The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.356 Friday, 31 July 2015
Date: July 27, 2015 at 3:30:30 PM EDT
Subject: From TLS - 'Renaissance conscience'
In all conscience
22 July 2015
Religion, secularity and identity in Shakespeare and early modern culture
367pp. Oxford University Press. £50 (US $80).
978 0 19 967771 9
THE BIBLE IN SHAKESPEARE
378pp. Oxford University Press. £55 (US $99).
978 0 19 967761 0
David Scott Kastan
A WILL TO BELIEVE
Shakespeare and religion
155pp. Oxford University Press. £25 (US $40).
978 0 19 957289 2
How can we hope to understand the sixteenth-century world in all its intellectual and artistic intricacy and diversity – the world of Thomas More, Montaigne and Shakespeare? One answer would be to read it, as Brian Cummings does in Mortal Thoughts, as a world defined by faith. With Shakespeare as its focal point, Cummings’s book has, as its great virtue, a compelling breadth of reference, not merely to the early modern artists and writers who lend their names to the chapters (Dürer, More, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Donne and Milton), but to the entire range of classical authors on whom they drew. Montaigne, for example, drew on his annotated copy of Lucretius to answer Seneca, even as he considered the moral problems raised by suicide as discussed by Cicero and (even earlier) by Plato, in both the Phaedo and the Laws. Cummings sets out to show that such work was “produced in the scope of the Reformation”, but in the process he reveals it to be part of a fabric stretching far back into the classical past.
In a brief introduction, Cummings makes it clear that his book is intended as a challenge to Jakob Burckhardt’s thesis that during the Renaissance “man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such”. Like the unwelcome attendants who invade Groucho’s small cabin in Night at the Opera, a bewildering array of philosophers, from Nietzsche to Charles Taylor, crowd into this small chapter, where Cummings contends “that the history of the self in the early modern period has been falsely constructed on an assumption of emerging secularism”. The introduction is barely needed: the stunning range of material collected in the body of the book is enough to convince the reader that the greatest writers and artists of the early modern period continued to mine a rich vein of classical and Christian thinkers, reinvigorated by the intellectual debates of the Reformation.
Most serious authors in the sixteenth century, whether Catholic or Protestant, regarded St Augustine as an authority on almost everything from the interior of the mind to justice and good government. When William Fulke wished to insult Edmund Campion in the Tower, he said, “You seem not to have read St Augustine”. Campion responded vigorously by challenging him to dispute “in St Augustine in the universitie of Cambridge”. In the commentaries Sir John Harington attached to his translation of Aeneid VI, he follows “no awtoryty but” Scripture and St Augustine, who “ys preferd before all the other fathers in all Disputes and questions”.
Cummings begins his exceptional chapter on Thomas More, “The Reformed Conscience”, with a precise account of the ways the exiled Nicholas Harpsfield began to fashion More’s Life in Louvain in the early 1550s (it was published in 1557, two decades after More’s execution), a version which John Foxe countered six years later in Actes and Monuments with a picture of More as a “fabricator, torturer and hypocrite”. If Anthony Kenny was right to criticize Robert Bolt’s reading (in A Man for All Seasons) of More’s conscience as the “autonomy of subjectivity”, Cummings shows More’s own idea of conscience developing, especially in his last two years, from the theological tradition of Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, in response to the “straight” in which he found himself. Harpsfield, in his account of More’s trial, has him declare: “I will nowe in discharge of my conscience speake my minde plainlye and freely touching my Inditement and your Statute withall”. Cummings shows that Harpsfield’s source for this passage (which undoubtedly influenced Bolt) was not his patron William Roper, More’s son-in-law, but a Paris newsletter of August 1535, of which eight manuscripts survive in the Bibliothèque nationale.
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One of the many excellent features of Hannibal Hamlin’s introduction to The Bible in Shakespeare is his emphasis on the spoken as well as the written word. Shakespeare would have heard the Bible both read aloud in church, and quoted and analysed extensively in sermons. Preaching was everywhere, and “sermons constituted a substantial body of the printed books in the period”. T. W. Baldwin’s “evidence for the centrality of the Bible to grammar school education is conclusive”, so from school onwards, Shakespeare would have become familiar with many passages through variatio, and through “oral repetition”. The mnemonic value of rhythmical chanting was reinforced by the singing of musical versions of the psalms in Sternhold and Hopkins.
