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“Christian Socialism and English Literature: Frederick Denison Maurice's Teaching of Shakespeare”



Cet article porte sur la contribution de F. D. Maurice au développement du christianisme social du point de vue littéraire, à travers l'analyse de la façon dont sa réadaptation sociale de la théologie de l'Incarnation transparaît dans ses cours sur Shakespeare au King’s College puis au Working Men's College. Afin d'analyser cette question jusqu'ici inexplorée, l'analyse suivante traitera d'abord des principes sociaux sous-jacents de la théologie de l'Incarnation de Maurice ; deuxièmement, des grandes lignes soutenant sa méthode éducative en tant qu'entreprise nationale et providentialiste, et de la façon dont Maurice percevait la littérature anglaise comme essentielle dans un tel projet éducatif national ; et troisièmement, de la façon dont son insistance sur la nature terrestre, sociale et matérielle de l'Incarnation, sur un ordre divin gouvernant la société et la notion qui en résulte de révélation divine et de progrès se révèlent dans son enseignement du théâtre de Shakespeare, plus particulièrement, de ses pièces historiques.

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1. Introduction

1In The Social Teaching of the Lord’s Prayer (1900), Charles William Stubbs, Dean of Ely, rejects widely-held religious accounts of the Anglican Revival as merely the result of the impact of the Oxford Movement and claims Frederick Denison Maurice’s doctrine as the theological foundation of that change for its proclamation of the intrinsic and necessary social function of the church in an age of major social conflict. Central to the teachings of the Cambridge schools of Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Brooke Foss Wescott, and Fenton John Anthony Hort and of the Oxford theologians of the Lux Mundi (1889) led by Charles Gore, Stubbs regards Maurice’s teachings as critical to the transformation of Christian social ideals well into the turn of the twentieth century. Maurice’s social theology reverberated in Stubbs’ religious writings but also in his lectures on central English literary figures. In The Christ of English Poetry (1906), Stubbs analysed the work by Cynewulf, Langland, Shakespeare, and Browning as literary representatives of Christ at four central stages of the history of England. The lectures were inspired by Maurice’s theology of the Incarnation and by his providentialist and national perception of both English literature and history.

2Earlier works on Maurice such as Richard H. Hutton (1888) and analyses by twentieth- and twenty-first century authors such as Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman (1907), Charles Richard Sanders (1942), Charles Earle Raven (1934), Maurice B. Reckitt (1946), Florence May Greir Evans Higham (1947), Arthur Michael Ramsey (1951), Alexander Roper Vidler (1966), Olive J. Brose (1971), Frank Mauldin McClain (1972), Torben Christensen (1973), Jeremy Morris (2005, 2007, 2013, 2017), and Alison Milbank (2017) have recognised Maurice’s major impact on the development of Christian Socialism and his theological legacy. Other scholarly studies by Alan Bacon (1986, 2016), Franklin E. Court (1992), and Ted Underwood (2013) have analysed Maurice from a different angle by emphasising the meaningful role that he played in the institutionalisation of English literature as an academic discipline; and, quite recently, the influence of Maurice’s dogma on the literary and religious works dealing with Shakespeare’s production by later Christian socialists like Stubbs has been revealed (Cerezo 2022). However, there is no study that centres on the way Maurice’s social readjustment of the doctrine of the Incarnation is reflected in his own teaching of Shakespeare first at King’s College and later at the Working Men’s College. To fill this critical gap the following analysis will focus, first, on the underlying social principles of Maurice’s theology of the Incarnation; second, on the main lines supporting his educational method as a national and providentialist, mostly incarnational, enterprise, and on how he perceived English literature as critical in that national educative scheme; and third, on how Maurice’s emphasis on the earthly, social, and material nature of the Incarnation, on a Godly order ruling society and its resulting notion of divine revelation and progress reveal themselves in his teaching of Shakespeare’s drama, especially his history plays.

3Maurice’s theology of the Incarnation declared the uniqueness of every human being as God’s creation but, above all, the human communion of humankind−as sons and daughters of the same godly Father−in the redemptive body of Christ. To Maurice, this union in Christ dismantles social inequality. As the present study will show, Maurice analysed Shakespeare’s history plays from this incarnational perspective and perceived them as dramas where every human being has an intrinsic value per se but is at the same time an essential constituent of a national and Christian fellowship with common social and spiritual purposes. Maurice sees this fellowship as a reflection of the body of Christ, that is, of God’s incarnation on earth. Out of all the dramatic works by Shakespeare, Maurice centred on his history plays as he regarded them as the best literary reflection of this divine incarnation. He considered that it is in the progress of the history of every nation−which Maurice viewed as a divine institution−where the development of God’s plans for humankind is reflected. Every nation, he felt, has its own contribution to the spiritual and social development of humankind, which he identified with the evolution of God’s global design. Thus, he saw Shakespeare’s history plays as a faithful reflection of the role of the English nation in God’s order. Maurice’s social theology of the Incarnation is closely related to the idea of this divine revelation and order, whose ultimate purpose is the hegemony of righteousness in the kingdom of heaven on earth, whose epitome is Christ’s redemptive love for humankind.

