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This too too solid flesh

14 April 2022

Shakespeare’s will shows confidence in Christ, says Peter Graystone


Hamlet statue, Stratford-upon-Avon

Hamlet statue, Stratford-upon-Avon

“IN THE name of God, Amen. I, William Shakespeare, in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do ordain this my last will and testament. First, I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting, and I commend my body to the earth whereof it is made.” William Shakespeare’s will, 25 March 1616.

Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616, having caught a fever at a “merry party” thrown by his fellow playwright Ben Jonson. He was 52. His will is preserved in the National Archive at Kew, near London. In it, he left the bulk of his estate to his eldest daughter, Susanna, who was married to a doctor and living in Stratford.

He left £300 to his younger daughter, Judith, who had married a scoundrel who was fined for committing adultery a month after the wedding.

He gave £10 to the poor of Stratford, which, compared with other wealthy landowners of the time, was reasonably generous. And, famously, he left his wife, Anne, “my second-best bed, with the furniture” (that is, the sheets and blankets).

Although this initially appears a slight, it was not an unusual bequest. It is true, though, that, unlike similar wills of the time, there is not one word of tenderness for the woman to whom he had been married for 34 years, many of them spent apart.

Most telling, however, is the way he faces death with confidence in Jesus Christ. The way it is put is typical of Protestant theology of the time, which casts doubt on the suggestion that some make that he was secretly a Roman Catholic. He bequeaths his body to the ground; he bequeaths his soul to his Saviour.

He longs for eternal life, with his expectation poised between assured belief and optimistic hope (which, if we are honest, is the position most of us are in). And he knows that this is possible solely because of all that Jesus has done for him (his “only merits”) on the cross.

The final week of Lent, Holy Week, is the point at which our attention turns to death, and, in particular, the tragic and appalling death of Jesus. These are hard things to think about. We do not want to dwell on death: not ours, not anybody’s.

The biggest challenge of the week is to see Jesus’s death through the eyes of his first followers, who (unlike us) did not know what was to come. All they knew was that their friend was dying young, and in great pain. Their dream that he would be the one who would change the destiny of their homeland had come to nothing.

They undoubtedly recalled that Jesus had warned them with increasing regularity that, as a result of what he was doing, his death was certain. But nothing in the Gospels suggests that, as they watched the crucifixion, they were clinging on to, or even half-remembering, words about his death not being the end.

SPENDING time with Shakespeare during Lent is valuable because he makes us think about death when our instinct is to put it out of our minds. There are some things you can do to consider your death in a positive way.

The first is to put your affairs in order, as he did. Then, ensure that there is nothing unsaid in the relationships that have been significant in your life. Make peace. Be sure that you are not leaving those you care for with a second-best bedful of regrets. Be honest about realities.

There are questions that everyone asks as their life comes to a close; so don’t hold back from talking about them. Why is this happening now? What has my life been for? Who am I? These are the questions of Lear, Prospero, Hamlet, and Rosalind. These are the questions of Paul, Martha, Job, and the writers of the psalms.

And say goodbye. Say it with its true meaning: “God be with ye.” In the 21st century, we are notably unwilling to engage with the realities of death. But people did not want to do so 2000 years ago either.

A young, wealthy man sought Jesus’s advice because he did not want to die. He thought Jesus might be able to help him, and so he came with his questions prepared. He was immensely polite. “There came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, ‘Good Master, what shall I do, that I may possess eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, even God.’”

It has to be said that Jesus was teasing him. He had met people like this young man before, and recognised a genuine desire to be good. The man then set himself the unattainable target of perfection. He implied that he would keep every single commandment perfectly, and with no failures if the result was that he would never die.

You can imagine Jesus trying to keep a straight face as he recognised both the sincerity and absurdity of the man’s intentions.

A flood of affection for him flowed out of Jesus. But that didn’t stop him coming out with the most challenging words he ever uttered: “One thing is lacking unto thee. Go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.”

As they watched the dejected man walk away, Jesus’s disciples were bewildered. “Who then can be saved?” they asked. And Jesus’s answer was dazzling: “With men, it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”

For a man or woman to live again after their death is unthinkable. It simply cannot happen. It would take an unparalleled miracle. But that miracle is the very same miracle that raised Jesus from the dead. That miracle happens.

THIS is the way to prepare for a good death. Denying it does not help in any way. Striving to earn a life after you die by your achievements is futile. This you can hope and assuredly believe, however: when the time comes to die, all you need to do is die. Truly, that is all. God will do absolutely everything else that is required. He will work the miracle.

I work for the Church of England, and, some years ago, the job took me to Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon. As I stood with the Vicar at the back of the church talking about mission, my attention was drawn to a woman kneeling in front of the altar, hunched, and quietly crying.

After a while, she got up, sorted herself out, and turned to go. As she passed the Vicar, she said, in an American accent: “I just don’t know where I would be without that man.”

Because of my job, I am used to people saying that to me about Jesus. But, as we walked to the east end of the church, I realised that she had been in front of Shakespeare’s gravestone.

I have never been sure since whether she was worshipping Jesus or Shakespeare. One or other of them has given her something that sustains her in life. Sometimes, the memory unsettles me — and sometimes, it makes me smile.

Shakespeare is not the resurrection and the life (that’s one of Jesus’s sayings). But I’m pleased that the hope he has given to the woman has been a tower of strength (that’s one of Shakespeare’s).

For those who love Shakespeare, his legacy is a source of comfort, and it sustains them in darkness and on days when death seems to have the final word. For those who love Jesus, an incomparably different prospect upholds them. Easter is coming.

This is an edited extract from All’s Well that Ends Well: Through Lent with Shakespeare by Peter Graystone, published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.99); 978-1-78622-354-8.

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