The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare:
Dewey and Santayana
on Shakespeare and Religion
My starting point Is Dewey's remarks on an early essay by Santayana. My
purpose is to examine this dispute over Shakespeare, show how this dispute
exemplifies the opposition between Dewey and Santayana on the subject of
religion, and suggest how this opposition indicates their profound disagreements on
moral, social, and political issues.8
A discussion of the role of philosophy in literature in the chapter of Art as Experience
called 'The Challenge to Philosophy" provided an occasion for Dewey to comment on
Santayana as a literary critic. Having dismissed the idea that poetry is to be judged by
the correctness of its philosophy, Dewey turned to the notion that it is important for a
poetic work to express some philosophic vision. As his foil, he used Santayana's
Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (DPR). In particular, Dewey was concerned with
the chapter called "The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare." There Santayana argued
that the references to religious beliefs and ideas in Shakespeare's work are largely
conventional, drawn from the society around him. There are scarcely any expressions
of genuine spiritual passion and where they do appear they are not accompanied by any
religious images, as one might expect in an ostensibly Christian milieu.
Santayana took this lack of religious imagery and emotion as a symptom of a
deeper problem — Shakespeare, unlike Dante and Homer, had no vision of the place of
human life in the universe. It was this objection that Dewey had particular trouble
with. In a passage partially quoted by Dewey, Santayana said:
Shakespeare's world ... is only the world of human society. The cosmos eludes him; he
does not seem to feel the need of framing that idea. He depicts life in all its richness and
variety, but leaves that life without a setting and consequently without a meaning.9
This neglect of the cosmos is exactly the criticism Santayana laid against Dewey
twenty-five years later in "Dewey's Naturalistic Metaphysics," his review of
Experience and Nature. There, Santayana depicted Dewey as being the philosophic
spokesman for the world of practice — of social affairs — to such an extent that
Santayana accused Dewey of having a system from which "cosmology is absent."10
This accusation took on definite form in another passage quoted by Dewey:
There is no fixed conception of any forces, natural or moral, dominating and transcending
our mortal energies.11 (Emphasis added by Dewey.)
Dewey then pulled together a few separate passages and summarized them as follows:
This paper was presented to the Santayana Society at its annual meeting in Philadelphia on
December 29, 2002.
9 (IPR 154-5). Dewey quoted all but the first sentence in Art as Experience, p.320.
10 "Dewey's Naturalistic Metaphysics," p. 678.
11 (IPR 163). Quoted in Art as Experience, p. 320.