2. F. D. Maurice and the theology of the Incarnation

4In 1851 half the population in Great Britain was urban. As statistics show, during the first half of the nineteenth century attendance at religious services gradually decreased in large manufacturing towns and the working classes mostly neglected public worship (Inglis, Churches 120; Inglis, “Patterns of Worship”; McLeod, Class and Religion x, 23−41; Wagner 12). Society was rapidly changing both in spiritual and material terms. The Church of England needed to adapt to the scientific, economic, and social shifts of the time, and great efforts were made mainly by Evangelicals and Tractarians to bring religion to the common people during the first half of the nineteenth century. New churches in poor areas where the Church was hardly represented were built in the towns and voluntary societies, local sources, and the state made important contributions (Inglis, Churches 6; Wagner 13). However, the association between state and church did not favour the filiation between the industrial working classes and religion. The state repressed social unrest with an iron fist and many clergymen, who believed that poverty was the consequence of sin, that suffering must be accepted as a godly plan, and that relief would come after death, supported this position (Inglis, Churches 250−51). The building of churches was not enough to gain the working classes’ favour. The Evangelicals and the Tractarian movement, though convinced of the need for their pastoral work, held onto a rigid, conservative, doctrinal, and anti-revolutionary tradition focusing on issues such as the spiritual and moral welfare of the lower classes, personal sin, piety, ritual, and the maintenance of the status quo. They did not successfully address the problem of social inequalities, or social distinctions within churches, which projected an elitist character that the working classes resisted (Morris, “Building Community” 38−39; Raven, Christian Socialism 19−20; Wagner 14).

5A change in tone and a new interpretation of doctrine was urgently needed for the Church to address social issues, and the first attempt to do so was by the Christian Socialists led by Frederick Denison Maurice, John Malcolm Forbes Ludlow, and Charles Kingsley in 1848 (Inglis, Churches 262−271; Jones 4−27; Raven, Christian Socialism 52−104). Maurice’s “Christian Socialism” (1849) was central to that movement. Reprinted in a volume called Tracts on Social Questions (18931901), kept in the British Library, the piece comes with a preface by Thomas Hughes, lawyer, social reformer, and key figure in the development of Christian Socialism and the foundation of the Working Men’s College. Hughes explains that it was the first and most valuable of the “Tracts on Christian Socialism” published from 1849 to 1851: “It was written by Mr. Maurice at the request of young men, chiefly Law Students, who were working under him in a Ragged School, and visiting the poor”. Hughes states that the tract was “intended as a declaration of principle” about the “real meaning and objects” of Christian Socialism. “It answered its purpose admirably”, he concludes (“Christian Socialism”, preface n.p).

6The tract is written in the form of a dialogue between Nobody (the writer) and Somebody (a supporter of competitive economic systems). In this groundbreaking work, Maurice asserted: “I seriously believe that Christianity is the only foundation of Socialism, and that a true Socialism is the necessary result of a sound Christianity” (3). He defines “sound Christianity” as “a Gospel from Heaven concerning the relation in which God stands to His creatures, concerning the true law under which He has constituted them” (10). The tract supported the collective nature of the social reform systems proposed by Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Louis Blanc: “The watchword of the Socialist is Co-operation; the watchword of the Anti-socialist is Competition” (4). However, Maurice argued against the associations they established between Christianity and the institutions of an old system ruled by rivalry and deemed that their systems were meant to fail as they ignored−even tried to destroy−Christianity, which was, to his mind, the “influence adequate to resist competition, adequate to keep men fellow-workers” (9).

7Whereas the social reformers planned to create a social order based on fellowship and a sense of communion, Maurice “find[s] it existing”: “I desire only to bring it to light, to act as if it existed” (12). Maurice envisioned that collective organisation as the reflection of a divine order that was already in place, without the interference of the state (Maurice, The Life vol. 2, 584586; Morris, F. D. Maurice 99−129), and considered workers as human beings, not as mere creatures of circumstances−as Owen’s maxim had it−, as crucial constituents of society: “Our Church must apply herself to the task of raising the poor into men; she cannot go on […] treating them merely as poor” (“Christian Socialism” 15). As Morris states, Maurice

sought not merely a satisfactory account of the theology of the Church of England, but a revival of its perceived role as the fulcrum around which social harmony and peace could be re-established. (F. D. Maurice 98)

8Maurice was greatly influenced by Coleridge’s notion of the National Church and its clerisy, his perception of the relationship between permanence and progression, and his vision of the organic unity between Church and State (Brose 23−27; Christensen 55−72; Hedley; McClain 89−93; Morris, F. D. Maurice 37−44; Ramsey 14−20; Sanders 179−264; Stubbs, The Christ 173−74). His beliefs were founded, first, on a divinely-established order grounded in a notion of progress closely connected to the acknowledgement of a nation’s history and divine revelation; and, second, on a social morality revolving around social balance and equality. He conceived the divine spirit coming to men as “the Spirit of lowliness, and meekness, and obedience” (Maurice, Theological Essays 419). “We are sure”, he stated, that “it cannot be a Spirit which exalts any man above his fellow. It must bring all to a level” (419).

