A Courageous and Devout Catholic Author
Thanks to Anthony Pasquale
The world does not like a Catholic Shakespeare
“If this great mind shows great reverence for the ideas of purgatory, Holy Communion, Extreme Unction, Catholic Holy Orders, Confession, pilgrimages, the rosary, the Sign of the Cross, the successors of St. Peter, the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of churches and abbeys, then how foolish are those who in our time take it as a badge of intelligence that they reject all or almost all of these things.
“The odd things about Shakespeare’s career – the lack of honors, the neglect of his plays for more than fifty years after his death, later attempts to attribute his plays to someone else, later attempts to smear his character even though his contemporaries spoke of him as an honorable and considerate person – all can be attributed to his Catholicism. The world does not like the idea of a Catholic William Shakespeare.”
- Father Robert D. Smith, from part 2: Shakespeare’s Catholicism -
1. Shakespeare’s View of the Narrow Path
2. Shakespeare’s Catholicism
3. Grace in the Works of Shakespeare
4. Shakespeare’s View of Repentance and Morality
5. Henry VII
6. The Majesty of God’s Creation
7. Shakespeare’s Concise and Powerful Depictions of the Afterlife
8. Saintliness in Shakespeare
1. Shakespeare’s View of the Narrow Path
In Shakespeare’s King Henry V, King Henry is besieging the French town of Harfleur. He warns the townspeople to surrender, because if they do not and his troops break through, he will not be able to control his soldiers (act III, sc.3, 24-27). His soldiers have “consciences wide as Hell.”
A wide conscience is that of a beast
To the modern ear, this is surprising in two ways. First, that hell is wide. The modern idea is that at most hell is a tiny place, empty or almost empty. Second, that a wide conscience is terribly wrong. The modern idea is that a broad and tolerant conscience is a mark of superior, not inferior, humanity. Shakespeare identified the wide conscience with the conscience of a beast, with the conscience that delivers hurt and harm.
A delicate conscience raises one to charity
People today tend to think that a narrow conscience, a delicate conscience, one keeping close to the path set down by God, is something to be feared, something painful to oneself and others. Quite the contrary. A delicate conscience is the one thing that can raise men to the level of charity possessed by the angels. The heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, perhaps in all fiction the heroine most interested in following strictly the path of God’s law, almost to the point of scrupulosity, has one of the other characters in the story say to her: “You have some touches of the angel in you beyond what – not merely beyond what one sees, because one never sees anything like it, but beyond what one fancies might be” (chapter 34). She is beautifully considerate to everyone, even when it is very difficult.
There is no refinement of humanity in the rampaging soldier, galloping afoot, sacking a town. There is a great deal in real life in the person who has been totally dedicated to the narrow path of Christ’s morality for a long time. Such a person, paradoxically, does not shrink but expands into what appears as a superhuman kind of vitality, considerateness, unaffected warmth, and intelligence.
A delicate conscience protects everything good
Christ said that the broad path leads to destruction, the narrow path to life (Matt. 7:13-14). The broad path leads to destruction, to painfulness in many ways, from many points of view. The narrow path leads to life, to superhuman charity and peace in many ways.
2. Shakespeare’s Catholicism
Shakespeare was astonishing not only in his genius as a poet but for the way he consistently inserted blatantly pro-Catholic and anti-Protestant sentiments into his plays right under the noses of those in power in England at the time who were trying to persecute Catholicism to the death.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father
The ghost of Hamlet’s father is a perfect example. He introduces himself to Hamlet: “I am thy father’s spirit; Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, and for the day confined to fast in fires, till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away” (Act I, sc. 5, 10-12). Purgatory: a despised doctrine, condemned everywhere by the Anglicans and Protestants.
The ghost then tells Hamlet, “Thus was I sleeping, by a brother’s hand of life, of crown, of queen, all once dispatched: Cut off even in the blossoms of my sins, unhousled, disappointed, unaneled; No reckoning made but sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head: O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible. If thou hast nature in thee bear it not” (Act I, sc. 5, 74-81).
Hamlet teaches three Catholic truths
What made the murder so horrible was not just that he was killed by his brother, but killed unprepared for judgment. “Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled.” “Unhouseled,” an old word, unusual even in Shakespeare’s time; it meant “without the sacrament of Holy Communion,” “without Viaticum.” “Disappointed,” here also in an unusual sense even in that time, meaning “unprepared.” “Unprepared” was meaningless to Protestants. They felt that if anyone just believed (as Hamlet’s father did) he would instantly and automatically go straight to heaven when he died, whether he was prepared or not. The need for preparedness and the penalties for unpreparedness were and still are Catholic concepts. “Unaneled,” another old and unusual word, meant “without the sacrament of Extreme Unction.” Holy Communion, purgatory, Extreme Unction – reference to them was taken as a clear sign of papism, reverential deference to them as proof of it.
If one of Shakespeare’s characters had appeared on the stage and used the words “Holy Communion,” “purgatory,” and “Extreme Unction,” Shakespeare himself would have been seized and hurried off to prison. So he had his characters use different words, express deep reverence for things Catholic, rejecting Protestant opinion on the subject, and none of the powers in England at that time could quite figure out what he was doing.
Hamlet shows Shakespeare’s Catholic sympathy
Granted, his play took place in Denmark at a time when Denmark had been Catholic. But when Protestant writers did the same kind of thing, they made it clear that the Church was oppressive and the sacraments a farce.
Another interesting thing about all this is that the only role in his plays we can be quite sure Shakespeare acted himself was that of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a beautifully Catholic but brief role.
Even a lot of misunderstanding of Hamlet by the critics is based on their misunderstanding the Catholic element in it. Often it has been said that Hamlet’s fatal flaw was that he hesitated too much, that he could not make up his mind over things that should have been perfectly clear, that he should have acted right away on the information provided by the ghost. His delay seems artificial to the critics. They are really ignoring a further point, young Hamlet’s Catholic approach to this vision. He recognizes that the vision could be false, could be provided by Satan to deceive him, but he has to be sure. “The spirit that I have seen may be the devil; and the devil has power to assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds more relative than this. The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (Act II, sc. 2, 595-603).
The Tempest is thoroughly Catholic
In The Tempest, the Catholic point of view was disguised in the television production. In the middle of the play on television, some men come in carrying a table of food for the central characters. By the way these men act, they give the impression that they are queer, that they are sodomites or gratuitously acting as if they were. On this basis, one would gather that Shakespeare was very far from being a devout Catholic. But when we look at Shakespeare’s own text, we see a different picture. This table of food is carried not by unclad writhing men but by “strange shapes” (Act III, sc. 3, 20) – unearthly creatures, very far from the creatures presented to us in the television version.
When we listen to the words of the actual text of The Tempest, we realize how thoroughly Catholic this play is. One of the depraved characters in the play says, “He that dies pays all debts: I defy thee. Mercy upon us!” (act III, sc. 2, 130). He is expressing the idea that the trials of dying wash away all sins, in everyone. That everyone starts anew in the next life. That there is no judgment or division into heaven and hell. In other plays of Shakespeare’s time or of our own time, often the hero might say something like this. The author might claim to have no message, but, by having a sympathetic character say it, he really does side with the anti-Christ: that this world does not count toward the next. Shakespeare made an implicit point too, that this is dishonorable, by having a degenerate like Stephano say it.
The Catholic idea of grace
The central character, Prospero, approves of his daughter’s forthcoming marriage to the young hero. Prospero uses Catholic expressions of this: “Heaven rains grace on that which breeds between em!” (acts III, sc. 1, 75). The Catholic idea of grace was anathema in Elizabethan England.
An extraordinary defense of the sanctity of marriage
Then Prospero gives his daughter in betrothal in these words: “Then, as my gift, and thine acquisition worthily purchased, take my daughter: but if thou dost break her virgin-knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rite be ministered, no sweet aspersions shall the heavens let fall to make this contract grow; but barren hate, sour-eyed disdain and discord shall bestrew the union of your beds with weeds so loathy that you shall hate it both; therefore take heed as Hymen’s lamps shall light you” (Act IV, sc. 15, 25).
Chastity, humility, and contrition are honored
What an extraordinarily powerful denunciation of free love! Nonetheless strong in that it seems that Shakespeare himself slipped in just this way. His eldest daughter, Susanna, was born about six months after the wedding. But if this is so, and if he was in part referring to his own marriage here, it is even more unusual that instead of being self-righteous about it, or blaming his wife, Anne Hathaway, for his troubles in marriage, he blamed his own sin. This is the central idea of Christianity and Catholicism that is often forgotten today: sorrow for sin, and the punishment attached to sin.