In a book happily free of fashionable jargon, and intended for the “educated general reader as well as the academic community”, Hamlin passes from a survey of Shakespeare’s allusive practices to a detailed study of his use of Genesis 1–3. Close analysis of the word “frailty” in Hamlet places “the origins of the English word in the specific context of the biblical Fall”, which is also the source of the famous crux in Hamlet’s first soliloquy: “solid”, “sallied” or “sullied”. In “one of Shakespeare’s favourite books”, Arthur Golding’s translation of Calvin’s Sermons upon the Booke of Job (1574), humanity is described as “sullyed and full of all fylthe”, and Golding uses the word “solydnesse [i.e. sulliedness]” in his translation of the sermons in Calvin’s Psalmes of David (1571). Orally and in print the two words were “sometimes indistinguishable”, making them ripe for punning.
The image of the garden is central to Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlin draws on a rich Catholic tradition of commentary on the Song of Solomon, where the hortus conclusus symbolizes the Blessed Virgin, the antitype of Eve (reinforced by the Latin anagram of Ave and Eva). Shakespeare surrounds the “garden plot” of his source, a poem by Arthur Brooke, with “orchard walls” (in Old Persian the word “paradise” means a “walled garden”), and gives Juliet many features of the Virgin as described by Petrarch, “clothed with the sun and crowned with stars”. One might add that the audience is prepared to see Juliet as a “dear saint” by the language of pilgrimage in the first sonnet exchanged by the two lovers, where Juliet is described four times as a “saint” who responds to “prayers” for intercession (a practice, like pilgrimage, forbidden). Florio’s definition, in A World of Wordes (1598), of a romeo as a “palmer for devotion’s sake” draws on Dante’s definition of three types of pilgrim, in the Vita nuova. The allusions here may be “contrastive, subversive, ironic”, as Hamlin suggests (especially as Romeo’s “faith” turns to “despair” and “engrossing death”), but they cannot be ignored. The sense of the garden as a “locus amoenus”, a place both sacred and surrounded by danger, is one of the things that contributes to what Emrys Jones, in Scenic Form in Shakespeare (1971), called “the extraordinary raptness” of a scene “awe- inspiring in its beauty and poignancy”: “It persuades us that we are witnessing something happening now, in the moment of performance – something unique, marvellous and tragically unrepeatable”.
In the Roman plays, Shakespeare draws on the Bible as much as Plutarch, as in his addition, in Julius Caesar, of the Soothsayer’s line “About the ninth hour, lady”, drawn from Matthew’s Crucifixion narrative. Particularly illuminating is the analysis of his use of the Book of Revelation in Antony and Cleopatra, creating the sense both of “apocalypse and transcendence” in the ending, as Cleopatra moves to “a better life”.
The visual culture was just as rich in images from the Bible, some in churches “despite the ravages of Reformation iconoclasts”, much in domestic tapestries and furniture (both superbly illustrated). In a chapter on the influence of “The Great Doom’s Image” on Macbeth, Hamlin suggests that Shakespeare’s father may, in 1563, have whitewashed the images of Thomas Becket and the True Cross, and not the Great Doom itself, in the Guild Chapel. The Book of Revelation and the Crucifixion story all add to “the apocalyptic atmosphere”, enhanced further by the references to the Harrowing of Hell in the “knocking” at the “South entry” (marked ten times in the First Folio), as Emrys Jones, in his detailed exploration of Shakespeare’s use of the Mystery Plays in The Origins of Shakespeare (1978), noted. Hamlin highlights the intertwining of biblical allusions (“heart cannot conceive”, mediated through St Augustine), and topical reference to the Gunpowder Plot (like Henry Garnet’s alias “Farmer”). The assertion that the plotters were “led by the Jesuits” who “were supposed to have devised their plan at a Black Mass” is one of the few questionable statements in the book.
