Just now when we are once again being asked to choose between secularism, killer of millions in the last century, and fundamentalism, killer of millions in the last century, it is Shakespeare’s time.
This is the time for broad, confident classical Christianity.
A great writer can never be simply reduced to a narrow agenda, especially a writer who represents an ancient and honored tradition. So it is with Shakespeare who stands with Justin Martyr, Saint Basil, Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom, Dostoevsky and the mainstream of the Church between fundamentalism and secularism.
His is the church that kept university-level education going for one thousand years after the fall of Rome and sparked the Renaissance by educating Italians in Greek texts. Shakespeare was the product of a Christendom that spread literacy to historic levels, because Christians are people of texts. His own schooling was the same blend of classical and Christian texts he produced in his plays.
We need not explain away anything about his plays if we merely accept Shakespeare as the consistent product of his time and his education, which produced his preference for classical, Christian culture.
Shakespeare could set a play in “Ancient Greece” as fantastic as his fairy woods, because Ancient Greece was part of Christendom: appropriated to the greater truth. It was not an anachronism for Shakespeare, the product of classical, Christian education to have an “ancient Greek” say:
O, for my beads! I cross me for a sinner.
Shakespeare was subsuming classical culture to a greater set of poetic, musical, and cultural ideas just as Dante did. Caution is in order if any contemporary Christian would simply add Shakespeare to their team. He was a man of his unique, very English time. He cannot be neatly added to any camp, except that of classical, Christian culture.
Starting with the New Testament and building on the Septuagint, there existed an ancient tradition that saved the glories of Athens and Rome through the truths of Christianity. Rome tried to wipe Christianity out and in return, Christianity saved Roman culture and education for one thousand years and pagan literature for all time.
Jesus had told Christians: love your enemies.
Christians loved them so much they saved their writings.
William Shakespeare wrote at a time when political and visible Christendom was torn apart. Some Puritans were rejecting the classical synthesis and returning to the old errors of Tertullian that thought Athens had nothing to teach Jerusalem. The killjoy spirit of pagan neo-platonism** that hated bodily pleasures cropped up (as it does periodically) in times of turmoil. It was, after all, the pagan philosophers who hated sex and marriage, not the Jewish people!
Other Englishmen confused riotous living with liberty: Falstaff with freedom. Shakespeare understood the appeal, but rejected it in every play he wrote. His Falstaff is sympathetic, funny, redeemed in the end, but also a fool, a coward, a lout, and responsible for the ruin and death of most of his friends. Shakespeare knew that even the brothel contained souls created in God’s image, but his Beatrice is not found in the brothels.
Shakespeare loved both classical and Christian ideas and so is in a mainstream Christianity under attack in his time. Ideologues in contemporary times might try to claim him for either mere classical (secular) or Christian values, but that is to betray his universal, catholic, Christian imagination.
Shakespeare’s classical Christianity did not need Rome and Greece. He used Rome and Greece. If Shakespeare had been born in Christian India or Aksum, he could have used those great and classical cultures. Ancient Rome and Greece would be nearly forgotten if Christendom had not saved them, as would pre-Christian Aksum.
The Splendid Beauty of Music: William Shakespeare
When Hermione came back from the dead and all is redeemed, forgiveness given from a grace that nobody could demand, I cried. These were honest tears as I responded to the mercy, grace, and deeply Christian message of Winter’s Tale.
Our sins can be forgiven by grace. Shakespeare uses the old pagan stories to make his point since “secular” theater could not deal openly with Christian themes. This sensitive Christian soul, this Shakespeare, was not allowed Christian characters, so reverted to pagan “gods” to make his Christian points.