Notice too that at a time when the idea of marriage as a holy sacrament was being denied, this honorable character, Prospero, is saying that “sanctimonious [in the good sense] ceremonies” “with full and holy rites” must be ministered. And again he refers to the Catholic idea of grace: “no sweet aspersions shall the heavens let fall.”
Measure for Measure is utterly Catholic
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure can seem to be one of the oddest plays ever written. And, if anything, it appeared even more odd in its own time. The novice Isabella is a saint, intelligent, and the heroine. And Catholic religious life, the life of a sister in a convent, is portrayed throughout not in terms of opprobrium, as is usual in the plays of Elizabethan England, but in glowing terms, as the highest and noblest form of human existence.
The nobility of religious life
Isabella’s loyalty to her religious morality is at the center of the play. Her brother has been condemned to death. Angelo, who has recently been deputized by the duke as chief magistrate, offers to free Isabella’s brother if she will give herself to him. She refuses him even though it means her brother will die. Shakespeare makes Angelo a contemptible villain. Isabella says of him, “What corruption in this life, that it will let this man live” (Act III, sc. 1, 230), and even refers to him as “most damned Angelo” (Act IV, sc. 3, 118).
Even this is odd. In other plays, under similar circumstances, Angelo would not appear so thoroughly a scoundrel. A perfect instance of this is found in the work of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). He wrote a prose poem, Angelo, admittedly his own abbreviated version of Measure for Measure. His version, even when it comes close to mere translation, has its own great power.
Shakespeare has Isabella’s brother say, “Ay, but to die, and we go we know not where; to lie in cold obstruction and rot; this sensible 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 imprisoned in the viewless winds, and blown with restless violence round the pendant world; or to be worse than the worst of those that lawless and incertain thought imagine howling” (Act III, sc. 1, 120-130).
Pushkin put this differently, but a different power is still there. “So – however to die, to go somewhere unknown, to rot in the coffin in cold closeness. Lo! The earth is beautiful and life is kind and present: to enter the mute mist, to rush headlong into boiling pitch or to stiffen in ice, or with the busiest transient wind to be borne in emptiness through infinite space. And everything that is dreamt in a desperate dream.”
Depravity is not tolerated
Pushkin made some minor changes in the plot line. But one of these is significant. Angelo is not a contemptible villain in Puskin’s version, but a symbol for all humanity. He is merely weak and a sinner but fundamentally noble, not as the moral leper portrayed by Shakespeare, who had held to a strict idea of required morality. The Christian, Catholic morality of Shakespeare was noticeably weakened in Pushkin’s Angelo. In Measure for Measure, it is clear that not all men are depraved, and that depravity must not be tolerated.
The body of Measure for Measure is utterly Catholic in its background, especially considering the persecution and defamation of convent life that was current in England at that time. Even when one of the characters, a degenerate named Lucio, says that the duke “would eat mutton Friday,” (act III, sc. 2, 170), it is clear that this is not meant as praise of the duke but “calumny” (act III, sc. 2, 180).
Not that all the characters are saints. The duke, trying to help Isabella, tricks Angelo into committing sin with his betrothed as a substitute for Isabella. And the duke, who disguises himself as a friar, speaks of his having been a confessor to various people. Even on this last point, though, it is interesting to note that through the body of the play the duke in his disguise never actually does simulate the sacrament. He never tries to hear a confession. He speaks of it as happening elsewhere, or says that he is about to hear a confession (act III, sc. 1, 15; act IV, sc. 2, 200; act IV, sc. 3, 80; act V, sc. 1, 482) when later it is made clear that he did not. With one exception: at the very end, he says of someone present: “I have confessed her, and I know her virtue” (act V, sc. 1,527). This is definitely not a remark of anyone with a Catholic background. It does indicate a real simulation of a sacrament.
