Shakespeare’s God

Review by Anthony D. Baker

Literary criticism, at its best, is only a more sophisticated version of the impulse that excites us when we see a good movie or play or read a good book. We want to gather some people who have been similarly affected and talk about it. We have questions about odd points of the plot and hidden motivations of characters. We have ideas about how one bit of dialogue informs a later bit. We often have ideas about what the work “means.” Whatever it is we want to say, the fact is we generally want to say it, and we want conversation partners who will humor us by listening, and hopefully even engage us by arguing.

Like the post-performance pub banter, the scholarly conversation tends to move in waves. Someone says something persuasive, frames our thinking on an issue, and we may still be discussing this idea years or decades after. Perhaps then someone will return to an older idea and consider it in light shed by the turns in the discussion. This in turn may be the new frame for years to come.

This is precisely what has taken place in Shakespeare studies, in that portion of the immense industry devoted to questions of religion. Beginning in the 1930s, G. Wilson Knight’s rich and complex reading of the plays included an assortment of connections to Christian theology. Roland Frye’s Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (1963) challenged “the School of Knight,” arguing that the plays were meant, as Hamlet said to his own band of players, simply to hold a “mirror up to nature.” At this point the conversation shifted, and the Shakespeare and religion (Christianity, theology) talk was more like marginal mutterings at the edge of the bar. We tended to assume that Shakespeare was a secular humanist, perhaps with pagan leanings, perhaps Christian, but in no way would a study of religion illuminate the dramas or sonnets.

This has changed, and now alongside the questions of gender, politics, and dramatic theory, the industry is taking up again, though in a new way, the question of Shakespeare and religion.

Shakespeare and Religion
By Alison Shell.
The Arden Shakespeare. Pp. 320. $29.95

Alison Shell’s Shakespeare and Religion is an excellent pathway into the field. She opens her book with a description of the carvings on the misericords, wooden prayer benches, in Shakespeare’s Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Many of these are grotesque, some hilarious, and others simply confusing: a woman with a mouthful of sausage, human-headed beasts, monkeys playing doctor. The point, she tells us, is that all of the strangeness and silliness exists in church, in view of the high altar. Shakespeare’s dramas, like those carvings, are creative experiments with the funny and the strange; but if we read this as secular we seriously mistake the context in which he wrote them.

Oddly though, having set us up to read the plays “in church,” Shell goes to great lengths to tell us that we shouldn’t. Shakespeare uses biblical and theological ideas, she says, but as tools to build aesthetically oriented dramas; that is, “Shakespeare was a subsumer” (p. 117). In one sense this is surely correct: these are neither sermons nor morality plays, but complex and often ambiguous accounts of power, disguise, death, and reconciliation. Surely, though, “difficult” need not equate with “theologically incoherent”?

As Shell forays into the highly disputed territory of Shakespeare’s religious convictions, she continues to combine penetrating insight with a certain theological obtuseness. She challenges the Catholic Shakespeare school — appropriately, in my view — with what she calls Shakespeare’s “high doctrine of the audience”: the religious traces in the plays are less about his own convictions than they are references to Scripture, liturgy, and theological polemic that he expected theatergoers to recognize. Still, she cannot resist weighing in on the question, and here she paints herself into a corner: if, as the mounting evidence seems to suggest, he was Roman Catholic, he was the sort of Catholic who “sacrificed theological coherence on the altar of imaginative amplitude.” A disappointing one, in other words. Perhaps even a hypocritical one. Again, though, this is a necessary conclusion only if there can be nothing theological beyond a sermonizing or explicit moralism. Is it not possible that “imaginative amplitude” might in fact make one a better Catholic and/or Anglican?

Shakespeare’s Common Prayers
The Book of Common Prayer
and the Elizabethan Age

By Daniel Swift. Oxford.
Pp. 304. $27.95

In Shakespeare’s Common Prayers Daniel Swift stays agnostic on the question of ecclesial affiliation, but agrees with Shell’s argument that we fail to hear Shakespeare if we forget how the world in which he wrote was stuffed with religious language. Swift fills an important hole in the new conversation by exploring the use of the Book of Common Prayer in the plays. He opens his book with a delightful account of the Hampton Court Conference, in the early days of James’s rule, where the leaders of the various theological parties gathered to debate the shape and contents of what would become the Jacobean prayer book. The King’s Men, Shakespeare’s theater company, were among the players invited to punctuate the debates with dramatic diversion. Swift’s thesis is that Shakespeare was paying attention at Hampton Court. In fact, not just there, but throughout his career: the playwright catches hold of the prayer book’s language, especially the controversial parts, and works them into the speeches and images of his dramas. This is something of an obsession, Swift says, that builds through the 1590s, culminates in the heavily liturgical Macbeth (1605?), and then suddenly is over. In careful readings of several plots, he makes his case that the narrative structure is deeply informed by baptism, Eucharist, and especially the marriage and burial offices.

