Part 1: Jesus CHrist in Shakespeare's Plays
Christ in 5 Plays
"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
Now that we have the basics of Catholic faith, it is time to understand Shakespeare and his plays. Let us learn to “see”. We will discuss Richard III, Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus in order to see how Shakespeare uses these five plays to reveal Jesus Christ. These five plays deal with powerful figures of authority, pictures of emperors, kings, mighty warriors, and great generals. As discussed, Christian readers of the bible are prepared by the patterns of the bible to see the symbolism used by Shakespeare. Literal stories have symbolic meanings, and we learn to see the symbolism in various ways, such as understanding the meaning of names (by translation of languages, not transliteration), awareness of biblical allusions, stories, and heroes (for example, key moments in life of christ or other biblical heroes and villains), and knowledge of precise biblical phrasing (for example, what a christian hears in a phrase like “I am not what I am”).
Shakespeare also uses the biblical pattern of contrasts. The contrasts of individuals or nations or communities allow Christians to see how ideas influence the world, both short and long term effects. We see how simple thoughts like “worship God only” or “love your enemy” have ripple effects on families and societies. We also see how their opposites, like idolatry (worshiping many gods or false gods) or hatred affects the trajectory of people, communities, and the world over time. When seeingcontrasts, both Shakespeare and the bible use negative and positive pictures. For example, you might have a king after God’s own heart, like David, and then chronicles and stories of many kings who either model David’s good attributes or model his bad behaviors. In Richard III, we might have the contrast of Richard’s villainy with the heroism of the man who would be King Henry VII. Throughout Shakespeare and the scriptures, we see the influence of the good and bad leaders, the influence not only the nation, but also religion and the world.
A Christian has ideals in the scriptures, including pictures of the ideal king, a promise vaguely painted in King David and King Solomon and finally fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. For those familiar with divine leadership, once we’ve tasted of it, it is difficult to go back to the ways of worldly leaders. England at the turn of the first millennium, becoming a nation ruled by kings began experiencing the difficulties of the contrasts between worldly and godly leaders. Ancient Israel experienced the same issues. Every king was compared to the king after God’s own heart, David, the great psalmist and warrior. But even David was following a pattern of servant leadership shown by the great rebel and slave liberator, Moses. “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than anyone else on earth”. Whereas other prophets had God reveal himself in dreams and visions, the Lord spoke face to face with Moses, plainly and not in riddles, because Moses was worthy of God’s trust. These great leaders were servant leaders. These good shepherds cared for their flock, and for this they were celebrated. Jesus models this pattern of servant leadership.
Moreover, Jesus fulfills the ideal of servant leadership, for he is the good shepherd who even lays his own life down for his sheep. So whereas most kings tax and take, Jesus dies so that his followers might have not only earthly but eternal life; when most kings send people to war to enslave, Jesus went to the cross to set free; when most kings give laws, Jesus obeys the law even unto death; when tyrants seek to work outside the law, Jesus was obedient to the law; when most kings speak of love for their crown, golden and with jewels, and their kingdom, Jesus takes only a crown of thorns for the sake of his Father’s heavenly kingdom; when most kings have a harem, Jesus takes one bride; when most kings live in decadent palaces, Jesus was born in a manger, a humble refugee whose family had to flee tyrants. Even foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the son of Man had no where to lay his head. Jesus is truly the king of kings, lord of lords. All other kings pale in comparison. If kings would seek to have a positive and lasting influence, they must learn and mimic the ways of Jesus, the everlasting king whose kingdom will have no end.
