Kevin O'Brien reflects on what happens to Shakespeare if the modernist critics are right.
The Cowardly ShakespeareKevin O'Brien
My friend Ken Colston has written for First Things a review of the book A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion by David Scott Kastan.
What caught my eye were some of the things Colston quotes Kastan as saying in Kastan's attempt to deny that Shakespeare's plays are religious (my emphasis).
“Religion is central in the plays, but Shakespeare is not a religious playwright,” Kastan maintains. Religion primarily provides the playwright “with the fundamental language of value and understanding in the plays,” and it “supplies the vocabulary in which characters understand themselves and are presented to us to be understood.” Shakespeare “everywhere” betrays an “awareness of the inescapability of religion in his England,” “attentive to the fundamental, if sometimes fiercely debated terms in which people sought to understand their own lives and their relationships to their families, communities, and God.” It is, however, the “experience of belief that engages Shakespeare rather than the truth of what was believed,” “modes of thinking about religion as it is lived,” not “modes of religious thinking.” Unlike Spencer’s Fairie Queene, which sought “to celebrate the ‘discipline of faith and veritie,’” or Milton’s Paradise Lost, which aimed “‘to justify the ways of God to man,’” Shakespeare’s plays “were not written to give form to a conception of holiness or to promote some polemical position in the fractious world of post-Reformation England.”
First of all, since Kastan deliberately overlooks a huge amount of documentary evidence regarding Shakespeare's Catholicity and even makes the appallingly silly claim that Shakespeare's father was as likely to have been Puritan as Catholic, the book (if Colston's review is accurate) can not be considered serious scholarship.
But it's the apparent philosophical bias that the above quotations reveal that interest me, for it is a bias that, in one sense, is quite understandable and forgivable. Kastan seems to see religious belief merely as a system of thought on the same level with ideology. Thus, for Kastan, if the plays are religious they are involved in promoting "some polemical position", which is exactly what ideologies do, but which is the last thing that religions are supposed to do. If one's faith becomes a mere system that dominates one's experience, then that faith has fallen from being a noble attempt to assent to a revealed and perceived truth and has degenerated into nothing more than a mode-of-life, which at its best becomes routine and comfortable, and at its worst becomes a means of avoiding reality rather than a means of approaching the deepest aspects of reality.
But we believers must admit that this indeed happens, and that we must guard against it in our own lives. Religion can become not the fruit of grace and a means of encountering God and loving Him and our fellow man, but a club we join that becomes a club we can beat other people over the head with. We see this all around us, and (if we're honest) we see this tendency in our own souls.
So it is, with great dramatic irony, that it is Kastan's love for Shakespeare that ruins his scholarship and that makes him seek to save the Bard from being pigeonholed by the "Christian Shakespeare" type critics as just another narrow ideologue. Thus, Kastan's Shakespeare can only be freed from the narrow Christian critics if Shakespeare becomes a modernist who examines the dramatic consequences of the ways belief operates in people's lives rather than the dramatic consequences of how we live in relation to the truth which that belief affirms: the plays must become merely about man and not about God. Kastan frees Shakespeare from "religious ideology" at the cost of making the plays into mere studies in psychology rather than studies in the reality beyond our own souls. The plays become clever little ways of playing with the temporal consequences of subjective choice rather than profoundly serious examinations not merely of psychology, but of psychology and metaphysics - of man and God - and how man's relation to God plays itself out.
Here, then, is a surprising common ground with a critic who disagrees with us. We can assert, "Yes, Mr. Kastan, if all religions are mere ideologies, then a Shakespeare who looks at the dramatic effects of these ideologies rather than the dramatic effects of living in accord or not in accord with the truth the so-called ideologies assert would be a better, if more narrow, playwright."
This would make Shakespeare more of a Noel Coward than a Shakespeare - or perhaps a Cowardly Shakespeare - and how much is lost if that's all William Shakespeare was!