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Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December 1999): 17-24.

When debate about an artist’s merit no longer seems to have any point, one is left either with an icon of culture, too sacred to enjoy, or with a target of satire, brought down to our more humdrum level by a vaudeville lampooning of the unapproachable totem, as when graffiti artists paint a moustache on reproductions of the Mona Lisa. Thus we are left, in the case of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), with that oddest of cultural phenomena, Bardolatry, which then almost automatically begets its malign twin: the iconoclastic desire to tear down Shakespeare’s undoubted achievement, whether by denying the man was even literate and insisting that his plays had to be written by someone else, anyone else (preferably a peer of the realm)––or by making him the ideological tool of Dead White English Man’s oppressive, imperial regime, the thin cultural veneer disguising naked British hegemony.

But even among those who have no desire to address the Bard using Juliet’s term for her Romeo (“thy gracious self, the god of my idolatry”) and who also feel no desire to enroll in what Harold Bloom calls the School of Resentment, Shakespeare’s achievement is extraordinarily difficult to specify. Not only are we faced with the immense edifice of Shakespeare scholarship, a massif that simply cannot be scaled by any one mortal. But even more daunting, his own productivity and protean creativity so defy the imagination that one might almost sympathize with the Shakespeare-deniers if the candidates put forward in his stead were not themselves such pathetic blue-blood epicenes––not to mention the fact that the achievement would still remain inexplicable coming from any human being, whatever the color of his blood.

But since slack-jawed stupefaction can scarcely be said to constitute the beginning moment, let alone the terminating goal, of literary criticism, one must say something, or so one supposes, when confronted with Shakespeare’s collected works: thirty-eight plays, two lengthy narrative poems, 154 sonnets of unusual intricacy and narrative fascination, and one metaphysical allegory (“The Phoenix and the Turtle”). Computer studies only add to the stupefaction: nearly half of Shakespeare’s words were what scholars call hapax legomena, that is, words that Shakespeare used only once, having found the one right location for their perfect use and never needing them again. Moreover, one-twelfth of his words make their appearance, at least in print, for the first time in the history of English, most of which must have been of his coinage. Then there is his pace of production: according to commonly accepted dating techniques––using the known dates of Shakespeare’s forced retreats from London during the plague years, the year of his final retirement to Stratford, allusions to current events in the plays, and so forth––it seems that during his working life in London he wrote on average two plays each year until the death of Elizabeth in 1603, when the pace slackened to about one play per year during the Jacobean reign.

Because Shakespeare never went to university, much is made––too much, in fact––of the termination of his formal schooling with grammar school. The idea that the greatest playwright of the human race could have poured forth such a cornucopia of genius with only the benefit of a grammar school education does seem to stretch stupefaction past the point of credulity. But the objection ignores both the intensely classical curriculum of Stratford’s “grammar” school (which, unlike our modern counterpart, stretched well into a boy’s fifteenth or sixteenth year) and Shakespeare’s years of young adulthood working as a schoolmaster for a wealthy Catholic family in Lancashire, when he had ample opportunity to expand his reading and activate, as a teacher, his passively absorbed pupil’s learning.

One also hears from time to time how sparse are the confirmed and reliable details available to the Shakespeare biographer, but this too is more myth than fact, as two recent works, E. A. J. Honigmann’s Shakespeare: The “Lost Years” (Manchester University Press) and Park Honan’s Shakespeare: A Life (Oxford University Press), amply testify. As the famous Elizabethan historian A. L. Rowse rightly points out, “We know more about him than about any other dramatist of the time, with the exception of Ben Jonson, who lived rather later and had a longer life.”

Indeed his schooling, far from making it unlikely that a product of its system would emerge as a poet of astonishing rhetorical intricacy, was such that it could hardly have produced anything else. As Honan points out, “With its arid emphasis on verbal artifice, school evidently came too early for him, in some ways narrowing his mind and delaying his success; there are signs, for example, in his mature writing, that he had been too attracted by ringing changes on words, by varying, amplifying, and patterning.... This fault is attributable to schools that were hotbeds of literary talent, but not always of self-sustaining life.”

