05 November 2007

Shakespeare and Relgion

The poet's basic Christianity is very beautifully expressed in Measure for Measure, where the genuinely saintly Isabella reminds Angelo, the self-righteous Pillar of Society, of the divine scheme of redemption and of the ethical consequences which ought to flow from its acceptance as an article of faith-ought to flow but, alas, generally do not flow!
Alas, alas!
Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgement, should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that;
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new-made.
These lines, I would say, express very clearly the essence of Shakespeare's Christianity. But the essence of Christianity can assume a wide variety of denominational forms. The Reverend Richard Davies, a clergyman who flourished toward the end of the seventeenth century, declared categorically that Shakespeare had "died a papist." There is no corroborative evidence of this, and it seems on the face of it unlikely; but almost anything is possible, especially on a death-bed. What is certain is that Shakespeare did not live a papist; for, if he had, he would have found himself in chronic and serious trouble with the law, and vehemently suspected of treason.... (The casuists of the Roman curia had let it be known that the assassination of the heretic Queen Elizabeth would not be a sin; on the contrary, it would be registered in the murderer's credit column as a merit.) There is, therefore, every reason to suppose that Shakespeare lived a member of the Church of England. However, the theology which finds expression in his plays is by no means consistently Protestant. Purgatory has no place in the Protestant world-picture, but in Hamlet and in Measure for Measure the existence of Purgatory is taken for granted.
I am thy father's spirit, says the Ghost to Hamlet,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul;
freeze thy young blood;
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start
from their spheres....
In Measure for Measure, Claudio gives utterance to the same fears. Death is terrible not only in its physical aspects, but also and above all because of the awful menace of Purgatory.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling! 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a. paradise
To what we fear of death.
In King Lear, the poet presents us with another world-picture that is neither Catholic nor Protestant. Purgatory exists, but not hereafter. Purgatory is here and now.
I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead..........
Whatever else he may have been, Shakespeare was not a precursor of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Indeed, during the years of his artistic maturity-the years that witnessed the production of Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and King Lear, he would seem to have passed through a spiritual crisis that made any facile kind of positive thinking or positive feeling impossible.

-- Aldous Huxley


Hey Skipper said...

Is Aldous Huxley sure that Shakespeare isn't invoking Islam?

erp said...

Skip, you're a baaaaaaaaaaaad boy. Made me laugh though.

joe shropshire said...

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;

Huxley would have known Dante's seventh and ninth circles on sight, and Shakespeare would have known them by heart, even as we have to look them up. So I think the answer is probably yes.

joe shropshire said...

I spoke too soon: there is no consensus that Shakespeare read Italian, and there is no known English translation of the Inferno before about 1780. My apologies.