The few strange non-Catholic references
This is one of the very few non-Catholic references in all of Shakespeare. The odd thing is that this is in the very same paragraph, the last of the play, that we find the one other non-Catholic reference in the play: the duke offers his hand to the religious novice Isabella, and, by implication, she accepts. This paragraph then is totally different in religious direction from the rest of this play and from the main body of Shakespeare’s other plays.
One answer as to why these two strange Shakespearean references suddenly arise in this last paragraph of the play is that this last paragraph was written by someone other than Shakespeare. Like the last act of Henry VIII, known to have been written by someone else, this last paragraph of Measure by Measure is oafish, not at all Shakespearean in tone. The lines sound like those of a second-rate jingle writer: “What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” (act V, sc. 1, 534). This particular line is seen to be especially witless when we reflect that it is a case of a duke marrying a penniless novice. All the authorities do admit that severe excisions were made from Shakespeare’s original text of Measure for Measure, and that additions were made by other people before it was put on the stage even for the first time.2
A bogus last paragraph
Another odd thing about this last paragraph is that this sudden proposal of the duke had no dramatic preparation. It looks like someone cut out Shakespeare’s ending, whatever it was, and put in the last paragraph of the play to make the play more presentable to an anti-Catholic audience, to weaken substantially the strong and all-too-visible Catholic sympathies of the rest of the play.
When we watch Measure for Measure, if we abstract ourselves from that fatuous last paragraph, we see one of the most powerful portrayals of Catholic idealism ever written.
All the honorable characters are Catholic
Shakespeare’s honorable characters, all of them, major and minor, heroes and heroines, down to the humblest, are all profoundly sympathetic to specifically Catholic teaching and morality. Only his scoundrels and cads, such as King John or Falstaff, abuse the Church or things Catholic.
Protestants are portrayed as pathetic
It might be thought that this is just a reflection of Shakespeare’s immense sympathy for every point of view. But he was not sympathetic to every point of view. Protestant and Anglican teachings are consistently lampooned in his works. And all four Protestant and Anglican ministers who appear in his plays – Sir Nathanial, Sir Hugh Evans, Sir Oliver Martext, and Sir Topas – all too clearly (shockingly from a modern as well as an Elizabethan viewpoint) are seen as pathetic buffoons.
The world does not like a Catholic Shakespeare
If this great mind shows great reverence for the ideas of purgatory, Holy Communion, Extreme Unction, Catholic Holy Orders, confession, pilgrimages, the rosary, the Sign of the Cross, the successors of St. Peter, the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of churches and abbeys, then how foolish are those who in our time take it as a badge of intelligence that they reject all or almost all of these things.
The odd things about Shakespeare’s career – the lack of honors, the neglect of his plays for more than fifty years after his death, later attempts to attribute his plays to someone else, later attempts to smear his character even though his contemporaries spoke of him as an honorable and considerate person – all can be attributed to his Catholicism. The world does not like the idea of a Catholic William Shakespeare.
Did Shakespeare live with Huguenots?
One element in Shakespeare’s life, however, does seem to mitigate against the idea that he was Catholic: he took up residence for a number of years in London with a Protestant Huguenot family. The Huguenots were bitterly anti-Catholic, and in some cases, as apparently with this family, had fled to England from a persecution by Catholics in France. This conjures up the image of a lodging house that might have had a printing press in the cellar, a hotbed of Huguenot evangelism. On this basis, it is true, a Catholic would be unlikely to spend a great deal of time under such a roof. He would scarcely be welcome. And he would tend to be very uneasy at close range with this kind of activity, so the question is a valid one.
But when we look closely at this family, we see some odd things. It comprised Christopher Mountjoy, his wife and family, and his apprentice, Stephen Bellot, all refugees from France. Christopher Mountjoy was a wig maker. (Sometimes he is described as a tire maker. This I think is faulty, and probably a reflection of the shaky spellings common at the time. A guess would be that he really was a tiara maker as well as a wig maker, and that the word tiara had been misspelled.) In 1604, the apprentice, Stephen Bellot, having completed his seven years’ service, took a trip to Spain. Upon returning to England, Bellot became betrothed to the Mountjoy daughter, Mary, and then married her, with Shakespeare himself helping out in arranging details of the dowry. The newly married couple seemed unable to collect the dowry from Christopher Mountjoy, and entered a long conflict with him to get it. Finally, after some years, Stephen brought his father-in-law to court. The English court referred the matter to a court of Huguenot elders, who ordered Mountjoy to pay the dowry, but in doing so declared that both Mountjoy and Bellot were “debauched.”
