Part 1: Jesus CHrist in Shakespeare's Plays

Christian Faith

"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

 

The Facts

 
O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet
— Julius Caesar (V.3.94)

Judaism is fractured.  The great and everlasting people, the tribe of Israel, the chosen people of God set as witnesses to this world; guardians of the promises of God; the people who at one time were slaves lead out of Egypt and into a promised land, and in another time were lead out of concentration camps of Europe and given back their same homeland; a promised land flowing with milk and honey where slaves are given a law to help them live as freemen and walk in freedom as one nation under God; a people of the book, with a law, a priesthood, a king, a temple, a religion, twelve tribes and yet one family; this great people who had writings delivered by God himself through the mouths of prophets and kings and priests and poor people; this great people who are scattered throughout the world and yet still have a homeland; yet these scattered descendants of a great people and a good God are not now one nation nor one religion nor one tradition, but a people of many nations, many traditions, and many forms of tradition; and the many forms of religion are currently organized with the rabbi as the spiritual head of their community.  It has been this way for nearly two thousand years.

Yet there is a curious thing about Judaism.  Roughly forty years before the destruction of the Jewish temple by the Roman Empire, there existed a Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem but raised in Galilee, who gathered a small band of brothers.  What was unique about this rabbi is he did not keep his message of the love of God only for Jewish ears.  In fact, after his death he commanded his band of brothers to go out to the Gentiles and preach the good news about the God of Zion, the God of peace and love and mercy, to all people throughout all the earth.  The Jewish God was not a God of the Jewish people but the God of all people.  For his purposes, he revealed himself to the Jews first.  But salvation was always meant for Jew and Gentile.

Jesus of Nazareth sent his followers (called apostles and disciples) with the message of the Jewish God and the Jewish Messiah into the world and throughout the Roman Empire.  Whereas Jews had previously gathered in synagogues, followers of Jesus went not only into the synagogues but also into the marketplaces, they went into the cities and fanned out into the villages.  This small band of brothers, with twelve apostles and roughly a hundred other followers at his death, gained five thousand followers about fifty days after their leader was tortured and killed like a criminal.  Religious authorities put Jesus to death because they feared his influence on the nation and they thought it was better for one many to die than the nation destroyed.  Because of this fear, and maybe because of jealousy, they charged him with blasphemy and handed Jesus over to Roman rulers to be crucified like the worst of criminals.  What was the message of Jesus which was worthy of death?  It was radical love.  The radical of love of God descending to earth.

At the time, many rabbis taught “love God” and “love your neighbor”.  Jesus taught that not only were these two fundamentals of earthly life, but his kingdom has even a higher standard.  His followers had to “love their enemy and pray for their persecutors”.  Jesus taught leaders should serve others, that the greatest was the one who served the most.  Jesus’s golden rule was to treat others how you want to be treated.  And Jesus taught that he was God in the flesh.  For this charge of blasphemy, Jesus was sentenced in the dark of night to be crucified in the light of day.  Lest we think Jesus guilty of falsehood or sin, his betrayer confessed his innocence.  Moreover, the Roman ruler, Pilate, also proclaimed that he found nothing worthy of death and sought his release.  But the crowd cried “Crucify”.  When the Jewish leaders blasphemed and said “We have no king but Caesar”, Jesus was crowned with thorns and crucified with the official charge: King of the Jews.  What the people were blind to, God made sure the world knew.  Finally, lest we wonder if this king forgives, at the height of his torture and prior to his death, he said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  He prayed for his enemies even as we crucified and killed him.  His last will and testament was asking a brother to take care of his mother, and the last words from his lips were psalms and prayers roughly one thousand years old.  Jesus fulfilled the great Greek philosopher’s prophecy, given roughly three hundred years earlier, about what the most just man would look like.  Plato was not speaking of physical appearances but philosophical attitudes.  Plato said the most just man would be one who died through an injustice, and never complained.  Like a sheep before his shearers, Jesus was silent.  This lion of the tribe of Judah laid down like a passover lamb.  On his cross read “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews” so that we’d never have to utter his words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.