Recent research has also uncovered a plethora of evidence pointing to the Catholic and Jesuit sympathies of most of Shakespeare’s schoolmasters. Simon Hunt, Shakespeare’s first teacher, for example, left his position in 1575 to become a Jesuit priest. One of Shakespeare’s fellow pupils, Robert Debdale by name, was executed as a priest in 1586; while studying for the priesthood Debdale shared classes with Thomas Cottom (executed in 1582), whose brother John Cottom was a schoolmaster at Stratford and taught Shakespeare until, under mounting anti“Catholic pressure from the Crown, he fled home to Lancashire, a Catholic stronghold.

Shortly after that, at least according to Honigmann, Shakespeare took up a position, presumably at Cottom’s recommendation, as a tutor and player in the Houghton household, a recusant Lancashire family whose property neighbored Cottom’s. From the will of one of this family, Alexander Houghton, we know that the family maintained a company of players, for Alexander bequeathed his stock of costumes and musical instruments to a neighbor, one Sir Thomas Hesketh. As it happens, the Heskeths are mentioned as frequent guests in the hospitality book of the Earl of Derby, the most powerful peer of that region; perhaps it is sheer coincidence, but the son of the fourth Earl of Derby was Ferdinando Stanley, later Lord Strange, whose company of players performed four of Shakespeare’s early plays and five of whose members formed the nucleus of the Chamberlain’s Men (later called the King’s Men when King James I assumed patronage of the company), which Shakespeare joined at its inception and for whom he wrote all the rest of his plays.

Although the evidence connecting Shakespeare to the Catholic nobility of Lancashire is only circumstantial, the evidence of his own family’s attachment to Catholicism is direct and overwhelming. Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, came from one of the most prominent and tenacious Catholic families in Warwickshire. The head of the clan, Edward Arden, for instance, kept his own Catholic priest, disguised as a gardener but known throughout the Avon valley as Father Hugh Hall. One of Arden’s sons-in-law, a hot-headed Catholic fanatic named John Somerville, traveled to London on a personal mission to assassinate the Queen; apparently quite deranged, he betrayed his intentions to anyone who would listen to his rantings during his frequent tavern-hopping. Inevitably, he was arrested and, under torture, implicated Arden and Hall. The priest died in prison while his case was being adjudicated; but in 1583 the hapless Arden was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his head stuck on a spike on London bridge.

William Shakespeare was nineteen years old at the time of his cousin’s execution. Well before that traumatic date, from as far back as William’s thirteenth year, his father John had apparently begun to run into financial difficulties, at which time he tried to avoid town meetings and church attendance, allegedly to elude summons by subpoena (one could be served for debt in church). Presumably the debts were real (he defaulted on a mortgage in 1580), but the father’s financial woes seem to have been exacerbated by Crown revenge against the Ardens. In any event, John’s name was later entered on the recusant rolls of Stratford for failing to come to Anglican church services on Sunday, as the law required. One often reads that John Shakespeare’s absence was due strictly to his fear of subpoena. But Catholic convictions must have played at least some role in the father’s recusancy. On April 27, 1757 a bricklayer working on the son’s birthplace in Stratford came across a six-page manuscript, hidden under the roof tiles, of John Shakespeare’s last will and spiritual testament. To the rather queasy surprise of eighteenth-century England, the document unhesitatingly affirmed John’s Catholic faith (for example, it referred to the “glorious and ever Virgin Mary, refuge and advocate of sinners” and asked for intercessory “prayers and Masses” to speed the testator through purgatory).

The authenticity of the document was challenged for a while, but then an English Jesuit, Herbert Thurston, discovered in 1911 that John Shakespeare had taken the testament, almost word for word, from a translation by Jesuits Robert Parsons and Edmund Campion of a testament first composed by Charles Cardinal Borromeo for Catholics in his diocese during the plague years in Milan in the late 1570s. Before leaving for England, Parsons and Campion had visited Borromeo and were given copies of the testament to bring with them; and we know that Campion got to within twelve miles of Stratford before his arrest in June 1581. Somerville’s plot was exposed in the fall of 1583, so it must have been around then that John Shakespeare hid––but tellingly did not destroy––his treasonous profession of faith. (There is also a possibility that John’s financial difficulties were caused by his recusancy, for many Catholic gentlemen of that age often avoided fines by “conveying” their property to friends and relatives.)

