Shakespeare, Faith, and the Narrow Gate

Over the past few months, my wife and I have been using our non-voluntary time staying at home to watch our way through performances of all Shakespeare’s dramatic works, using the BBC productions filmed between 1978 and 1985 (and available on Britbox). I posted about this project, and now we have completed the process, 37 out of 37. But who’s counting? (!). I am here offering some further thoughts, referring to the plays we have watched more recently. Most of these plays were certainly not new to me, but seeing them produced changes and sharpens perceptions.

I am absolutely not suggesting that these BBC plays were the best productions ever made, and a couple were frankly not that good, but some were cosmic. If there ever was a better Hamlet than Derek Jacobi’s, I don’t know it. Then there was the Richard II, starring, um, Derek Jacobi. I see a theme emerging here. Anyway, there were lots more fine non-Jacobite plays as well. Much of the appeal of the BBC series was that, for better or worse, they served as a time capsule of concepts of performing and visualizing Shakespeare as they existed in that long-dead geological era forty years back. And yes, 1981 probably was the last time you could do a major Othello production with a white actor in the lead, even if it was Anthony Hopkins.

Spiritual And/Or Religious?

Watching or reading Shakespeare, you get an unparalleled look into the values and assumptions of the Early Modern world, and that is so critical for teaching or researching on the era. That is doubly true in matters of religion and the spiritual, broadly defined.

Shakespeare’s own religious attitudes have been a matter of mystery and debate for centuries. Yes, you can certainly find biographical hints of Shakespeare’s Catholic ties, or make him an atheist, as you wish. But it’s the perpetual dilemma of deducing an author’s personal views from what s/he writes. Because they write something, does that mean that it reflects their personal beliefs or attitudes? Are we hearing the singer or just the song?

To take an obvious example, you can compile a wonderful collection of the supernatural beliefs of ordinary country people from plays like Midsummer Night’s Dream with all its fairies and goblins, and to a lesser extent from Merry Wives of Windsor (1600). That certainly does not mean that Shakespeare himself accepted any or all of those ideas – or at least, not as an adult.

Witches and Demons?

So did he believe all the witchcraft material in Macbeth? Maybe – but it was also extremely politic to show himself an enthusiastic true believer under King James I, who took witches very seriously indeed. Shakespeare’s picture of Joan of Arc’s witchcraft was also very well informed about contemporary theories and jargon. In contrast, Merry Wives of Windsor depicts a woman who is believed to be a witch because she is old and ugly, so that local citizens feel justified in beating her. That suggests a far more rational approach to witchcraft fears.

More seriously, if Hamlet (1600) features a ghost in Purgatory, did that mean that Shakespeare himself believed in Purgatory, or in ghosts? Possibly, but you can’t depend on it. I like the point made by scholar David Scott Kastan that this very Catholic-sounding event happens to a student just back from the University of Wittenberg, which the London audience would immediately understand as arch-Lutheran. Was that an anti-Lutheran dig or an in-joke, or just something that moved the plot forward? If there is a religious controversy here, it is nowhere picked up in the rest of the text. I am open to convincing either way.

The plays certainly assume the reality of demons and fiends, and the possibility of possession and mischievous intervention. Shakespeare’s audience certainly believed that as a general world-view, and there is no reason to believe that he himself did not. But who can tell? Edgar offers a classic description of a stereotypical demon in King Lear:

Methought his eyes

Were two full moons; he had a thousand noses,

Horns whelk’d and waved like the enridged sea:

It was some fiend.

But that passage involves one character deceiving another by blaming a trick on a non-existent demon. A battery of demon and possession allusions appears in Twelfth Night, when Malvolio’s enemies have tricked him into behavior that leads to him being committed as insane, or possessed, with no obvious difference between the two concepts.

Which way is he, in the name of sanctity? If all

the devils of hell be drawn in little, and Legion

himself possessed him, yet I’ll speak to him.

But all those demonic references come from characters who know the whole thing is a fraud and a set-up. Shakespeare knew a lot about witches and demons: he also knew a great deal about confidence tricksters.

So again, some caution might be advisable in deciding what the author himself thought.

This also gets to the perpetually annoying question of whether “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” or whether the plays were actually the work of some other noble character, who could actually have had direct experience of the exotic and courtly settings they depict. The Earl of Oxford is a regular candidate for this second Shakespeare on the grassy knoll (or mossy bank). The argument is so silly because we actually know so much about the real William Shakespeare, his life and works, which leave no doubt about the basic authorship question (although he certainly did collaborate with others at various times). For one analysis of many, just read James Shapiro’s excellent Contested Will. But the main point is that nothing appears in the plays that Shakespeare could not have obtained through reading or personal interactions. His great secret is laid bare: he was a professional author who did a lot of research, as needed. He even read books.

Henry VIII and His Reformation

As I say, Shakespeare’s personal opinions are often hard to determine too exactly. Most surprising in that way was Henry VIII, a play I did not know at all, and in which Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher. It probably dates from 1612 or so, a time when England was at least in theory fiercely Protestant, and only a few years after a Catholic plot came close to exterminating the Protestant ruling class.