But God is not just king of the Jews; he is king of Kings, king of the universe.  God, through Pilate, rectifies their profound error and misunderstanding of the divine plan.  In case this error would persist from the religious leadership to the common people, Christ’s cross proclaims the truth about Christ.  This coronation as “King of the Jews” was granted by the proper representative of Caesar in Jerusalem.  Christ’s cross was unique in all the world, for it was the only one which crucified the king of the Jews.  Moreover, it was the only one which death could not contain.  Pilate, the man who said “what is truth”, had truth proclaimed for all the world to see: Jesus of Nazareth is King of the Jews.

These are some of the various details which early followers of Jesus Christ shared throughout the Roman Empire and throughout the world.  This is the Jesus they talked about, the Christ they proclaimed.  They claimed that this Jesus was lord, not Caesar.  For this treason, many were martyred.  But because Jesus was raised from the dead three days after his crucifixion, those killed for believing and professing Jesus was Lord knew that death would not have victory nor sting.  Therefore, they would cling to truth.  

This story might seem spectacular to modern ears, but the Jewish scriptures had fascinating testimonies of unique miracles done by the God of all the universe through his prophets for his people.  So Jewish people were trained to love nature and see the finger of God, including miraculous events and discern their meaning.  So when Jesus fulfilled many prophecies of not only Greek philosophers, but more importantly Jewish prophets, his message was spread all the more easily to receptive ears throughout the Roman Empire.  People had been waiting for God for a long time.  Jews were looking for fulfillment to the divine promise; Greeks were looking for truth to answer the many riddles of life.  At the cross of Christ, Jew and Greek had their answer.

Based on the testimony of these early witnesses, the Christian faith grew.  This testimony, mind you, caused an early death for eleven of the twelve apostles.  They desired to proclaim the truth over and above their desire to live an earthly life.  For them, it was eternal life, not earthly life, that mattered most.  

These are the facts of the Christian faith.  How one interprets these facts, determines whether one is a Christian or not.  Before we interpret, let us consider three important pieces of evidence: time, Jewish scripture, and name etymology.  In doing so, we will hear Shakespeare’s echo, “O Jesus Christ, thou art mighty yet”.

 
Glory be...

Time is Relative to Man

 

Even though Judaism is fractured, the kingdom of heaven has spread throughout the world like yeast in bread.  The Christian faith exists in every area it has not been outlawed by governments (and it still survives even then).  Because people who follow Jesus follow a crowned king, his followers are part of his kingdom, the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus is the head of a body of people who form Christendom.  Because of this, all followers of Jesus are dual citizens, citizens of the gorgeous plot and piece of earth we are physically born into, and citizens of the heavenly kingdom of our Christ.  

As Americans, we believe governments are instituted among men to govern earthly life.  As Christians, we realize it is our King who gives eternal life.  Earthly life will fade away; eternal life forever stays.  Because of our eternal life, many Christians willingly give up our earthly life to serve and save this world.  We know earthly life is but a glimmer of eternal life.  We are the light to illuminate the darkness and the salt to preserve the earth.  One day at the end of time, heaven and earth will be married, and when this occurs, the earthly kingdoms will be absorbed fully by the heavenly kingdom.  At this point there will be no more sorrow or sighing, no more rape or hate, no more violence or violation.  The brotherhood of man will come fully under the fatherhood of God; the marriage of Jesus and his bride will be consummated.

A simple fact of the ruling power of the kingdom of heaven is how we tell time.  We tell time on earth relative to Jesus.  In past ages, the tribes and people groups of the world told time by the reign of their kings.  After the birth of Christ, first in Europe, and later in the Americas, and now throughout the world, we tell time relative to the birth of a humble Jewish carpenter born of a virgin mother who lived in Israel and died hanging on a cross.  Great men have ruled powerful kingdoms, like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, but it is Jesus Christ’s life we mark our calendars by.  Julius Caesar may have given the world a calendar, but we count the years by the life of Jesus Christ.

So, yes Julius Caesar, thou art mighty, but Jesus Christ is mighty yet.

Why is it we don’t tell time based on great warrior rulers of the past, and instead tell time by a simple carpenter?  It may be because most kings take people’s property in war and by taxation.  It may be because most kings take lives according to their will and their laws.  It may be because most kings seek to rule by force.  Jesus, on the other hand, gives his body and blood for his people.  He gives life rather than takes life.  He rules by love.  He governs through service.  Maybe, one way the world honors so great a king as this humble carpenter, is by taking note of his birth.  We chronicle history on the life of a simple carpenter because we love that he gives revolutionary ideas like “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors”.  We love that he commands “love one another”.  We love that he lived by the ideal “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.