Homer knows nothing of the forgiveness of Winter’s Tale. Delphi never delivered the mercy and grace of this most Christian play where forgiveness is the mightiest sword. That is just one cultural benefit Judaism and Christianity brought to the world. Shakespeare stood between the Puritans who killed the theater of his day and the riotous “atheists*”
Nothing is needed to understand Shakespeare that is foreign to his times or imported from our own beliefs. Shakespeare is not our contemporary. He is a product of his times and education and his works are what a genius did with a classical, Christian culture. He was, in times of turmoil, a supporter of the old order who cared enough to get a peerage and died a happy member of the established church. He did not defend classical, catholic, Christianity, as much as live in it and breath it out in his works.
On Shakespeare as Christian: Almost Surely
William Shakespeare was baptized a Christian, was educated as a Christian, wrote plays one cannot understand without reference to Christianity, baptized his children as Christians, was a lay reader in his local parish, and was prominently buried within some of the most sacred space in his Church.
Was he a Christian?
Maybe not, anything is possible, but all the biographical evidence says he was and there is no biographical evidence that says he was not.
Usually this evidence is explained away, if ideology demands you think of him as non-Christian, as merely conforming outwardly with the norms of his time. It is true that dissenters (especially Catholics!) were persecuted.
Mayhap, but probably (almost surely) not.
Secularism is improbable for Shakespeare, because he did not associate with secularists, nor would he end his life in the place where dissent was easiest. After all many things might be true, but if so, then Shakespeare’s return to Stratford on Avon makes little sense. The huge city of London was a great place to “get lost” and to have minority points of view. Stratford put your conformity or lack thereof on display.***
There were people strongly skeptical of religion, perhaps even atheists, such as the playwright Christopher Marlowe and Walter Raleigh. Their dissent was known, Marlowe was arrested for atheism, though released. Raleigh gathered a merry band of skeptics and lived an active powerful, political life, until he was executed in oldish age for falling afoul of politics. A clever man could be a skeptic fairly openly in those times in London.
Shakespeare left London, went home, built a big house, was active in his Church, and died honored by the Church. If you are bound by bias to think he was not a Christian, you can find criticisms of the Church in his writings, but that can be said of Saint Francis!
Blessedly, Christian culture, and the work of a great Christian writer like Shakespeare, can be enjoyed by anyone, since great writers are not producing propaganda, agitprop for some narrow Christianist agenda.
Ideology and the Tin Ear
Against this stands Jeff Williams, a well educated critic of the value of Judaism and Christianity to the West. He sees Judaism and Christianity as contributing little. Poetry and culture are troubling to this view, since Dante created Italian in his poetry and Shakespeare helped shape modern English.
If you must adopt his view, Dante must be denigrated and Shakespeare’s Christianity explained away. This is difficult since Dante’s classical learning is greater than Shakespeare’s and he produced poetry on the classical model outside his Comedy. What of the Comedy?
The Comedy, is harmonious with Shakespeare, because it values classical Roman thought and Christian ideas. Virgil is, after all, Dante’s guide for about two-thirds of the Comedy. Classical authors are reverenced and classical heroes used as guides to virtue. In fact, the entire “voyage to Hell” idea is a call back to Homer and Virgil, not the Old or New Testament.
Against this Williams can only complain:
The late Middle Ages, dominated by the Church, showed their greatest poets in feverish nightmares of Hell and its various tortures; but with the Renaissance the vision turns to the universe and man’s place within.
Is this really the vision of Dante? If you have read all of Dante, including his politics in De Monarchia, you see a man who values the universe and man’s place within. Fundamentalists, religious killjoys, have always criticized Dante for his earthy passion. Secularists, killjoys of religious passion, have always seen him as too spiritually ecstatic.
Dante, being in the Christian mainstream, goes on loving both this life and the life to come, this world and the world that is coming.
Dante places hell, purgatory, paradise, and heaven within the physical world. A man, such as the character Dante, can walk (literally) walk to many of these places and can (if he could fly) go to all of them in the flesh. The fundamental vision of this incarnate cosmos is not feverish or various tortures, but the Celestial Rose and a beauty so great that even Dante’s language fails and he can no longer speak of the goodness, truth, and beauty there. Chaucer, who knew Dante, understood this and used Dante in his works.