9The theology of the Incarnation preached by Maurice was at the basis of his social doctrine, opposed the Atonement theology of the Evangelicals, and implied a dramatic change of spiritual paradigm within the Church of England (Christensen 174−96; Morris F. D. Maurice 177−81; To Build 53−59; Walsh). To Maurice the Church was a divine incarnate co-operative entity:

a fellowship constituted by God Himself, in a divine and human Person, by Whom it is upheld, by Whom it is preserved from the dismemberment with which the selfish tendencies of our nature are always threatening it. (“Christian Socialism” 12−13)

10He strongly believed that the Church had to instil hope and confidence in the social classes to whom they must pass on a message of fellowship and Christian social renewal:

If we did see our way to tell them this; to explain that we regard Christ as the Restorer of Humanity to its true and proper condition; as the King of kings, and Lord of lords; as the Head and bond of universal brotherhood; as the righteous Judge and Punisher of all that violate their relations to each other, and set up self in opposition to society; I think we might, in time, bring some of them to feel that the Church was their friend and deliverer, not as they now, with great excuse, consider it, the bitterest of their foes. (Theological Essays 244−45)

11Christ, stated Maurice, “came to make them [human beings] members of his own body” (The Kingdom of Christ 243). Thus the Church was the body of Christ, which incorporated the whole of mankind. Through this Christian inclusion, Maurice envisioned a bonded society determined to fight social division. As opposed to the Evangelical emphasis on individual redemption, Maurice’s theology of the Incarnation emphasized the collective nature of Christian salvation: all human beings, he wrote, “have actually been redeemed by the sacrifice of the eternal Son of God, and that in His flesh and blood there is a new and living way consecrated for us into the presence of God” (The Life vol. II 393−94).

12Maurice’s theology of the Incarnation was social in the sense that it revealed individualism as the source of all social disruption. Promoting a social sense of brotherhood was to him the way to achieve social balance. But this was also to be reached by paying attention not just to spiritual matters but also to earthly concerns and to the material and existential conditions of the working classes. Maurice’s job at the Working Men’s College shows that to him education was central to both the spiritual and material advancement of the lower classes. Instruction on English literature was judged as imperative in this regard and was a response to Maurice’s national and providentialist or, as I would call it, incarnational educational method, first fully put into practice in his work at King’s College, London.

3. Maurice and English literary studies at King’s College

13Maurice’s 1840 introductory lecture as Professor of English Literature and History in King’s College, London records the main lines of his vision on education and on how he thought English literature should be taught. As Alan Bacon highlights, starting in the 1820s a wide debate began on the educational value of literature and central clerical men of letters such as Hugh James Rose and Edward Copleston, pivotal in the early history of King’s College, promoted the moral and intellectual values of classical literature; English literature, however, was considered a mere source of middle-class recreation, not a rigorous discipline (“English Literature” 59298).

14The inclusion of English literature as compulsory on the King’s College curriculum when it was inaugurated in 1831, however, was due to various factors, as Bacon explains: it ended up being perceived as better than classical literature as a subject with which to promote the national spirit and anti-utilitarianism among the middle class, two factors that would distinguish Anglican King’s College from the more utilitarian University College (“English Literature” 598−601). Maurice’s lecture referred to both factors. Though he acknowledged the fact that theology, mathematics, and Latin and Greek were “the ground-work of a College education” (“Introductory Lecture by the Professor of English” 275), his was a pioneering defence of English literature, presented in close connection with the rest of disciplines by underlining that, like them, it could also rise “above what is apparent and transitory to what is real and permanent” (276). Maurice’s lecture shows that that permanent anti-utilitarian reality had a national and sacralised nature, aspects that have been highlighted by critics such as Alan Bacon, Franklin E. Court, and Ted Underwood, but I would add that this sacralisation had as its central premise the foundational lines of Maurice’s social theology of the Incarnation, which is very explicitly evidenced in his teaching on Shakespeare.