People can come up with all sorts of theories about why all of human history, from the birth of the universe to the birthdays of our friends, is told relative to Jesus of Nazareth.  The simple explanation is because he is God.  All of history is his story.  God has stamped time and history for all people.  Nowadays people may want to ignore God and change before christ (B.C) to before the common era (BCE) or anno domini (A.D., ’year of our lord’) to after common era (ACE), but the fact remains, it’s still standardized to Jesus, whether we explicitly proclaim it or implicitly imply it.  Time is told relative to one man, the man who confessed to be God.  Time is just one of many pointers to Jesus Christ we have in this world.  Even though Julius Caesar created a calendar, the calendar points to the life of one of the subjects of Caesar, a subject not even worthy enough to be a citizen.  Julius Caesar was a mighty man, but Jesus Christ, thou art mighty yet.

 
to the Father, Son and Spirit

Scripture is a Portrait of a Person

 

The world is ruled by Christendom, but ruled in the way our king rules, through love and service.  One way we know this is by how we tell time.  But a second way the kingship of Christ is made known is because before our king was born, God chose to give the Jewish people writings about what the king would look like.  These writings form the first part of the Holy Scriptures.  The final and second part of the Holy Scriptures are the writings compiled to show the various ways the prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus’s life.  Unlike Julius Caesar who was a notable author of latin prose, Jesus Christ did not write one word on parchment or paper.  The only record of him writing was one time in sand, and we have no record of what he wrote, only what he said.  “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more”.

Some might be surprised, how can we trust the writings about Jesus are true?  It wasn’t even written by his hand?  But this is the pattern with which God reveals himself.  God does not write, he entrusts writing to his witnesses, whether prophets or apostles.  He created the world and mankind.  When God began revealing himself to mankind, he revealed himself to people who wrote down their experiences, their testimonies about God.  This people, Jewish prophets, began compiling these messages from God over hundreds of years.  These messages formed the first part of Holy Scripture.  God himself may have wrote once on a table of stone, but Moses broke it on his way down the mountain, and had to rewrite the tablet.  No writing has descended from heaven though his word did.  When Christ came, it was only natural for him not to write about himself, but for his followers to compile their writings.  This was the pattern set before them in the Law and the Prophets, what Christians call the Old Testament.  They wrote the New Testament in the same pattern, they wrote about God thanks to the inspiration of his Holy Spirit.  This is why Christians have the same scriptures that are read in Jewish synagogues, and have a handful of other scriptures also read in our churches.  Christians read Jewish Holy Writings.  But we read them differently.  Just like Catholics read Shakespeare differently. 

Christians read Holy Scripture like Jewish people, on the literal level as their history and testimony about God.  But we also read them on a symbolic level, gleaning details about Jesus throughout the many stories of scripture.  We see how Jesus is the long awaited Messiah.  Jesus is not only our rabbi, but also our Priest (in the order of Melchizedek, Psalm 110), the Prophet which Moses wrote about (Deuteronomy 21), and the long awaited king, the son of David descended from the tribe of Judah (2 Samuel 7).  We read Jewish Scriptures as glimmers and glimpses of a particular man.  The stories of Jewish heroes paint a picture of the Messiah.  This is why Christians read Shakespeare and recognize this same pattern of taking literal stories, like Julius Caesar or Macbeth, to reveal aspects Jesus on a symbolic level.  We are trained to see this through our reading of Scripture.  We see symbolism in literal stories.

In our current image saturated world, where pictures of celebrity faces are blasted over the world and printed on screens and signs and imprinted on our minds, but before Christ, the way Jesus was shared with the world and foretold, was through the stories and traditions of the Israelites.  This is how the Jewish people gave us portraits of Jesus.  The apostles would later use these portraits, whether through scriptures like the Law and Prophet or through tradition like the temple sacrifice system, to teach Gentiles about Jesus.

