What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or, to put it more contemporarily, what has Shakespeare’s formation to do with the vitality of today’s Church? A seemingly obscure literary artifact might give an answer.
The promulgated decrees of literary historians are as hard to abrogate with evidence as those of dictators. Every student in the English-speaking world, if he has read Shakespeare, has been programmed to think of him as a great secular Renaissance revolutionary. In the view of Romantic thinkers from Goethe to Nietzsche to Harold Bloom, Shakespeare was the Galileo of the stage who used the restored lenses of Ovid and Seneca and Plutarch to see humanity anew after a millennium of religious ignorance. In recent revisions of this history, academics such as Stephen Greenblatt and David Scott Kastan have acknowledged Shakespeare’s religious inheritance, only to deny that he actually might have believed in it. Thank goodness Shakespeare had learned classical Latin at a grammar school “founded” by Edward VI’s Reformers (after they confiscated it from the Guild of the Holy Cross)—otherwise his dramatis personae would have been doltish serfs!
The contrary view, that Shakespeare worked in continuity with his religious past—perhaps even (gasp!) in sympathy with it—has to loosen up the literary regime of the last four hundred years. That regime, let us be blunt, is anti-Catholic: the Protestant Reformation of Shakespeare’s own day, then the Romantic Enlightenment, and finally contemporary academic skepticism. If this regime is to be undone, it will be by such meticulous scholars as Kurt A. Schreyer. His recent Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage (Cornell University Press, 2016) details, stage board by stage board, the Bard’s debt to the age of superstition.
Schreyer’s focus is on a cycle of medieval mystery plays, which were still alive as late as 1575 in the town of Chester. Schreyer begins by citing a Reforming clergyman’s objection in 1572 that these plays represented “monkish ignorance” and “Popish superstition.” He then examines the official Banns (or “announcement”) of the plays’ staging during Whitsuntide in 1575. Ignoring the good clergyman’s request and in defiance of the Anglican archbishop of York, Chester’s councilors justified the plays, which undoubtedly brought lucrative tourism to the city, on the grounds that they were an “ancient and laudable usage and custom redounding to said city’s common wealth, benefit, and profit.” In other words, tradition and money trumped the religious reform.
Why does this finding matter for the reader of Shakespeare, or for the contemporary believer yearning for the cultural leavening of the Gospel? It shows that the medieval theater had survived into the Bard’s youth, despite the efforts of Puritanical iconoclasts and Reform-minded religious authorities, thanks to what Schreyer calls “synchronic diachrony.” That is, traditionalists urged the guild players to perform their ancient custom (synchrony), without connecting that custom to the Catholic past (diachrony). Thus, “synchronic diachrony” may have been a strategy of Shakespeare’s own stagecraft: He mixed classical subjects with medieval properties, appealing to an underground or marginalized desire for the mysteries, without running afoul of Puritan naysayers. The classical settings masked the religious echoes. We know, for example, through allusions in Shakespeare’s plays, that he almost certainly had seen some of the ten New Testament mystery plays in the greater and competing cycle of Coventry, eighteen miles from his home town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, performed until Reformers shut them down in his teens.
Schreyer gives three major examples of this creative amalgam: the translation of Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, drawing on the figure of Balaam the Ass; the role of purgatory in Hamlet, depending on the ubiquitous biblical Last Judgment motif; and the Harrowing of Hell background to the serio-comic Porter scene in Macbeth. Schreyer holds back, however, from arguing that because Shakespeare trafficked in the Catholic guild players’ traditions, he was himself Catholic. Indeed, Schreyer offers material that would suggest the contrary. For example, the talking Balaam Ass figure (from the story in the Book of Numbers) was frequently used to ridicule the pope, and the drunken Porter is hardly a flattering spokesman for an extra-Biblical point of doctrine. Nonetheless, Schreyer offers a credible answer to the question that faces every partisan of the “Catholic Shakespeare” thesis. If Shakespeare staged a Catholic drama, how could he have escaped Protestant censure? By stripping the religious material of its religious labels, he sneaked in its affective power. Of course, the answer is not final, for Schreyer ends his study by showing that Ben Jonson, Catholic apostate, and John Webster, Catholic-baiter, also dusted off medieval remnants: Satan’s comic antics with Vice in The Devil Is An Ass, and tomb tropes from resurrection plays in The Duchess of Malfi. Appropriating medieval drama is, in itself, a weak indicator of Catholic affiliations. Even in turmoil, however, early modern Christendom still found a way to put on its glorious story, if not front and center, then from the wings.
The repertoire of medieval drama was vast. It included, according to Alexandra Johnston,
. . . prophet plays, plays on Old Testament themes, Passion plays, Resurrection plays, “Creation to Doomsday” sequences, plays on the Creed or the Pater Noster . . . plays on the sacrament [of the Eucharist] itself . . . saints plays, morality plays . . . [and] folk plays . . . played on Corpus Christi Day…Whitsun, May Day, or Midsummer.
The craft guilds—workmen like Bottom’s “mechanicals”—specialized in these pageants: Shearmen and tailors, for example, put on the Nativity and Massacre of the Innocents at Coventry. Much of this legacy has disappeared entirely, and the remnants are rarely performed today. The Bible is full of terrific stories; the Christian drama is, well, dramatic.
Which raises this question: If Shakespeare could sneak this repertoire onto a stage that Puritan pamphleteers said was “sucked out of Devil’s teats, to nourish us in idolatry, heathenry, and sin,” then why don’t more talented playwrights of a Catholic mind, in the larger freedom of the First Amendment, find it a modern home? How many Catholic school theater groups perform Everyman or the Second Shepherd’s Play? How many parishes sponsor Creation to Doomsday sequences as catechetical aids? Does the Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori (the Italian AFL-CIO), recently granted an audience and a beautiful address on the dignity of work and leisure by Pope Francis, underwrite performances for Joseph the Worker?
Is this the difference: Shakespeare’s audience knew by heart what it wasn’t allowed to see, and we don’t even know what we are missing?
Kenneth Colston's essays on literature have appeared in LOGOS, The New Criterion, New Oxford Review, Crisis, St. Austin's Review, and First Things.