None of this can prove anything about William Shakespeare’s own private convictions, but we do know that his daughter was fined for recusancy and that William and his fiancée Anne Hathaway married not in his Stratford church but in Temple Grafton, five miles from his birthplace. Neither the Shakespeares nor the Hathaways had connections there, but the vicar of the village, John Frith, was cited in contemporary records as “unsound in religion,” a code“term for Catholic priests. And finally, a seventeenth-century Anglican archdeacon from nearby Coventry reported that, according to Stratford oral tradition, Shakespeare “died a papist.”

Admittedly, the report as phrased implies that Shakespeare only returned to his family’s religion––or perhaps that he had even lost his Christian convictions altogether until his last hours. Indeed a common opinion among critics holds that Shakespeare grew increasingly pagan in outlook as his tragic view deepened. Philip Edwards, until recently the King Alfred Professor of English at the University of Liverpool, is perhaps the most balanced representative of this view. “The idea of salvation and damnation,” he says, “is central to an understanding of the tragedies, but the nature of the world beyond this world, the demands that it makes on one, and the means to reach it are presented not as something revealed but as a haunting and troubling mystery. There is a great deal of anxious religious questing and very little Christian conviction.” Peter Levi, the classicist and poet (and former Jesuit), echoes this view when he observes that Shakespeare’s “personal religion, so far as his plays reveal it––which is not very far––seems to have been something like Montaigne’s with a touch of neo-Platonism.... But his mind had many sides, and he was not, thank God, a theologian, except in the more serious sense in which a poet must be.”

These are both plausible views, and for a while I held them too. But then––under the influence of a perhaps surprising source, the writings of British feminist Germaine Greer––I began to reconsider. Taking the play that seems most to evidence Shakespeare’s distance from the reconciling vision of the Christian gospel, Greer shows that King Lear is actually Shakespeare’s most Christian play, and precisely because it is so redolent of Montaigne’s worldview (one must not forget that Montaigne was a Christian and wrote as such): “It would be a mistake to interpret the futility of Lear’s appeals to his gods as evidence of atheism on Shakespeare’s part,” she writes. “Rather, like Montaigne, he denies man’s right to scan the ways of God or to assume that God’s will coincides at any point with his own. This Christian skepticism is neither pessimistic nor cynical, for it is based in acceptance of the benighted human condition.”

In other words, Shakespeare’s views as a playwright exactly correspond to what he has the character of Isabella (a postulant seeking entrance in a Catholic nunnery, interestingly enough) say in Measure for Measure :

... but man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured––
His glassy essence––like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.

The key to Greer’s interpretation––one that makes her short book on Shakespeare for Oxford’s “Past Masters” series one of the finest essays on Shakespeare this century––is her insight that the persona of the Fool in Lear and other plays largely coincides with the self-portrait of the poet in the Sonnets: both persons, Sonneteer and Fool, are self-deprecatory, marginalized, and contemned, yet for that reason are lethally insightful about the flaws of the nobility. George Orwell once notoriously criticized Shakespeare for his bourgeois-Tory predilection for hierarchy and aristocracy, holding that the views of the playwright came through only in the voice of kings or nobles. But Greer firmly refutes this view, and shows how the Fool’s comments in Lear indicate how deeply Christian Shakespeare remained throughout his writing career:

Orwell thinks that from Shakespeare’s writings it would be difficult to know that he had any religion––whereas in fact the placing of truth in the mouths of babes is one aspect of the Christian respect for all human life; that same profound feeling is what inspires us to protest loudly when health authorities take a mental defective off dialysis machine because they consider his “quality of life” too low, in defiance of Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount.