15Maurice, who, as Court states, recognised how new symbolic methods used in the novel science of anthropology and psychology at the time could be applied to literary studies (86, 91), taught both English literature and history as closely interconnected by implementing an innovative educational method. As Underwood points out (95−113), his instruction of English literature was based for the first time on period survey courses centred on a particular literary epoch, as opposed to the traditional courses that were focused on what Underwood calls a “developmental narrative” by compressing the whole history of English literature into just one term. Maurice’s method was a turning point in the history of English as an academic discipline that, as Underwood rightly claims, had a counterpart in the “transformation of basic assumptions about the cultural purpose of literary education” (85) and, I would add, in Maurice’s religious agenda. In his lecture Maurice described English language as made of “sacred” and “living” words (“Introductory Lecture by the Professor of English” 276), “growing for generations”, and “hav[ing] their roots deep in [the English] soil” (276). Just like Latin and Greek, English must not be “prostituted” (276) but taken care of and dedicated to “the highest purposes” (276), to “true and worthy ends” (276), not to merely trivial, pragmatic, or commercial purposes. English language, Maurice averred, expresses “the calm and sedate thoughts of men who lived, not for their own time only, but for all times” (276).

16Among those men were the English writers. The history of English words, for Maurice, was the history of the English nation (279), and he decided to devote his classes to the study of the words of great English authors to show his students how their language worked and had evolved throughout the different stages of English history, a method that the pupils were familiar with through their study of Latin and Greek. But he was also determined to show them how symbolic literary language portrayed the spirit of a particular age, the genius of the authors, and, above all, how the study of literary language, of how the authors structured their sentences and chose their words, would lead them to “very interesting and important discoveries respecting the state and progress of our nation and of our own minds” (280). This method of teaching English literature through periodized courses aimed to “promote the development of proper English feeling” and prepare his students “for the growth of native affections and habits” (276) by connecting them with their past by closely analysing it through literature.

17Maurice identified the recovery of the English language and, therefore, of English literature with Chaucer, coinciding with the surge of the English middle class and Wycliffe’s religiosity. As Bacon (“English Literature” 609; The Nineteenth-Century 7) and Underwood (98–99) have pointed out, in Has the Church, or the State, the Power to Educate the Nation? (published in 1839) Maurice had already made a clear connection between Englishness and the middle class. It was the middle class, not the aristocracy or the professional classes, which “gave us the feeling of our distinct English position, that we were to be something within ourselves, not using a common Christendom language, but speaking a homely native tongue,−Saxons not Latins, islanders not Europeans” (207). Englishness is mirrored in English literature which, states Maurice, is “less grand and chivalric”, “deal[s] so directly with realities”, and puts humankind at its core, i.e., “the life and acts of every human creature, down to the meanest beggar” acquire in English literary text “a grandeur which make them worthy of the solemnest contemplation and study” (“Introductory Lecture by the Professor of English” 283).

18In the age of Shakespeare, Maurice continues, these same qualities are preserved “with a much wider range of observation, and with a clearer sense of the system and harmony that are in the world” (284). In Shakespeare he found the general qualities he saw in English literature from the age of Chaucer “in their perfection” (284) and observed in his dramas a profound reflection on the basic principles of his social ideas on the Incarnation: humankind, social equality, and God’s order. Maurice opposed orthodox interpretations of divine inspiration and considered writers such as Homer or Shakespeare to be as inspired as those of the New Testament since “all gifts proceed from the Spirit” (Life vol. II 401):

The man of letters and the man of science, I believe, are called to God to the work in which they are engaged; they are his ministers […] I will admit that their function, especially that of any one who has a real poetical gift, does answer in several most important respects to that of the ancient prophet. (The Kingdom of Christ 383-84)

19In his lecture “Spiritual Powers in Old Times and Modern Times”, delivered years later to a class at the Working Men’s College, Maurice, drawing on St John’s incarnational definition of the spirits of God as “every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (1 John 4: 2-3), portrays Shakespeare and Milton as two of those godly spirits from whose work God’s moral scheme can be inferred:

I have received and am receiving spiritual communications from these very persons […] because words of theirs written long before we were born, and called by such names as Hamlet and Paradise Lost, are fresh and living communications to us every day […] Writers are for mankind. (221)

20Maurice perceived the Shakespearean hero as “obliged to become a man, to take his station with the rest of his race” and he saw in his plays “the most wretched heart” as “worthier of contemplation than the most magnificent costume” (“Introductory Lecture by the Professor of English” 285). “The innermost hearts of men” were at the epicentre of Shakespeare’s production which showed the author’s “wonderful apprehension of a scheme and order in the world” that was stronger than any evil force and which “comes out in the whole scheme and construction of his drama” (285). Maurice reads, for example, Romeo and Juliet as evidence of the “historical character” of Shakespeare’s dramas, which show us the “actual world” with a “divine regulation and government lying beneath it, and adjusting it” (285). Even in plays like The Tempest, Maurice argues, in which imagination is fully at work, Shakespeare represents “objects of actual life and experience” (285) in the descriptions of Caliban in relation to the European and Christian records of the Early Modern colonising process. But it is in the history plays that Maurice finds “the meaning and sense of those events which the ordinary historian gives us merely in detail” (285). In a letter addressed to Rev. Charles Kingsley on June 3, 1856, Maurice relates how his reading of James Anthony Froude’s historical view of king Henry V “accords with that which Shakespeare got out of the Chronicles by mere intuition” (Life vol. II 280), an idea that he would later state in 1866 in The Workman and the Franchise (76). Shakespeare’s plays, says Maurice, are “preferred to Hume when we are illustrating the records of our own country” (“The Teachers in a Working College” 189).

