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Let’s not get carried away claiming Shakespeare for Catholicism

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith reviews a superb production of All’s Well That Ends Well, but cautions against extravagant interpretations of Shakespeare

By on Thursday, 18 August 2011

The current production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Globe. (Photo: Globe)

The current production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Globe. (Photo: Globe)

I had a real theatrical treat last night, namely seeing All’s Well that Ends Well at the Globe. It was a glorious production and the applause at the end would have raised the roof… if the Globe had had one.

All’s Well is not frequently performed, and I had never seen it before, though I had read it many times as an undergraduate. It is classed as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, along with Measure for Measure: the sort of play in which the plot devices do not really resolve the questions that the drama raises. In the case of All’s Well, Helena is in love with Bertram, and is married to him, but he rejects her and treats her with cruelty and contempt; in the end she tricks him into consummating the marriage, but is he truly reconciled to his fate and to her? Is the happy ending convincing? Is the title of the play bitterly ironic?

With great skill, and some daring production ideas, the Globe’s director gave us an All’s Well that was a comedy from the start – a very funny and engaging one too. It was clear that boyish Bertram was in love with Helena all along, but had to be detached from his sidekick Parolles as well as educated in the ways of love. The play makes much of Helena being a virgin, but this production also emphasised the way that Bertram is crippled by an emotional inexperience that made it impossible for him to follow where his heart leads him, or even to know his own heart properly.

Literature often focuses on young women and their emotional toils: it was psychologically interesting and refreshing to have a production that put the spotlight on young men and their difficulties in taking their place in society. And this of course solved one of the play’s problems: why on earth should sensible Helena love someone as outwardly odious as Bertram? And why should anyone want to watch a play whose central character was so unappealing? This Bertram was both complex, vulnerable and engaging – quite an achievement.

At one point Helena disguises herself as a pilgrim to the shrine of St James of Compostella and appears on stage complete in palmer’s weeds and wearing a cockle shell badge. This – and certain references in the text to the sacredness of oaths and the sacred bonds of duty – reminded me of Clare Asquith and her famous thesis that the plays of Shakespeare are a hidden and coded allegory about Catholic matters. A lot of friends of mine are huge fans of the Asquith way of looking at things, but I am a firm disciple of the late Mrs Bednarowska; the text is the thing, not some hidden text behind the text. This production used the text and never contradicted it; an Asquith-inspired production would run into all sorts of difficulties, I fear. Helena is herself, not some allegorical figure standing in for the wronged and rejected Catholic faith.

Mind you, though, we have no way of knowing one way or the other. I reckon that Shakespeare was at the very least sympathetic to the old ways of Catholicism, as many Elizabethans must have been. But there is really no evidence of a Catholic faith, though there may be some sympathy with Catholic ideas. The Catholic Encyclopaedia’s article, even if it does not reflect the most up to date research, surely gets this right. It is understandable that some may wish to claim the national poet for the faith, but it seems to me little more than wishful thinking. Meanwhile, I say, enjoy Shakespeare for what he undoubtedly is, our greatest dramatist, and hot-foot it to the Globe before the summer is over.

  • Anonymous

    But Father; Shakespeare was all about allegory and allusion, not just in matters religious but in matters political. There is more evidence that he probably was ‘papist’ than there is not, but to have ‘come out’ would have been unthinkable under Elizabeth upon whom he received, both directly and indirectly, a great deal of patronage.
    Given the strictures on free speech during Tudor times allusion and allegory were the only weapons of dissent.

  • Mitchell

    Allegory?  The great Bard was no cheap allegorist. 

    In Shakespeare’s time there were traveling troupes of really bad thesbians who created allegories about the bible and the evils of “Popery”, mainly to propagandize the recently converted English.  Shakespeare would have been absolutely devastated if you were to any way compare his magnificent poetry to that cheap theatre.  This is a man who rarely had purely “good” and “evil” characters.  Most of his characters were enormously complex, and the greater they were (like Falstaff and Hamlet) , the more complex they were.  Even the “simple” characters, like Cordelia and Iago, had those peculiar flares of virtue and evil that only the master dramatists have created. 