I must admit I rather hesitate to raise the issue of Shakespeare’s religion, because at a fundamental level a concentration on his personal beliefs obscures the essence of his achievement. No doubt he participated in the religious life of his country. In public worship (there was, after all, no other legal option) he prayed with a congregation that used Cranmer’s superbly crafted Book of Common Prayer and heard at these same services the Bishop’s Bible (the immediate predecessor to the King James Authorized Version), echoes of both of which can be detected in the plays, and of course he was buried in Stratford’s Trinity Church; while privately he probably held to the Old Religion throughout his life, as recent research is making increasingly evident.

But as an artist he was essentially unselfconscious. Even in the history plays, patriotic and devoted to the monarchy as they clearly were, he sounds relatively unpropagandistic; and he must certainly be the most nonideological writer in English, Chaucer alone excepted. (Milton, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Macaulay, Newman, Tennyson all have their personal hobbyhorses to ride, to say nothing of contemporary writers.) Again, Greer is the critic who gives clearest expression to this insight:

Given the undeniable fact that Shakespeare seldom if ever spoke in his own person, a scrupulous discussion of his thought must take his invisibility into account as an aspect of his intellect. This is not to do what Shakespeare eulogists have so often done in praising him for having “in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling.”...  Rather, he was profoundly aware of and interested in intellectual issues, which he did not choose to simplify, codify, reconcile, or resolve but rather to dramatize.... The resolution which is reached is not the negation of the conflict, but the stasis produced by art. Even as we applaud it, we recognize its fragility.

While his authorial modesty might elicit our admiration, we should not attribute it entirely to Shakespeare’s personality, even if we accept the sonnets as autobiographical, where the persona of the poet can at times seem to grovel, even to the point of self-contempt. Rather, Shakespeare’s work as a playwright, without proprietary concerns for his own work or voice, is entirely a product of his life in a company of players : to survive in that appalling, disease-ridden world of fragile egos, he had to be affable, unassuming, and totally subordinate to the company, whose success defined his own. If they failed, so did he.

Above all, he had to be hardworking. In stretches of good weather (and of course when the plague did not loom), a company acted every afternoon except Sundays and during Lent. Moreover, troupes usually put on a different play each afternoon. Each actor, says Honan, usually had to keep at least thirty parts in his head during the span of one month, and a leading actor had to memorize around 800 lines for an afternoon and keep 4,800 lines in mind per week. Mornings were spent in rehearsal for an entirely different play, all without help of a director. Then there was the constant demand for text from the company’s playwright. (The idea of that epicene fop, the Earl of Oxford, taking a break from his falconry and hawking or from his documented European travels to supply two plays a year to this rather disreputable band of low-life artisans is risible.)

Most testimonials to Shakespeare, both during his life and in the memorial to him in the First Folio, speak warmly of his pleasant manners and courteous disposition, a feature of his personality that must have stood him in good stead within his touchy, flamboyant, and excitable troupe. But Shakespeare thrived in this demanding environment, and precisely because he tended by nature, if the sonnets are any indication, toward self-effacement, even self-abasement. “Stage demands suited his rapid intellect,” Honan notes. “The more self-abnegating he became, the more his imagination really flourished. His daily self-effacing duties would have given him a sense of routine as he sat at his table, and he found he could supply his troupe best by complicating his work and giving it multiple layers of appeal. In the same play, he can affirm and repudiate popular attitudes, and in a sense, by writing plays with subversive, troubling aspects, he remained inside and outside his vocation, and abetted his own development.”

Nor would it be too much to say that Shakespeare could only have been the playwright and poet he was in precisely the period of history ending with the last years of the reign of Elizabeth I and in the early years of James I.  A.L.Rowse is not exaggerating in the least when he avers that if Shakespeare “had been born twenty years earlier or later, his achievement would not have been what it was. The time would not have been ripe, or it would have been overripe, for him and his work as we have it.” His career and his work, in other words, “provide a signal example of this fruitful marriage of the right moment with the man.” Harold Bloom makes much the same (almost Christological) point in The Western Canon when he says with his usual lapidary precision that “the miracle of Shakespeare’s universalism is that it is not purchased by any transcending of contingencies.”