21In The Kingdom of Christ (1838) Maurice had already explained that the appeal of Elizabethan literature is because it “most represents the genius of our nation” as it was more historical and political than its precedents (538). During the Elizabethan period, English literature is also perceived, Maurice remarks, as showing a “deep reverence for the worth and dignity of men as men” (“Introductory Lecture by the Professor of English” 284). As Morris states, Maurice borrows the expression “man as man” on numerous occasions from Coleridge meaning “human being as it really is, in the eyes of God” (To Build 13). Maurice’s nationalistic vision of English literature is therefore profoundly mingled with a Christian one here:

[I]t comes to pass that they [English books] are part and parcel of our national history−of our national life; that each reflects the image of the other; that we may judge what one is by seeing what the other is; that we may interpret the purposes of God to our land by seeing how the events which have befallen us bear upon the thoughts of the men who have appeared among us. (“Introductory Lecture by the Professor of English” 283)

22God’s order is then reflected in what Maurice calls the “growth” of English literature and in the “regular growth and progress” (287) of the English nation happening at the same time; a nation, which, drawing on the narration of God’s covenant with Israel in the Old Testament, Maurice saw as a divine institution (The Kingdom of Christ 220−39). All nations, not just England, had a particular task to do in the development of God’s plan for humankind. The purpose of his lectures on English literature and history was ultimately to show the students how “we should believe that a higher power has been at work, directing the destinies of our nation, educating it and forming it to fulfil a definite purpose” (“Introductory Lecture by the Professor of English” 287). English writers had contributed to that national growth as divine instruments of “its edification” (287).

23The promotion of the national spirit through the study of English literature and history was a necessary step to discover what Maurice calls “a higher position” (287):

that there are bonds which connect us–first with Christendom, then with the world. To ascertain what these bonds are–to know how we may realize them, will be one of our greatest objects in turning over the records of the past. (287)

24As English literature sheds light on those past historical records, Maurice strongly believed that his educational method could contribute to a final union of nations by breaking down barriers that separate human beings, to an ultimate fellowship under the founding principle that

man, as man, is glorious−glorious only because there is a bond which connects him with the Divine nature […] And I am well convinced, gentlemen, that just in so far forth as literary men do endeavour to stretch their thoughts abroad, and to interest themselves for their fellowmen, as made in the image of God, literature will flourish and win new triumphs. (287)

25This higher position that the students must discover through the study of English literature has a profound incarnational nature as it points to Maurice’s idea of a universal connection between brothers and sisters of a same godly father. This central idea would later acquire stronger social undertones in his instructions to the national teachers of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and at the Working Men’s College.

26Despite the fact that Maurice was deemed by many as the leader of the Broad Church, his quest for universal religious unity made him reject any denominational labelling (Sanders 7). He believed in a benevolent God, rejected the idea of the everlasting punishment of the sinner, and his ideas about the nature of revelation and biblical criticism were innovative, and controversial. After the publication of Theological Essays (1853), his dogmatic positions were regarded by the College Council as threatening, “of dangerous tendency, and calculated to unsettle the minds of the theological students of King’s College” (Life vol. II 191); on October 27, 1853, he was dismissed from his chair of theology at King’s College, London (Higham 83–94; Raven, Christian Socialism 330–332).

27Theological Essays was dedicated to Maurice’s friend Alfred Tennyson. The dedicatory words reveal Maurice’s perception of literature as a source of profound theological deliberation:

I have maintained in these Essays that a Theology which does not correspond to the deepest thoughts and feelings of human beings cannot be a true Theology. Your writings have taught me to enter into many of those thoughts and feelings. (v)

28After his dismissal Maurice’s social and theological convictions were then to be spread more effectively among quite a different audience at the Working Men’s College where English literature was a central part of the curriculum and Shakespeare’s history plays, like Tennyson’s poetry, were perceived by Maurice as sacred texts, a divine national drama that represented the basic lines of his social theology of the Incarnation.

4. Shakespeare at the Working Men’s College

29In June and July 1854 Maurice gave six lectures in Willis’s Rooms on his views on the education of the working classes and on the purpose of the Working Men’s College, which were later published in a volume entitled Learning and Working. In reference to his students from King’s College, Maurice wanted to get across the idea that “God ha[d] been educating them to educate their brethren of the working-class” (xx):

all the gifts which any have received […] all general knowledge, all professional knowledge […] should be turned to the service of that class [the working class] which is, indeed, not a class, but which represents the stuff of humanity after class distinctions have been removed from it. (xvii-xviii)

