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Was Shakespeare Catholic?
Edward T. Oakes, in "Shakespeare's Millenium," quotes Germain Greer: "It would be a mistake to interpret the futility of Lear�s appeals to his gods as evidence of atheism on Shakespeare�s part," she writes. "Rather, like Montaigne, he denies man�s right to scan the ways of God or to assume that God�s will coincides at any point with his own." [First Things]

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Shakespeare, as an artist and poet, was called to be contemplative of this world. Was he gazing at things as if he were God's spy?

Was William Shakespeare�s art "religious?" The answer to this question will obviously depend on the meaning we give to the term "religion." If we take, for example, "religious experience" to mean the exploration of states of feeling beyond the ordinary spectrum of human emotion, then Shakespeare's Late Romances certainly qualify as being in some sense "religious." But if "religion" means for us, instead, a personal devotion to God, and a hunger to see God, and even a mystical thirst for intimate communion with God in Christ, then Shakespeare's work, although comprehensive to a degree probably unsurpassed in world literature, cannot be described or circumscribed by the word "religious."

Eliot says somewhere that whereas the mystic looks at God, the poet looks at things. God is approached by the mystic, that is to say, as an object-the supreme "object" of his or her attention. This way of thinking about religious experience is, of course, entirely valid and acceptable. But there is a passage in Simone Weil, the modern French mystic and philosopher, in which, with characteristic daring, she suggests that this question can be viewed, as it were, upside-down. Instead, therefore, of thinking in terms of the individual looking at God, and perhaps, therefore, looking away from things, and away from the world, we can think of ourselves as somehow coming out from God towards things, and of being called, in some sense, to share in God's gaze-that is, with God as "Subject," looking at the world and at things with us and through us. Weil writes: "The real aim is not to see God in all things; it is that God through us should see the things that we see. God has got to be on the side of the subject." And again: "we imitate the descending movement of God . . . [when we] turn ourselves toward the world." [1]

I quote this passage from Weil because I believe that there is a hint of something like it in Shakespeare. The passage in question occurs towards the end of King Lear. It is spoken by Lear to his daughter, Cordelia. Already immense suffering has broken the king's heart. He is barely sane. And yet, paradoxically, though stripped of all his former glory, and half-crazed now with sorrow, the words he speaks are instinct with strange wisdom and compassion. "Come," he says to Cordelia, "let's away to prison":

We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies. (Act V, Scene 1)

Things. The poet, every poet, every sculptor, every painter, looks at things. But the truly astonishing depth and range of Shakespearian vision, the poet's wide and wise perceptiveness, might it not be explained, in part, by the proposal, which is voiced here, "to take upon's the mystery of things,/As if we were God's spies"?

The contemplation of the world has come to be regarded as a task belonging not so much to the ecclesiastical tradition, but rather to that tradition which Cornelius Ernst once referred to, in a private note, as "the tradition of the human heart": "novels, art, music, tragedy" etc.[2] But genuine religious contemplation does not, of course, automatically exclude the contemplation of things. In prayer, it is true, what matters first and last is the contemplation of God. But, as Josef Pieper reminds us, there is "a contemplative way of seeing the things of creation." Pieper writes: "I am speaking now of actual things, and of seeing with the eyes; I mean also hearing, smelling, tasting, every type of sense-perception, but primarily seeing." And he adds: "Out of this kind of contemplation of the created world arise in never ending wealth all true poetry and all real art." [3]

It is noteworthy that, in all the great religious traditions, there can be found innumerable examples, both in story and in art, of the contemplation of the world. There is, for example, a wonderful story told by Evagrius Ponticus about St. Anthony in the desert. One day Anthony was asked: "How do you ever manage to carry on, Father, deprived as you are of the consolation of books?" He replied: "My book, sir philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is always at hand when I wish to read the words of God."[4] Evagrius himself, in the very first lines of his Praktikos, lists as part of our essential task two things, "the contemplation of God" and "the contemplation of the physical world."[5] In this context, there is one other Christian contemplative who comes immediately to mind, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great Jesuit poet. Hopkins, as a man and as a poet, is aware of God, both as the transcendent object of his devotion in prayer, and also as the immanent "Subject" in his life, utterly hidden in some sense, and yet completely revealed:

. . . for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.[6]

There are many other examples in religious literature, one could cite here, which give attention to "the mystery of things." But I will read just two more short texts, one from the world of the Hasidim, the Jewish tradition, and then one from the Hindu tradition. The Jewish text first:

Rabbi-Shalom said: "The Talmud tells of a wise man versed in the lore of the stars, and relates that the paths of the firmament were as bright and clear to him as the streets in the town of Nehardea where he lived. Now if only we could say about ourselves that the streets of our city are as clear and bright to us as the paths of the firmament! For to let the hidden life of God shine out in this lowest world, the world of bodiliness, that is the greater feat of the two!" [7]

The text from the Hindu tradition, is a short poem composed by Rabrindranath Tagore. The poet, in his meditation, is beginning to sense with awe that God-God who is also a "poet"-desires somehow to contemplate his own creation in and through him. And so he exclaims:

What! Is it possible, God, that you desire to drink
from the cup of my life?

Is it your joy, my Poet, to contemplate your own
creation through my eyes, and stand at the portals
of my ears, silently listening to your own eternal

Your world weaves words in my mind. Your joy adds
music to them. You give yourself to me in love, and
 then experience your own entire sweetness within me.[8]

That image of God contemplating his own creation through the eyes of the poet, immediately recalls to mind the short passage in Lear we've been considering. But, in the king's words, in marked contrast to the language of Tagore or Hopkins, there is no suggestion whatever of actual religious devotion. In fact, it is worth noting that Shakespeare, in the composition of King Lear, seems purposely to have removed from the source on which his play is based, a number of the religious and Christian references. This detail, incidentally, infuriated Tolstoy. In a blistering essay, the great Russian author complained that the original King Lear, an anonymous work entitled True Chronicle History of King Leir, had been stripped by Shakespeare of much of its spiritual depth and Christian meaning.[9] Tolstoy is, of course, an important witness here for the prosecution. But, in spite of his brilliance, he failed utterly to grasp the strange and terrible beauty of Shakespeare's play. In particular, Tolstoy failed to see how Shakespeare, by composing a play that was in no way obviously religious, could at the same time explore, and with even greater depth than ever, certain basic aspects of our human and spiritual condition. In this context, I am reminded of a comment made in a letter by Flannery O'Connor about the modern Catholic novelists, Bernanos, Mauriac and Greene. O'Connor writes: "At some point reading them reaches the place of diminishing returns." One gets "more benefit," by reading authors, not thought to be religious, but in whom "there is apparently a hunger for a Catholic completeness in life." O'Connor then adds, and the idea is wonderful: "It may be a matter of recognizing the Holy Ghost in fiction by the way He chooses to conceal himself."[10]

But does this idea apply to Shakespeare? When King Lear speaks, towards the end of his life, of taking upon himself "the mystery of things," do his words indicate, in some way, Shakespeare's own sense of his task, as artist and poet, called first and last to be contemplative of this world, and yet somehow finding himself gazing at things as if he were God's spy? The question is, of course, impossible to answer. Why I should find myself drawn to ask it, is, I suppose, because the hidden springs of Shakespeare's genius still remain such a mystery and a puzzle. But, perhaps, in the end, it would be simpler and wiser to say nothing. ("That about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.") Not once but several times, during the writing of this paper, I have felt the shadow of Ludwig Wittgenstein cross over my pages. And I have found myself remembering a gnomic remark which he made about fifty years ago: "I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him."[11]

So a presence, then, at the margins of my work, during these weeks, has been that of Wittgenstein. But there has been another, a presence as innocent and sweet of temper as Wittgenstein's is huge and formidable, a child's philosopher of fun, a seer of laughter, conjured by Shakespeare out of words in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a simple, earthy character, and the last, perhaps, we would ever think of as being religious-Bottom! Bottom, as is well known, can probably count almost everyone familiar with the Midsummer play among his admirers. But no-one can have praised him with more generous wit and insight than G. K. Chesterton. Here is Chesterton, in rare form, writing directly on A Midsummer Night's Dream:

It is difficult to approach critically so great a figure
as that of Bottom the Weaver. He is greater and
more mysterious than Hamlet. . . . We are the victims
of a curious confusion whereby being great is supposed
to have something to do with being clever. . . .
Greatness is a certain indescribable but perfectly
familiar and palpable quality of size in the personality,
of steadfastness, of strong flavour, of easy and natural
self-expression. Such a man is as firm as a tree and
as unique as a rhinoceros.[12]

