Venus and Amor by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1524. 

Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland.

Today we celebrate the life of WIlliam Shakespeare, who died on this date in 1616. Shakespeare’s beautiful religious verse is notable for being neither Catholic or Protestant, but Hellenistic.

Hail, sovereign queen of secrets, who hast power

To call the fiercest tyrant from his rage,

And weep unto a girl; that hast the might,

Even with an eye-glance, to choke Mars’s drum

And turn th’ alarm to whispers; that canst make

A cripple flourish with his crutch, and cure him

Before Apollo; that mayst force the king

To be his subject’s vassal, and induce

Stale gravity to dance; the poll’d bachelor,

Whose youth, like wanton boys through bonfires,

Have skipp’d thy flame, at seventy thou canst catch,

And make him, to the scorn of his hoarse throat,

Abuse young lays of love. What godlike power

Hast thou not power upon?

~ The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act 5

NOTE: I am not suggesting that Shakespeare actually believed in the existence of the Hellenic gods. As Jean Seznac explained in The Survival of the Pagan Gods, the deities of classical antiquity survived through the ages by transforming into symbols and metaphors. Scholars continue to debate whether Shakespeare was a Protestant, a recusant Catholic, or an atheist, but few propose that he revered older gods. In an era when a reference to Christianity could have been dangerously construed as favoring one denomination over another, depicting a Hellenic god on stage was a political expedient. 


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