Part 2: A Poet's Expression of His Religion
"Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences.
The supreme question about a work of art
is out of how deep a life does it spring?”
— James Joyce
Five Plays Revisited
The five plays discussed so far are, in some form or another, pictures of Jesus. But they are more profoundly allegories of the church. Jesus is a king, and a king has his kingdom. Christ’s kingdom is the kingdom of heaven, Christendom. Shakespeare’s plays about the history of nations and empires provide ripe opportunities to be reworked in the image of the kingdom of heaven, offering Shakespeare ample opportunity to catechize Catholics through riveting stories.
Before we talk of Christendom, let us talk about the first kingdom of God — Israel. Understanding the splits suffered by this ancient kingdom will help our understanding with current splits in Christendom. Granted, for non-Christians, all these discussions on Christ’s teachings and divisions is like listening on a family story, only, it’s not your family, so who cares, right? Nonetheless, it’s important to listen in on this family squabble because the squabbles of the people of God inevitably affect the world. If half the world calls itself a son of Abraham, then the divisions of the Abrahamic religions impact the world. Likewise, if two out of seven people across the globe somehow claim a tie to Jesus, what those people believe and fight over within the family inevitably affects and influences people outside the family. And so, we must understand the divisions within ancient Israel in order to understand the divisions today within Christendom.
About ancient Israel, in the 10th century before Christ, the kingdom of Israel split in two. After the golden age of the Israelites under King David and his son, King Solomon, the ten tribes of the north revolted. Two tribes remained in the south, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Jerusalem, the capital of the whole of Israel, after the rebellion was only the capital of the southern kingdom.
The civil war of Israel, whose split created two nations out of one, is a good learning experience for civilizations. The ten tribes of the north wanted relief from excessive taxation by the central government in Jerusalem, the capital of the tribe of Judah and all of Israel. This should sound eerily familiar to Americans, “no taxation without representation!” Civilizations rise and fall throughout history. Often, the root cause of the fall is when a government becomes burdensome to her people. The people no longer care to support that government, and when issues arise, they move on.
The Roman Empire, for example, became decadent and overspent as the people close to the Capital lived off the hard work of peoples scattered across the empire. Finally, when plagues passed through the empire, or famines and draughts plagued the people, or barbarian invaders threatened, or Army generals rebelled, the people did not care enough to remain Roman. They were tired, and the Roman Empire was weakened, and the people outside Rome were willing to change. In the end, they let the burdensome government fall and carried on. Similarly with the English colonies in America, at some point the Americans were tired of funding English expansion and paying the cost without having a representative voice, and they fought for independence.
The northern kingdom of Israel, likewise, was tired of sustaining capital projects in Jerusalem which allowed the King to live with a harem and horses while the people worked to support Jerusalem. When central governments do capital projects for expansion, they inevitably get used to the cash flow coming in, and don’t realize that the faucet should turn on and off. Instead, they turn the faucet of taxes on, for a purpose, and rather than turn it off once the projects are completed, they find other reasons to keep it on and even push for increases to the flows of tax revenues. People get used to lifestyles, and it takes work to change patterns of behaviors. Under tyrants, people get used to liberties slowly being taken away and enter in survival modes. Under flowering civilizations, the people in the Capital get used to times of high revenue and forget to plan for draughts or famines or wars. The fall of America will be predicated on a few indicators, one of which will be when the city of Washington D.C. becomes one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country. It means the government has gotten used to a life style that it beyond what the average American experiences. A big country like America, will always have pockets of wealth. Various industries take root in New York or California or Texas, but when the wealth gathers in the capital, it is a sign the people in power of running the country have become enamored with money. Once people love money, it’s hard to get them to serve the country. Jesus was wise to recognize, “You cannot serve God and mammon”. No person can have two masters, one always take precedent. When the people in power chose money over country, the danger will be they spend the country into poverty and the people will stop caring about the country. Floridians and Californians and Texans and Carolina and Hawaii will find more pride in being from particular states than being from the United States. Same thing happened to the Roman Empire. Same thing happened to the English Empire. Same thing happened to ancient Israel.
The Jewish people were unique though. In their “rebirths”, they were always reborn Jewish. English colonists became Americans. The Roman Empire became European nations (and later the European Union). But the Jews, time and time again, whether exiled or conquered, they always returned to their core beliefs and values. Across the globe, the scattered tribes of Israel are able to retain their identity as Jewish people, and now, four thousand years later, they still have their homeland. Their belief in the God of Zion is an inoculation against other gods. Not to say that individual Jews did not assimilate and get absorbed by other cultures, but by and large there is always a remnant who stays faithful to the ancient practices and traditions, and from that seed of a remnant, that stump of Jesse, grows a new tree. If anything, the world has taken on their beliefs. Monotheism spread throughout the world thanks to the Jewish people. Jewish prophets are celebrated by the major religions of the world: Islam, Christendom, and Judaism. So the seed of Judaism is planted and reborn in multiple ways. But at least one tree always grows “Jewish”.