    The Bard might have been, and probably did have deep Catholic sympathies.  But they are hardly cheap allegories with simple endings.  Shakespeare’s genius is so much larger than whatever hat we want to place on him.  Without a doubt his primary concern wasn’t to poke fun at Anglicanism or Catholicism or Jacobeen monarchs or Elizabethan monarchs, it was to make timeless masterpieces.  For that accomplishment, he should be praised. 

  • Recusant

    Byrd and Tallis were Catholics, didn’t do them much (serious) harm. If Shakespeare had been openly Catholic, I’m sure she’d have got over it.

  • GFFM

    Fr. Lucie-Smith makes a good point. I do not agree  with reading Shakespeare’s plays as “Catholic code.” However, what some of the new criticism of the bard’s work and his life has accomplished is a renewed interest in Reformation and Counter Reformation English culture. This kind of reappraisal was and is definitely needed and should continue because it helps us gain insight into the times and into how Catholics dealt with the oppressive regimes of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Moreover, Shakespeare’s probable Catholic influences give those of us who are students of Reformation England an unusual perspective which has added many new ideas to the academic and popular discussion of Shakespeare’s work and the social context in which he worked.

  • Anonymous

    I was not suggesting that Shakespeare was a cheap allegorist, but to say there was no allegory in his plays is to misunderstand Shakespeare.
    At times, the action in Shakespeare’s plays is partly allegorical or symbolic. In such instances, however, the allegory or symbolism is related to what is already portrayed in the drama and serves as an artistic means to amplify its impact.

  • Thomas Beyer

    Hear, hear!

    It doesn’t take long to realize that Shakespeare had a Catholic (that is to say, truly Christian) imagination. This must have been the case with a good number of Elizabethans. Seeing one’s staunchly-Catholic family, friends, and neighbors hanged, drawn, and quartered will certainly change where one goes to Church on Sunday over night, but it will be quite a bit less successful in the intellectual and, above all, imaginal realms.

    As Catholic an imagination as Shakespeare might have had, you are absolutely right that Shakespeare’s works should absolutely never be taken as having some kind of hidden agenda. His plays are his plays. His characters are his characters. His events are his events. This is art. To suggest that Shakespeare sought intentionally to insert any sort of political or religious subtext into his plays is to cheapen his work into mere propaganda.

    The Catholic stamp on Shakespeare is evident. Nevertheless, Shakespeare was an artist first.

  • Sr Sandals

    Clare Asquith also deals with the text, not some revisionist subtext which makes her case better. I think maybe you have misunderstood her insight, an insight backed up with much careful research, that the text in some of the most important works reveals a most skillful dialogue with two divergent audiences AT THE SAME TIME!

    Shakespeare’s work is masterful because he can do all this, dice with his own personal safety (why is it that he’s the only playwright who wasn’t tortured, killed, bought off or turned into a government spy?), whilst pleading the cause of mercy for recusants and those not in the ruthless and barbaric totalitarian inner circle of the new protestant world order.

    His plays are strongly allegorical in that their centre character is always Desire: Desire, envy, covetousness and the hubris and deceit which result.

    I heartily recommend that anyone really interested in Shakespeare re-examines Asquith’s work, especially in the light of Rene Girard’s incomparable reading of Shakespeare (“Theatre of Envy” is utterly brilliant, and makes me wonder whether some of these plays have ever been performed correctly, in that the deliberate decoys and ‘easy’ superficial views of these plays is still swallowed whole by one and all).

    Finally, to fail to notice the true context of the original work is to swallow whole the protestant (the ‘victor’, historically speaking) lies about the Reformation. We still do the work of Henry, Edward, Cranmer, Luther, Elizabeth and especially the likes of the Cecils/Walsingham et al, when we deliberately shield our eyes from the true context of Sshakespeare’s work – there were two theatres in Shakespeare’ times, one involving the real and hideous butchery of innocent people for the Faith, and the other one taking place in the Globe etc which held a very pale mirror up to the spectacle of the former, which often took place right outside its very doors! The error made by a contemporary reader of Shakespeare, who had had a typically British university education in the Arts or Classics, is to fail to notice the Real Theatre going on side by side with the one in the Globe, a theatre of such intense savagery that it would match the Roman barbarity towards the early Christians. To misread Shakespeare by denying this context, which is the very life-giving oxygen of the works, they make little sense without the context, would be the same sort of mistake as saying that Jesus was a political rebel who caused his own death because of his radical social justice agenda! The standards of the British education system are really not in good order when it took how long, 500 years, for someone like Duffy to put simple irrefutable evidence before the British public of the Mao-like “revolution” which happened all those years ago. 

