but some Jews had returned to England. Outwardly they had to pretend to be Elizabethan Christians and go to church. There was a lot of prejudice against Jews. This is reflected in The Merchant of Venice which features a law case between a Jew and a Christian at its centre. The case is settled with the Jew being punished by being forcibly converted to Christianity.
Did you know?