Theaters, after all, were the only places where all the inhabitants of London––from pickpocket and whore to magistrate and noble––could directly experience their membership in a community, and it was the glory of Elizabethan theater to provide precisely that venue for Shakespeare’s art. “In an age when religious zeal turned brother against brother,” says Greer, “the drama sought to reunite the people and raise public morale. Shakespeare was remarkably successful in managing potentially inflammable material so as to send audiences home excited and gratified rather than anxious about the deteriorating political situation and increasing instability of the Elizabethan order, but the plays are neither insipid or jingoistic.”

Unfortunately, even by the end of Elizabeth’s reign the dynamics of London theatrical economics and increasing Puritan hostility were undermining theater’s unique public role, unprecedented since the days of Periclean Athens. In a passage telling the sad tale, not of the death of kings, but of the end of Shakespeare’s career as a writer of English history plays, Greer points to this new dynamic as the cause:

By the time he wrote Henry V (1598-99) Shakespeare must have been aware that the illusion of unity in English society could no longer be sustained. It was no longer in the power of the dramatist to hold the imagination of all, literate and illiterate, powerful and powerless. The development of the indoor theatres with their greater scenic resources and their prurient interest in matters sensational and intimate rather than public-spirited and universal had divided the Globe’s audience while other entertainments vied for the groundlings’ half-pence. The most talented newcomers to write for the theatre had a different viewpoint at once loftier and more limited.

Still, for a brief window of opportunity, Shakespeare could put his fluency to work to create exactly the art that has made him the greatest dramatist of the human race. Shakespeare, though, was not a mere product of his time. Rather, he is an example of what the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar calls a “relative singularity.” Here is his discussion:

Great works of art appear like inexplicable miracles and spontaneous eruptions on the stage of history. Sociologists are as unable to calculate the precise day of their origin as they are to explain in retrospect why they appeared when they did. Of course, works of art are subject to certain preconditions without which they cannot come into being: such conditions may be effective stimuli but do not provide a full explanation of the work itself. Shakespeare had his predecessors, contemporaries, and models; he was surrounded by the atmosphere of the theater of his time. He could only have emerged within that context. Yet who would dare offer to prove that his emergence was inevitable?

It is one thing to examine all the necessary presuppositions and prior requirements that make possible the emergence of a work of art; but it is another thing entirely to claim that one has thereby accounted for that work of art. This is to mistake the sudden manifestation of the phenomenon for its presuppositions (a common mental habit called “the genetic fallacy”). And this fallacy is a perennial danger for scholars whose job it is to concentrate on narrating the history of origins until the story ends up at the termination point: the text itself. This movement of going from beginning to end in the narratives of historical critics can make it seem as if the beginning accounts for the end, rather than the end representing an astonishing fulfillment and supersession of what went before. But we can only fall into that trap because we are already in possession of the work and so we know how our etiological narrative will conclude. But this is to fail to come to terms with the work itself, which must itself determine how its own past is to be interpreted.

As Balthasar also points out, the singularity of the great work of art makes it greater than its time, and likely to be misunderstood by those who are so caught up within their time that they are unable to appreciate it.

A great work of art has a certain universal comprehensibility but discloses itself more profoundly and more truly to an individual the more attuned and practiced his powers of perception are. Not everyone picks up the unique inflection of the Greek in a chorus of Sophocles, or of the German of Goethe’s Faust, or of the French in a poem of Valéry. Subjective adaptation can add something of its own, but that objective adequacy which is able to distinguish the noble from the commonplace is more important.

Although he does not share the theological freedom so radiantly on display in Balthasar’s work, and indeed is rather phobic toward Christianity, Harold Bloom echoes Balthasar’s insistence on the primacy of the aesthetic and even comes close to seeing how resentment against aesthetic primacy is rooted in, and arises from, an ideologization of culture that will fear all true singularities, relative or otherwise. In other words, aesthetic contemplation, by its very nature as disinterested appreciation of the singular, refutes any and all ideologies, which is why Bloom hails Shakespeare as the single greatest refutation of all later ideal schemas, programs, reeducation camps, and brainwashing propaganda. “We are all feminist critics,” he quotes one professor as proclaiming, and then replies: “That is the rhetoric suitable for an occupied country, one that expects no liberation from liberation.” No wonder, then, that in so many English departments in this nation “the teaching of poems, plays, stories, and novels is now supplanted by cheerleading for various social and political causes.”