Hamlin (following Jones) notes that the greeting “All hail” in Macbeth and several plays including Julius Caesar, echoes Judas’s kiss in the York Cycle. In two plays, the Judas reference is explicit: in 3 Henry VI, “so Judas kiss’d his master”, and in Richard II, “So Judas did to Christ”. Hamlin has now discovered that this greeting became so “conventional” that the phrase “All haile maister” was attributed to Judas in many sermons between 1571 and 1599. While the received opinion had been that the last recorded performance of a Mystery Play was in Coventry in 1579, recent work has shown that they continued in small towns, and (as Phebe Jensen has shown) in Catholic country houses like Gowlthwaite Hall, “well into the seventeenth century”.
The grand finale is a detailed comparison of King Lear with the Book of Job, seen through Golding’s translation of Calvin’s Sermons on Job and Robert Persons’s First Booke of Christian Exercise – two books that confronted the troubling theological questions raised by innocent suffering. Persons was the most influential writer to pair Job and Tobias, “the beggar and the blind man, two biblical patterns of patience”. Hamlin is particularly good on the passio of Christ, the allusions to Christ’s mission in the presentation of Cordelia – “O dear father, / It is thy business I go about” – and on the final scene as an inverted pietà. The play is a constellation of allusions: as indeed is Hannibal Hamlin’s book, which allows us to hear Shakespeare through the ears (and eyes) of his contemporaries.
David Scott Kastan’s elegant and concise book, A Will To Believe: Shakespeare and religion, is based on a series of four Oxford lectures in honour of Stanley Wells. The first two, “Shakespeare’s Religion” and “All Roads Lead to Rome”, offer lucid answers to fiercely contested questions. In a spirit of scientific scepticism, Kastan asks of the assertions that have been made of “something as inward as belief” – that Shakespeare was “for much of his life a church papist” (Gary Taylor), or that “he was haunted by the spirit of his Catholic father” (Stephen Greenblatt) – “how we would know which, if any, is true?” After a discussion of the faith of Shakespeare’s parents, including a detailed account of the evidence of the Borromeo testament once found in the roof in Henley Street, Kastan concludes that “Shakespeare’s faith cannot be recovered”. The first lecture, however, ends with three provocative assertions. The parenthetic doubt in the first of these – “the nature of Shakespeare’s faith, even its existence, remains unavailable to us” – seems a very modern view. If we do not know what Shakespeare believed, we can be sure that faith formed the bedrock of his inner being, as Cummings and Hamlin show. Yet Kastan writes: “Shakespeare seems to me at once too skeptical and too sympathetic to be zealously committed to any confession”; and “The religion of the plays can confidently be said to belong only to the fictional worlds rather than to their creator”. If we cannot know what Shakespeare believed, we do not have to fashion a poet who would fit neatly into a Manhattan dinner party.
In “All Roads Lead to Rome”, Kastan lucidly analyses the treatment of the Friar in Romeo and Juliet, relations with the papacy in King John and the excising of Measure for Measure from the Valladolid Second Folio (now in the Folger Shakespeare Library) by Fr William Sankey. While the literary commentary on these plays is at once learned and of a high quality (as one would expect), Kastan’s conclusion that “the daily impact of those [confessional] differences [has] been overstated” suggests a world which is comfortingly (or suspiciously) like ours. Sir John Harington was one of many who expressed regret at “this devision so extreame”, the “schisme” in “Christs cote”, in his Epigrams, and he pleaded, in 1602, that the King of Scots should not “persecute any syde for private displeasure, as the two last sisters may seame to have had”, but instead “allay the heate on all sydes and as it were prepare them to a peaceble parley”. This is a plea for debate to replace persecution, not for religious indifference. Such a thing was hardly conceivable when sermon-gadding filled a Londoner’s Sunday (as Arnold Hunt, Mary Morrissey and others have shown), when parishioners pulled vestment-wearing preachers from their pulpits, when the Spittal sermons were the high point of Easter festivities, when 6,000 or 7,000 people stood at Paul’s Cross for two hours to listen to complex theological sermons in which typological or allegorical readings of the Bible were the norm, and when men camped out overnight to hear Campion preach in the morning. This does not suggest a “Christian commonality” with “a minimalist version of saving faith”, but rather what Deborah Shuger calls a “religiously saturated culture”. Kastan confesses his preference for describing Shakespeare as a “parish Anglican”, a man committed only to the “communal values of village harmony”; I think I should prefer Shakespeare to remain on the lectern with the Bishops’ Bible than descend to the polite nibbling of home-made biscuits in the parish hall.
