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22 June 2006

Shakespeare & the Bible



Finished reading: The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare & A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now I want to watch every film production there is of it! Any recommendations; what’s your favorite version?

Since the theme of this blog is “poetry & faith,” I thought it would be appropriate to open my Shakespeare studies with some meditations on Christianity, spirituality, and morality in the works of the Bard. I do not intend to make an apologetic here for Shakespeare’s personal faith (knowing nothing about that) nor about the exclusive, orthodox Christianity of his works (not being convinced of that), but rather to trace some relationships of his texts to Biblical truth, whether these relationships are positive or negative. This is by no means intended to be anything like comprehensive! —just a few current thoughts. I imagine, even hope, these thoughts will change throughout the summer. So, here they are. Pardon the sometimes erroneous quotes; I’m working on a train as I travel across Ireland, with only Dream ready to hand.

So here are a few topics for thought and future discussion.

1. Quotations from Scripture

Shakespeare does not often quote directly from Scripture. I do not have a thorough enough knowledge to say whether, when he does, the lines are in the mouths of clowns, educated people, aristocracy… and if they are misquoted or misused. Here’s just one example:

Dream 4.I.207-210. Bottom: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.” A typical mangling by bully Bottom; and another example of an oft-misused quote. The passage in I Cor. goes on to say: “But God hath revealed them unto us by his spirit.” So Bottom, like many people, takes it up wrong. Bottom often does that.

2. Biblical references

Beyond exact quotations, Shakespeare’s diction is heavily influenced by his familiarity with the vocabulary, syntax, and cadences of both the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; attendance at Anglican services was mandatory during his lifetime. The Bible he would have heard every week at church was (not the King James, obviously, until 1611, only 5 years before his death) the Geneva Bible. Russ McDonald claims that the Bible was the most important of Shakespeare’s indirect sources (i.e., texts S must have read & known, but which did not supply plots or characters, etc.) The cover page of the Geneva Bible (1560) shows a map of the apostles’ journeys; Shakespeare used its places names in 12th Night (Illyria), Errors (Siracuse), Othello (Cyprus, Pontick Sea), and Julius Caesar (Phillpi) [McDonald 164]. Its tones and timbres can be heard throughout his work.

3. Doctrinal allusions

Heaven & Hell figure prominently in the plays. Whether or not Shakespeare believed in them (and he would have, if he held to either the doctrine of the official church or the banished Catholic faith), his characters certainly do. I am trying to trace whether evil characters typically ignore or flout damnation. Here are some references to Heaven & Hell:

Hamlet: Now he’s praying, now I could do it pat, and so he goes to Heaven, and thus am I revenged?
Rather nastier than we’d like of a “hero,” equivocal though he may be. Murder is not enough for Claudius; he must go to hell, too.

Macbeth said if he could be certain of the consequences of his act, he’d “jump the life to come,” i.e. forget about the afterlife and just do it here and now where he could enjoy the spoils. But he realizes even here he would suffer for his sin—then does it anyway.
Macbeth: There is the bell. Hear it not, Duncan; it is a knell that summons thee to Heaven or to Hell.
I find it strange that he doubts Duncan’s destination, seeing that his virtues are like angels and celestial trumpet blasts.
Macbeth to Banquo in absentia: Thy soul, if it find heaven, must find it out tonight.
More certain, but still that doubt about his best friend’s salvation. I suppose if he can do what he has done, against his character, conscience, duty, loyalty, and hospitality, he realizes anyone is capable of vast evil, even Duncan, even Banquo.

H & H often become metaphoric. In Dream, Hermia says of Athens that Lysander’s love, given the seeming impossibility of their union, “hath made a heaven a hell” and thus puts those two states on earth and into temporality. As many lovers have done, and always shall do, I’m sure. The presence of the loved one brings Heaven, his/her absence, Hell. Microcosm for the presence and absence of God in an absolute, eternal sense, I’m sure, given the constant marital and sexual metaphors for faith/spiritual fidelity in the Bible. Juliet, unable to discover whether Romeo is dead when Nurse comes bearing her babbled news about Tybalt, cries: “What devil art thou that dost torment me thus? This torture should be roared in dismal hell!” Romeo, hearing of his banishment, mourns that “Heaven is here, where Juliet lives, and every cat and dog and little mouse may look on her, but Romeo may not!”
Add to these the interesting fact that the ceiling over the stage was called the heaven, and the “cellarage” beneath, the hell.