The problem with worldly leaders and tyrants, and one reason they must remove the christian faith or minimize it within their nations, is because the christian faith offers a picture of a great king. All who do not seek to be made into the image of Jesus became a sore example of kingship. Shakespeare uses this awareness of authority and governance and kingship, to contrast the various types of kings, and paints them in pictures of varying degrees in contrast to Jesus. A Christian is part of a kingdom with a good king. Once you taste of heavenly leadership, it’s easier to spot devilish behaviors and it becomes tougher to put up with earthly errors they cause when the remedy is so clear: servant leaders. Hence, the English have a long history of slowly guiding their kings to learn what it is to be a servant leader. From the Magna Carta in the early13th century to the civil wars that followed, and even the independence of the American colonies, there has been a constant push from Christian Europe and the English peoples to encourage their political leaders and governing authorities to be more like Christ. Hence, the American colonists, sons of English forefathers and nonconformists and their ideologies, took as our motto “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”. Once you’ve tasted of divine leadership, its difficult to go back to earthly ways. Once you have been set free, it is tough to be oppressed again, which is why the first rule of tyrants is to rid the nation of truth by removing free speech and free media as well as removing the Jewish and Christian faiths through persecution.
Shakespeare paints pictures of characters and kings in multiple lights, not only by creating deep characters but also by creating a variety of vivid characters in the same story. He not only created great heroes, but also fascinating villains. Our first run through Shakespeare’s five plays will be to show how a Christian is trained to see Christ in Shakespeare’s plays, and ultimately receive a catechesis on Christian faith as we see or read his entertaining stories. Most of all, we come away learning more about what makes our great king Jesus a great king and the king of Kings. This is done by contrasting Christ’s kingship with both positive and negative examples of earthly kingship. The simple and Christian answer is the universe is created through Christ. So when God took on human flesh, he lived out the ideal he programed into humanity and into nature. Shakespeare teaches us this larger point in many details through the nuances of his plays. Shakespeare teaches us to appreciate the complexity of Christ.
Up to now, we have built on the foundation of understanding the social situation of England, the aftermath influence on America, and we’ve talked about how the Christian faith, especially the catholic liturgy, has influenced Shakespeare. Now is the time to review the plays themselves. What are the patterns of Shakespeare’s method of revealing Jesus and Christ-like behaviors? Let us look at these five portraits of Jesus. Let us be stewards of the mysteries of Shakespeare.
Richard III: Divine Patterns
One pattern of Shakespeare was to take old stories and embed them with new life and meaning. In some cases like Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, he took stories from Roman history. At other times he took popular fictional stories, as in the case of Romeo and Juliet. But Shakespeare initially made his name by making plays about English history. When people refer to Shakespeare’s Histories, they are in fact referring to his plays on English history. His plays on Roman history are instead often referred to as Tragedies.
The Histories allow Shakespeare to take common stories of England’s past and remold them in light of Christ. At the time of the histories, Catholic England, had ideas of divine authority and the “divine right of kings” as King Henry VIII would later speak. England suffered many civil wars as the lure of power and its abuse produced many claimants to the throne and many rebels willing to fight for freedom under tyrannical kings. England was going through the growth pains of becoming a nation, was unsettled and unstable, and whenever the ruling power was in doubt, claimants to the throne and various tyrants tried to take advantage of voids in leadership produced by bad kings or something as simple as an unclear succession plan.
Richard III is the fourth play of Shakespeare’s career, produced in the early 1590s, as we begin to see and feel Shakespeare’s genius. Richard III is still a popular play on the stage for the fascinating and enthralling villain who becomes the namesake of the play. Sometimes Richard III is referred to as a piece of English propaganda because it shows the rise of King Henry VII, who is the father of Henry VIII and grandfather of Elizabeth I, the reigning monarch of Shakespeare’s early career. It is thought to justify the current reigning monarchs of his time. It may have been seen as a piece of propaganda, but it is wonderfully subversive propaganda! Nothing done by Shakespeare can be classified simplistically; he’s too nuanced to fit neatly inside man-made categories and classifications.
Richard III is a villain, and he desires the kingship at any cost. He is not a christlike model of kingship, who only seeks to steward what he is entrusted with. Instead, he is a machiavellian study on power, someone who rises to power by any means necessary. In Richard’s case, it includes killing his two older brothers, one of whom was king, and his nephews and a variety of other people in his quest for power and kingship. But when you are willing to go to any lengths necessary for power, you are willing to go to any length necessary to stay in power. That is a horrible recipe for a healthy society. Shakespeare shows us this.
Richard’s oldest brother was king, and Richard wanted his throne. The whole play is a fascinating study on villainy and Richard’s rise to power and fall from it. The play has a famous line in the opening soliloquy, “Now is the winter of my discontent”. In this soliloquy, the audience hear’s Richard’s plan is to take the kingship. But as the play proceeds, we are the only ones fully aware of Richard’s villainy. He has cloaked his devilish desires with saintly appearances, as Richard himself tells us, “And thus I clothe my naked villainy, and will seem the saint when I most play the devil”.
One of my favorite scenes is the scene where Richard has his older brother murdered by two accomplices. The scene is in Act 1, scene 4 (Shakespeare gets straight to the good stuff, he wastes no time in getting to the heart of stories). Richard promises to reward the murderers with riches and wealth. He had convinced his oldest brother, the king, to sentence him to imprisonment in the tower, where he could have him killed in darkness. The oldest brother had misgivings and was going to commute the sentence, but unbeknownst to him, Richard had sent murderers to the tower to kill his brother, Clarence. Even in Clarence’s dying moments, he thought Richard was on his side. Only at the end did he realize he was betrayed by his own brother.
I love the scene for a couple of reasons. First, the interaction of the murders beforehand is both fascinating and hilarious. Hilarious because Shakespeare has a great gift of humor which he weaves in and out of his stories, even his tragedies. The humor is because one of the murderers is having pangs of conscience, and is trying to get the murder over with and keeps enduring through his doubts by reminding himself of the riches that will come. The other murderer has no qualms in committing murder, and together both characters provide comic relief to an intense study on villainy. But my favorite part of the scene and the play is Clarence’s interaction with the murderers. It shed lights on the divine plan of God and his pattern for society. God uses this pattern throughout history to protect his people in truth.
Again, it’s worth repeating, a trained Christian is used to hearing whole stories and recognizing glimpses of Christ. So when we say we see these glimpses, it might be only in a phrase that produces deeper thoughts, or in a scene, or in thinking of the play as a whole. But these are coded messages. They are in hidden in plain sight. Everyone hears the same play, but Christians hear a profoundly deeper message.
Clarence evokes thoughts of God when he confronts the murderers, “Erroneous vassals, the great King of Kings hath in the tables of his law commanded that thou shalt do no murder. Will you then spurn at his edict and fulfill a man’s? Take heed. For he holds vengeance in his hand, to hurl upon their heads that break his law”.
For the rest of the play, for the Christian play-goer, we have this echo in our mind of God’s pattern produced by Clarence’s reminder. Through Clarence, Shakespeare causes us to remember Christ and his ways, and therefore we compare the behaviors of Richard and Jesus in our mind’s eye as we watch the play. Shakespeare creates a permanent contrast for the rest of the play between the Richard’s of the world and the christlike figures of the world.
What is the pattern exactly? It is the fact that Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. So in Christ’s life he was obedient to the law. His rebellion to the world was in radical love, not in transgressing laws, commands, and edicts. In contrast, Richard for example, takes the kingship through murder. This is not God’s way for he told his people through the prophet Moses “thou shalt not murder”.
Moses gave his people a law. In that law, there included a requirement that God himself adhered to ever after, “Only on the testimony of two or three witnesses shall a person be put to death; no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The handsof the witnesses shall be the first raised to put the person to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst”. Remember, the law for the kingdom of Israel was both a civil and a religious law. So these laws dealt with civil issues in ancient Israel as well as religious issues. But Jesus fulfilled the law in order to give a better law. The civil laws were necessary for the kingdom of Israel, but for the kingdom of Christ we needed a better law.
So when leaders brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery, what does Jesus do and say? The Israelite law commanded adulterers to be stoned. Jesus says “He without sin cast the first stone”. None can throw stones but the Holy One without sin. And what does the holy one do? He asks the suffering woman, “Has no one condemned you?” She says, “No, my lord”. He replies, “Neither do I, go and sin no more”. See, Jesus came to save from death, not to put people to death. The law came to highlight our need for life by showing us the many things we do to cause death. But Jesus fulfilled the law. This is why he’s the last prophet. Mohammed is a new prophet bringing back old ways of doing things and violating all kinds of laws. Christ freed us from doing things like Mohammed.
The law of Moses has a requirement, and God himself adheres to this requirement, “that no one shall be put to death but on the testimony of two or three witnesses”. In other words, don’t just trust one person’s version of the events. You might say, but the law of Moses was written by only one person. But the law was not the whole story. Joshua completes it. Because the whole story about the people of God, the Israelites, the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was their journey to the promise land. The second witness, Joshua, comes to show the journey into the promised land, a land flowing of milk and honey which Moses wrote about and prepared the people for. Joshua completes Moses’s testimony. And Jesus fulfills it. Jesus is a better Moses and a better Joshua. Like Moses, he frees us from slavery and gives us a new law; like Joshua, he prepares the way for us to inhabit the promises of God. Jesus not only prepares a place for us in heaven, he brings us to the promised land and a restored garden of Eden.
Later, God sends many prophets to warn the Israelites in every major instance of their communal life, whether threat of exile by Assyrians or threat of exile by Babylonians. In each instance, God sends multiple prophets to be his witnesses and give his message to the people. Likewise, when it came time to return from exile, again, multiple prophets are sent with complementary messages. This is why the old testament has over forty books by many authors. Each significant change in the life of Israelites came by the testimony of multiple prophets. God gave us a law, and he himself worked within the law. And when Jesus came, he gave us twelve apostles to confirm and protect his message and new law.
This is why it is so important to understand why Jesus chose to say in his first sermon, “I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it”. Does it mean because Christ fulfilled the law that future prophets like Muhammed and Joseph Smith no longer had to abide by the law? By no means! It means prophets and apostles have the freedom to uphold the law of God.
Dostoevsky grasps this point in a wonderfully profound statement in Crime and Punishment. “Then, I remember, I maintain in my article that all…well, legislators and leaders, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Muhammed, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people, and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed — often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defense of ancient law — were of use to their cause. It’s remarkable, in fact, that the majority, in fact, of these benefactors and leaders of humanity were guilty of terrible carnage.” This is what makes Christ unique. He gave us a new law by fulfilling — not violating — the old law. He laid down his own life because he knew perfectly God’s will, “thou shalt not kill”.
How is this important? This is why Christians can point to Islam or Mormonism and say they are false religions started by false prophets. They do not follow the patterns set by God. In fact, they break the pattern. And long before angels of light visit Mohammed or Joseph Smith, God spoke to his Apostle Paul and had him prophetically write for the Galatians a warning for us. “I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel (not that there is another). But there are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you have received, let that one be accursed!”
God warns his people, the church, through the testimony of one of his apostles. This is a safeguard for truth, a way that the church can measure who are true or false prophets. Even though Muhammed and Joseph Smith may be great men, it becomes easy to see they are false prophets. The words of their religions are produced only by the testimony of one witness. And their behaviors violate known edicts of God. In both religions, this results in a reversion in the revelation of God.
In the case of Mormons, they opened up marriage. Christ himself said the pattern was one man and one wife. They reverted to the polygamy that was only allowed for hardness of heart. Polygamy was not the design from the beginning, and it was not meant to remain until the end. In the law of Moses, God gave us allowances for our weaknesses, but the ideal was given in the first stories of Genesis. The fall produced departures from the ideal. Jesus came to restore the ideal. With the good news (the gospel) of Jesus, the ideal can be restored in Him. What was impossible before, indissoluble marriages between one man and one woman, is possible now, in Christ.
In the case of Muhammed, he came in violence. He came killing others, rather than laying down his life for others. He violated God’s law “thou shalt not kill”. It’s not an issue when warriors kill, but when they kill in the name of God, that is an issue. Christians are not pacifists, we recognize there is evil in the world and at times there is need to take up the sword. But we take up the sword to free the oppressed, to remove the shackles and chains which tyrants and evil-doers place upon people, not for earthly wealth or more lands or more power.