Swift’s historical work is impressive and engaging. On the confessional question he offers the welcome reminder that there was a wide spectrum of practices and convictions that the division of Anglican/Puritan/Roman Catholic does not come close to naming. He explores the marginalia in privately owned prayer books, and finds one in which the devotee revised his Protestant Edwardian book to reflect the complete overhaul of the liturgy introduced by Mary: evidence, Swift says, that laity saw doctrinal and liturgical revision as a living conversation, whatever the bishops and heads of state thought.

There are some theological blind spots that will be obvious to Anglican readers, such as his unsupported (insupportable?) assertion that baptism is “the only Anglican sacrament to promise transformation” (p. 244), or his identification of the Book of Homilies as “set prayers and devotions for the English Church” (p. 34) rather than, simply, homilies.

As with many authors who attempt to illuminate a previously shadowed source, Swift on occasion overdoes his case. His insistence is now and then more impassioned than persuasive, as in his pointing out the “obvious” echo of Psalm 128’s “Blessed are they that fear the Lord, and walk in his ways,” included in the marriage ceremony, in Macbeth’s plea to the earth to “hear not my steps, which way they walk” (pp. 54-59). The risk here is not so much hyperbole as it is missing the point: all the energy that goes into making the case for influence, persuasively or not, can make it seem as if Shakespeare wrote a play about the prayer book, rather than about, say, the viral power of suggestion. Here Shell’s “high doctrine of the audience” would help.

The Gospel According to Shakespeare
By Piero Boitani.
Translated by Vittorio Montemaggi
and Rachel Jacoff.
Notre Dame. Pp. 168. $27

Where Swift finds a metanarrative arc of liturgical obsession in Shakespeare’s career, Piero Boitani’s Gospel according to Shakespeare sees the development of a “Gospel founded on immanence” (p. 8), an experiment with human life and pain that blossoms in the late romances as a kind of realized eschatology. So if Hamlet and Lear leave us wondering if there is, actually, any special providence in the fall of a sparrow, the last plays (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, Tempest) show us what form such a providence might take.

Boitani has a keen eye for theology, and once he points it out only the stubbornest of secularists could miss it. Lear’s Cordelia is the child who “is about my father’s business.” If that play charts the devastation brought on by the father’s failure to recognize this simple truth, the romances turn that failure toward dramatic recognitions between fathers and daughters, lovers, husbands and wives, brothers. It may take resurrection to get there; art and creativity on the part of the heroes and heroines can work miracles. In Boitani’s words: “Where beauty reaches, there lie redemption and salvation” (p. 119).

Writing for a popular audience, the author helpfully lays out the plot lines for the plays he discusses. Like Swift, his readings of the plays are on occasion affected by a need to make it all fit (Lear is both Job and Christ, Prospero’s renouncing of magic is a Pauline kenosis). My chief complaint about this very good book, in fact, is that it makes theology a little too easy. These are complex plays, and some of them read better on Good Friday than they do on Easter morning. If tragedy is only a bridge to comedy, then we may miss some of the subtle hopefulness of the tragic and darker traces in the comedic.

Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness
By Sarah Beckwith.
Cornell. Pp. 232. $24.95

Sarah Beckwith’s Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness is the most theologically rich of this batch of critical texts, and perhaps of any written in recent years. Influenced by philosopher Stanley Cavell’s reading of the tragedies as failures of acknowledgment, she extends his argument by reading on to the romances. She travels the same literary territory as Boitani, but sees a different story taking shape there. The Reformation, she tells us, began as a debate about penance: how to ask for, receive, and offer absolution from sins. This is the theological context for Shakespeare’s works. In the absence of a liturgical rite, “Shakespeare’s theater is a search for community” that can embody the work of penance (pp. 4-5).