By way of essential background, how the English Reformation happened was as follows. Henry VIII desperately needed a son, but his wife, Catherine of Aragon could not produce a live heir. Henry turned his attention to Ann Boleyn, with whom he had a daughter, who became Elizabeth I. The effort to end the marriage with Catherine directly caused the English secession from the Catholic church, or Brexit 1.0.

I mention all that because Shakespeare and his Protestant audience should in theory have applauded the break with Catherine, and would have celebrated the match with Anne Boleyn, mother of the beloved Protestant Elizabeth. But Shakespeare does not play exactly by the rules, or remain vaguely close to them. In the play, Catherine is a noble and faithful character, arguably the tragic heroine, and the audience is meant to sympathize with her deeply. Actually, the play also emphasizes Henry’s agony at having to lose the loving wife. In one amazing scene, shortly before her death, Katherine receives a heavenly vision of dancing spirits, “six personages, clad in white robes, wearing on their heads garlands of bays, and golden vizards on their faces; branches of bays or palm in their hands.” If that is not a heavenly vision presaging the death of a saint, I don’t know what would be.

Later sections of the play certainly depict evil Catholics, especially in the plotting of Stephen Gardiner, the Catholic-leaning Bishop of Winchester, against the Protestant Thomas Cranmer. You boo the vicious Catholic, and cheer the founder of Anglican faith and liturgy. But at the same time, you leave the play wondering if Henry’s break actually was such a good idea.

For what it is worth, the play was originally titled All is True. Hmm…

Faith and Faiths

Other plays also raised the issue of depicting faith on stage. Shakespeare is legendary for the anachronisms in his historical plays, so that characters in Julius Caesar talk about wearing doublets, and the battle scenes in King John depend on cannons and artillery, around 1210 (!). The future Richard III plays a heroic manly role in battle scenes in various parts of Henry VI, although the events depicted occurred when he was actually a toddler.

But religion might be a different matter. Shakespeare’s characters often throw in casual phrases that indicate a contemporary Christian context – Marry, by the mass, etc – but they largely don’t do so in his plays with a Classical or pre-Christian setting. Shakespeare was certainly not seeking anything like authenticity, but the lack of Christian references in something like King Lear (1605) – set in pre-Christian Britain – is striking. If Shakespeare has no concern about inserting cannon in eras where they don’t belong, he does try to avoid retrojecting Christian ideas, institutions and language. It’s a thoughtful distinction, and he seems to care.

I don’t claim that as a definitive statement, and you might well be able to correct me, but I offer that impression.

Shakespeare and the Bible

Quite apart from grand theories, you can also read the plays for the religious thought and language that occur so regularly, but you have to look out for them. Whenever he does make a Biblical allusion, moreover, which he does very frequently, he always uses the Geneva Bible rather than an approved official Anglican text like the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, or a Catholic translation. Shakespeare’s final plays were written around 1611, when the King James version appeared, so he could not have used that.

Some of those passing allusions are often powerful, all the more so because they are thrown in as seemingly incidental to the main action. In All’s Well That Ends Well (1602), the clown Lavache engages in the typical banter that characterizes fools and clowns in the plays, and which usually feature the most accurate observation and commentary on the action. You can pretty much always believe the clowns and fools, not least because they speak in very plain English, which usually sets them apart from the polysyllabic and Latinate constructions of some other characters.

Lavache explains that he serves a great prince, namely “The black prince, sir; alias, the prince of darkness; alias, the devil.” But he then continues with words that sound like they come from a work of radical Protestant piety, and we can’t help but think of Bunyan, a couple of generations later:

I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a
great fire; and the master I speak of ever keeps a
good fire. But, sure, he is the prince of the
world; let his nobility remain in’s court. I am for
the house with the narrow gate, which I take to be
too little for pomp to enter: some that humble
themselves may; but the many will be too chill and
tender, and they’ll be for the flowery way that
leads to the broad gate and the great fire.

The speech uses very simple and non-flowery language, exactly like that of Bunyan, or an effective Protestant preacher. It’s not surprising that some people think that Shakespeare even translated some parts of the King James Bible, an issue on which I remain agnostic.

Shakespeare was very interested indeed in matters of faith, but just never try pinning him down. But DO feel free to use his words and images to illustrate contemporary ideas and attitudes, as abundantly as you like.

More Shakespearean thoughts next time.

You will notice that over the next few posts, I will be writing quite a bit about the early seventeenth century, and not just in the context of Shakespeare. This is partly because it’s a period in which I have an abiding interest, and one that does so much to shape Western religious history. Witness the series of posts I did on the Thirty Years War. But moreover, as a central part of that story, we recall that next month marks the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower in November 1620, a symbolic and critical moment in the American religious narrative. It needs to be commemorated, and contextualized.


Source: Shakespeare, Faith, and the Narrow Gate

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