This Saturday, April 23rd, marks an important anniversary: four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare. Or, at least, four centuries on from the traditional date of Shakespeare's death, dated backwards from his funeral on April 25th, 1616. Similarly, Shakespeare's birthday is not precisely known, but is commonly assigned to April 23rd, 1564, extrapolated back from his baptism on the 26th (and, likely, assigned to the same day as his death to give his life's span the pleasing symmetry of art). So, like so much we think we know about the greatest writer in the English language, the precise dates of Shakespeare's birth and death dodge away from us, flitting into the dark backward and abysm of time.
Much has been written in the pages of First Things about the Swan of Avon, often by writers trying to shed light on those things Shakespeare kept shadowed. What did the Bard really think about politics? Religion? Was Shakespeare a secret Catholic? Shakespeare's Cicero says of omens, “Men can interpret things after their fashion,/ clean from the purpose of the things themselves.” Are scholars searching for a Catholic Shakespeare falling prey to this temptation? The problem, as ever, is knowing which of Shakespeare's many vivid and opinionated characters speaks for the writer. Or, of course, if any do. (Did my Julius Caesar quote there represent a warning from the Bard, or just from me?)
Robert S. Miola cautions against this “biographical fallacy,” the idea that we can neatly discern Shakespeare's own stance by plucking individual passages out of plays to adorn our pet theories. He reviews Joseph Pearce's The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome, with a critical eye towards such leaps of wishful thinking:
Thy Canonized Bones, Robert S. Miola (August 2008)
[T]he business of wrenching passages out of dramatic context as evidence of the playwright’s personal beliefs usually reveals more about the critic than about Shakespeare. Pearce endorses this method for himself—and then vents his spleen on anyone else who dare use it for different conclusions. Thus, for example, he ridicules the “doyens of postmodernity” for writing into the plays their own “prejudiced agenda.” [...]
Quite right, one wants to say. But what shall we do when Joseph Pearce comes along to say, in essence: “You’re all stupid to think that Shakespeare is just like you. Actually, Shakespeare is just like me”? There is a parable about a mote and a beam that applies somewhere here.
Ah, well. Pearce giddily announces his next study of Catholicism in Shakespeare, which “promises to be even more thrilling than the first!” I’m not sure I can take that much more excitement, but those who want to follow Pearce onward in this adventure might keep in mind a cautionary aphorism: Dante was a Catholic; Milton was a Protestant; Shakespeare was a dramatist.
But minimizing Shakespeare's religiosity won't do either. Catholic or Protestant, Shakespeare lived and breathed the air of the sacred. Just witness the thousand-and-more Biblical allusions (to four different English translations) and then many echoes of the Book of Common Prayer (compare, for instance, the service for the Burial of the Dead's “Man that is born of woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery” with Macbeth's prophetic confidence that “none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth”). In some ways, it's the overabundance of religious imagery that makes Shakespeare's confession of faith hard to prove. Is Hamlet dramatizing the breakdown of the sacramental order in Denmark, or warning that supposed ghosts from purgatory are demonic tempters? Whatever he was, Shakespeare wasn't a secret modern secularist. In another book review, this time of David Scott Kastan's A Will to Believe, Kenneth Colston stands athwart the quest for a comfortably godless Shakespeare who could live in the religious universe of his irreligious biographers:
The Bard's Religion, Kenneth Colston (August 2015)
Baptized, married, and buried in Church of England records, Shakespeare was, if Kastan “were forced to guess,” what Christopher Haigh, the English Reformation scholar, calls a “parish Anglican.” Kastan understands that label as (in Haigh’s words) a “tolerant, largely habitual Christian, who recognized the communal values of village harmony and worship and objected to the divisiveness of the godly.”[...]
Is this what we have, a Shakespeare whose religion doesn’t frighten, expressing not truth, but experience so “tolerant,” “skeptical,” and “sympathetic” that it can declare its name in a Yale English Department? [...]
Kastan holds back from ultimate religious readings in Merchant of Venice and Hamlet, which is right where serious religious interpretations take off. Merchant of Venice might favor a traditional economics of abundant agrarian gift and mercy in Belmont over capitalistic contract in Venice. Hamlet could be a tragedy of the broken sacramental system in which compromised holy unction (“unaneled”), ridiculed auricular confession (“disappointed”), and even the debated Eucharist (“unhouseled” and “poisoned chalice”) leave souls, and not just Hamlet’s father, in a shadowy inefficacious purgatory. King Lear may offer the possibility of supernatural gift-love (Lear reconciled to and forgiven by Cordelia, even Edmund touched by love) as the “wheel of fire” of a deus absconditus.