Even on the face of it, this project should strike everyone as absurd and self-defeating. (“The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted in our schools.”) But more crucially it begs the question by feeding off Shakespeare’s preeminence precisely by attacking him and not, say, Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, who presumably are equally the products of class myopia and imperial designs:

Shakespeare’s eminence is, I am certain, the rock upon which the School of Resentment must at last founder. How can they have it both ways? If it is arbitrary that Shakespeare centers the Canon, then they need to show why the dominant social class selected him rather than, say, Ben Jonson, for that arbitrary role. Or if history and not the ruling circles exalted Shakespeare, what was it in Shakespeare that so captivated the mighty Demiurge, economic and social history? Clearly this line of inquiry begins to border on the fantastic; how much simpler to admit that there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever. Originality is the great scandal that resentment cannot accommodate, and Shakespeare remains the most original writer we will ever know.

By calling Shakespeare “nonideological,” and by joining Bloom in hailing him as a refutation of all those ideologies that offer us no hope of “liberation from liberation,” I am not claiming that he passed his life in a hermetically sealed realm of pure aesthetics, blissfully unaware of the passions and ideas that were tearing apart the English nation. Quite the contrary: where Elizabethans were unanimous in their worldview (hierarchy, Great Chain of Being, immortality of the soul, etc.), Shakespeare was one with his contemporaries.

But where his countrymen differed and hurled themselves into the conflict over ideas, Shakespeare participated by dramatizing the conflict, not by contributing to it. And that is the source of his greatness; for the aesthetic, properly understood, subsumes all ideologies by understanding them from within and by giving us true liberation through that understanding. Balthasar and Bloom converge at this point, one from a theological and the other from a literary perspective; but perhaps Bloom can illustrate the point better because of the way Shakespeare has managed to liberate Bloom himself from his own previous excessive attachment to Freud:

Here they [that is, the professional Resenters] confront insurmountable difficulty in Shakespeare’s most idiosyncratic strength: he is always ahead of you, conceptually and imagistically, whoever and whenever you are. He renders you anachronistic because he contains you; you cannot subsume him. You cannot illuminate him with a new doctrine, be it Marxism or Freudianism or Demanian linguistic skepticism. Instead, he will illuminate the doctrine, not by prefiguration but by postfiguration, as it were: all of Freud that matters most is there in Shakespeare already, with a persuasive critique of Freud besides. The Freudian map of the mind is Shakespeare’s; Freud seems only to have prosified it. Or, to vary my point, a Shakespearean reading of Freud illuminates and overwhelms the text of Freud; a Freudian reading of Shakespeare reduces Shakespeare, or would if we could bear a reduction that crosses the line into absurdities of loss. Coriolanus is a far more powerful reading of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon than any Marxist reading of Coriolanus could hope to be.

No doubt Shakespeare shared in the stereotypes of his day. In fact, one will occasionally come across the complaint that Shakespeare’s thought is too homespun, too reliant on proverbs and folk wisdom, too “bromidic,” as it were, to be of service to a philosopher or theologian––or ideologue. George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell frequently opined in this manner. But this observation (which contains a grain of truth) misses a central point: the ideas that do appear in the plays––monarchism, hierarchy, ambition, fidelity to one’s marriage vows or to one’s king, the ideal of chastity in some, the celebration of concupiscence in others, etc.––all function, so to speak, as actors in the plot. That is, Shakespeare presents no overarching idea meant to serve as a soapbox from which the playwright can browbeat the audience with his convictions. The folk wisdom that gets expressed from time to time by various actors thus serves as a kind of implicit Greek chorus commenting on the action. And precisely because the proverbs and folk wisdom being expressed are true, and recognized as true by the audience, they create a bond between the meaning of the play and the experience of the spectators.

Both Orwell and Shaw thus have a point when they accuse Shakespeare of having a philosophy that rarely transcends the hackneyed, time-tested saws of folk wisdom. But the truth of this wisdom is what counts. Moreover, one of the rarely noticed gifts that make his plays so engaging is his ability to turn bromides, clichés, and proverbs into music. Somewhat like Mozart transforming the rather silly libretto for The Magic Flute into the most extraordinary melodies, Shakespeare can take the rather pedestrian awkwardness of English, with its clumsy consonant clusters, random stress accents, and unmusical cadences, and turn it into an arresting melody.

I can cite only two examples here. Just before the Friar marries Romeo and Juliet in a secret ceremony, Romeo shows up in church too excited and in love to prepare himself properly for the sacred rite. The Friar upbraids him for his adolescent hot blood and sternly admonishes him, using words whose message scarcely means much more than “haste makes waste” but whose musical phrasing immediately awakens the audience to the real meaning of the couple’s tragedy:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore, love moderately; long love doth so:
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

Similarly with evil. Everyone knows that evil is a real force in the world and cuts a hole in the fabric of Being; but that gash in Being is also what makes evil, in the metaphysical sense, a non-entity, a gap, a privation. Everyone also knows that good can come out of evil, as when a plague of insects devastates the fields of a one-crop economy, forcing the region to diversify. (There is a statue of the cotton-destroying boll weevil in front of the statehouse in Birmingham, Alabama, for just this reason.) But every hospital chaplain also knows that patients are not in the least comforted by being told that “God draws good out of evil,” or that “evil is only a privation in relation to being.”

Now, any playwright who can compose King Lear and Othello needs no instruction from metaphysicians or theologians on the nature of evil as a real and active force in human history and in the human personality. But Shakespeare also had an abiding sense of evil’s strange, shadowy evanescence, especially in the later plays, where a reconciling mood seems to lift evil off its hinges. But this reconciliation never seems forced or cheaply won, because the truth of the bromides “evil is a privation” and “God draws good out of evil” are enacted, not pronounced. Wittgenstein gets this point exactly right when he says that “Shakespeare displays the dance of human passions, one might say. Hence he has to be objective; otherwise he would not so much display the dance of human passions––as talk about it.”

The enactment, however, must still at some point include a “speech act” pointing out the meaning of the action, and here once more Shakespeare is able to exploit the resources of folk wisdom, to turn it into music, and to place it in the mouth of one of his characters, who at that moment becomes the chorus commenting on the meaning of the play. But because Shakespeare rarely uses an actor whose sole role is to play the chorus, he avoids the danger of didacticism, and lets the wisdom embed itself in the action of the play (which is why so many of Shakespeare’s characters, including even Iago, both seem and do not seem to express the playwright’s viewpoint). Somewhat at random I shall cite this example from Henry V :

Gloucester, ’tis true that we are in great danger;
The greater therefore should our courage be.
There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distill it out.
For our bad neighbor makes us early stirrers,
Which is both healthful and good husbandry.
Besides, they are our outward consciences,
And preachers to us all, admonishing
That we dress us fairly for our end:
Thus may we gather honey from the weed,
And make a moral of the devil himself.

No wonder, then, that Dr. Johnson could say of Shakespeare that “he seems to produce, without labor, what no labor can improve.” How he manages to have characters speak lines in such arresting melodies enunciating such obvious truths and yet in a voice that seems to correspond exactly both to the personality of the character and to the situation of the moment is, of all Shakespeare’s achievements, the most mysterious to explain and the hardest to specify.

The editors of First Things did not choose Shakespeare for their millennium series, preferring Calvin for the sixteenth century and Pascal for the seventeenth. I concur. For the singular, universal genius of Shakespeare makes him a poor representative of those ideologically riven centuries, while at the same time his sublime freedom makes him the obvious choice for man of the millennium, the one man of the past one thousand years who can promise us liberation from liberation. Who else is there?

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is the author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Continuum).