Shakespeare’s Language Lessons

“He was not of an age, but for all time!” – Ben Jonson

Shakespeare indeed was a man of his age. Ask anyone sitting down to read his plays for the first time – with their 16th- and 17th-century language, idioms and references. Nevertheless, Ben Jonson’s message about his friend is obviously true: Shakespeare’s works have spoken to countless eras and cultures in the 400 years since his death, and they continue to do so as we return to his evocative poetry, haunting stories and stirring renditions of human experience. One play in particular has proved especially relevant to the Christian college where I teach: The Merchant of Venice, which depicts the problematic jargon that sometimes creeps into Christian communities.

“The Merchant of Venice” speaks to us despite historical difference.

The characters in The Merchant of Venice frequently speak in a way informed by Scripture and Christian theology. Portia’s speech on mercy is the most famous example: “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” (4.1.179-80). But alongside such celebrations of theological virtue, Shakespeare highlights hypocrisy. Often there is a jarring disparity between the ethics espoused in the Christians’ language and their conduct. For example, this behavior includes Portia’s denigrating remarks about her foreign suitors (e.g., “Let all of his complexion choose me so”), Antonio’s conduct toward Shylock before their financial arrangement (e.g., “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gabardine”) and the community’s treatment of Shylock (1.3.107-8, 2.7.79). These moments draw attention to the Christians’ religious language, which is informed by theological ideas despite contrary behavior. These speech habits in The Merchant of Venice suggest the possibility of deploying terms while not recognizing or subscribing to their full import.


After studying this use of religious language in The Merchant of Venice, my students have noted that certain terms can become mere jargon in our community as well. Consider the word “grace.” This term is charged with associations including, for example, God’s free grace toward humanity described in Scripture and church tradition. Consequently, it has great persuasive force, so students request grace from friends and professors when seeking various things: grace to avoid blame or confrontation, to have an assignment deadline extended and so on. Like the theologically informed speech in The Merchant of Venice, such requests for grace can be primarily rhetorical: speech acts with a desired end, whether assent or accommodation in one form or another.

The connection between religious speech in The Merchant of Venice and our community show how Shakespeare can illuminate the present, and it was an unexpected surprise in the integration of faith and learning. Through the perspective of special revelation about creation, the world and the human constitution, we recognize various truths in art from disparate places and periods, and we do so with “epistemological confidence” as Mark Noll puts it (“Teaching History as a Christian” (Religion, Scholarship, and Public Education, University of Notre Dame Press, 2002)            .

With scriptural warrant then, we can heartily affirm that Shakespeare was not just of an age, but for our time as well. The Merchant of Venice speaks to us despite historical difference, and my students and I thus consider how we use religious language in community. Along with exploring the literary features of Shakespeare’s art with its figurative and evocative power, our students can recognize the truth of his insights, not in a simplistic way but in a way that acknowledges universal threads of human behavior as well as cultural particularity.

Certainly we should make these comparisons between life and literature with care. Nevertheless, such comparisons can serve students as they make sense of the present. This utility suggests that studying Shakespeare guided by a Christian worldview can be a kind of moral inquiry, and openly so. In the end though, study of Shakespeare at a Christian liberal arts college – like scholarship across the disciplines – is a worshipful undertaking.

Robert Erle Barham teaches English at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.

Photo: Byron Company, [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons