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The Playwright the Professors Have Rejected


It's Saint Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas, 1604. 

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shakespeare We are in Windsor Castle, in a palatial room decked for the season in holly and ivy.  Aromas of rich food and drink fill the air.  Hundreds of lords and ladies are there, but they are silent, all eyes and ears fixed upon what is happening before them.  Even King James leans forward from his seat of honor, elevated above the rest.

A man in the garb of a friar, no friar but the duke of Vienna, is pronouncing sentence upon his deputy Angelo, who is by intention guilty of raping a young nun as blackmail for sparing her brother's life, and then having the brother executed anyway.  The brother's crime was not rape or blackmail or murder, but merely getting his own betrothed wife with child.  Angelo richly deserves to die, and wishes it.  But he, too, is loved.  His own betrothed wife, Mariana, whom he has spurned, pleads for him.  The nun, Isabella, believing that her brother is dead, stands in th e midst as accuser and victim.

The duke speaks with all the authority of natural justice, law, and Holy Writ:

But as he adjudged your brother —
Being criminal, in double violation
Of sacred chastity and promise-breach
Thereon dependent, for your brother life, —

and the great actor Richard Burbage raises his right arm to the heavens,

The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
An Angelo for Claudio, death for death.
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.

One of the actors, a middle-aged man in the small part of a friar, looks on.  He nods.  "Dick's a genius," he thinks.  "Not one word overdone.  Brilliant, my old friend!" The friar is the leader of the theatrical company, The King's Men.  He's also the author and director of the play.

The people in the audience are taken off guard.  Just for a moment, they look into their hearts, as the author hoped they would.  They know the words of Jesus: Judge not that you may not be judged.  For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again. They know that Angelo is a villain.  But what man alive can hold his head high before his Savior?  They are not sentimentalists.  No one in that room is; certainly not the author.  It is the day after Christmas.  What will happen?

Mariana turns to Isabella, one woman to another.  "Isabel," she cries, "sweet Isabel, do yet but kneel by me!" She begs the nun to plead for the life of the man who would have raped her, and who, as everyone believes, has enacted a judicial murder of her brother.  What will happen?  Souls hang in the balance.

The director counts to himself, one, two, three, four....  Not yet, Nicky, not yet,! Isabella falls to her knees. 

The King and The King's Man

After the festivities, the king, sober and thoughtful, calls the director over.  "Master William, you are worth a thousand parsons."

"I am no parson, my liege," says William.  "Several tapsters on the Thames could testify to that.  You know that our jests are unfit for any holy place."

The king narrows his eyes with a good-natured but ironical glare.  "Is it fit for you to bandy words with your sovereign?  A thousand parsons, I say."

"I humbly thank your majesty."

The king prides himself on being something of a theologian, as William knows.  "I refer to the text upon which your play has been so splendid a commentary."

"Measure for Measure," says William.

"No," says the king.  "You see, I too am aware of the times and the seasons."  And he reads from the psalm for Christmas day:

Mercy and justice have met each other:
justice and peace have kissed.
Truth is sprung out of the earth:
and justice hath looked down from heaven.

"As I had expected," says William.  "My king is attentive and wise."

"Now, your Isabella pleads for the life of her persecutor.  There is mercy.  But she pleads on the grounds that Angelo did not perform the rape he believed he performed, and that he did have warrant by the letter of the law to execute her brother.  There is law, there is justice."  The king pauses.  "Explain yourself."

"My liege," says William, "you need no wisdom from me, but I will obey.  Our Savior put the old law to death by fulfilling its terms to the letter, raising it to life in the spirit, in the new law of mercy.  For mercy and justice in this world seldom speak to one another, but in heaven they are sisters, and they kiss."

"Which is why you have given me this Christmas gift," says King James of England. 

"I am honored to do so," says Shakespeare. 

Playwright of Feasts

I've heard people say, dismissively, that Charles Dickens "invented" Christmas for the English.  That's nonsense.  The grog and ale had long been there, the gift-giving, the caroling, and the witness of the Gospels, telling how Love came down among us in the flesh.  English writers have been meditating upon the two most dramatic feasts of the Faith, Christmas and Easter, ever since the monks made the Saxons literate and Christian.

Shakespeare was no exception.  When James ascended the throne in 1603, Shakespeare was already a writer of renown, head and shoulders above his theatrical fellows.  But in that age of theological ferment — when collections of sermons could make good money for booksellers — Shakespeare was also, by far, the most theological of his fellows.  It isn't that he simply echoes Scripture more often than they do.  It's that some of his plays, like Measure for Measure, are inspired by theological reflection and are organized accordingly.

The favor that his company received from James meant he would present plays before the court during other Christmas holidays.  That alone would have sufficed to encourage him to meditate upon the meaning of Christmas, and to portray that meaning in unusual dramatic form.  Yet Shakespeare, of all people, could not easily avoid thinking about the specifics of his faith.  He was a Roman Catholic living in a realm that persecuted Roman Catholics.  His father had died a recusant.  His daughter Susanna would also be openly Roman.  His cousin, Robert Southwell, was a poet and a Jesuit priest, executed by Queen Elizabeth.

Take Christmas and Easter, and Shakespeare's final three plays.  Cymbeline is set during the reign of the king who ruled England when Christ was born.  The universal peace fit for the Prince of Peace is secured in England by a truce between Cymbeline and the Roman army.  The play's repentant hero is named Postumus, for his having been born after his father had died.  He is, morally and dramatically, raised from the dead; as is his innocent wife Imogen.  The Winter's Tale involves a royal newborn baby, abandoned to the elements, discovered by illiterate shepherds.  It too features a resurrection from the dead — in the most startling final scene of any that has ever graced the stage.

The Tempest was inspired by a wondrous account of men lost at sea.  They had been shipwrecked off Bermuda, but they survived, and the news reached England a year later, in December 1608.  It was the talk of the town.  Meditating upon that, and upon the daily readings for Advent and Christmastide, Shakespeare wrote his farewell to the stage.  The Tempest is filled with mysterious echoes of the prophet Isaiah, of the shipwreck of Saint Paul, and of the birth of Jesus.  A small child is exposed to death by evil and envious men, but is miraculously saved; and a man dead in sin, believed by his son to be drowned, is raised up, undergoing "a sea change/ Into something rich and strange."  In all of these last plays, salvation comes from the small, the child, the stone which the builders rejected.  Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. 

Pearls of Great Price

So how do we teach the works of the greatest author who ever lived?

Imagine going to Chartres Cathedral, to study how much the granite cost, and to inspect the water table under the foundation, but not gazing up at the rose windows in their glory.

Imagine going to the Sistine Chapel, taking a tape measure to Michelangelo's Adam, to record the length and width of arm and neck and big toe, but not looking in awe at the longing in his countenance, and his finger waiting for the electric touch of God.

Imagine being at Bethany, and asking Lazarus (once the shrouds were off) what he thought of Roman politics.  Imagine being near Solomon's Portico at Pentecost, and inquiring about what dialect of Cretan the Cretans heard the Apostles preaching in.  Imagine being there when Jesus healed the blind man, and asking him about his corns.

It might be better never to have been in those places, than to have been there as someone worse than deaf and blind.  Yet the riches remain, for those with the heart to open the treasure chest and look.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: "The Playwright the Professors Have Rejected." Magnificat (December, 2016).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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