Shakespeare’s Royal Education
In the 1700s, the British Empire dramatically and inexplicably expanded to become the largest and greatest empire in world history. Herbert W. Armstrong explained the hidden reason why in The United States and Britain in Prophecy—God was fulfilling an ancient promise of greatness coming to “a company of nations.”
How were the British prepared for this? After all, an empire is not just funding and ports and policy, but also motivation and principle and will. To have and hold an empire—and not just an empire, but the world’s greatest-ever empire—the British needed imperial thinking.
Logically, God would have prepared the British before granting them an empire. And when you trace the empire back almost two centuries to its infancy during the reign of Elizabeth i (1558–1603), you find waiting there a uniquely first-rate educator: William Shakespeare.
History indicates that God prepared Britain to govern the largest and best empire in world history by giving it a royal education through Shakespeare. And the education Shakespeare provided is still available today—to you.
Educating a Nation
“God had big plans—world-ruling plans—for Britain in these latter days,” my father wrote in “Shakespeare and the British Empire.” “Is it possible that, in order to help Britons in that task, God would do all He could to enable them to become educated? I think God would give His birthright nation who had David’s throne a royal education to give it every opportunity to do great things with the empire. It was, after all, an empire that reached out to the whole world! It is logical to me that God would want Britons to be able to think and conduct themselves as true leaders, and that He would educate them for that role. God gave them the birthright, so wouldn’t He want to help them in other ways?”
During the 1600s, plays were performed in royal courts for the monarch, nobles and courtiers. Plays were performed on most afternoons at many theaters, like London’s Globe, which held as many as 3,000 people (Shakespeare’s Globe). Here, tens of thousands—from poor to rich, literate to illiterate—were being entertained, and educated, especially in the cases of those plays written by Shakespeare.
During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the English language was flourishing—in no small part because of the bard’s work. At the same time, the most important English-language translation of the Bible was published: the Authorized Version (also called the King James Version).
The English and their language were heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s writings. And Shakespeare was heavily influenced by the Bible. He quoted from or alluded to Scripture more than a thousand times in his writings. In the words of 19th-century educator Charles Wordsworth, “Take the entire range of English literature; put together our best authors, who have written upon subjects not professedly religious or theological; and we shall not find, I believe, in them all united, so much evidence of the Bible having been read and used, as we have found in Shakespeare alone.”
“The richness of the English language really flourished at that time, and Shakespeare was a major reason for that,” my father wrote. “Perhaps his variety of expression even helped people better understand the Scriptures” (op cit).
Shakespeare not only helped lay the foundation for the British Empire, he impacted the man who would save it from destruction: Winston Churchill.
Winston Churchill received his formal education in the late 1800s at the height of the empire. Although he wasn’t a good student in other subjects, he loved Shakespeare and memorized great passages of his writing. It greatly impacted the way Churchill thought about empire. Historian Andrew Roberts says that “Winston Churchill saw British history through the eyes of William Shakespeare.”
Shakespeare’s words inspired the British to expand beyond their borders, to export their laws, their way of life—and the Bible—to North America, to the tropics, to the Argentine Basin, to Arabia, to the Indian subcontinent, to Hong Kong Island to the South Pacific, to the Holy Land and beyond.
In The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, Charlton Ogburn quoted early 19th-century Shakespeare commentator Hermann Sincheimer as writing, “There was not room enough for him [Shakespeare] in the island of Britain. … Between the lines and between the characters, one may read the legend, ‘Our island is too small, our kingdom is the world.’ Shakespeare was, in the realm of poetry, one of the founders of British imperialism.”
Churchill read between those lines. Churchill read that legend—and he chastised the people who didn’t as “little Englanders,” people who lacked the vision to change the world beyond their island.
In many ways, Shakespeare’s plays fundamentally honored English society, government and morality.
So did Churchill. In his first political address in 1897, a 23-year-old Churchill said it was the duty of Britain to “carry out our mission of bearing peace, civilization and good government to the uttermost ends of the Earth.”
Churchill recognized that the British Empire brought a civil society, laws, education and discipline to these territories. He was grounded in his nation’s history. He was energized by his nation’s poet. He was a man of empire.
Nourished by Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s education didn’t just change the history of Britain and one of its greatest leaders, it also changed the life of a young lawyer across the Atlantic named Abraham Lincoln.
Shakespeare was one of Lincoln’s favorite poets, and Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard II were among his favorite plays. His private secretary, John Hay, said, “Lincoln employed his leisure hours, which he did not altogether lack, by saturating himself in Shakespeare and the King James Bible …. He read Shakespeare more than all other writers together.”
Hay also wrote: “Out on the circuit in his law practice, Lincoln would carry Shakespeare’s plays in his pocket, and when he had a few moments, he would read them. Through this, Lincoln received a tremendous education, despite almost no formal scholarly training at all.”
For leisure, Lincoln read Shakespeare and the Bible, and it gave him a “tremendous education.” He said every leader should be nourished by Shakespeare!
How many people read Shakespeare for leisure? How many read him at all? Most leaders and even intellectuals no longer crave the “inexhaustible fountain” of a Shakespearean education.
Why don’t we read Shakespeare? It is for the same reason that we don’t read the book that largely inspired him.
Further Your Education
Of the 52 highest-ranked universities and liberal-arts colleges in the United States offering English majors, only four require students to take a class on one of Shakespeare’s plays. Instead of educating their minds with one of the great writers of history, young people are filling their minds with trash. Instead of studying the literary classics of the past, they focus on modern works filled with shallow or perverse political agendas. These students are missing out on the benefits that come from studying one of the greatest authors who ever lived.
Why was Shakespeare great? One major reason is that the plots he brought to life, the characters he invented, the actions they took, and the words they spoke often illustrate principles of life that trace back to the Bible.
Shakespeare worked hard to produce his masterpieces. He really had to educate himself. We too need to put in a lot of diligent effort if we want to develop our minds. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to work to educate themselves today. They want to avoid anything that might take real effort. Human nature seeks the path of least resistance, and that is what our educational systems are doing today. They are robbing their students of a royal education.
My father considers education from Shakespeare to be so important that it is included in the curriculum at Herbert W. Armstrong College. Yes, Shakespeare is challenging to read. But studying his writings is a great way to teach yourself how to think deeply and concentrate. The skills it takes to delve into Shakespeare will help you in other areas of your life as well, such as your personal Bible study.
Shakespeare’s works provide you with much more than just a literary education. As my father brings out, Shakespeare understood human nature better than probably any other secular writer—and he got that understanding from the Bible. There is a lot of value to studying Shakespeare’s works.
So the next time you are pondering what to do in your free time, how about watching or reading one of Shakespeare’s plays? Though it will take a bit more effort on your part, you will find that it will not only be entertaining, but also incredibly rewarding.