Hamlet, interestingly, makes no mention of either place in his great after-life speech. He fears not the fires and pains of hell, but the dreams that may come in the sleep of death, the “something after death, that undiscovered country from who bourne no traveler returns.” If only he could have rest, his “quietus,” he might “jump” the Almighty’s canon which is fixed ‘gainst self-slaughter.

Similarly, characters often refer to providence as a guiding force. Romeo, fearing “some consequence yet hanging in the stars,” throws off his worries with “but he who has the steerage of my course direct my suit [sometimes emended to ‘sails.’].” However, some editors interpret this as a reference of the god of Love, not to the Christian God; hum.

One last doctrinal inference for today. Paulina in The Winter’s Tale seems aptly named: like St. Paul, she harps on themes of repentance, forgiveness, and faith: Stephen Orgel reasons that “the emphasis in the play’s resolution on the evidence of things not seen, the primacy of the spirit over the letter, salvation through faith—on the tenets, in short, of Pauline Christianity—[must] account for Paulina’s name” (Oxford 60). At the end, after having chided the king into 16 years of repentance, guarding him from an (adulterous, it turns out) remarriage, and essentially preserving the chastity and sanctity of the royal couple, asks Leontes to “awake your faith.” He does, and all is restored.

4. Moral “lessons”
This is the easiest to trace, and I’m sure it’s been done ad nauseum. But stop and think, for a moment, about the great moral power of a theatrical masterpiece. Isn’t it much more effective to watch the maddening, hardening, despairing results of murder than to hear “Thou shalt not murder”? Fear of Aren’t you more moved to avoid jealously and mistrust after Othello than after Sunday School? Do you not fear to be an Iago, Macbeth, Richard III, Lear, or even Hamlet more than to be a Scott Peterson, OJ Simpson, Richard Nixon, Saddam Hussein, or Prince William in his Nazi uniform? These modern figures, for all their media hype, seem remote from our everyday experiences, faults, and temptations. When we finish watching the Enron trials, the average American probably does not sense the tugging of his sinful nature towards that wrong: yet when we finish watching Macbeth, we know the depths of our own inclination, and feel that even we, honest and upright as we may be, could stoop to such a deed! If one such as he, with a strong conscience and sense of moral honesty, could do bloody murder, why not we, weakened as we are with materialism and sensuality? Shakespeare makes us beware our sinful selves, and that without platitudes.

So, just some thoughts to whet my appetite. Look for more to come in the future!

10 comments:

Rosie Perera said...

Reading: A Thread of Grace (novel) by Mary Doria Russell. Not as good as her first two books, The Sparrow, and Children of God, in my opinion.

Once I'd read your whole post, I chuckled at your remark: "Pardon the sometimes erroneous quotes; I’m working on a train as I travel across Ireland, with only Dream ready to hand." Would that I could even erroneously quote Shakespeare as well as you can, and write cogently about his use of biblical themes without his plays in front of me (or even with them in front of me, for that matter).

Nothing more to add, except this link:
Biblical References in Shakespeare's Comedies

Rosie Perera said...

This just in: an excerpt from Pacific Theatre artistic director Ron Reed's "Soul Food" e-newsletter, in which he reviews current plays and movies in Vancouver: "MEASURE FOR MEASURE at Bard On The Beach, a pretty snappy rendering of one of Bill's less-performed but very interesting scripts. Especially interesting (for me) to view it through the lens of G. Wilson Knight's essay 'Measure For Measure And The Gospels' (which can be found in the back of the Signet edition of the play). Citing the scriptural reference of the title, he develops the thesis that M4M is something of a gloss on Jesus' various parables of the absent ruler. Works for me."

I tried to find a copy of that essay online but failed. It's probably copyrighted.

Iambic Admonit said...

It's good to see you virtually again, Rosie. Where are you, physically?

Thanks for the direction to the article on the comedies. I may very well use it for a paper on Biblical influences in Shakespeare.

