It’s debatable whether or not Shakespeare was an atheist. Sir Kenneth Clark, in his TV series Civilisation, referred to him as sceptical and free of dogma. An episode of Sir Ken’s series included two pieces of Shakespeare that might be relevant to Shakespeare’s views and I post them below. The first is from Hamlet:
HAMLET: How long will a man lie i' the earth ere he rot?
GRAVE DIGGER: I' faith, if he be not rotten before he die--as we have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in--he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year
HAMLET: Why he more than another?
GRAVE DIGGER: Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body. Here's a skull now; this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.
HAMLET: Whose was it?
GRAVE DIGGER: A whoreson mad fellow's it was: whose do you think it was?
HAMLET: Nay, I know not.
GRAVE DIGGER: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! a' poured a flagon of Rhenish on m head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick's skull, the king's jester.
GRAVE DIGGER: E'en that.
HAMLET: Let me see. (Takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.
HORATIO: What's that, my lord?
HAMLET: Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i' the earth?
HORATIO: E'en so.
HAMLET: And smelt so? pah! (Puts down the skull)
HORATIO: E'en so, my lord.
HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
HORATIO: 'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
HAMLET: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away: O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe, Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
My Comment: As I mentioned in my last post, when we interact with people we don’t think about then in behaviorist terms; neither do we think about them as the dynamics (or behavior) of their constituent particles (or “dust” as Hamlet’s sixteenth century mind would have it), instead we think about humans in para-phenomenological terms – that is we understand their behavior as the outward manifestation of conscious cognition, and its concomitants of intention, purpose and meaning. Matter, humble matter, appears to host this para-phenomenon for a season and then it returns to disorganized dust. Hamlet ponders the paradox and irony of how matter once so exalted can, in due course, become so banal; where has it all gone? Can it really all evaporate so easily and so inconsequentially? 'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
And now a piece from Macbeth.
MACBETH: To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
My Comment: If we define hell as a place where God is so remote that he may as well not exist, a place without hope, meaning, purpose, significance and utterly pointless, then it seems that the self serving Macbeth has found that place.