Chesterton and Shakespeare
A lecture delivered at the 2012 American Chesterton Society Conference in Reno, Nevada.
Almost nobody reads Shakespeare any more. And of those who do, almost nobody reads his long and obscure poem The Phoenix and the Turtle. Chesterton did. And he quotes from it, as will I, to begin this lecture.Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
That, my friends, is an epigram for the modern world – or perhaps its epitaph.
For Chesterton teaches us how to read Shakespeare by teaching us how not to read Shakespeare. To read Shakespeare rightly, we must stop trying to bury Truth and Beauty; we must stop trying to strangle Goodness and put a butt-ugly imposter in her place. In short, to read Shakespeare well, like Chesterton did, we need to give up our mistaken common approach to life.
What mistaken common approach am I talking about? I'm talking about the one thing Chesterton fought against his entire career, heresy. And I'm talking about the one thing all heresies have in common - focusing on a tiny slice of truth in order to shield ourselves from the awesome scope of the big truth; or even worse, peddling an outright lie so as to leave Truth, like Lear, abandoned and mad, raving on the heath, while we sit warm and comfy beside the fire of falsehood.
Because - and I say this emphatically not as a partisan - the only way to understand Chesterton; the only way to understand Shakespeare; the only way to understand life - is as a Catholic. Anything shy of the fullness of Catholic Truth gives us first a comfortable security, but eventually an empty self-parody.
"And you all know security / Is mortals' chiefest enemy," says Hecate to her witches in Macbeth. By which I would suggest she means what Macbeth himself does - which is not only catering to his own disordered desires, but trying to found his own kingdom, an earthly city, upon these disordered desires, these sins. For it is not so much sin itself that does us in, but our frenzied attempts to establish our lives so that we can be secure in our sins.
This is why, while preparing a scene from The Merchant of Venice for the EWTN series The Quest for Shakespeare, hosted by Joseph Pearce, one of my young actors told me that, "You know, the two main male characters in this play, Antonio and Bassanio, are gay lovers."
Aghast, I countered, "There is not the slightest bit of evidence for that in the text. The love that these men have for one another is the love of friendship, something that would necessarily exclude any genital encounter between them. It's incredible even to suggest such a thing. Have you ever been in any production of this play that actually tried to sell to the audience this crazy notion?"
He looked at me with the kind of patronizing pity that can only be expressed by a young man frustrated with an old man who is sliding into his dotage and who just doesn't get it. He smiled and patiently explained, "I've never been in a production of The Merchant of Venice where their relationship was presented in any other way. They are clearly gay lovers."
And that's the new tradition. That's the way the show is now being produced.
Well, you may ask, how can a stage production present something in the performance that's not included in the script? In many ways. I was told by one of our other young cast members that in every production of The Merchant of Venice that she'd seen or that she'd been in, Portia cheats. Portia, the most virtuous of all of Shakespeare's heroines, cheats. When Bassanio is before the three caskets and, in great peril, must choose the right one in order to marry Portia (for if he chooses the wrong one he must take a lifelong vow of celibacy and renounce marriage forever) - in every production my young actress had seen or been in, the director adds a bit of stage business where Portia nods or winks or gives Bassanio some silent clue as to which casket he should chose in order to win her - though why she'd want to marry Antonio's gay lover is beyond me. And why she'd cheat like that when the whole point of the Ordeal by Caskets is to determine the hidden virtues of her suitors is a mystery.
Such a directorial choice - especially one heartily endorsed by the actors - reveals the most fundamental misunderstanding of Portia, of the play, of Shakespeare, of virtue, and frankly of life itself.
Similarly, in a recent production of The Winter's Tale in St. Louis, the director brought back to life a character at the end of the play who had died earlier in the play - confusing the audience, but satisfying her own mistaken interpretation of what The Winter's Tale is all about. Why people don't simply demand their money back at such performances is beyond me - as you all may be tempted to do by the time I finish.
Because I sense I am not in fact making my point. Even though missing the point is part of my point.
For my point is this - whether you like Shakespeare or not (a lot of people don't); whether you like Chesterton or not (all of us, I presume, do); whether you'd rather read a book or watch a movie or just have dinner with your friends, you cannot begin to understand life - you cannot begin to be grateful for life - you cannot begin to approach life - until you learn how to read - how to read a book, how to read a play, how to read a movie, how to read your friends, how to read the Great Book of Being written by and filled by the Incarnate Word of God.
This is why Chesterton is such a great writer - because he's a tremendous reader. He can read a book and get it. He can read a play and get it. He can read a joke and get it. He can read the signs in the sky and the signs of the times. He can read life - and he can write about it.
And so, bullet point number one on why a Catholic approach is the best approach, even to reading -
· The Catholic Church is not sola scriptura. The Catholic Church says that the Bible alone does not convey everything we need to know about salvation. The Catholic Church says that God's message to us is bigger than one book - His message to us can be read in Scripture, certainly, but it can be read as well in the teachings of the Church, of which the Bible is a part; it can be read in a broader way in nature, in history, in the dialogue of prayer, in art.
Chesterton says of George Bernard Shaw, who did not know how to read Shakespeare ...
His misunderstanding of Shakespeare arose largely from the fact that he is a Puritan, while Shakespeare was spiritually a Catholic. The former is always screwing himself up to see truth; the latter is often content that truth is there. The Puritan is only strong enough to stiffen; the Catholic is strong enough to relax. ... This power of knowing a thing without feeling it, this power of believing a thing without experiencing it, this is an old Catholic complexity, and the Puritan has never understood it.
Nor, I would add has the modernist, the post-modernist, the Queer Theorirst, the Marxist, or anyone else who would cut out the meaning of Shakespeare so as to make him conform to their own agendas - who would, in fact, tell you there's no truth there to cut out - no "there" there - nothing objectively in the text except what they chose to impose. And this is what people do all the time. As Joseph Pearce himself says, "There are two kinds of people. Those who do things to books, and those who let books do things to them."
Now you all may not agree with Joseph Pearce when he argues, both from historical documents and from the plays themselves, that there is ample evidence that Shakespeare was more than just "spiritually Catholic", but was in fact "ritually Catholic", a confirmed and secretly practicing Catholic, living in a totalitarian state - Elizabethan England - that waged a war of terror against practicing Catholics.
So let's set that question aside, because I am using the word Catholic throughout my speech to mean what Chesterton calls "spiritually Catholic", or Catholic in atmosphere, in other words, both Catholic with a large C and Catholic with a small c, catholic in the sense of universal, but also Catholic in the sense of full and complete - of that which is above denominations, parties, and narrow agendas .
This contrast, then, that I will be pointing out in this lecture, is between
· Doing something to a book; or letting a book do something to you.
· Reading Shakespeare so that he says what you want him to say; or reading Shakespeare so that you understand the objective meaning of his works.
· Staging Shakespeare so that you sell your own selfish snake oil; or staging Shakespeare so that you communicate the truth, beauty and goodness to be found in his plays. For there's plenty of it there.
In short, the choice is between
· Serving the God of Truth, or serving a god of your own making.
Or as we read in the Book of Wisdom, "For the worshipping of idols ... is the beginning, the cause, and the end, of all evil.” The Book of Wisdom has been cut out of Protestant Bibles.
Chesterton ends his famous essay comparing the Catholic Shakespeare with the Protestant Milton thus ...
Milton’s religion was Milton’s religion, and ... Shakespeare’s religion was not Shakespeare’s.
This is the key to everything Chesterton writes about Shakespeare. Instead of reading Shakespeare in a deliberately wrong way, instead of turning him into an idol to suit his own desires - the Gay Shakespeare, the Nihilist Shakespeare, the Baconian Shakespeare - Chesterton approaches Shakespeare so that one might paraphrase GKC and say, "Shaw's Shakespeare was Shaw's Shakespeare, but Chesterton's Shakespeare was not Chesterton's".
