May 3, 2016
Last week the world marked the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest writer in the English language and one of the three or four most significant artists the human race has produced. William Shakespeare simply contains so much. In the manner of Dante, Homer, Michelangelo, James Joyce, and Aquinas, he seems to encompass the whole: every texture of feeling, every nuance of thought, the tragedy of sin, the most exquisite longings of the soul, the most confounding confusions, heaven, hell, and everything in between.
It is, of course, this very capaciousness that has made possible such a variety of readings of his work. Kenneth Clark, relying perhaps on the darkest of Macbeth's soliloquies-"Life's but a walking shadow/ a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing"-read Shakespeare as the harbinger of post-religious nihilism; Freud saw, especially in "Hamlet," a foreshadowing of his psychological theories; Rene Girard appreciated "Romeo and Juliet," "The Merchant of Venice," and "Othello" as anticipations of his own musings on mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism. Some feminists love Shakespeare and others can't stand him; he has been portrayed as the ultimate defender of the status quo and as an explicit revolutionary; there are Catholic and Protestant and even atheist construals of the Bard. My former colleague, the late, great Fr. Edward Oakes, an ardent Bardophile, always argued that Shakespeare himself remains permanently elusive, smiling like the Cheshire cat behind the vividness of his characters and the energy of his dramaturgy.
Though I have been impressed by much of the recent scholarship purporting to show that Shakespeare was in fact a canny and clandestine Catholic, prudently making his way through the ideological minefields of Elizabethan England, I don't want to pursue that analysis here. Mindful that the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death (2016) almost exactly coincides with the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation (2017), I want to make a related though simpler claim, namely, that, whatever his personal religious commitments, the great poet, throughout his work, was indeed mourning the fading of an integrated Catholic milieu.
I might suggest we begin with the beloved sonnet number 73, in which Shakespeare remarks the passing of his own life: "That time of year thou mayest in me behold/ when yellow leaves or none or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/ Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang." He has come to the autumn of his years, the last stage before the lifelessness of winter. Shifting metaphors, he speaks of a flame dying down: "In me thou seest the glowing of such fire/ That on the ashes of his youth doth lie/ As the death bed whereon it must expire." But it is not simply his own existence that he sees passing away, and the clue is found in that lyrical reference to "bare ruined choirs." Those are indeed the naked branches from which the summer birds have long fled, but they are also the choir stalls of the monasteries, wrecked by Henry VIII's enthusiasm for reformation and need for quick financing. The sweet-singing monks, chased away and in hiding, are representative of a Catholic culture, marked by beauty and majestic liturgy, that was, by Shakespeare's time, fast evanescing.