The WORD of the BARD

Shake­speare’s English is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the re­li­gious lan­guage of his day, Peter Craven finds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven was found­ing edi­tor of Quar­terly Es­say.

SHAKE­SPEARE and re­li­gion: the sub­ject haunts the mind be­cause there is no an­swer to it. One of my ear­lier mem­o­ries of Shake­spearean per­for­mance is hear­ing, as a child, John Giel­gud say in his one-han­der Ages of Man that in his last plays, es­pe­cially The Tem­pest, Shake­speare had put all his feel­ings ‘‘ about re­li­gion, with­out dogma’’. Well, we cer­tainly get Pros­pero say­ing ‘‘ We are such stuff / As dreams are made on’’ and, in the epi­logue of the play, when the ma­gus fig­ure stands alone on the bare stage, de­void of magic, the Great Globe dis­solved in terms of dra­matic il­lu­sion, there’s an echo of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘‘ As you from crimes would par­don’d be / Let your in­dul­gence set me free’’.

This is meant to make us re­mem­ber ‘‘ for­give us our tres­passes as we for­give those who tres­pass against us’’ and it is also a sug­ges­tion that hands held to­gether in prayer should, on this oc­ca­sion, clap the per­for­mance.

The bring­ing to­gether of prayer and dra­matic per­for­mance is cen­tral to Daniel Swift’s Shake­speare’s Com­mon Prayers and al­though he overeggs his cake with an im­pas­sioned en­thu­si­asm (and quite a bit of op­por­tunism), this is a bril­liant per­for­mance that is also quite a litur­gi­cal ex­er­cise in see­ing Shake­speare through the dark glass of con­tem­po­rary re­li­gion.

It was a dark glass be­cause there was an axe-edge to re­li­gion in Shake­speare’s day. Henry VIII had bro­ken with the Catholic Church not out of the­o­log­i­cal dis­agree­ment but be­cause he wanted a new wife. How­ever, dur­ing the reign of the boy king Ed­ward VI, a good deal of rad­i­cal Protes­tantism and Calvin­ism took hold. Then the first of Henry’s daugh­ters, Mary Tu­dor, be­came queen and reestab­lished Catholi­cism, burn­ing Protes­tants in the process. She in turn was re­placed by the great El­iz­a­beth I, who reigned for 40-odd years and es­tab­lished Angli­can­ism as a via me­dia, a mid­dle course, de­spite clam­our­ing Pu­ri­tans, de­nun­ci­a­tions of her as a bas­tard from Rome, and un­der­cover Je­suits spread­ing the word of the old faith.

Where did Shake­speare hang his hat? We don’t know. It was an ex­cep­tion­ally fluid, danger­ous time. Shake­speare’s fa­ther had been a Catholic and so was the fa­ther of John Mil­ton, born in 1608 when Shake­speare was still writ­ing for the stage, who would go on to be the great­est of Pu­ri­tan writ­ers and sec­re­tary to Oliver Cromwell, the man who cut off Charles I’s head and for a while there abol­ished the monar­chy.

That was in the 1640s, decades af­ter Shake­speare’s death, though it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that James I — the king in whose reign he wrote his ma­ture plays ( Mac­beth, Lear, Antony and Cleopa­tra) — came within an inch of be­ing blown up in the Houses of Par­lia­ment by Guy Fawkes and his fel­low Catholic con­spir­a­tors.

Th­ese days it’s fash­ion­able in some aca­demic cir­cles to ar­gue that Shake­speare worked as a school­mas­ter for a Catholic fam­ily when he was a young man. The ev­i­dence is weak and the ar­gu­ment al­ways makes you think it’s sim­ply an at­tempt to en­list Shake­speare as the near­est thing to a ter­ror­ist, the most trans­gres­sive thing around.

But it’s true the Stu­art kings (James I and Charles I) were the heads of a very ‘‘ high’’ national church. When the English Civil War came, the Stu­art monar­chy en­joyed the sup­port of the Ir­ish and the Catholics and the dis­dain of the Pu­ri­tans but the sub­ject is end­lessly com­plex at the pub­lic po­lit­i­cal level, let alone when it comes to the case of a poet and play­wright.