It’s important to recognize this everlasting nature of the people of Israel. Even after the split in the kingdom of Israel, God continued to send prophets to both kingdoms. His love for both kingdoms continued. Jesus himself was born in Bethlehem (the Southern Kingdom), but raised in Galilee (territories of the Northern Kingdom).
But while God’s love remained for both kingdoms, and the prophets were sent to both kingdoms, one kingdom had greater promises. The tribe of Judah had been promised an everlasting king, and David, the first king of all of Israel to be from Judah, was promised his son would reign forever. Now, this promise could be fulfilled in one of two ways. One, David could have son after son after son, tracing the kingship throughout the ages to the end of time, and so on the throne of David, his sons would always reign. The second way is David could have one son who lives forever. And in a different way, on the throne of David, his son would always reign. So while God’s love remained, the southern kingdom was the guardian of greater promises. Because of this, more prophets were sent to them urging them to remember their responsibilities as the guardians of these greater promises.
By the time of Christ, both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel had been conquered and were no longer kingdoms. They were subject to the authority of the Roman Empire. This was after having been exiled by world empires like the Assyrians and the Babylonians, and being hellenized by the Greeks. At the time of Christ, the Jews had governors, but they had not had a Jewish king in roughly six hundred years. It was one of these Roman governors, who with the authority of Caesar, proclaimed the last “King of the Jews” — Jesus of Nazareth, the king of Christendom.
Christendom is different in nature than the ancient kingdom of God. Israel’s law was both civil and religious. The law of Moses was for one nation and their religion. It was a law that functioned as both civil and religious, it was a two-for-one law. Christendom is only a religion. This religion has the fullness of divine revelation, so there is much wisdom from the Jewish people’s history which can be used to build nations and make laws, but Christendom is not a nation. It is a kingdom among nations and within nations. But the teachings and values of Christendom helps build nations, like when Europe transformed from a Roman Empire into European nations, the Catholic church had significant wisdom to guide the emerging monarchies. Also, when the USA transformed from colonies into United States, likewise, Christian wisdom and learning and experience was fundamentally important in building its laws and governing institutions and creating common culture and values. But Christendom is different from other earthly kingdoms. It is a heavenly kingdom, sent for the purpose of serving and saving the kingdoms and countries of the earth. So Christians, will always be dual citizens, we are ambassadors of Christ. All Christians are part of a kingdom, even if we live in republics and democracies. And our role is to always learn the ways of the world to communicate truth to it, and in doing so, preserve the earth like salt and illuminate earthly darkness with heavenly light.
Christendom, like the ancient kingdom of God, has likewise suffered fracture. Christendom is split. You can know how Christendom is split based on how a Christian interprets the words from Jesus to Cephas — ‘Cephas’ is Aramaic for Peter and also means Rock) — “You are Cephas and upon this Cephas I will build my church”.
Catholics believe those words of Jesus created an office for Peter as the head of the apostles, what we call the pope, the head of the church on earth. Though Christ is king and head of Christendom, he has entrusted his kingdom to his prime minister, Peter (and the successors to Peter). Peter was the first occupant of an office that lasts until Christ comes back at the end of time. Catholics trace all our popes in succession back to Peter in the 1st century, much like Americans trace our presidents back to our first president in the 18th century, George Washington, or like Englishman trace the kings of England back to Alfred the Great in the 9th century. Non-Catholics take Jesus’s words to mean something else.
To be clear, a Catholic believes that the present split in the kingdom of heaven is not unlike the previous split in the kingdom of God. God loves all people. But Christians have certain promises and responsibilities which non-Christians do not have. Likewise, within Christendom, Catholics have certain promises and responsibilities which non-Catholics do not have. Shakespeare, through his plays, reminds Catholics of these promises and responsibilities.
To understand Catholic uniqueness, we shall revisit the same five plays, and this time, we will see them through the lens of Christendom. This is part of the genius of Shakespeare, his plays function on one level to reveal our King, and on another level — in the same play no less! — are allegories to teach us about the Catholic church and our role in Christendom. Let us turn first to Richard III. This section on the Catholic church is longer than the previous because to understand Shakespeare’s insights, we need background on the history of the Church. This background is vital in understanding Shakespeare’s plays.