Williams cannot hear in Dante what Chaucer could hear. The sharp intellectual divide between “the High Middle Ages” and the “Renaissance” cannot be sustained without becoming deaf to the continuity of the great poets of Christendom: Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton. . .
Shakespeare may not have been able to read Dante, but like Chaucer his plays like Romeo and Juliet depend on “history” that Dante preserved.
An ideologue always has a tin-ear and so the beauty of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night is used to denigrate Dante’s Comedy:
This was nothing like looking to the cold stars and journeying through hell for the spiritual purification sufficient to connect with Beatrice, but moonstruck lovers wandering the dark forest buffeted and inflamed by the whims of the gods and the primordial drunkenness of love beaming down from the overpowering moon. This is Dionysian revelry, not meditation.
The stars are not cold in Dante, but so hot, so full of passion, that lesser loves must be purged so we are not overwhelmed by the sheer, voluptuous joy of Paradise! The moonstruck lovers of Shakespeare, of course, are asses in Midsummer and only find joy in marriage. . .an “oddly” Christian marriage. The “pagan” apparatus is appropriated by Shakespeare for a point that Dante could have shared.
Anybody in love gets this: the difference between our fantasy of love and the reality. We cannot live in the fantasy, but should not dismiss it either. We live in reality, but we do not ignore desire. We accept and enjoy or human foolishness without becoming Biblical fools. This is ancient Christian doctrine, as old as Saint Paul!
Music is the Food of Love: Play On!
Shakespeare does indeed give priority to dreams, music, and poetry. He is, after all, a dreamer and a poet. All of this quite consistent with the Christianity he inherited. To shoehorn Shakespeare into twentieth century secularist ideas about history or metaphysics, one must do violence to his writings and to history. Williams says of Shakespeare:
Ontology and Epistemology are also transformed. It is the poet, not the theologian or scholastic philosopher, who brings the cosmic secrets to light, and he learns these secret truths through Shakespeare’s two primary modes of being: dreams and music.
If by “scholastic philosopher,” Williams means Saint Thomas Aquinas, does Williams know that Thomas was a poet who said of his works of philosophy that they were “works of straw” compared to the ecstatic beauties he had seen in ecstatic vision?
Williams, like too many secularists, creates a false division and then tries to put Shakespeare on one side of it.
Shakespeare was born, educated, and worked in a Christian nation heir to the religion of Psalms, the beauty of the English liturgy. The poet has always been able to bring cosmic secrets to light in Judaism and Christianity. We have always used dreams and music as means to do so. Joseph of Genesis and Joseph the father of Jesus were not waiting for secularism to give him permission to dream a divine dream as many characters in Shakespeare do.
Ontology and Epistemology, topics we have no reason to think Shakespeare ever studied carefully, were not transformed by Shakespeare. Instead, he stood in the ancient Christian tradition that the metaphysical realm and the physical realm existed, interacted, and both mattered. Read Hamlet: where a spirit from purgatory or hell (seen by multiple witnesses) comes to speak to his son. Hamlet learns the proper relationship between the two realities too late. He is too hasty in prioritizing one over the other. Consider Macbeth where pagan witches give secret knowledge that destroys while Christian England has a miracle working King who heals and redeems.
Against this Williams takes one play out of historic context and says of Shakespeare’s “epistemology” and “ontology” in it:
This is a purely physical knowledge, derived from the earth spirits and the lights in the sky. All is physical substance that becomes music in our souls and visions of unbearable beauty, although perceived differently by different stations of men and in kind responded to by everyone from fools to the very most noble – and all have their place in Shakespeare.
This is simply wrong and is based on an odd importation of nineteenth and mid-twentieth century categories into Shakespeare. It can be made to work in one particular play only by ignoring most of what Shakespeare wrote.