Look for a post on 'Material Shakespeare/Scripture' coming soon!

Iambic Admonit said...

How about the "pilgrim" kissing scene in R & J? And Henry V's use of God's will and favour in his victories? Both interesting appropriations of religious terminology.

Rosie Perera said...

Read: Measure for Measure
Watched: same

I'm trying to make it a habit to see at least one of the productions at "Bard on the Beach," Vancouver's summer Shakespeare festival, every year, and to read the play before seeing it (especially if it's one I'm unfamiliar with, which Measure for Measure was). I finished the last 5 pages of it just in time, while waiting for the lights to go down. It was an excellent performance. This production was set in the time of WWII, so Angelo and the other officials were all wearing military uniforms, and the prisoners were dressed somewhat like concentration camp inmates. It was a bit unusual, but it worked. Nothing compares with watching Shakespeare at "Bard on the Beach" under a circus-style tent where the stage backdrop is open to the natural scenery behind: the mountains north of Vancouver, the water with sailboats passing by, trees, people flying kites in the park near the beach, and if we're lucky a beautiful sunset.

Iambic Admonit said...

Midsummer Night's Dream in Regent's Park in London, with birds singing and flying over and nearly through the open set, with the twilight deepening as the lovers got lost in the forest, was pretty perfect, too!

kejj said...

I.A. -- i'm avoiding starting work, by aimlessly wandering thru your blog right now. You may have fun picking up GMD's commentary on Hamlet (I'm a shameless flogger -- but I think it's over stuff not irrelevant to yourself...!)in the Bod. If nothing else, it might be stimulating for some of your own thoughts. Undoubtedly there'll be stuff you agree *and* disagree with. Interestingly, Shakespearean scholar Bernice W. Kliman makes note of what she calls MacDonald’s “fine” work on Hamlet, in her article: “Hamlet Productions Starring Beale, Hawke, and Darling
From the Perspective of Performance History,” noting how he seeks to right earlier Victorian readings of the text. GMD loved speaking on Shakespeare, and even in his earliest days of preaching was trying to get non-thespian Scots to understand that Shksp was a gifted conveyor of deeply Christian truths. In his essay "The Imagination and Its Functions" he writes some really interesting stuff about the MacBeths.
(a read of which may help some way into Lilith, BTW. As does knowing a bit of Dante. When I get my act together and get that part of my thesis done, I can take the time to write something helpful on that...but I can send via RP a paper on "Relationality in CW's 'Descent into Hell' and GMD's 'Lilith'" which does make a bit of the way more clear I think -- if you're interested....and, more importantly, have the time!)

Iambic Admonit said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! I'd love to read the Charles Williams/Lilith piece, and I'll try to find MacDonald's work on Hamlet and the Macbeths. Too bad I didn't know about this last week, as I just finished a presentation on the differing perceptions of Lady Macbeth from 1600 until now.

Iambic Admonit said...

What are the titles of the GMD on Shakespeare peices? The Bod catalog is sometimes hard to maneuvere.

kejj said...

(Rosie tipped me!)
"The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke: A Study with the Text of the Folio of 1623"
"A Dish of Orts : Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespeare" (this is the one with the renown essay on the Imagination, which inspired GKC's 'Ethics in Elfland', JRRT's 'On FairyTales' and hugely shaped all sorts of stuff in CSL. It also is the one which talks about the MacBeths.)
(both available on-line as well btw)
These are the two most 'full-on' texts, but *all* of GMD is dripping with Skspr allusions and interaction -- explicit and implicit. Some of it directly trying to deal with the conteporary Christian suspicion of theatre (as in 'Malcolm'), much merely drawing up its richness. I doubt there is a single novel which does not either name Shakespeare or one of his plays. And usually with all sorts of treasures lying around beneath the surface.
GMD also gave literally hundreds of lectures on various of WS's plays (Ruskin said that if he ever had a son, he would would only trust GMD to tutor him in literature) -- none, unfortunately, have been published -- they tended to be delivered without notes -- though there are some contemporary journalist notations in the papers of the day. " WINGFOLD QUARTERLY" has printed some of these -- a small American journal. You can see if the Bodleian has it.
all the best.
kj