    Read Girard and Asquith together, and we are free from the bogus superficiality of the “brilliant works of a genius, which absolutely no-one can understand, but good ol’ British genius nonetheless” – I mean really, why bother? Why not put King Lear on ice, or the infernal easy setting of all his plays in the 1920s! If things have no meaning then praising them is a highly dubious past-time.

  • Sr Sandals

    Whilst agreeing with your first paragraph, I think we are at odds over the 2nd. As a playwright myself the idea that “his plays are his plays” and the myth that ‘things write themselves’ is not quite correct. Shakespeare like all artists use their characters, choose their characters, to make a point, and the point of Art is not just rambling unconscious self-expression (surely a Modern conceit), which may or may not result in something profound or at least, entertaining.

    Shakespeare himself says so (in Hamlet, in Henry V etc etc) – his work is not meaningless, it is full of meaning, deliberate meaning. The idea that Art is meaningless and is just some entertaining journey like a ride in a theme park is unworthy of great Art. The text, yes even coded text riddled with diversionary tactics to protect those under threat of extermination or scapegoating, is what it is, but to set out with an agenda that its ‘all just a romp’ isn’t what I’m driving at at all.

    I agree with Girard that Shakespeare is an incomparable reader of the Bible, in that he understands that the mechanics of human desire is shaped by our inability to contain our innate violence and what he calls ‘mimesis’ (loosely ‘imitation of others desires’, which again are mostly violent desires) are the unacknowledged basis of all our interactions, and unless we realise this we are doomed to repeat the same sins again and again. 

    Sometimes Shakespeare had to use code, but the code isn’t ‘subtext’, its still in the very text itself, very loud and very clear, and surely reached its target knowing the collective and willful self-deception of the masses and the authorities, and like the Temple authorities who ‘covered their ears’ when St Stephen began prophesying, he’s totally and utterly aware of the (almost) invincible human desire to fail to hear what’s being said, to cover ones ears and heart to the truth. Sadly, this still goes on with productions of Shakespeare today, unbelievable superficial ‘university standard’ productions of the Bard, whose ‘message’ or intent is simply: this ultimately is meaningless, enjoy! The only interpretation given is the one Shakespeare didn’t ‘mean’, the one for the plebs and the authorities – it beggars bel

  • Ianlogan

    It is of course possible that Shakespeare’s play are not coded Catholicism, but that he was a Catholic as the circumstantial evidence seems to suggest.

  • Ianlogan

    It is of course possible that Shakespeare’s play are not coded Catholicism, but that he was a Catholic as the circumstantial evidence seems to suggest.

  • Mack

    Please — don’t say “bard.”  No.  Don’t do it.

  • Thomas Beyer

    Oh no. I would never espouse the notion that art is meaningless or mere entertainment. There is a class of purely sensational works which rise only to the level of entertainment (e.g., Desperate Housewives), but they are certainly not art, and art is not they.

    True art has depths of meaning neither the artist nor the appreciator can plumb. (See the Letter to Can Grande of the poet Dante.) It has these depths because the artist has incarnated the truths of being and reality so successfully that the work of art becomes a kind of image, a kind of “playing out” of the truths of God and the world.

    These meanings, these truths, this reality which lie at the heart of a work of heart must not, however, be put there intentionally by the artist. As soon as this occurs, the work of art stops being art and starts being propaganda, simply a tool to spread the authors abstract ideas (e.g., Ayn Rand).

    Art must not being in the sky, but in the earth. Which is to say it must incarnate, personify, “perform” the truth, not preach it. A work of art is a sacrament, a sign (or set of signs and symbols) which actually contains what it signifies.

    Of course there are meanings, truth, “code,” if you will, in art, but these are not put there by the artist. The artist simply recreates the world around them. Insodoing, he unwittingly recreates the truths of that world. It is these upon which it is possible to pick up in the works of Shakespeare.

  • Sr Sandals

    Thomas you make your point well, and I suspect that most people would understand and agree with you.

    However, I cannot agree with your definition of Art since it claims too much for ‘unconscious creation’ (whatever that might be), and that the ‘spell’ of art is eradicated by too much deliberate ‘propaganda’, a very loaded political word which renders a harmless or even playful conceit, by Shakespeare or any artist, unworthy of the ‘sacrament’ of Art as you put it.

    I think your view may be influenced by the oft repeated advice of Hollywood film-makers not to bother trying to write film scripts that contain any sort of message. Any student of film-making though will be aware that there is more to storytelling than beginning-middle-end. This is just the ritualistic window-dressing to meet the audience on common ground.

    Art though is artifice, look at the way in Hamlet when the deliberate use of the play-within-the-play is made explicit as a device to ‘catch the conscience of the King’.

    Our Modern ideas of Art, that Art is like some scientific ‘black box’ where we can only approach creation with a mind stripped of all artificial/ethical/political/philosophical intent (how do we approach this state exactly? is it an Eastern meditation on the nature of the Void that we require first?), and then the moment we ‘intervene’ in the perfectly improvised interaction of the real and living characters (wow, we are at the level of God in that we can create things that appear to be ‘not us’ – or is that a fantastical fallacy?) the thing becomes a dead letter, a clumsy unsubtle shout of mere ‘opinion’ – isn’t this all a bit open to question to say the least? Who exactly formulated these codes of what Art is and isn’t? Yes, a great Artist hides the joins, conceals the workings (or maybe perhaps enjoys revealing them too), but the over-acceptance of the final product as having nothing whatsoever to do with the Author and their ‘intention’ (conscious or unconscious) is something worth looking at again I think. 

    I’m not saying you can or cannot discern exact biographical details of Shakespeare’s life from his work, but by reverencing the separateness of the text from the artist who created it we might be falling into the trap of missing the whole point of the exercise. This view is a similar one to the idea promoted by Modern academia that the New Testament can’t be believed as having any historical basis in fact since the ‘believers’ have compromised themselves from the very start by being ‘believers’ and are therefore not to be trusted on any factual matter. 

  • Thomas Beyer

    My views on art and literature are based fairly completely on those of Jacques Maritain’s work Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry as well as other complementary works by Dante, Coleridge, and the Southern Critics, among others.

    This conversation has been enlightening. I suggest we continue it on my blog. Keep checking it and soon I’ll begin posting a series which lays out point for point the theory of art which I espouse. I would love to read your comments.

  • Hellena Taylor

    There is much more proof than just surmise.  The majority of Shakespeare’s family and some of his teachers and benefactors and certain associates were Catholic and are on public record as recusants and certain of these were martyred at Tyburn.  When death was the possible penalty for Catholic associations, don’t you think it is odd that Shakespeare was so close to recusant and “treasonous” activity if he wasn’t Catholic.  Most of us are not martyrs and would go out of our way to avoid hot potatoes such as friends that could possibly send us to Tyburn.  To add to the work of Claire Asquith, do please read “The Quest for Shakespeare” by Joseph Pearce, this details some exciting evidence about his life his family and the people he associated with.  

  • Parasum

    It’s very good to see a mention of Dante :)  – his poem is an allegory, and in no way “cheap”. (He and Milton are also two standing disproofs of the idea that one cannot use verse to argue.) Dorothy Sayers’ criticism of Dante in her essays on his great poem, and in her translations of its three parts, have a lot to say about art & literature, & much more besides. That she was also a Christian apologist, & a creative author, was probably not a disadvantage.

  • Ian223

    Why not?

  • Sr Sandals

    Please, in contradiction to the headline of this column, let us all get carried away by Shakespeare’s Catholicism – there are treasures to be discovered for Christians which reveal a very clear understanding of Christ’s Good News and the disastrous need for audiences and authorities and ‘experts’ (even now) to fail to hear his simple message repeated again and again: that without Christ’s Revelation of humanity’s sinfulness by His life, death and Resurrection we are doomed to repeat, copy, imitate, covet, and needlessly inflame unlawful and destructive desires, which we are too stupid and too easily entertained or distracted to want to understand. Until we grasp this we are the fools he tries to fob off with ‘what they want to hear’, the same wishful thinking that can’t accept Original Sin and the consequences of their own lack of belief in the Truth. 

    The plays are an incomparable reading of the Bible.

  • Thomas Beyer

    It’s taking a while to get the comprehensive series written, but there’s now a post on this topic up at PopSophia.