30Service to others was central to Maurice’s Christian doctrine: “every one is bound to serve, and may claim service as his highest privilege” (Social Morality 84). He put this doctrine of service into practice as he always held that it was his duty to entice his middle-class King’s college students “to act”, to “point out to them a course of action” (Learning xx). Like Matthew Arnold, Maurice considered that this middle-class educational course of action was vital for the country’s social and cultural uniformity and, therefore, stability (Court 91–92; Eagleton 21). Learning and Working was dedicated to Ludlow, whom Maurice addresses in the following terms: “We have neither of us ever doubted that the whole country must look for its blessings through the elevation of its Working Class, that we must all sink if that is not raised” (vii). The elevation of the working classes, he argued, should be physical, moral, and intellectual. Maurice was conscious of “the difficulties which hinder the union of Learning with manual Work”, however he was also convinced that they “must be faced, because they interfere with the freedom, order, civilization of England now and in the times to come” (x). The Working Men’s College was not intended to “rule and govern [the students’] minds” but “to awaken and educate them” (192) in the name of God; education would turn them into “moral and responsible beings” and would “raise men out of a warring, turbulent, atomic condition, into a social condition” (192–193).

31The College, first established at 31 Red Lion Square, was founded on October 30, 1854, with an inaugural lecture delivered by Maurice in St Martin’s Hall. In it he justified the social need for the college and even the transcendental meaning of the word “college”, “a word of society” (“Working Men’s Colleges” 6). But it is in Maurice’s introductory lecture on the studies of the London Working Men’s College in 1858 that he fully explained the providentialist nature of the college: first, he stated that studies are only worthwhile if they are “brought to bear upon human life” (“Introductory Lecture on the Studies” 2); second, that “God is the educator of His creatures” and that his work as educator will be successful “so far as we enter into His methods” (3); third, that only divine education can counteract the world’s evils and contradictions; and, fourth, that all academic disciplines are part of that divine education−which reflects God’s order−and are all connected, being an essential part of “a common human life” (3). Spiritual collectivity was “the great principle” in the educative scheme of Maurice’s Working Men’s College: “we are meeting you all as men, to give you the culture which will enable you to work together as men” (1). Maurice’s notion of how the lower classes should also be instructed as a spiritual collectivity had already been presented on March 6, 1853 in his sermon at St. Mark’s Training College in Chelsea, set up by the National Society. Maurice’s sermon addressed the would-be teachers of children of the lower classes; this time he explicitly presented his educational method in connection with a social vision of the Incarnation which he would later put into practice at the Working Men’s College. National teachers, Maurice argued, should primarily teach their students that “God and Father of all has claimed [them] […] to be members of the body of His son” (National Education 9−10). Pupils must be taught to leave aside human beings’ “marks of distinction” (10) and “live and work together” (10), united in Christ, as brothers of the same spiritual Father and “inheritors of that kingdom which Christ calls His and His Father’s” (10); “a kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy” (10−11) where they will find themselves in a “state of salvation into which they are to thank God that He has brought them” and where “they may partake of the body and blood of Christ, which verily and indeed strengthen and refresh the soul as bread and wine do the body” (11). Universal spiritual fellowship fosters social cohesion, pushes back against sectarianism, and imposes an organic divine order that comprehends “every, even the most minute and ordinary, social arrangement” (16) and “strike[s] at the root of all the evils by which we know that the existence of nations have been undermined” such as “the strifes of classes, of schools, of religious factions” (12).

32The underlying principles of the College presented in Learning and Working clearly pointed to this social recovery of the theology of the Incarnation. Maurice’s intention was to make the pupils “feel that they are really members of a College united together for high ends by other than mercenary bonds” (Learning xvi). In order to help men and women from the working classes to be “individually wise or individually good” (xvi), they had to be envisioned as social beings, with a social function, “bound to each other by the ties of family, neighbourhood, country, and by a common humanity” (viii). The students would learn the nature of these ties by learning about the divine nature of fellowship: they were all sons of God and Christ their leader:

We have believed that in order to do that, we must go deeper still, that the Son of Man must be the Son of God, that there is no Brotherhood or human beings if there is not a common Fatherhood. (viii)

33In December 1852, a series of lectures on various subjects were given in the Hall of Association in Castle Street East as preparation for the establishment of the Working Men’s College; Maurice’s lecture was entitled “The Historical Plays of Shakespeare” (Davies 14; Murphy, Shakespeare for the People 108; Raven, Christian Socialism 348). Once the College was founded, Maurice taught three times a week: on Sundays on St. John’s Gospel, on Tuesdays on “Political Terms Illustrated by English Literature”, and on Fridays on “The Reign of King John Illustrated by Shakespeare’s Play” (Litchfield 5; Raven, Christian Socialism 352). Shakespeare’s history plays were central in Maurice’s plans to educate the working classes, who received from him a providentialist reading of the works. Maurice believed that the playwright did not “merely read the old chronicles of England […] he used them to interpret the actual world in which he lived” (Learning 63). Shakespeare, he argued,

learned to understand the chronicles of his country by mixing with the citizens of his country. He knew what they must have been in the days of Henry VI. [sic] by what they were in his own day. (“On Books” 82)