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The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.354 Thursday, 30 July 2015
Date: July 27, 2015 at 3:20:10 PM EDT
Subject: From TLS - ‘Sans taste’
Sans taste but with teeth
15 July 2015
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 12 September
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 28 August
Holding hands across the gulf of four centuries, Trevor Nunn and Ben Jonson make perfect creative partners. More than any other living director, Nunn believes in trusting the text. In the case of Volpone – neatly but not excessively trimmed and re-edited by Ranjit Bolt – this is the right approach. Some previous productions have, for instance, excised or cut down the second scene, with its witty enactment of metempsychosis performed by Volpone’s trio of household entertainers: the Dwarf, the Hermaphrodite and the Eunuch (Jon Key, Ankur Bahl, Julian Holt). Perhaps this mini-masque has struck directors as too offbeat and recondite to secure full audience attention so early on in the play. Here, however, it is performed both beautifully and repellently, working exactly as it should in introducing us to the wolfish protagonist’s idiosyncratic household pleasures.
Nunn accentuates the continuing topicality of Jonson’s “City Comedy”, replacing the perilous “Venice” which originally stood for Jonson’s own London with immediately recognizable allusions to the Square Mile of today, in all its metallic and digital urgency. Video projections are used to flag up moment-by-moment fluctuations in share prices, or else to display flickering Emergency Ward zig-zags which notate the supposedly failing heartbeats of a very sick old man. With the aid of security cameras outside Volpone’s city mansion we also witness the arrival of each predatory visitor on his host’s doorstep. If technology can be witty, this is.
As performed by Henry Goodman, the play’s “childless, rich” and allegedly also “sick” protagonist, is a star. His split-second mutations into the Seventh Age of Man – “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” – are accomplished with the handy application of a tightfitting geriatric-bald-wig. But even more of Volpone’s rapid ageing is performed by Goodman himself through assured mastery of voice, face and body language. His efficient deception of his first greedy visitor, Corbaccio, is immediately acknowledged by the audience as riotously, though tastelessly funny – humour that becomes more gloriously outrageous with the arrival of each successive client. Much is owed to the witty Mosca (Orion Lee), whose insect-like flickerings and squirming contortions are among various peculiarities that make him the perfect frontman to the quick-change Volpone.
[ . . . ]
Historical and theatrical authenticity are not for the most part features of the RSC ’s Othello. Yet this includes (perhaps by chance) one remarkable example. We know little about the scenes or passages which left the strongest impression on early audiences of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Yet a surviving record relates to a performance of Othello which took place in Oxford in September 1610. It was viewed by a young scholar soon to become a Fellow of Corpus called Henry Jackson. He was especially struck by the dying moments of Desdemona, who “pleaded her case very well”, and “moved (us) more after she was murdered, when lying on the bed she appealed to the spectators’ pity with her very expression”.
Jackson here alludes to the passage in which the violently smothered Desdemona, implored by Emilia to “speak again”, recovers just enough breath both to affirm her innocence – “A guiltless death I die!” – and to forgive her murderous, manic, husband : “Commend me to my kind lord – O, farewell!”. Hitherto, I had seen Jackson’s account as reflecting an audience more readily moved to tears than a modern one, or else perhaps showcasing the poignant fragility of a boy player. No previous Othello has moved me to tears as Desdemona lay dying, but this one did. The affective power of her slow death here was the more remarkable because Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona had up to that point seemed rather charmlessly self-assured. Also, most of what went before had been so brutal that we might by this late stage have found ourselves emotionally numbed.
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