“The body of Christ liturgically enacted and not institutionally guaranteed” (p. 134), she says, in a particularly fine reading of The Winter’s Tale. The plays bring grace into the risky relay of human interaction, and hint that people must learn to pardon one another, or else live with a mutually reinforced damnation. No God is coming on chains from the top of the theater to override creaturely obstinance, Cymbeline’s half-comic Jupiter notwithstanding. Shakespeare thus performs a kind of sustained theological appeal for a humanly mediated grace, according to Beckwith. If the hyper-Protestants are correct (and her reading of the Reformers could do with some nuance here) and any human agency at all is a threat to our justification by faith, then we’re up a creek, soteriologically speaking.

If she is not terribly interested in the debate about where Shakespeare took Holy Communion, she still is convinced that he named something that went missing when England stripped her altars. This is where Beckwith’s theological argument becomes slightly murky. Is she saying, as mostly she seems to be, that the loss of an institutionally secure rite of penance is what drives Shakespeare to go looking for inter-human possibilities for the mediation of divine grace? Or is she saying, as occasional forays into the normative imply, that grace simply is mediated through human agency? If the former, then the playwright is longing for the security of Rome; if the latter, then he takes the Reformation as a felix culpa that, in spite of itself, forces us to see humanly crafted divine forgiveness staring in our faces, like the snake that nearly bit us.

Stay, Illusion!
The Hamlet Doctrine
By Simon Critchley
and Jamieson Webster.
Pantheon. Pp. 288. $15.95

The Hamlet Doctrine begins with the insistence that we will not be able to read Shakespeare well until we stop reading him as a Roman Catholic — or, by implied extension, as an Anglican, Puritan, or Christian of any stripe. Critchley and Webster, a philosopher and a psychologist respectively and a married couple, take Hamlet as a landscape for a series of interpretive meanderings. They take their title from a passage in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, though oddly cited so deeply into the book that it feels as if they are reluctant to give him credit: “Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion — that is the Hamlet Doctrine” (p. 195). Hamlet is indecisive about even his own existence, and this is because he knows too much. His discovery that “the play’s the thing” is the discovery that veils of illusion create avenues for generative action.

These authors would be unhappy with the shared view of Boitani and Beckwith that Hamlet opens an arc that closes with the resurrections and reconciliations of later plays. This is not to say that they prescribe a bleak nihilism, however. For them Hamlet is the tragedy of a failure to love, and the introspective soliloquies show us what happens to a man who suspects that he can no longer love. As Freud put it (and he was nearly as obsessed with Prince Hamlet as with King Oedipus): “A man who doubts his own love may, or rather must, doubt every lesser thing” (p. 23). Read this play as a coded account of purgatory, or a parentheses of suffering that is redeemed in the later work, and we miss the tragedy that is Hamlet. Love involves taking the sort of radical risks that the prince finds himself unable to take.

The chief difficulty of this book is that its trendiness gives it a lack of focus. Hegel pondered Hamlet in his aesthetic theory. Freud and Jung quoted Hamlet to each other as their collegiality dissolved. Political philosophers Benjamin and Schmitt both have readings of Hamlet. And our authors engage every one of these readings. Derrida wrote about Hamlet as well, and one has the impression that if his name weren’t now passé in the academy, he would have earned a chapter as well. Moving from chapter to chapter can feel a bit like following a child with an attention deficit around a glitter factory. This is disappointing, because the authors raise hugely important theological and philosophical questions about love, truth, language. Why does action need disguise? Is it because the truth is ultimately too terrible to encounter directly, or perhaps because (as Beckwith would want to say) humans encounter eternal things humanly? Is love a kind of disguise? Or perhaps a faithful response to something transcendent? If so, what?

These five books are just a piece of the growing conversation about Shakespeare and theology. Together they suggest something very hopeful: that the generative power of his plays is enough to get philosophers and theologians and literary critics talking to each other. And this is important, because we risk missing the most surprising edges of what Shakespeare still wants to teach us about love, acknowledgment, death, grace, and pleasure if that conversation does not take place.

I conclude sermonically, with an invocation: go and gather a collection of the unlike-minded and see a local production of a Shakespeare play. Then — and this is essential — stop by the pub on the way home. See if something surprising happens. If it doesn’t, email me and I’ll pick up the bill.

Anthony D. Baker is Clinton S. Quin Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Seminary of the Southwest.


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