34English present and past merged in the author’s mind resulting in historical plays that “express[ed] the national spirit which was awakened in that age” and “show[ed] how Englishmen were feeling their relation to their forefathers” (82). Therefore, Maurice envisions Shakespeare “making friends” (“On the Friendship of Books” 9) with the historical records of his nation. By doing so,

He read of King John, of Richard II.[sic], of John of Gaunt, of Harry of Lancaster, of Hotspur and Owen Glendower, of the good Humphrey of Gloucester and the dark Cardinal Beaufort, of Wolsey and of Catherine. He read of them, and they stood up before him, real armed men, or graceful sorrowing women. Instead of being dead letters they all became living persons; not appearing in solitary grandeur, but forming groups. (9–10)

35Maurice depicts Shakespeare’s reimagining of English history as a dramatic world with traits that echo the main tenets of the social doctrine of the Incarnation: it is devoid of abstraction and made up of characters that resembled real men and women from all social classes and backgrounds drawn together in a common humanity; his writing showed their corporeality bluntly:

There did not rise up in his study a frightful abstraction, called Man because it was unlike any individual creature that has ever borne the name. There did not arise from his empirical observations a set of walking figures labelled French, Italian, Dane, King, Poet, Doctor, noted by certain costumes and habits of speech, having nothing in common with each other. He found in the chronicles and tales which he read, men of all degrees, ages, and countries, who, because he took them to be essentially of the same flesh and blood and to have the same life with those whom he met in streets and taverns, presented themselves to him, and through him in a degree to us, with an awful distinctness […]. And so […] he could yet make our own history intelligible, and make us feel the distinction of climates and races, as no one else has done. (Learning 63–64)

36Maurice’s use of terms such as “abstraction”, “flesh and blood”, “distinctness”, and his emphasis on the worldliness of Shakespeare’s dramatic universe emphasises physicality and materiality. Maurice’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s history plays is a literary reminder of the “corporate” constitution of the Church: they are presented as one (literary) body, which embraces all of humankind, acknowledging its variety. Shakespeare’s characters are seen as concrete and not symbolic entities, almost as though they were present and real to the reader. Maurice envisions Shakespeare’s historical world as a tangible, “distinct”, almost bodily, representation of humanity open to all readers, to all human beings, no matter their class or social position−a vision that gains meaning in the context of the Working Men’s College. He perceives in Shakespeare a clearly social, egalitarian, and at the same time spiritual undertone described as “a cultivation at once popular and profound, humane and national, which might be available for thousands, who are not separated from their fellows by any accidents of class or condition” (64). Maurice’s literary analysis exudes the same kind of discourse he uses when dealing with the social nature of the body of Christ, which he envisions as a theological space open to all men and women in which fellowship had not only sacred, but also popular, social, and political implications.

37Maurice’s lectures “The Historical Plays of Shakespeare” and “The Reign of King John Illustrated by Shakespeare’s play” are not published. However, in 1866 he delivered the lecture “English History” at the Working Men’s College on Great Ormond Street− gathered in The Friendship of Books and Other Lectures−where he presented his cardinal ideas on Shakespeare’s history plays that were most probably also expressed in the Working Men’s College Shakespeare lectures. Maurice explains how Shakespeare’s historical plays are “true to facts” (“English History” 186) and structured around the figures of the kings, who are their “prominent figures” and “the others all stand in some relation to them” (186). Maurice calls this Shakespeare’s “Royal method” (191). What makes these plays unique to Maurice is that by showing us “what sort of man the King was” (188), Shakespeare also revealed the true spirit of the age. In the case of King John, for example, Maurice considers that the characterisation of the king’s villainy “explains the occurrences of his reign better than a hundred discourses could have explained them” (187); Richard II “is throughout the picture of a weak, helpless ruler, and a weak, helpless age” (188). In Henry IV, the king, says Maurice, is “again the type and pattern of his subjects” (189). In Henry V, “the nation’s strength, and the nation’s evil, are gathered up in the King” (189). Richard III is described by Maurice as the king “who winds up the Plantagenet period, and whose supernatural villainy is the means of avenging its crimes, and of bringing in a better era” (190). As for Henry VIII, Shakespeare brought him out

fully and distinctly before us; not as a monster, not as a hero, but as a monarch with a resolute will, with a conscience and inclination often at variance, often strangely confused; capable of doing justice, capable of gross injustice. (191)

38The rest of characters−Katherine, Anne Boleyn, Wolsey, Cranmer−

stand about the throne in various relations to the sovereign. He who will study them in that position, grouped as Shakespeare has grouped them, will obtain hints respecting the great movement of the age which neither those who contemplate it simply from the Protestant, or simply from the Romanist, point of view, can give him. (191)