Har­vard scholar Harry Levin said once Shake­speare’s world was Angli­can on the sur­face but Catholic in its deeper mem­o­ries. On the other hand, that one-time Je­suit and poet-critic Peter Levi said he thought the Angli­can set­tle­ment had been ut­terly ef­fec­tive in oblit­er­at­ing the re­cent re­li­gious past. In Shake­speare’s Com­mon Prayers, Swift is at pains to es­tab­lish the re­li­gious echoes in Shake­speare’s plays and, in par­tic­u­lar, to show how the plays re­flect the struc­tures and prac­tices of one of the most im­por­tant works of English re­li­gious his­tory, the Book of Com­mon Prayer.

The Book of Com­mon Prayer is the ba­sic primer, the sub­sti­tute missal of the Angli­can Church, and it is as­so­ci­ated with the id­iomatic grandeur of the lan­guage with which Thomas Cranmer, the first Angli­can arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, in­vested the liturgy of the church, and with the Coverdale trans­la­tion of the Psalms, which dif­fers from the King James

Ver­sion and, in Bri­tain and the Com­mon­wealth (though not in Amer­ica), has never been re­placed by them.

The Book of Com­mon Prayer is the high­wa­ter mark of what litur­gi­cal English (which is not quite the same thing as bib­li­cal English) should sound like. And this prayer book English is in the process of be­ing seen as an aes­thetic trea­sure at al­most pre­cisely the mo­ment it is ceas­ing to be the au­to­matic lan­guage of re­li­gious au­thor­ity even on the high cer­e­mo­ni­ous oc­ca­sions of Bri­tain.

Prince Wil­liam and Kate Mid­dle­ton’s wed­ding was not, by and large, in prayer book English. On the other hand, Mar­garet Thatcher’s fu­neral had a par­tic­u­lar kind of grandeur be­cause it was.

Swift is in­tensely in­ter­ested in the Book of Com­mon Prayer and he has a zealot’s en­thu­si­asm for mak­ing the largest pos­si­ble claims for it:

Magna Carta, the United States Con­sti­tu­tion, the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo: th­ese are lit­er­ary works which imag­ine and upon which are built mod­els of so­ci­ety. Hu­man his­tory is il­leg­i­ble with­out ref­er­ence to cer­tain found­ing doc­u­ments and this is the sta­tus of the Book of Com­mon Prayer. It mat­tered more deeply than any other writ­ten text of its age pre­cisely be­cause it was where and how the age found it­self. And some­thing more than this: the prayer book is not only a po­lit­i­cal doc­u­ment for its claims are not only of this world. Rather, this is a work that traf­fics in the sal­va­tion of the soul and so each fine re­vi­sion is not stylis­tic nicety. For the pop­u­la­tion of El­iz­a­bethan


and Ja­cobean Eng­land ev­ery edit and change of phrase looked to­ward eter­nity . . .

In the Book of Com­mon Prayer Shake­speare found a body of con­tested speech, a pat­tern and a mu­sic of mourn­ing, what Wal­lace Stevens called, in a dif­fer­ent con­text, ‘‘ a lit­er­ate de­spair’’. The rites are at times con­tra­dic­tory, at odds with their own the­ol­ogy, but he bor­rowed all this rough­ness and put it here on stage.

If this kind of aca­demic histri­on­ics re­ver­ber­ates for you then there’s no deny­ing Swift is a dab hand at it. But the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo gain their res­o­nance pre­cisely from the hy­po­thet­i­cal mod­els of so­ci­ety that were built on them. In the case of the Book of Com­mon Prayer we are in the pres­ence of (match­less but very tra­di­tional) splen­dour that was in var­i­ous ways — and some­times with the­o­log­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant re­vi­sions — con­so­nant stylis­ti­cally with bit­terly con­flicted po­si­tions. But Swift’s talk about Shake­speare find­ing a ‘‘ body of con­tested speech’’, let alone the ham­mi­ness of cit­ing Wal­lace Stevens on ‘‘ a lit­er­ate de­spair’’, is sim­ply an ex­am­ple of in­tel­lec­tual milk­ing.

Swift knows per­fectly well the his­tory of litur­gi­cal dic­tion and its uni­fy­ing fea­tures stretches across re­li­gious con­tro­versy like a rain­bow of Chris­tian faith. He’s a dis­ci­ple of Ea­mon Duffy and says Duffy’s The Strip­ping of

the Al­tars is the most im­por­tant book that has been writ­ten in this area.

Yes, and Duffy ar­gued the Ref­or­ma­tion (this side of schism) was alive and well in the English church while it was still Catholic, that it was open to the in­flu­ence of Eras­mus and was shap­ing up well in the light of mod­er­a­tion and self-re­gen­er­a­tion. And, in the same way, there was plenty of prayer book-style English for pri­vate use be­fore Cranmer with his ge­nius turned it into a sub­sti­tute for the grandeurs of litur­gi­cal Latin.