. . . A Midsummer Night's Dream. The sentiment of such a play, so far as it can be summed up at all, can be summed up in one sentence. It is the mysticism of happiness . . . The soul might be rapt out of the body in an agony of sorrow, or a trance of ecstasy; but it might also be rapt out of the body in a paroxysm of laughter . . . We cannot have A Midsummer Night's Dream if our one object in life is to keep ourselves awake with the black coffee of criticism. [13]

Criticism! I have been trying in this talk to reflect, with some seriousness, on the question of Shakespeare and religious vision. But, at times, I have felt a bit intimidated, and not only by the shadow of Wittgenstein looming across my pages, but also by the glad, exuberant presence of Bottom the Weaver-intimidated, most of all, I would have to say, by the memory of the words that he speaks in the Play about vision, and about those who presume to talk or to "expound" at length on the subject. Clearly, words of criticism are mere straw to a man like Bottom who has had the experience! Here is what he says, talking to himself, when, finally, he wakes up from his dream-vision (Act IV, Scene I):

God's my life! . . . I have had a most rare vision.
I have
had a dream, past the wit of man to say what
dream it
was: man is but an ass, if he go about to
expound this
dream. Methought I was,- there is no
 man can tell what. Methought I was and methought
I had, but man is but
a patched fool if he will offer to
say what methought I
had. The eye of man hath not
heard, the ear of man hath
not seen, man's hand is
not able to taste, his tongue to
conceive, nor his heart
to report, what my dream was. I
will get Peter Quince
to write a ballad of this dream: it
shall be called Bottom's dream, because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in
the latter end of a play.

[This article is an excerpt from the author�s full article, "God�s Spy: Shakespeare and Religious Vision," originally published in Communio: International Catholic Review, Winter 200 issue. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.]


[1] Simone Weil, The Notebooks, Vol. 2, trans. A. Wills (New York, 1956), 358.

[2] Cornelius Ernst, Multiple Echo (London, 1979), 1.

[3] Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation (London, 1958), 88-89. Worth recalling to mind, in this context, are the poet Rilke's statements on the necessity, for the poet, of giving close attention to things, "their patient bearing and enduring." Rilke's insistence on this point, however, has an urgency about it-almost a willfulness-that is distinctly modern. See Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910, trans. J.B. Greene and M.D.H. Norton (New York, 1945), 82-83 and 102-03.

[4] See Evagrius Ponticus, "Sayings of the Holy Monks," no. 92 in The Praktikos: Chapters on Prayer, trans. J.E. Bambinger (Spencer, 1970), 39.

[5] "The Hundred Chapters," no. 1 in The Praktikos, 15.

[6] "As kingfishers catch fire . . . " See Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Selection of His Poems and Prose, ed. W.H. Gardner (Harmondsworth, 1963), 51.

[7] See Martin Buber (ed.), Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters, trans. O. Marx (New York, 1948), 50-51.

[8] An adaptation by the present writer of no. LXV of "Gitanjali" in Collected Poems and Plays of Rabrindranath Tagore (London, 1977), 31.

[9] In what he calls "the older drama," Tolstoy notes that Lear's abdication had a profound spiritual basis: "[L]ear thinks only of saving his soul." See L.N. Tolstoy, "Shakespeare and the Drama," trans. V. Tcherkoff, in Shakespeare in Europe, ed. Oswald LeWinter (London, 1963), 242.

[10] Letter of 16 January 1936, in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, ed. S. Fitzgerald (New York, 1979), 130.

[11] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value: A Selection from the Posthumous Remains, ed. G. H. von Wright (Oxford, 1998), 95e.

[12] G.K. Chesterton, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Chesterton on Shakespeare, 107.

[13] Ibid., 104.

September 17, 2003

PAUL MURRAY, O.P., an Irish Dominican, is professor of spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.

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02.26.04   Jonathan Kinsman says:
What many of us Shakespeare-philes have thought and discussed sub rosa for many years is now coming out into the mainstream of bardology: Shakespeare was a Catholic and wrote for the stage as a Catholic playwright would. The recent British special (seen on public television channels) by Mr Woods asserts the Roman Catholicism of Shakespeare (his cousin was a priest martyred by Elizabeth Regina)and places his work in the line and lineage of Catholic Humanism.Shakespeare is earthy and ethereal, his view of life is as large as the Body of Christ (Catholic Church) and full of as many sights, sounds, smells of the praise and celebration of life and our Lord's place in the world.Good article, Father.Jonathan Kinsman

09.15.03   Godspy says:
Shakespeare, as an artist and poet, was called to be contemplative of this world. Was he gazing at things as if he were God's spy?

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