39Shakespeare’s “Royal method”, Maurice contends, shows “how much Shakespeare has done for the illustration of every part of our annals” (190) and also reveals how the design of God for the English nation is gradually played out throughout its different historical periods. It points to the fact that “[o]ur English history, like the history of our own selves, is a message to us concerning that which is, and was, and will be evermore” (213). Henry V is portrayed by Maurice as a king who, despite “[a]ll the turbulent spirits gather[ed] about him” (190) is able to perceive a divine plan behind it all. It is in Henry V where Maurice most clearly sees Shakespeare’s dramatic presentation of English history as a particular lesson of what progress is, one that converges with his conception of divine revelation: an organically configured godly order which is gradually being revealed over time and where unity and diversity coexist. Maurice’s rationale is based on the force of God’s pre-established order, and he sees in Henry V, for example,

a witness–a real witness, however ineffectual for the time–that there is a Divine order which is higher than all the fierce wills and self-seeking purposes of men, and will at last subdue them to itself. (190)

40Shakespeare’s drama functions here as a sacred text, almost a Scriptural one, designed to reflect God’s scheme; it is conceived as a “Divine drama which is ever unfolding itself before our eyes” (213) and that shows key transactions between different historical periods that are structurally bound together and that are necessary for the progressive revelation of God’s plan:

41Shakespeare has taught us not to choose out dainty bits of our national records, and to feed exclusively upon them. He has shown us that any period, the most apparently flat and dull, the most turbulent and bewildering, contains its lesson, and will give out that lesson if we deal fairly with it, and do not force it into conformity with our own notions. He has shown us that each reign has a certain completeness, that it can be considered as an integral portion of a Divine drama. He has shown us, at the same time, that the reigns are inseparably linked together; that the events of one grow out of those of other; that every one is scattering some seed of curses or blessings which another will have to gather in. He has made us feel that no varieties in the vegetable or animal kingdom can equal the varieties which a passage of human history reveals, if we only watch the one as a naturalist watches the other. But he shows us also the uniformity amidst the variety; that men of former centuries are like, in essentials, to those who are walking the earth and taking part in the affairs of kingdoms now. And that neither then nor now could they arrange things as they liked, or alter laws and principles because they found them inconvenient. (192)

42The intimate connection between the different historical stages in Shakespeare’s history plays points to the need to revise the past to reach a better apperception of human beings and the reasons behind how they behave socially and politically. The emphasis on historical uniformity in Maurice’s literary analysis of Shakespeare’s production is in line with his incarnational and social dogma of collectivity and fellowship, for whose accomplishment, however, acknowledgement of individual welfare was necessary. Maurice rejects the perception of Shakespeare as a “big, imaginary We” (“On the Friendship of Books” 8) or an omniscient author−described as an almost tyrannical divinity−“who sits above the universe, and applies his own narrow rules to the members of it” (7). He sees Shakespeare as a benevolent author−more like a heavenly father−who “throws himself with the heartiest and most genial sympathy into the feelings of all” (7–8). Shakespeare, Maurice continues, “understands their position and circumstances, he perceives how each must have been affected by them” (8). The playwright delineates everyone in his plays–“men of all characters, classes, degrees, professions” (“English History”186)–in detail to the point that “the men and women whom he shows us are not names or shadows, but such as we at once recognize” (186). Shakespeare’s genius–or inspiration–allows him to “enter into the manhood of people who are the farthest off from him, and with whom he has the least to do” (“On the Friendship of Books” 8). His works become, Maurice states, “most valuable friends to us–to us especially who ought to be acquainted with what is going on with all kinds of people” (8). Maurice argues that despite the fact that in characters such as Hamlet or Prospero we can discover “signs how Shakespeare as an individual man had fought and suffered” (8), “his main work is not to do this, but to help us in knowing ourselves−the past history of our land, the people we are continually meeting” (8). It is only by writing his history plays that the author achieves that goal. By showing English people the history of their nation, Shakespeare’s history plays are presented by Maurice as an incarnational account of the kingdom of Christ, of Christian brotherhood, and of a sense of humanity and community which promote sympathy, and by that he means self-knowledge, through the acknowledgment of others as individuals and as part of the collective. The knowledge of the Christian foundation of their nation and of Englishness through the literary analysis of Shakespeare’s history plays is then, to Maurice, indispensable to strengthen human ties and to dilute social conflict, which he envisioned as the primary effect of his social doctrine of the Incarnation, to him the basic principle of Christian Socialism.

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Marta CEREZO, « “Christian Socialism and English Literature: Frederick Denison Maurice's Teaching of Shakespeare” »E-rea [En ligne], 19.2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2022, consulté le 25 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED, Spain)
Marta Cerezo is Lecturer of English Literature at the UNED, where she teaches BA and MA courses on Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Her main area of research focuses on Shakespeare’s religious afterlives and, most especially, on the Vatican reception of Shakespeare’s production and Shakespeare commemorative sermons delivered at Stratford-upon-Avon.

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