Colston makes good on his reading of Hamlet here in a longer piece that delves into the way guilt and confession become muddied and fraught in an Elsinore without the sacrament of Penance. The piece is pay-walled, but well worth the whistling.
Hamlet the Confessor, Kenneth Colston (February 2016)
The secrets of the heart will come out. If they cannot be revealed in safe ritual, they will emerge in some other way. Unable to confess, the entire Danish court is either suspicious or wracked with guilt. Laertes and Polonius fear that Ophelia might her “chaste treasure open/To [Hamlet’s] unmastered importunity.” Hamlet’s father’s ghost cannot purge himself of sins, “forbid/To tell the secrets of [his] prison house,” like the Catholic-leaning subjects of the Church of England banned from auricular confession. Ophelia gives and keeps for herself the “rue” of repentance, “herb of grace a Sundays,” in a symbolic confession as she slips into madness. Murderous spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (“guilt” written into the name itself) betray to Hamlet “a kind of confession in [their] looks.” And Hamlet, guilt-ridden and suspicious in every scene, rails with misanthropy, burns with lustful imagination, and mopes in self-indulgent acedia.Conscience makes cowards of them all, and sin, whose whisperings have been gagged in the confessional, mutters villainously in the new soliloquy form.
Of course, Shakespeare was not an Oxford graduate. However well-read and well-connected he may have been, theological arcana were not his academic specialization, even if theological matters were more the news of the late Elizabethan day than they are in our own secular age. What would have been a concern to him as a playwright was the daily response to wrongful acts: I have sinned, so now what am I to do?
Thanks to the breadth of our Shakespeare coverage, we can expand also on Colston's points about the religiously-suffused content of King Lear and Merchant of Venice (with Measure for Measure thrown in, for good measure). And yes, these articles are all free. Like mercy, they drop as the gentle rain from heaven—and hopefully bless both giver and receiver.
King Lear Beyond Reason: Love and Justice in the Family, Mark R. Schwehn (October 1993)
To Render the Deeds of Mercy, James Conley (April 2016)
Shakespeare's Measured State, Gabriel Torreta (August 2011)
The Age of Shakespeare and the Trial of Man, Edward T. Oakes (June 2004)
Shakespeare spoke in a heavily theological language, even as he was coining the words and phrases we now (knowingly or unknowingly) borrow from him on a daily basis. So can we, people of the 21st century, approach Shakespeare without an interpreter? Need we “translate” the plays into our English? The Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently kicked off a project along these lines, but I took issue with it here:
Keep It Shakespeare, Stupid, Alexi Sargeant (October 2015)
The Bard’s enduring appeal is the “great feast of language” he serves up for us. Yes, Shakespeare writes timeless characters and remixes rip-roaring plots, but all of his characters and plots are made of words. We push back against translation not because the text is sacrosanct, but because the text is successful.
I saw this joy of “getting” Shakespeare first-hand this summer, when I worked at the American Shakespeare Center’s camp for high-school age actors. With a bit of glossing and gumption, the young actors acquired understanding of the text of the play we performed, Julius Caesar. And thanks to their fine work in rehearsal and onstage, the audience got it, too. [...]
My advice for the OSF echoes a classic American adage: K.I.S.S. Keep It Shakespeare, Stupid. OSF’s translation efforts further the misperception that Shakespeare is work. Shakespeare is not work, Shakespeare is play: the kind of play that challenges and stretches our imaginations. Shakespeare’s language lives after him, through every actor, director, and reader that gives it new life and breath—there’s no reason his words should be interred with his bones.
As we have been sifting through the treasury of Shakespearean content First Things has published over the years, let me leave you at last with a few more gems that did not quite fit into the arc I sketched above. First, a brief review of the lovely recent volume Anecdotal Shakespeare by Paul Menzer, and then a set of film and theater reviews of various (and variously successful) adaptations of the Bard's work:
Shakespeare Through Anecdotes, Alexi Sargeant (February 2016)
Weird Lessons from Macbeth, Travis LaCouter (October 2105)
Falstaff the Prophet, Alexi Sargeant (January 2016)
Shakespeare's Forest, Kate Havard (December 2013)
Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.