Sunday, 15 September 2013

Shakespeare and memories of Catholicism

I was in the happy position of attending a short lecture last week by Dr Gillian Woods from Birkbeck College, University of London, about whose new book I have written before.

In her lecture, Dr Woods pointed out that there is a surprising amount of Catholicism in Shakespeare's plays, given that the religion was proscribed. The Catholic references range from nuns and friars to pilgrims and pilgrimages, from swear words to "very Catholic metaphors" like the ones embedded in the famous sonnet constructed by Romeo and Juliet at their first meeting:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

What do we make then of what she called this "residue" or "memory of the faith that had been banned and rejected"? It seems clear that there were a range of options available to people in post-Reformation England, ranging from nostalgia to fear, from hatred to acceptance. Many of these responses appear in Shakespeare's plays. In fact, many of them appear within individual plays, creating a complex picture that needs to be read in a historically informed way.

Dr Woods used a helpful metaphor in her lecture, suggesting that the ways in which Catholicism is present in Shakespeare's plays are akin to the ways in which pre-Reformation wall paintings survived in the post-Reformation Church. Many were simply removed. Some were literally defaced (in order to make it clear that the Reformed Church in England was not just a new church but a rejection of the Old Church, that it was - in some sense - still in dialogue with it). And others were whitewashed, perhaps in the hope that they might one day be uncovered, though the images still seeped through. (The definitive work on all of this is Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars.)

I like this last metaphor in particular: we can see Catholicism seeping through the language and drama of Shakespeare's plays without having to get drawn into largely fruitless discussions about his own religious inclinations.

Dr Woods finished by discussing Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, a character whose pilgrimage raises all sorts of questions about faith within the play as well as among critics. The very complexity of her role seems to reflect the complexity of Shakespeare's response to the Old Faith, just as the play itself, in Dr Woods' fine phrase, reveals "the limitations of fiction and the inadequacies of real life."

1 comment:

  1. If Clare Asquith is to be believed in her book 'Shadowplay', and there is growing consent to this view, then the presence of Catholicism in Shakespeare goes beyond just a 'residue' of a rejected faith, rather, he deliberately coded Catholic messages into his plays. One good example of this is in Act V sc.1 of The Merchant of Venice. Read that scene (which seems rather extraneous to the play) in the light of the liturgy for the Easter Vigil. It will surprise you.
    The book Shadowplay is also excellent and well worth reading. There's an article about it here: