Shakespeare, Honor, and Reformation

Shakespeare, Honor, and Reformation August 28, 2020

So that Shakespeare really is that good…

Like many of us, my life has been quite constrained in the past few months, and I have taken advantage of the situation with a major project, namely to watch my way through all Shakespeare’s plays. Now, I know lots of the plays intimately, certainly all the standards, and have read probably all of them (Pericles? Troilus and Cressida? Probably not). But I have never actually seen all performed, and now has been my chance. Between 1978 and 1985, the BBC produced and broadcast all 37 plays, and they are all available on Britbox, which is accessible through Amazon Prime. And that is what I have been doing with my Summer. I’m not quite finished yet, but I am on my way. I’ll probably end with Pericles, which who knows may turn out to be wonderful.

The productions are very variable, from the abominable (I’m looking at you, Antony and Cleopatra) to the magnificent, and some of the best have been off the scale.

What have I learned so far? Really, too much to say briefly, but let me list a couple of highlights here.

*Particularly surprising have been history plays that I thought of as confused and workmanlike, above all the three parts of Henry VI, which together run for close on eleven hours. I always thought I knew Richard III, but I didn‘t, because I saw it as a free-standing piece, like Macbeth. I had not put it together with those three Henry VI’s as a tetralogy, the whole miniseries if you like, fifteen hours in all, with its dazzling commentary about politics, power, honor, factionalization, polarization, and tyranny. Nothing whatever relevant to the modern world. (I never saw The Hollow Crown, but will)

*Now I realize that Richard II is one of the absolutely core tragic roles in Shakespeare, up there with Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear. The level of the political discourse and debate is dazzling, although set in a now extinct worldview of feudal legality and hereditary power.

*Another great surprise, I always thought Much Ado About Nothing was a fun comedy, with all the witty lines between Beatrice and Benedick. Now I know it’s an extremely dark piece about vendetta, honor, purging insult through violence, and all with a powerful sexual subtext. If Benedick carries out an honor killing (“Kill Claudio!”), Beatrice will get back into bed with him: I paraphrase. Did I mention it’s set in Sicily?

*I am still struggling to get my mind around The Winter’s Tale, which has about eight other plays hidden in it somewhere.

*Quite apart from whole plays, some extended scenes are enough to justify years of thinking and commentary. I keep going back to the scene between Richard III and Lady Anne Neville at the start of that play, where she knows he is a devil, or indeed The Devil, that he is a homicidal monster, and says so repeatedly, but she is still seduced. Many millennia ago, in 1970, I saw Richard III in Stratford, and I have recently worked out that the Lady Anne I saw was in fact played by Helen Mirren, and in a production that also featured Ben Kingsley, Ian Richardson, Norman Rodway, and Patrick Stewart. There were giants on the earth in those days.

*You often have to struggle to realize that particular scenes were not actually interpolated by some modern editor obsessed with very contemporary concerns, but they really were from Shakespeare. In Measure for Measure, the seemingly pious and highly reputable Angelo (angel, you see) tells Isabella he will save her brother’s life, but only if she has sex with him. She replies that she will expose him as a hypocrite, and he responds, simply:

Who will believe thee, Isabel?

My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,

My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,

Will so your accusation overweigh,

That you shall stifle in your own report

And smell of calumny.

If #MeToo ever decides it needs a motto, can I propose “Who will believe thee, Isabel?”

*It may be obvious, but you have all these really powerful and often erotic scenes featuring wonderful female characters, who  speak quite sexually explicit words. And you realize that when these were first performed, they would all be played by teenage boys and young men in female clothing and make up. That adds mightily to the sexual confusion and gender bending of the whole set up. It’s a good thing those puritan minded authorities prevented women actually playing any of those female parts, or the whole thing might have got quite weird, if not perverse. Whereas what they actually ended up with on stage was… good grief.

I am still reeling from the impact of the plays in general. To use a cliché, the whole experience has been life changing. But the implications for writing and studying history are astonishing. Not just do we have one of the greatest ever writers observing and commenting on the world at the heart of the Early Modern era, but doing so from a position at the absolute heart of the mass entertainment of the day. This is not what one poet thought. It’s what regular people believed.

If you have any interest in the history of religion, the resources are just as far-reaching. To go back to those Henry VI’s, the plays that actually made Shakespeare’s reputation, Part I features Joan of Arc, who is portrayed as a classic witch with her demons and familiars, with all the lore associated with that on display. You get a terrific sense of that imaginary diabolical world from this and so many other plays. Yes, of course, it’s in Macbeth, but also in many other places. Shakespeare is so clearly following the occult exposés of the day.

But for anyone interested in the history of religion, look at Part 2, with the 1450 revolt of Jack Cade. The original revolt was strictly political, but in this play, Jack emerges very much as the worst stereotypes of the Anabaptist prophets from Münster in the 1530s. An English play written around 1590 assembles all the nastiest images that the respectable would soon be applying to Puritans. Cade is presented as a plebeian revolutionary, who wants to destroy literacy and law, and rule entirely by the whims he speaks. His followers will have all the property and women they want. And what does he call his hyper-radical program?

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation.

It’s not that actual radicals necessarily believed such things (some did), but if you want to understand why mainstream believers so loathed Puritans, and a few years later sent them off to New England, this gives you a pretty good idea.

That’s one example out of a couple of hundred. So much to learn.


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