It is, I would suggest, the same way Chesterton approaches all of life. Which is what made him "spiritually" and actually a Catholic.
Let me illustrate this by looking at a collection of Chesterton's essays and quotations on Shakespeare compiled and edited by Dale Ahlquist, published by Dover, in a soon to be released volume entitled The Soul of Wit. Be sure to get this book when it comes out.
By looking at Chesterton's insights into the Bard, written over the course of Chesterton's career, we can see the points that I'm making.
To begin with, and to echo what I just said, Chesterton is emphatic that Shakespeare cannot be co-opted for the sake of a "message". Chesterton faults his nemesis Shaw for looking for something Shavian in Shakespeare. Gilbert Keith says of George Bernard ...
He was looking [in the plays of Shakespeare] for that ghastly thing which Nonconformists call a Message, and continue to call a Message, even when they have become atheists and do not know who the Message is from. He was looking for a system; one of the very little systems that do very truly have their day. The system of Kant; the system of Hegel; the system of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Marx and all the rest. In each of these examples a man sprang up and pretended to have a thought that nobody had ever had. But the great poet only professes to express the thought that everybody has always had.
... he continues ...
Before the time of Shakespeare, men had grown used to the Ptolemaic astronomy, and since the time of Shakespeare men have grown used to the Copernican astronomy. But poets have never grown used to stars; and it is their business to prevent anybody else ever growing used to them.
... or as is famously said in Love's Labors Lost
These earthly godfathers of Heaven's lights
That give a name to every fix-ed star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
That give a name to every fix-ed star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
So that we come to Bullet Point Number Two on why the Catholic approach to life and literary criticism is the best -
· Humility. Naming the stars gives us no true profit of them. If anything, it makes us proud, thinking we have somehow comprehended them; whereas poetry reminds us that they are not made for our self-interest, but to be wondered at – to be grateful for.
Chesterton explains ...
" ... the soul never speaks until it speaks in poetry; and ... in our daily conversation we do not speak; [in our daily conversation] we only talk."
In fact, Chesterton's sensitivity to poetry is something itself to be wondered at. And while modern audiences and readers are frustrated by the archaic language used by Shakespeare, and at times have to struggle just to understand what old Will is simply saying; still, with some effort we can learn to understand this poetry - but we can never really manage to translate it. Chesterton, again sparring with Shaw, writes ...
I will give Mr. Shaw three lines out of As You Like It from the exquisite and irrational song of Hymen at the end:
Then is there mirth in Heaven
When earthly things made even
Limit the matter to the single incomparable line, "When earthly things made even." And I defy Mr. Shaw to say which is matter and which is manner. ... If the words, "When earthly things made even" were presented to us in the form of, "When terrestrial affairs are reduced to an equilibrium," the meaning would not merely have been spoilt, the meaning would have entirely disappeared. This identity between the matter and the manner is simply the definition of poetry. The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say. The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say.
This is another way of saying that Shakespeare's poetry, like all great poetry, cannot be reduced.
But more than that, there's something Catholic here in the sense of something sacramental. Bullet point number three ...
· The Catholic view is sacramental - which is to say incarnational - specific things have value in their specificity. Thus Chesterton's love for the local, the small, the particular; thus his love for poetry, where the matter and the manner cannot be divorced, where the soul and the flesh are beautifully conjoined.
And yet this does not mean that Chesterton sees Shakespeare being "particular" in the sense of nitpicking; if Gertrude were to ask Gilbert as she asked Hamlet, "Why seems it so particular with thee?" Chesterton would reply, not as Hamlet did in a nit-picking way by contrasting "seeming" with "being", by contrasting "appearance" with "existence", but by affirming that what appears in the particular embodies what exists beyond the particular, particularly in great poetry. Which leads me to bullet point four.
· The sacramental Catholic view affirms the value of specific things because the Catholic view recognizes the reality of both the corporate thing and the reality of the thing it incorporates - a ship is really a ship and not just a word for our impression of a ship.
Or, in Chesterton's words, when he writes of the large illustrations in medieval manuscripts ...
Plato held, and the child holds, that the most important thing about a ship (let us say) is that it is a ship. Thus, all these pictures are designed to express things in their quiddity. [The technical term of philosophy meaning the "whatness" of things] If these [medieval] artists draw a ship, everything is sacrificed to expressing the "shipishness" of the ship. If they draw a tower, its whole object is to be towering. If they draw a flower, its whole object is to be flowering. Their pencils often go wrong as to how the thing looks; [but] their intellects never go wrong as to what the thing is.
… When we are very young and vigorous and human we believe in things; it is only when we are very old and dissolute and decaying that we believe in the aspects of things. To see a thing in aspects is to be crippled, to be defective. A full and healthy man realises a thing called a ship; he realises it simultaneously from all sides and with all senses. One of his senses tells him that the ship is tall or white, another that the ship is moving or standing still, another that it is battling with broken and noisy waves, another that it is surrounded and soaked with the smell of the sea. But a deaf man would only know that the ship was moving by the passing of objects. A blind man would only know that the ship was moving by the sound of the swirling water. A blind and deaf man would only know that a ship was moving by the fact that he was seasick. This is the thing called "impressionism", that typically modern thing.
[That thing, in other words, very much like seasickness.]
Impressionism means shutting up all of one's nine million organs and avenues of appreciation except one. Impressionism means that, whereas Nature has made our senses and impressions to support each other, we desire to suppress one part of perception and employ the other. Impressionism, in short, may be justly summarised as "winking the other eye". The impressionist desires to treat mankind as a brood of the Cyclops. It is not surprising that Whistler wore a monocle; his philosophy was monocular.
[... what is he describing here if not a kind of heresy, the picking out of one view of things to the exclusion of all the others? In applying this to Shakespeare, Chesterton observes Hamlet indignant at the singing grave-digger. "Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that be sings at grave-making?" Hamlet asks, and Chesterton answers ...]
[By that question] Shakespeare has shown the utter inferiority of Hamlet to the Grave-digger. Hamlet by himself might almost be a character in Maeterlinck [Chesterton's example of a narrow playwright who wrote "message" plays]. Hamlet wishes to make the play of Hamlet a Maeterlinck play - united, artistic, melancholy, in a monotone. He wishes the Grave-digger to be sad at his grave-digging; he wishes the Grave-digger to be in the picture. But the Grave-digger refused to be in the picture, and the grave-digger will always refuse. The common man, engaged in tragic occupations, has always refused and will always refuse, to be tragic.
Bullet point five,
· The cosmos in the Catholic world is like a medieval Cathedral - it includes gargoyles and comic figures; it includes the ridiculous and the grotesque, it includes the sinners and the saints, the princes and the common men; all things somehow fit into the picture; and it is not a frame of our making.
In other words, while James Joyce said the Catholic Church means "here comes everybody", Chesterton would have countered by saying the Catholic Church means "here comes everything".
But everything understood as ordered and related by God. Not the everything of chaos, but the everything that connects to everything else in a hierarchical way, in a way of degree or inherent value. Not the everything of a narrow human system, which are the things that only fit into a heresy and that exclude everything that doesn't fit, but the everything of a vast divine system, which is much more than a mere human system. In other words, not the one thing of impressionism, but the everything of our senses and impressions, each of which Nature has made to support the other, and to see the substance of a thing behind our impression of it..
This is another way of seeing how Chesterton's vision of Shakespeare was Catholic - for Chesterton acknowledged that Shakespeare's plays and Shakespeare's characters were, like all great creations of art, too great to be systematized. The characters were more than "impressions" in an "impressionistic" series of scenes; they were rounded and living.
Very early in Chesteton's career, back in 1901, he makes one of the keenest insights he'll ever make regarding this. Chesterton writes ...
The truth is that Shakespeare's Hamlet is immeasurably vaster than any mere ethical denunciation or ethical defence. ... Falstaff was neither brave nor honest, nor chaste, nor temperate, nor clean, but he had the eighth cardinal virtue for which no name has ever been found. Hamlet was not fitted for this world: but Shakespeare does not dare to say whether he was too god or too bad for it.
Now a more minor critic and a more pedestrian thinker would have marched along with that insight and denied any ethical content in the plays for the rest of his career. But Chesterton understood that while Shakespeare's plays were not merely ethical, they were utterly and staggeringly moral - which is to say the plays are about the Consequential, they are about the consequences that grow out of our actions, our limitations, our sins. They are about how what we do reveals how God has made us.
In Chesterton's day, Freud was still a fad and psychoanalysis all the rage, with the belief that all of our problems result from the repression of our impulses. Chesterton applies this insipid psychology to the plays and in doing so reveals how true psychological insight, like that of Shakespeare, reveals not suppressed Freudian tendencies, but the profoundly moral nature of our makeup.
Chesterton notes …
Lady Macbeth does not suffer as a sleep-walker because she has resisted the impulse to murder Duncan, but rather (by some curious trick of thought) because she has yielded to it. Hamlet's uncle is in a morbid frame of mind, not, as one would naturally expect, because he had thwarted his own development by leaving his own brother alive and in possession [of the throne]; but actually because he has triumphantly liberated himself from the morbid impulse to pour poison in his brother's ear. On the theory of psycho-analysis, as expounded, a man ought to be haunted by the ghosts of all the men he has not murdered. Even if they were limited to those he has felt a vague fancy for murdering, they might make a respectable crowd to follow at his heels. Yet Shakespeare certainly seems to represent Macbeth as haunted by Banquo, whom he removed at one blow from the light of the sun and from his own subconsciousness. ...
In plain words, this sort of criticism has lost the last rags of common sense. Hamlet requires no such subconscious explanation, for he explains himself, and was perhaps rather too fond of doing so. He was a man to whom duty had come in a very dreadful and repulsive form, and to a man not fitted for that form of duty. There was a conflict, but he was conscious of it from beginning to end. He was not an unconscious person; but a far too conscious one.
And, you might say, "there's the rub". Shakespeare is about becoming more conscious of who we are and Who God is; the modern world is all about becoming unconscious of who we are and Who God is. The comedies of Shakespeare are about the shortcomings of our foibles and of our need for disguise, pretense or relief in order to overcome them. The tragedies are about the consequences of our sins and how the noble side of our nature struggles against the corrupt side. In both cases, these plays are about a playing-out of who we are and of what we do; and they are about becoming conscious of that - about becoming aware of how our identities, how our choices, how our free wills, how our actions - how all of this bears out our destinies, revealing to man not only man himself, but also revealing God. Indeed, "there's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will." Hamlet says this, but Hamlet, like every character in a drama, is limited by his own agenda. Hamlet would have been more accurate to say, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, the shape of which we approach the minute we begin to hew."
And that's where the Catholic view has a great advantage over the modern view. Bullet point six -
· The Catholic view is rational; it says we must be conscious of our sins and responsible for our actions, for it affirms that they come from us and our free choices. By contrast, the modern view is irrational; it says we are motivated by things we are unconscious of; that we can never be responsible for anything; that the law of cause and effect is replaced by the dumb fact of absurdity. In the modern view, who we are and what we suffer are disconnected; what we sow and what we reap are disconnected; where we end has no connection to what we hew or to any divinity that shapes it. The modern world is sterile; it is contraceptive.
The modern critic, Chesterton says, "gives Hamlet a complex to avoid giving him a conscience."
A conscience, you see, is rational; you must be rationally conscious of it - perhaps painfully so. A complex is irrational; you are, by definition, always unconscious of it. A conscience demands to be brought to light. A complex lurks in darkness - in feelings, in Freudian slips, in compulsions, in moods.
The modern man, like the modern conception of Hamlet, believes only in mood. [Chesterton writes] But the real Hamlet, like the Catholic Church, believes in reason. Many fine optimists have praised man when they felt like praising him. Only Hamlet has praised man when he felt like kicking him as a monkey of the mud. Many poets, like Shelley and Whitman, have been optimistic when they felt optimistic. Only Shakespeare has been optimistic when he felt pessimistic. This is the definition of a faith. A faith is that which is able to survive a mood.
Bullet point number seven ...
· Not only is " The Catholic Church is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age," but the Catholic Faith is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his moods, a captive to his fears, a product of his irrational complexes.
Pagans and Calvinists believe in the inexorable fates. Catholics believe in cooperation with grace; where both salvation and damnation hang in the balance.
For the play of "Macbeth" [Chesterton writes] is, in the supreme and special sense, the Christian Tragedy; to be set against the pagan Tragedy of Oedipus. It is the whole point about Oedipus that he does not know what he is doing. And it is the whole point about Macbeth that he does know what he is doing. It is not a tragedy of Fate but a tragedy of Freewill. He is tempted by a devil, but he is not driven by a destiny.
But note, dear friends, the flipside of this. There is a destiny that shapes our ends, for the story of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth is not just the story of an ambitious couple who do what they want; it is the story of an ambitious couple who do what they want and suffer for it because our natures and our destinies will not rest comfortably when we try to establish our sins, will not let us sleep when we try to secure ourselves in them. Chesterton says of Macbeth
You cannot call Macbeth anything but a victim of Macbeth. The evil spirits tempt him, but they never force him: they never even frighten him, for he is a very brave man. I have often wondered that no one has made so obvious a parallel as that between the murders of Macbeth and the marriages of Henry VIII. Both Henry and Macbeth were originally brave, good-humoured men, better rather than worse than their neighbours. Both Henry and Macbeth hesitated over their first crime - the first stabbing and the first divorce. Both found out the fate which is in evil - for Macbeth went on murdering and poor Henry went on marrying.
And he says of Lady Macbeth ...
Unfortunately, like such a very large number of people living in dark, barbarous, ignorant, and ferocious times, [Lady Macbeth] was full of modern ideas. She tended especially to maintain the two brightest and most philosophical of modern ideas: first, that it is often extremely convenient to do what is wrong; and second, that whenever it is convenient to do what is wrong, it immediately becomes what is right. Illuminated by these two scientific searchlights of the twentieth century in her groping among the start trees and stone pillars of the Dark Ages, Lady Macbeth thought it quite simple and businesslike to kill an old gentleman of very little survival value, and offer her own talents to the world in the capacity of Queen. It seems natural enough; to most of us who are used to the morals of modern novels, it will seem almost humdrum and tiresomely obvious. And yet see what a snag there was in it after all!
Indeed, see what a snag there was in it after all!
· The Catholic view affirms, nay insists, that our lives have a purpose and an aim. Deny the aim for which we are made, and what a snag there is in it after all – which we call tragedy.
And yet it is from this great aim that all adventure comes, and on which all stories depend. The moderns, fond of the syphilitic madman Nietzsche, think that adventure comes from making up our own rules as we go along. On the contrary, adventure comes from Him who gave us these rules.
Compare Chesterton on the plot of As You Like It...
Rosalind did not go into the wood to look for her freedom; she went into the wood to look for her father. And all the freedom—and even all the fun—of the adventure really arises from that fact. For even an adventure must have an aim.
To summarize where we are, then.
The Catholic view of Shakespeare is the only valid view, in the same way that the Catholic view of all literature and art is the only valid view, and in the same way that the Catholic view of life is the only valid view, for the following reasons.
1. The Catholic does not believe in the Bible alone or in faith alone or in anything alone; thus the Catholic can read the world, read his friends, and read a book without blinders on. God is bigger than the Book He gave us; Shakespeare is bigger than our own selfish pride.
2. The Catholic view exalts humility, placing one in the proper frame of mind to worship - or to read.
3. The Catholic view is sacramental and sees the world that God has made as communicating His glory; and the works that man has made of potentially doing the same thing.
4. The Catholic view acknowledges the reality of things, both in their particular incarnation and in their general form. Without this shocking vision of the reality of things, neither poetry nor philosophy make any sense; they become mere words.
5. The Catholic view is God's view and, like a big tent or a medieval cathedral, includes all of the apparent incongruities that we would rather eliminate.
6. The Catholic view is one of reason, consciousness and light; recognizing free will. Other views seek out the irrational, the unconscious and the dark.
7. The Catholic view is pragmatic. It's all about faith, and faith is opposed to the shifting sands of opinion and mood. It thus provides encouragement and a tool whereby we have the strength to move beyond mere impressions to what the impressions signify.
8. The Catholic view recognizes teleology, or that we are designed for an aim, for an end; and that when we avoid this end we make ourselves miserable. Without such an insight, great drama – whether history plays, romances, tragedies or even comedies - is not conceivable.
I would add, briefly, two more things
9. The Catholic Church loves poverty; it loves the poor without applying to them the modern litmus test of utility. Thus a Catholic appreciation of drama (and of life) would appreciate the common man and even the vulgar man, the funny as well as the serious, the little as well as the big.
It may be noticed that the great artists always choose great fools rather than great intellectuals to embody humanity. Hamlet does [indeed] express the aesthetic dreams and the bewilderments of the intellect; but Bottom the Weaver expresses them much better.
And finally ... I would have you note that the villains in Shakespeare's plays, especially in King Lear, are the New People, the self-made men, the "men without chests" that C. S. Lewis speaks of in The Abolition of Man. They are hungry for power and position; they have wiped out the old order that went before them. They are usurpers. They will slaughter babies and torture old men. They can be seen in the politicians of Shakespeare's day; and they can be seen filling the halls of Congress and the White House and the Courts of ours.
I began and will end with a quote from The Phoenix and the Turtle, where Shakespeare writes
"Truth may seem, but cannot be; Beauty brag, but 'tis not she." Certainly [Chesterton comments] that is what a man might well say, who felt hostile to a new world.
For the anti-Catholic modern world cannot even begin to understand truth and cannot endure beauty. As for goodness, well, we’d rather glory in our shame. Thus the moderns deconstruct great literature, and do their best to bury truth, beauty, goodness, Shakespeare and Chesterton.
But there is a tenth bullet point, and the most important one, and it was pointed out long ago by G. K. Chesterton.
10. The Catholic Church is always, like its founder, being reborn.
I once wrote the following ...
Chesterton, the most brilliant essayist and thinker of the twentieth century, had been buried. But ... this is a Faith of Resurrection, and we now see Chesterton out of his grave, jovial and ebullient as ever. This has caused a rush on shovel sales.
Which means that, if you haven't noticed, intellectuals worldwide are busy damning Chesterton with faint praise. They seem disturbed that he's up and walking again, saying funny and penetrating things, when they were certain they had buried him. And this quite naturally disturbs them, as something very similar disturbed Macbeth.
But the lesson is that even if they do manage to rebury Chesterton, he'll come back again. No grave is big enough to hold him. Even if they bury Shakespeare (the modernists have certainly killed him), he'll come back again, too. And even if we bury the Catholic Church and its view of things (I say we because it is Catholics themselves who are most guilty of burying the true Church), she, too, like her founder, will come back again.
The phoenix is a mythical bird, and the turtle is a turtle dove. Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle fully ends thus ...
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
And so there is a hint, even in the forlorn end of the one poem of Shakespeare's that nobody has read - except of course G. K. Chesterton - the one poem that everybody has buried; there is a hint of hope at the very end. A phoenix never ends in ashes, even if those ashes are enclosed in an urn. And we cannot cremate truth and beauty – or goodness for that matter – our hearts will not long endure it.
For Our Lord and Savior rose from the tomb; and may we pray that our once fully Christian Culture - which is to say our once Catholic culture - the culture that produced the greatest writer of all time - and that produced Shakespeare as well - may we all pray that this Catholic culture, the only culture of sanity and common sense the world has ever known, may one day do the same – may one day rise again from the tomb.