The WORD of the BARD
Shakespeare’s English is inextricably linked to the religious language of his day, Peter Craven finds
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
THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER IS THE HIGH-WATER MARK OF WHAT LITURGICAL ENGLISH SHOULD SOUND LIKE
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.