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‘This above all: to thine own self be true’

08 April 2016

The playwright’s spirituality is complex and difficult to discern, says Paul Valley

WAS William Shakespeare a Protestant or a secret Roman Catholic? Four hundred years after the death of our greatest writer, that question is unresolved, thanks to the paucity of the historical facts adduced by those who wish to lay claim to him. The Bard was never once fined for not attending the established Protestant church (unlike his daughter Susannah). But he was friendly with several RC recusants, and his father was a close friend of William Catesby, whose son was the chief conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot.

There is a thoughtful and elegant play currently touring: not by Shakespeare, but about him — or, at least, about Susannah. It is based in fact, thanks to the Consistory Court records at Worcester Cathedral, which show that Shakespeare’s daughter underwent a public trial for adultery in 1613, just a few years before her father’s death. The Herbal Bed, by the late Peter Whelan, is an engrossing tale of love, lechery, loyalty, and lies, which mingles high emotion with philosophical debate. Its truth is as slippery as the logic of the characters who seek to manipulate it.

But, by 1613, the social and religious landscape had already shifted significantly. King James’s Bible was completed, Shakespeare was in retirement in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Puritanism was on the rise. The barriers of medieval stability that the Renaissance had torn down — allowing Shakespeare to roam with a new intellectual freedom across the art, politics, and poetry of both classical and modern worlds — were being replaced by Reformation restraints of a different kind.

There is an interesting essay on Shakespeare and religion by Christopher Jackson in the final edition of the soon-to-be-lamented magazine Third Way. It has little patience with denominational haggling. Instead, it looks in the plays for evidence of Shakespeare’s spirituality. Occasionally, it stumbles into the bear-trap of taking the words of one of the playwright’s characters and assuming that they reveal the author’s own beliefs. But, more generally, it charts, through the plays, a journey which it plausibly attributes to Shakespeare’s personal excursion through life.

Our greatest English writer was, throughout, consistent in his ability to look at life from every side. But his youthful preoccupation was with love and an exuberant joy in existence. The best plays in the 1590s — Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream — Jackson says, “all breathe ease, and delight at being alive”. But as life took its toll, Shakespeare became more troubled, and his plays more problematic.

The source material for Hamlet was clear and straightforward, but the poet removed important information. The result was to isolate Hamlet, “starving both him and the audience of clear explanations”. The play, Jackson suggests, is “some sort of self-portrait”. Its confusion and indecision reflects the growing complexities of the poet’s mid-life.

And yet, in the end, Shakespeare is reconciled through a set of final plays which are each, in their own way, redemptive. And in each of them — Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest — change is symbolised in the figure of the daughter: Mariana, Imogen, Perdita, and Miranda.

Perhaps that was true in real life, too. For William and Susannah Shakespeare, alike it is poetry rather than doctrine which brings us to salvation.

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