Swift is in­tent on the par­tic­u­lar points of con­tention that punc­tu­ate the re­vi­sions of the prayer book and, in a bril­liant stroke of strat­egy, he de­cides to take Shake­speare as his hin­ter­land of ev­i­dence for the dif­fer­ent points of the­o­log­i­cal con­tention in El­iz­a­bethan and Ja­cobean Eng­land.

So Romeo and Juliet, that daz­zling ac­count of young love, is seen through the prism of the be­lief that the sacra­ment is be­stowed not by the min­is­ter but by the lovers. This is cer­tainly true, though Friar Lau­rence (in what could hardly be a more Ital­ianate Catholic con­text, there is also talk of Juliet go­ing to ‘‘ shrift’’, or con­fes­sion) does per­form the mar­riage cer­e­mony. All of which ac­cords with both Angli­can and Catholic con­cep­tions.

Swift uses Shake­speare as a kind of back­drop to in­di­cate the ways in which the fine points of as­ser­tion and re­vi­sion in the prayer book are in­di­cated in the plays. He does this with a foren­sic bril­liance and with a man-ofwar res­o­lu­tion never to let any­thing go un­de­fended. But you don’t have to have the in­ver­sion of no­tions of ‘‘ walk in the Lord’’ to hear what Shake­speare is play­ing on with his steps and shuf­flings and noises in Mac­beth.

Swift is good at alert­ing the reader to the pos­si­ble the­o­log­i­cal nu­ance of ev­ery foot­fall in Shake­speare’s plays — and much of it, by ne­ces­sity, would have been there for the El­iz­a­bethan and Ja­cobean play­goer — but one sus­pects in such an im­plicit way as to make this kind of anal­y­sis just a lit­tle bit overde­ter­mined.

It’s doubt­ful Shake­speare’s con­tem­po­rary play­go­ers were think­ing of the ef­fi­cacy or oth­er­wise of prayers for the dead when they watched Ham­let and it is also highly likely they brought an au­to­matic cloud of com­pre­hen­sion, in­clud­ing pur­ga­tory and damna­tion, obli­ga­tions of vengeance and pro­hi­bi­tions against it, in much the same way that we have in­her­ited at­ti­tudes to the CIA, ter­ror­ism, in­di­vid­ual lib­er­ties, demo­cratic su­pe­ri­or­ity, govern­ment cor­rup­tion, the in­sid­i­ous legacy of the state, sex­ual lib­erty, sex­ual ful­fil­ment, child­hood trauma and in­sti­tu­tional abuse: you don’t have to be­lieve things to have an in­stinc­tive abil­ity to al­low your imag­i­na­tion to be pro­voked along a fa­mil­iar path.

Swift’s Shake­speare’s Com­mon Prayers is a bril­liant guide to the evo­lu­tion of the dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the prayer book, which very clearly uses as its text the most fa­mil­iar body of work in English lit­er­a­ture. But al­though it may deepen our sense of what he shared of the com­mon be­liefs of his time, it tells us noth­ing star­tling about Shake­speare. If you want a touch­stone, by way of con­trast have a look at Su­san­nah Car­son’s new col­lec­tion Liv­ing with

Shake­speare, in which writ­ers and ac­tors (Joyce Carol Oates, Den­zel Wash­ing­ton) talk about Shake­speare.

Here is Mar­garet Drab­ble, who was at school with Judi Dench, de­scrib­ing her as Ariel in The Tem­pest: she had, Drab­ble says, ‘‘ a sure­ness of phras­ing that seemed al­most supernatural. Nearly 60 years later I can hear her voice as Ariel de­scribes the pitiable state of the be­witched and ship­wrecked king and his fol­low­ers and as­sures her mas­ter Pros­pero that if he would see them now he would pity them: ‘ . . . if you now be­held them your af­fec­tions would be­come ten­der’.

‘‘ Pros­pero re­sponds: ‘ Dost thou think so?’ to which she replies: ‘ Mine would, sir, were I hu­man.’ Judi Dench ut­tered that phrase ‘ were I hu­man’ with such un­earthly yearn­ing that whole vis­tas of depth and mean­ing in the play opened be­fore us.’’

Some­times with Shake­speare we don’t want the great dark well of re­li­gious con­tro­versy with its con­comi­tant mu­sic; we want a swift point­ing to what can­not be ar­tic­u­lated.

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