A left-footed Bard?

George Austin considers the religious sympathies of our greatest dramatist


Our English teacher came back from the war to find that his pupils were almost totally uncultured. He decided that we should be introduced to the real Shakespeare and organized a party to see Donald Woolfit in King Lear at the Manchester Opera House. For this teenager, it was a life-changing experience. I found the theatre and I found Shakespeare, and a love affair began of which I have never tired.

But in recent years I have come to feel more and more that there is a hidden side to the Bard, which relates to the turbulent history of the age and from which he could hardly have been immune. He did of course need to take care to avoid giving political offence that might lead him into serious, maybe deadly, danger.

For example, what of the curious anticlimactic ending to Hamlet, with the sudden arrival of Fortinbras to take the place of the dead king Claudius just before the death of Hamlet? Does it diplomatically avoid an ending in which King, Queen, and heir apparent are all slain with no one to take the throne, lest it be thought to be putting ideas into English heads at such a time? Would it anyway pass the censor, all-powerful in those days?

But there is more than that. I believe there are hints in Shakespeare of a hidden – maybe even unconscious – sympathy towards the ‘old religion;’ not wise in an age when resistance could mean a quick and unpleasant end.

Clues in the play

In the programme for last season’s Hamlet at Stratford, there was an article by Professor Stephen Greenblatt in which he pointed to the Catholic understanding of death and purgatory that is present in the speeches of the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Having been cut off ‘even in the blossoms of my sin,’ he dies ‘unhousel’d, disappointed, unaneled’ – that is to say, without a last communion, without confession and without anointing. As a result, his father’s ghost can describe how he was ‘for the day confined to fast in fires till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burned and purged away.’

This is purgatory, clear and simple, set before an audience whose reformed church had condemned purgatory as a lie, and had cut back or eliminated such rituals as anointing and confession. Would someone without at least a Catholic background have slipped into that way of thinking?

And at the end of the play, with Hamlet having taken the revenge his father demanded, the King and accidentally the Queen also are dead, with Laertes, having sought revenge on Hamlet for the murder of his father Polonius and the suicide of Ophelia, killing and being killed by Hamlet. But then as the two are dying, Laertes cries out to Hamlet, ‘Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet: Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee.’ No purgatorial prison for Hamlet.

Choosing priorities

It may not confirm Shakespeare as a covert Catholic, simply keeping his head down in the face of danger. But it surely indicates that the old faith was still around. In any event, Shakespeare was a storyteller and never a polemicist. And it is pointer to a modern parallel, of which there are many in the history of his age.

Whenever there is conflict, in church, politics or elsewhere, there is always a distinction between those who will fight on regardless to defend a principle in which they believe, those who believe in their hearts in the principle but for whom their own power and advancement is more important, and those who have other priorities – and maybe Shakespeare was one of these – and simply avoid the heat of the kitchen.

For sixteenth century Catholics and their sympathizers, there were decisions to be made, family needs to take into account, a lifetime’s ethos to preserve or to reject. So it is for the orthodox Anglican today.

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