The world of Shakespeare’s plays is Christian. To be sure, several of the plays are set in classical or other non-Christian locales. Yet even in these works, the characters seem to function with an understanding of Christian principles. At the same time, the tone of the plays, the combination of plot and dramatic tension, is essentially secular. Organized religion is usually peripheral to the stories, while religious issues per se are presented only in the context of other social and political themes. Thus comparatively few members of the clergy appear in the plays, and most who do are considerably less than holy. Indeed, whatever the depth of their religious feeling, their convictions are usually subordinate to their desire to participate in more earthly activities. Why should Shakespeare have presented clerics in such an unflattering light? Perhaps the answer is related to England’s break from the Catholic Church in Rome in 1533 over the matter of Henry VIII’s divorce. Whatever the reason, religious figures in Shakespeare’s plays generally devote themselves to matters worldly rather than spiritual.
One of Shakespeare’s more daunting clerical figures is the Bishop of Carlisle from Richard II. Afierce proponent of the principle of the divine right of kings, Carlisle initially tries to bolster the spirits of the beseiged monarch, whose will is tottering under attack from troops led by Henry Bullingbrook:
Hath power to keep you king in spite of all.
(III, ii, 27–28)
Carlisle later speaks on behalf of Norfolk, once the King’s most trusted operative, but months earlier exiled by Richard, and at this moment the object of accusations by Aumerle. When Bullingbrook promises to investigate the charges, Carlisle reveals that Norfolk has died in exile: