Monday, April 23, 2012

William Shakespeare, RIP--for sure!--and the Feast of St. George

William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon died this day, April 23, 1616; and there are suggestions that he was born on the same day in 1564. Current reports indicate that the Cobb portrait at the left may be contemporary. Nice lace.

My local district of the Kansas Authors Club held a meeting in which we reviewed what we think we might really know about Shakespeare. The presenter stymied some of the participants by using a quiz in which the correct answer for some questions, instead of being either True or False was either maybe or we don't know.

The question of whether Shakespeare was a Catholic or not came up--and some in the meeting scoffed at the thought. In Supremacy and Survival, I introduce the subject. I don't go as far as Clare Asquith that the plays served as secret code for Catholics but it is demonstrably true from the reading of the plays that Shakespeare presents Catholicism in a much more favorable light than one would expect from the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. His presentation of Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII, his rewriting of King John, the purgatorial theme of Hamlet, the good friar in Romeo and Juliet, his contribution to Sir Thomas More, etc convince me that Shakespeare's plays reflect the lingering attraction to Catholic teaching and practice in England during his lifetime. He might have been a Church Papist: outwardly conforming; inwardly holding on to the Old Faith.

This author summarizes my view very well:

One possible explanation for this apparent inconsistency may lie in the fact that the English Reformation was still in progress during Shakespeare’s lifetime. England remained Catholic in spirit and practice long after 1534, with parts of Lancashire still practicing the “old faith” openly. It is possible that the post-Reformation Holy Trinity Church in Warwickshire was sufficiently traditional to allow a Catholic-sympathizer like Shakespeare to participate. If the Church of England authorities knew of the poet’s Stratford affiliation, then the fact that Shakespeare’s nonattendance at Puritan-leaning London parishes went unpunished could be explained.

The most promising avenue for appreciating Shakespeare’s Catholicity lies not in biography but rather in the recognition of his Catholic imagination, readily discoverable in his plays. Through metaphor, the poet enlarges the sensibilities through an encounter with inspired meaning. Reformed theology had posited an irreparable break between the divine and the human, whereas the Catholic imagination seeks and finds the divine in broken humanity, bridging the gap between nature and grace.
The presenter at our meeting highlighted the saint's day on which Shakespeare died (was born?) as a particularly important aspect of Shakespeare's "Englishness"--St. George's Day. He had been the patron saint of England since the 13th century, but of course the 16th century Reformation ended the celebrations of his defeat of the dragon, although Henry VIII had certainly enjoyed the masques and festivities connected with the feast. April 23 was his accession day and St. George was his hero. He held a chapter of the Order of the Garter every year to remember that day and his patron as a Knight of the Garter. The Order was founded by King Edward III in 1338. The motto is Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks this evil), and the current queen, Elizabeth II, appoints both men and women to its ranks.

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