They were not Huguenots at all
First, a minor point: What was Stephen Bellot doing in Spain? It seems the last place a devout Huguenot would visit, particularly one who had just fled persecution in France.
More important is this declaration by the court of Huguenot elders that both Christopher Mountjoy and Stephen Bellot were debauched. This is hardly the choice of words they would make if they were referring to two active members of the Huguenot community. It suggests that the elders suspected both of them of being secret Catholics but were unable to prove it. “Debauched” was a party-line word used by Protestants of the time to refer to anyone they thought held to the old religion.
And it is true that if two Frenchmen wanted to emigrate to England and set up a wig business in London at the time, they could not do it if they came admitting they were Catholics. The authorities would not let them come. They could only get in easily if they claimed to be Huguenots.
Shakespeare was a secret and devout Catholic
The Mountjoys had registered their house as Huguenot, and thereby everyone in it, including lodgers, was exempt from the law requiring everyone in England to attend Anglican services regularly, and exempt from the substantial fines for nonattendance. The judgment of the Huguenot elders also shows us that the Mountjoys themselves, secretly Catholic or not, were scarcely to be thought of as active in the Huguenot church. From everything we know about the Mountjoys, it appears they were not debauched in the modern sense. They were by no means totally depraved. But from a Huguenot point of view, they seemed to be. Whether or not we take Christopher Mountjoy’s family and Stephen Bellot to be secret Catholics, we can see upon close inspection that nothing we can discover about them would give offense to one to whom all the other evidence points as a secret and devout Catholic: William Shakespeare.
3. Grace in the Works of Shakespeare
Hamlet at one point says, “Their virtues else…be they pure as grace” (Act I, sc. 4, 34). What a beautiful and powerful way of putting it. But it also tips us off to Shakespeare’s own way of looking at religious subjects. In England at the time of Shakespeare, the idea of grace was rejected. The sacraments were rejected specifically as instruments of grace. The role of confession and the sacrament of penance in forgiving sins was rejected. The Holy Eucharist as the real body of Christ was held in contempt. Holy Orders, Matrimony, Extreme Unction were rejected as necessary vehicles for the grace of God.
The Protestants in Europe not only rejected the idea of grace from indulgences; they rejected it as coming from the sacraments. And the authorities in England, at the time of Shakespeare, had basically gone along with this idea. Priesthood and the sacraments as vehicles of grace were discarded. Each man was still to think of himself as serving God, but the idea of grace coming from God through the Church or through the sacraments was gone.
Shakespeare dared to use the word “grace,” which at the time only Catholics used with reverence. And how much more powerful it is than other expressions. The idea of snow, for instance, is often used in other literature to suggest purity of soul. Even the Old Testament does this. “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become whiter than snow” (Isa. 1:18). But the New Testament brings in some new elements and a new idea: that of grace in the sense of the sacraments.
Grace makes snow appear coarse and dull
The New Testament does not use the image of snow directly to suggest purity. It uses grace. The angel said to Mary, “Hail, full of grace.” And the Church has protected this unique idea of the grace of God being distributed to men. This is what each of the sacraments imply, and it is what Christ implied, for instance, when He said to His apostles, “If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound” (John 20:23). The idea of grace, of God’s special help, available to all who seek it.
Shakespeare believed in grace, as do all Catholics. When Hamlet says, “as pure as grace,” he is elevating both language and thought to a new level, that of Christ’s own teaching, in comparison to which the expression “as pure as snow,” as beautiful as it is, appears coarse and dull.
4. Shakespeare’s View of Repentance and Morality
In the Public Television version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, the producers took a play written from a devoutly Catholic point of view and, by inserting changes into the text, made the play seem anti-Catholic.
Reverence for the holy Rosary
In the beginning of the play, Shakespeare dares to have one of the two young gentlemen, Proteus, say to the other, “I will be thy beadsman” (act I, sc. 1, 17). A beadsman is a man who prays the rosary, and Proteus is saying he will pray the rosary for his friend. The rosary was absolutely forbidden in England at the time the play was written.
Proteus later temporarily abandons his betrothed, Julia, to pay court to Silvia. But still later on, he does something very unusual in fiction: he repents and returns to Julia. None of Shakespeare’s characters who are meant to be taken as scoundrels – Iago, Falstaff, Lady Macbeth – ever repent. At the end it is clear that Proteus is a good man who went wrong temporarily but had the inner goodness to correct his ways. He was one of Shakespeare’s “two gentlemen”; in the last analysis, he is a gentleman in the true sense. The fact that he describes himself as a beadsman is not meant as a hint that he is a scoundrel after all, but that he is in fact a gentleman. Shakespeare connected the use of the rosary not with evil but with good.
Reverence for holy Confession
Then later on, Silvia, who is honorable throughout the play, even under stress, provides an even more obvious instance of the way in which Shakespeare’s good characters are often, forthrightly and devoutly, adherents of the old Catholic religion. One of the characters, Eglamour, asks Sylvia where they shall meet. Sylvia replies, “At Friar Patrick’s cell, where I attend holy Confession” (Act IV, sc. 3, 45).
She is referring here to that Catholic sacrament most hated by non-Catholics in England at that time. And she not only says she is going to receive it, but describes it as “holy Confession.” Not the words of a Catholic who in any sense was going through the motions. These are the words of a devout person. Anglicanism then and ever since has rejected the sacrament. Yet Shakespeare had this beautiful character speak openly and with great reverence of it.
A courageous and devout Catholic author
He was not just a Catholic author, but a courageously and devoutly Catholic author. How many authors since his time would ever dare to have an intelligent and uncorrupted heroine speak of going to “holy Confession”? Holy not because it is easy, but because of the great grace received when one’s sins are forgiven.
The Public TV version is diabolically anti-Catholic
Then comes the producers’ twist. Friar Patrick, in his cell, is made up to look like a leprous, drooling, bestial oaf, peering out from behind the bars of a cage. He says nothing. Egamour, with a leer, reaches for a purse of money, then hands it to Friar Patrick, who pounces on it.
At the scene outside Friar Patrick’s cell in Shakespeare’s play, there is nothing to indicate that Friar Patrick is visible. Nor is there anything about money. In the text, there is nothing to indicate that Friar Patrick is seen or heard at all. He does not appear in the play’s cast of characters. And Shakespeare’s own original list of characters had no mention of him either. He is mentioned by other characters in the play, but is never meant to be seen or heard.
What a diabolical insertion by these present-day producers. The heroine reverently goes to confession, and these people take it upon themselves to correct Shakespeare, and to make Friar Patrick appear as a greedy lout.
5. Henry VII
King Henry VII, father of Henry VIII, died in 1509. St. John Fisher was chosen to preach the funeral sermon. In it, he spoke of the firm hope Henry had for heaven. “The cause of this hope was true belief that he had in God, in his Church, and in the sacraments thereof, which he received all with marvelous devotion; namely, in the Sacrament of Penance, the Sacrament of the Altar [Holy Eucharist], and the Sacrament of Aneling [Anointing of the Sick]. The Sacrament of Penance, with a marvelous compassion and flow of tears, that at some time he wept and sobbed by the space of three-quarters of an hour.” 3
Who was this man Henry VII? This was the man who, as Earl of Richmond, aged twenty-eight, had overthrown King Richard III. Richard III is portrayed by Shakespeare and St. Thomas More as a thoroughly evil man, the murderer of the princes in the Tower of London. It was Richmond’s army that was so soundly defeating Richard III that the latter cried out his famous lines: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (Richard III, Act V, sc. 4, 7).
A strong king with a delicate conscience
The same Earl of Richmond, after the battle of Shakespeare’s play, about to become King Henry VII, says, “Inter their bodies as become their births. Proclaim a pardon to the soldiers fled That in submission will return to us; And then, as we have ta’en the sacrament, We will unite the White Rose and the Red” (Act V, sc. 5, 15-19). Here is the founder of the House of Tudor calling for his men and all England to receive “the sacrament,” the Holy Eucharist, with him in pledge of unity. In Shakespeare’s time, all allusions to the Mass and the Holy Eucharist were forbidden, but Shakespeare dared to put this in anyway, showing where the Tudors had been, and where they were in his time, with Queen Elizabeth.