Focusing only on Scripture, taking only the book of Genesis, let us step through some examples in order to see how Christ is portrayed in various stories.  The details of the stories are remarkably precise, and by knowing the life of Christ we recognize this precision and the patterns used to transmit information about Jesus.  For example, whereas the garden of Eden is a paradise of delights where man disobeyed the will of God, we have the garden of Gethsemane as the place of the dark night of the soul where the last Adam sweats blood in deep agony and anguish, and yet obeys perfectly the will of God.  Through his distress and doubt and despair, the last Adam still declares “Yet not my will but your will be done”.  This is just one example.

For Christians, Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith, the one by whom we live, the light of life, and the giver of eternal life.  In Genesis, we see hints shedding glimmers of light toward true life in Jesus.  In Jesus, we visibly see our Jewish heroes painted a veiled picture of Christ’s life.  These stories create a yearning to see in full what only glimmered before.  With shadows, you see the outline, but not the details.  With the true substance, you see the details and the nuances and lines and depth.  You see the full picture.  In Jesus, we see the fullness of what was hinted with shadow and glimmering light.  Because of Genesis, we yearn to see Jesus.  To give us practice in interpreting literal stories symbolically, let us look into our heroes in Genesis to show how Christians see our savior Jesus in those profoundly Jewish stories.  Let’s consider only Adam, Abel, Enoch, and Noah; characters of the first few chapters in a bible of more than a thousand chapters.

Through Adam, we see sin has entered the world.  But once sin entered, so did the promise of God that one day an offspring would remove sin.  So the people of God waited anxiously by faith for the next Adam, the man who would crush the serpent and thereby rule over sin and death and the enemies of God.  In a better and last Adam, we will find a man who has true and everlasting dominion over the earth and over satan, sin, and death, the true enemies of our everlasting God.

Through Abel, we see earthly life is but a breath for the righteous.  Abel’s righteous blood shed by the hands of his brother warn that a Righteous One would die, but unlike Cain who cries “the punishment is too much to bear”, our Righteous One would take our punishment upon his own shoulders, for “by his wounds we are healed”.  Upon the Righteous One is the chastisement that brought us peace.  Whereas Able is the righteous man killed at the hands of his brother, we see Jesus the innocent man killed by us, his people.  The same spirit of jealousy that possessed Cain to murder Able, is the same spirit of jealousy which exists to remove Jesus from our hearts, the same spirit which seeks to deny the everlasting Creator in the lives of his creatures.  Whereas Able’s blood cries out to the ground for justice, Jesus’s blood is shed for all in a place where justice and mercy kiss, truth and love touch on the cross of christ, our tree of life.  In a better ‘Abel’, we find that though our lives are but a ‘breath’, our peace is for ever.

Through Enoch, we see hints that those who please God ascend directly to our Father.  We understand death is only sleep for those who believe in a better Enoch.  Because the Son descended to us and died for us, we eagerly await and long for the day that we too shall fall asleep in Him, so that we rise eternally in Him.  “Arise” sweet child of God, “arise”.  In a better ‘Enoch’, we find all those ‘dedicated’ to Him are found walking with God forever.

Through Noah, we see by one righteous man, God will cause rebirth.  That our God is willing to start over and give life through his Righteous One.  We see evil will be dealt with and abolished.  What was done temporarily with Noah will be done permanently in the one to come.  In the future, though waters may submerge, life abounds.  In a better ‘Noah’, we find true and everlasting ‘rest’ from the enemies of God.

We see the first words of the Chronicles of our Jewish Patriarchs are the same as the gospel, “man is appointed mortal sorrow, but the Blessed God shall come down dedicated that his death shall bring the lowly rest”.  Our light would do all this and more, creating a fuller picture of what only glimmered before.  We see the gospel in Genesis because we know the good news of Jesus.

Not only is it remarkable that all humanity tells time by the life of Jesus, incredibly, his life was foretold for thousands of years before his birth in Bethlehem by Jewish writings.  Soon after writing was invented, Jewish people began compiling their testimonies about God over hundreds and hundreds of years.  Jewish writings have a dual meaning, first in which their literal history is told and second in which the future is foretold in relation to Jesus.  Both time and scripture are relative to Jesus.

