Thursday, 10 July 2008

Shakespeare the Catholic.

Last evening I went to Chavenage House near Tetbury for an open air performance of The Comedy of Errors. It bucketed down rain and there was a howling gale so everything was as English as can be. I was interested to see the following, (via Fr. Blake.),....

I've always believed Shakespeare was one of us. His understanding of the universe seems Catholic. And I have always read the wonderful sonnet no. 73 to be a lament for the state of the Church and of England after the reformation and the destruction of the monasteries.

Bare ruined quires, where late the sweet birds sang.

I like the fact that the author has researched Shakespeare's actual family connections and associates. It's all very well reading things into or out of the plays and poems but quite another to learn that Shakespeare's Mother's family were militantly recusant and that both his father and his own daughter was recorded as a Catholic and fined for refusing to attend the reformed services. Also that some of his extended family were executed for their involvement with " Papist" plots. You can almost trace a line through his life. Two of his school teachers were fined for Recusant beliefs, as were his friends, Hamnet and Judith Sadler, after whom Shakespeare named his own children. His great patron the Earl of Southampton was a Catholic. It is also odd that we know, or think we know, so little about the man. We know all about Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, John Donne, et al. but almost nothing concrete about Shakespeare. Simple put he kept himself to himself, which is exactly what you would expect from a believing Catholic in the reign of Elizabeth. Even the vicar who officiated at Shakespeare's wedding was recorded as " Unsound in religion"; often this meant Catholic. (On the minus side the strange Spiritual Will once believed to have been left by Shakespeare's father is now generally debunked as an C18th. fabrication, and it seems strange that though his daughter was a "lifelong papist", she is recorded as having married a puritan, ( mixed marriages even then).)

Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, dissolved 1539.

I'm open to correction but there do seem to be a lot of monks and nuns in the plays, and they are generally sympathetic characters, as in the Comedy of Errors where the Abbess offers sanctuary to a wronged man who believes he has probably gone mad, and stoutly defends her right to do so. In "Shakespeare, The Biography" Peter Ackroyd states," It must be said that there are a large number of friars and nuns, treated with gentle circumspection, within his drama; his contemporaries, in contrast, tended to treat them as an object of scorn or obloquy.". It might be added that puritans are sometimes shown to be the very worst kind of hypocrites, eg. Angelo in Measure for Measure. While he treats his nuns and friars with respect, Shakespeare is apt to make fun of Protestant or self appointed ministers and has characters being advised to find a true priest, especially to preform the sacrament of marriage, eg., in As You Like It, Jacques says, "And will you, being a man of your breading, be married under a bush like a beggar. Get to church and have a good priest who can tell you what marriage is.". If these fine monks and nuns were to walk off the stage of the globe and practice their faith for real they would have been arrested and met a very bad end.

How then did he become a symbol for the new England, almost the embodiment of the sane, industrious, English, Anglican? In 1864 at the national commemoration of Shakespeare at Stratford, Richard Chenevix Trench said in an address " Shakespeare was a true child of the England of the Reformation. He was born of it's spirit. He could never have been what he was, if he had not lived and moved in the atmosphere, intellectual and moral, which it had created."


Matt Doyle said...

Do you have any reflection to make on that last quote? It seems such an interesting subject and I'm left hanging on the edge!

the hound said...

I'm not sure I have anything profound to add but I find it really strange that Shakespeare is somehow seen as the embodiment of the quintessential Reformation Englishman when to me he seems the very opposite. He is not level headed, not reserved emotionally, not smug, not comfortable, not viewing the world as human centred, not regarding God as something which exists essentially within the souls of men, not forward loooking. He is terrified by the plight of man without God. But that he has come to be a symbol for many things that he was obviously not might promt one to think he was regarded a a bit dangerous and in need of sanitizing. The cosy cottages and Merry England is everything he was not.

By the way I found your post on the changes to the liturgy at the Birmingham Oratory very interesting. I had never though of having the penitential rite like that. My only worry is whether it is possible within the rubrics of the Missal as I always thought the confeitor was given to the people in the N.O. but I am not sure on that point. However I am quite sure they know what they are doing. I just hope they don't get in any " trouble". I love the Oratory so much! It must be doing some of the best work liturgicaly in the country. And you know they mean it, not just empty ritualism but true worship.