King Henry VII became one of the strongest kings in English history; he organized England as it had never been organized before. When he came to rule, the country was only a pawn; he left it a power to be reckoned with. And what did St. John Fisher say of this man? That one time he wept for forty-five minutes while going to confession.
It is true that kings had certain things to weep for in these days. He was called upon to decide on executions and criminals, and would have to have had second thoughts about some of his decisions. But how many kings wept over such things?
Why is Confession so feared?
A lot of people today say, “I don’t ever go to confession. It is too difficult.” A question arises here: are they avoiding confession because it is too difficult, or because they have no real sorrow for their sins? Perhaps a pang of regret but no sorrow, no idea of injury to God or man that must be atoned for and absolved somehow, by God and not by man.
How often does the embezzler say, “I cannot go to confession. It is too difficult, when he really means, “I choose not to go to confession because I would hear that I must start paying back the money I stole”?
In those who avoid confession, there is often no real shame before God for their sin, but only an acquired hardness of heart, which answers with a shrug each new offense against God and man. We are not called to weep for forty-five minutes during confession, but we are called to have this attitude: that sin is not something to be shrugged off, laughed off, not something we immediately try to forget, but something we truly repent of and try to fully make up for in every way we can, and to take every human precaution to ensure that we are really gaining God’s forgiveness.
6. The Majesty of God’s Creation
On a clear and starlit night, one of Shakespeare’s characters looks up into the sky and says, “Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold: There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st but in his motion like an angel sings, still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins; such harmony is in immortal souls; but whilst this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close in it, we cannot hear it” (The Merchant of Venice, Act V, sc. 1, 58-65).
What Shakespeare was doing here is what every one of us, even those who like to pretend they are atheists, does when we look up into a clear night sky; we get not just a glimpse of the physical heavens, but also a glimpse of what the spiritual heavens must be like, a glimpse of the majesty of God’s creation, the closest we can get on this earth to a vision of God. Just as in heaven the vision of God is the source of supreme happiness, on earth we can get a partial understanding of how a vision itself can be a source of supreme happiness. We see a partial revelation of heaven by looking into the physical heavens.
But when we look into the physical heavens, as Shakespeare observed, we do not see or hear the whole thing, even of what seems to be visible. There is a harmony present, here and now, in all creation, that we do not hear. Shakespeare described it as the voices of the angels choiring to the young-eyed cherubim. The effects of the original sin prevent us from seeing it. “Immortal souls,” those who have died and are in heaven, can hear it and see it, but we on earth cannot. “This muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close” us in.
But the fact that we cannot see these things on earth does not mean they are still not there. They are there all along, waiting to be revealed to those who by the grace of God repent and believe, who keep their eyes in a spiritual sense turned up to the heavens and not to earth.
What Shakespeare was saying has a theological basis. Wherever we perceive the beauty of nature, we perceive in part the beauty of heaven. St. Peter said that on judgment day the heavens will be destroyed and that there will be “new heavens and a new earth where, according to his promise, the justice of God will reside” (2 Pet. 3:13). Heaven and earth will be new, but the future resurrection of the body of every man implies that it will not be totally different. Otherwise why should our bodies rise?
Nature will be in many ways the same. Only disorder shall be gone. And our perception of the God-given beauty of creation shall be multiplied many times. “Such harmonies” shall be “in immortal souls.” There is something about the sky on a clear night that enables us to get a hint of all this.
7. Shakespeare’s Concise and Powerful Depictions of the Afterlife
Immense numbers of those calling themselves Christians reject Christ’s teaching that there will be severe punishments for sin in the next life. Relatively few accept Christ’s warnings that eternal hell awaits those who die unrepentant of serious sin of any kind. And relatively few accept the need for prayer for the dead in purgatory who suffer temporal punishment for venial sins or unexpiated mortal sin (mortal sin that has been repented of but for which atonement and reparation has not been completed). It is often alleged that one must be feebleminded to believe these things.
Some of the most powerful statements ever made about punishment in the next life, about hell and purgatory, were made by someone who was anything but feebleminded: William Shakespeare. He was concise, breathtaking, on the subject. And, as far as I can remember, each of his honorable characters, with the momentary exception of Hamlet in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy (everywhere else Hamlet makes it clear that he too believes and that this was the only momentary doubt), who speak on the subject, speak in only one way: in terms of belief. None of Shakespeare’s honorable characters, unlike so many other characters by other writers even in Shakespeare’s time, heap abuse on Catholic notions of hell and purgatory.