Similarly, Jesus is taught in Shakespeare because the Christian faith teaches us how to read symbolically literal stories.  For the Christian, the Jewish scriptures are glimmers and glimpses of a particular man, Jesus Christ.  Remember, our summary was only of the first few chapters of Genesis, only a handful of stories.  There is much more; whole books similarly reveal Christ for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.  The purpose of this exercise was to show how literal writings are interpreted symbolically.  Shakespeare uses these same patterns.  His plays enjoyed by all on a literal level, are a catechism for Catholics on a spiritual level.

Consider then what might a Catholic is trained to hear when words fly from the pen of Shakespeare, “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!”

 
 
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be...

And People's Names Have Meaning

 

One aspect not yet mentioned in the passage on Genesis above, only hinted at a few paragraphs back, Jewish names have meaning.  The meanings of words are important, they help unlock other meanings.  But this is lost in translation.  It’s common for our culture to note the interesting names of Native Americans, names like Dances With Wolves or Tecumseh ‘Shooting Star’, but names in other languages have meanings as well.  Names always have meaning.  The only difference is in how we transfer that meaning.  In the case of Native Americans, we often translate names; with other cultures, we often transliterate names.

When any word is transferred from one language to another, there are two common options.  Transliteration, where the sound is transferred; and Translation, where the meaning is transferred.  So the name Adam in English is a transliteration of the Hebrew word.  But the translation (the meaning) of the Hebrew word is ‘Man’.

This is some of the difference found within Christendom in interpreting the same passages of Jewish scripture.  Fundamentalists, for example, are more literal in their interpretation, focusing on Adam as a specific person.  Catholics, on the other hand, are more open to symbolic interpretations.  It doesn’t mean that fundamentalists love the scripture more than Catholics, it just means Catholics have an appreciation for allegory and symbolism and how it is used in Sacred Scripture.  A Catholic, for example, sees Adam not only as a specific person who walked the earth, but as saint Paul says, “Adam is the type of the one who was to come”, and so we see him as also as representation of every man who walks the earth.  Adam literally means ‘man’, and that literal meaning unlocks symbolic meaning for Catholics.  Therefore, the problems that befall Adam are the problems that befall all mankind.  We are created in the image of God to walk alongside him as we perform our work, we’re given simple commands, but we doubt his word, and in our doubts are tempted and disobey the command of God.  When this happens, there is extensive collateral damage.  This fall is experienced not only by the first man, but by every man.  We are born into this fall of innocence; we are born in this state of disobedience.  Because of Adam, each one of us is born fallen and each one loses our innocence in unique ways.  Jesus, the divine man and the last Adam, is the only one who though tempted, never disobeyed God.  Hence he was perfected in his death for he was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus was an Israelite.  There is something amazing that the people of God would be forever known as those who “strive with him”.  The other meaning is those who wrestle with God.  By the name God gives his people, we see God loves people who are passionate, who are willing to take hold of him and not let go.  He desires those with a heart that wrestles to know and understand and love him in this life.  That wrestles through the doubts and denials and in the good times.  It’s this kind of people that pray, “how long O Lord” and beg for him to act.  It’s this kind of people who are willing to wrestle with his will, sweating blood and shedding tears until the points that they pray “Yet not my will but your will be done”.  Names are important, in scripture and in Shakespeare, they give hints at the character of people.

Name etymology is profoundly important in understanding Shakespeare because is a great clue to the symbolic meanings he embeds in his plays.  Taking the name of Julius Caesar, we need to be aware of the Latin language to understand the meaning, a language understood by Catholics because of our mass.  Once we unlock the translation of various names in Shakespeare, we have hints of symbolic representations he was going for.  It is amazing Shakespeare saw these things in real stories, like Julius Caesar.  He takes a real emperor who was truly betrayed and reworks this historical story to highlight symbolic points about the life of Jesus Christ and his church.

The amazing aspect of name etymology is these meanings are not hidden like secret codes that can only be discovered by a select few.  Anyone who knows these languages has access to these meanings.  The only thing is, we have to be told how to unlock the symbolism in literal stories.  Christians have great practice in doing this by understanding how the Jewish scriptures point to Christ.  The danger is over symbolizing everything; this is why practice is needed.  Catholics, uniquely through their liturgy, receive this practice every week.  

Let us now talk about how the Catholic liturgy uniquely prepares Catholics to receive a catechism through the plays of Shakespeare.  Let us understand how Jesus Christ is mighty yet in the Catholic liturgy.

 
World without end. Amen.
 
 
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.