The cosmos in the broadly Christian culture of Shakespeare’s education was made of stuff and also contained minds. These minds were not reducible to “stuff,” but existed in duality, body and soul. The fool in Shakespeare, or the man who will fail, is the man who forgets either reality. One sort of fool will not consider the future life, but only victory in this world. Henry V, Shakespeare’s’ great hero, has been given a throne gained by evil means and is anguished at the reality of God and his judgment:
Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Of course, there is another fool in Shakespeare that ignores the physical for the metaphysical. This man is often also a hypocrite in Shakespeare, appearing to be other worldly, while coveting the world, the flesh, in the service of devils. Such is Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
The “other world” cannot be ignored and this world cannot be ignored. Both are joyous, though this life comes with the peril that “is” is not always what “ought” to be as Romeo and Juliet, characters that owe their existence to Dante, discover to their doom in Shakespeare. The city of man is not fit for their love, so they die. The only hope in this tale of woe?
This letter doth make good the friar’s words,
Their course of love, the tidings of her death:
And here he writes that he did buy a poison
Of a poor ‘pothecary, and therewithal
Came to this vault to die, and lie with Juliet.
Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.
All are punished by God. All can learn. Eternity and life after death means that the tragedy can have meaning with sorrow, but without despair. Today can be a day of woe, but eternity is hopeful. We can learn from our errors and the deaths of Juliet and Romeo need not be useless.
Williams reduces fairy to the “physical” and music. By such reasoning, Gabriel appearing to Mary in the Annunciation when she becomes the Mother of God can be reduced to physical knowledge. For Shakespeare, like all classical Christians, the metaphysical and the physical world interlock and interact. Both can become visible to the other at times, though those times are dangerous! This is the universe of the ancient Christian folk or fairy tale and of the Scriptures.
Instead, Shakespeare is reaffirming a place for the “other world” (as he does consistently) against the rising “atheist” philosophers of his time. Dreams count, because in the thought of his time they were windows to the divine or magical reality. Whether sympathetic magic or divine encounter, dreams were a sign that there is more in heaven and earth than Williams dreams of in his philosophy.
We are a substrate upon which the forces of the universe weave a dream, this dream containing the richness and beauty that makes life precious. That most profound truth and beauty is not of otherworldly origin but surrounding us here in this world at every moment. And our nocturnal irrationality leaves us open to the experience of the mysterious forces around us and carries us through the mundane toil of the day.
This might be good Heidegger (?), but has nothing to do with Shakespeare. What Williams calls “forces of the universe,” Shakespeare calls God. Life is precious, and as in all mainstream Christian theology, valued, but there is another world, life after death, consistently in Shakespeare. Contra Williams neither Prospero, a magician with much to learn, or Caliban, a monstrous being, speak for Shakespeare.
Instead, Shakespeare in one of his last plays is warning against the colonizers, those who would go to an island (like Virginia?) and enslave the Caliban. Like Francis Bacon, Shakespeare has no categories to distinguish “magic” from “science.” What both (in our terms) have in common is the power of a few men to have power over other men using nature. Shakespeare has his Prospero retreat from power, the power of magic/science, and embrace the old verities.
Prospero is not a hero, though he does good. Caliban is no hero, though he sees some truths. Nobody is a hero, because none of us is righteous, no, not one. We all need grace, mercy. This the music of amazing grace, the Christian story, that Shakespeare died affirming.
May the soul of William Shakespeare Rest In Peace and may he pray for us and all of us just now.
*The actual beliefs of Raleigh style “atheists” are disputed. They might have been mere skeptics of organized religion or actual atheists. They were called atheists at the time. Shakespeare was not in their number.
**Neo-Platonism has little to do with the Platonism of Plato.
***Of course, there were periodic crackdowns on the drama (plague times, Puritan times) where the country side was best, but generally the City was the place for edgy folk.