The Earl of Suffolk, in Henry VI, Part I, speaks of hell as “an age of discord and continual strife” (act V, sc. 5, 63). Discord. Raucous noise. Life with people who never tried to be considerate and still do not.
Juliet says to the nurse, “What devil art thou that dost torment me thus? This torture should be roared in dismal hell” (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, sc. 2, 44). “Roared in dismal hell.” Concise. Powerful. No saint after the time of the apostles has ever put the concept of hell more graphically. Shakespeare was almost scriptural in the theological power of his words.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father says to Hamlet, “I am thy father’s spirit; Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, and for the day confined to fast in fires, till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid to tell the secrets of my prison-house, I could a tale whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills on the fretful porpentine [porcupine]. But this eternal blazon must not be to ears of flesh and blood” (Hamlet, Act I, sc. 5, 11-25).
This is one of the most familiar passages in all of Shakespeare. Yet few people hearing it are aware that the prison-house is purgatory. Even purgatory, not to mention hell, is so terrible a punishment that to hear of it would harrow your soul, freeze your blood, and make your hair stand up on end.
Many today imagine themselves intelligent because they have figured out that purgatory and hell are tremendously unpleasant. Because of this great thought, they go on to what they think is a spectacular conclusion: that neither exists. This is not intelligence, but pathetic stupidity, darkness of soul. They are assuming that just because there is no precedent on earth for purgatory or hell, they must not exist.
But why indeed should the next world be like this one? It is, to be sure, a great mystery. But we are given the answer not from within ourselves but from the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. That is enough for us. It was enough for Shakespeare.
8. Saintliness in Shakespeare
In King Lear, Cordelia remains throughout the play loyal to her increasingly dispossessed and destitute father, King Lear. She finds that the Earl of Kent too has been immensely loyal, dressing himself as a poor man in rags so he could remain by Lear’s side and protect him as much as honorably possible. Upon discovering Kent’s loyalty, towards the end of the play, she says to him, “O thou good Kent, how shall I live and work to match thy goodness? My life will be too short and every measure fail me (act IV, sc. 7, 1). What a beautifully expressed tribute, especially from one who is so honorable herself.
It is a stunning phrase, but when we think about it, it is more than this: it is a beautiful and uniquely Catholic one in three ways.
First, the Church has always taught that saints exist. So much of what passes for literature implies that the whole world is full of corruption, that all people are equally evil, only in different ways. We, as followers of Christ, believe in the existence of saints, not just in heaven but here on earth. Not in perfection, to be sure. Even the saints have human flaws, but they possess withal a level of charity, a level of selfless love, that goes supernaturally beyond what we ordinarily see on earth. They are saints when alive, and everyone sees it but the saints themselves. The world is not full of corruption, but has many saints in it if only we look in the right places.
Second, Cordelia, saintly herself, has this strong sense of moral humility. There is nothing self-righteous, priggish or presumptuous about her. Here again this differs from the worldly idea. How many narrators of worldly stories and novels imply that they alone are free of corruption? Cordelia, paradoxically, a saint herself, sees saints in this world, and sees herself as very much below them. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that saintliness can have many different manifestations, can show itself in many different ways and lines of conduct. Cordelia was a saint but did not dress herself in rags to help her father. But still, all saints have this sense of deep spiritual humility, again so much opposed to the proud spirit of the world.
Third, Cordelia’s words show that she has a firm grasp of another Christian, traditionally Catholic concept: that of the need to strive for perfection. She is not trying merely for adequacy in the world’s eyes. So many think of goodness only in this sense. But the world’s goodness is inadequate in the eyes of God. A good man in the eyes of the world today, for example, can be an abortionist, divorced and remarried, and unrepentant in both. Cordelia is seeking not adequacy in the world’s eyes, but perfection. Both Cordelia and Kent go far beyond the world’s standards for goodness. But in a truly Christian way, they are not looking for how far they have come but how far they have to go. That is what makes both of them beautiful in this world, very different from it, and saints.
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