For many years I misunderstood the Crusades. I was taught it was a result of Christian aggression, attempting to take land not theirs and convert people to the Christian faith. Stealing land is not in the Christian nor Jewish law. For the law states “thou shalt not steal”. Moreover, forced conversions is not allowed in Catholic law. Both Catholics and Thomas Jefferson point to freedom of conscience in the story of the interaction between Jesus and the rich young ruler. Thomas Jefferson wisely noted that if Jesus could allow the young ruler to approach and leave him in freedom of conscience, it is not the job of the state to compel religion in people. The Catholic church has agreed with Jefferson’s assessment hundreds of years before Jefferson gave it. Catholics in civil positions of authority have at times violated this law, but Catholic writings from the first century provide the pattern to rectify these errors in Catholic understanding in the Catholic church. They are mistakes in practice, not the rule. For the Catholic church, the rule from the beginning is no forced conversions.
So what happened in the Crusades? The Muslim religion was birthed in violence. In the 7th century it appeared and began sweeping through formerly Christian lands and territories, forcing conversion at the threat of death. By the time of the first crusade, the eastern orthodox churches feared for their safety as they had seen the Muslims forcibly convert Christians in large areas of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Moreover, Christian pilgrims to the holy lands were being slaughtered by the thousands. In a response to the violation of the rights of so many people, including Christians, and at the request of civil authorities in places near the threat of Islam, the Pope gave the clarion call for the crusades. As in times of war, there are errors in both sides. But the ideals of both religions, for the christian and muslim, the ideals are profoundly different. The Christian has to uphold the law that their savior upheld, “thou shalt not kill”. The Muslim, following the pattern of Mohammed, has freedom to kill for their religion. There is a fanatical strain in both religions, but the christian fundamentalist is a threat to excessive love or good science, not to men’s lives. The Christian fundamentalist might misunderstand the scriptures and say “the earth is six thousand years old”. But the muslim fundamentalist has the pattern of violence in both their last prophet Muhammed and in their scriptures.
Moreover, when Jesus is before Pilate (the Roman governor of Jerusalem) he says “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom was of this world, my angels would fight to keep me from being handed over. As it is, my kingdom is not from here”. We who are commanded to love our enemy cannot turn a blind eye to evil. We are commanded to liberate the captives, to help the widow and the orphan, to do good and to hate evil. When others take what is not theirs, when others rape and hate and go to war to steal and hurt and oppress and enslave, we must stand against them. We must purge evil from our midst. At times, that may mean going to war. It was right that the world united to help free Jews from the concentration camps and possible extinction in 20th century Europe. It was also right that Christians responded to the need in the Mediterranean to face Islamic aggression in the 11th century. The fact that fanatical Islam has a violent strain to its religion does not mean all of Islam is fanatical. But the evidence speaks for itself. While a fundamentalist Muslim may kill to further their religion, a fundamentalist Christian cannot. The fundamentalist Christian may tell you the world is six thousand years old, but they cannot force you to believe it. Islam and Christendom are two very different religions with very different ideals. Mohammed wrote “When We decide to destroy a town, We command those corrupted by wealth to reform, but they persist in their disobedience; Our sentence is passed, and We destroy them utterly” while Christ said “love your enemy and pray for your persecutors” and “there is no greater love than this, that a man would lay his life down for his friends”.
Surely a Muslim might say, “That’s the point, Muhammed wrote (or at least transcribed) while Christ only spoke. The speeches of Christ and the scriptures of the Jews and Christians were corrupted”. But for the Jew and Christian, God’s pattern of multiple witnesses is a proof of the wisdom of his divine plan and shows the value of testimony. When many people gather to speak the same story, when the details differ, it clues you into the true story. The various christian stories all agree, Jesus died and resurrected. Whether he appeared to five hundred disciples or whether he appeared to the twelve apostles, we get details from different sources. But these different details agree on the same story, and on the crucial point — he rose from the dead. The wisdom of God is to provide multiple testimonies, it is a safeguard against misunderstanding important details of the story; a safeguard to protect the fundamentals of the faith.
Moreover, the pattern of God was to speak, not to write. Jesus is a prophet, but he is also more than a prophet. He is a priest, a king, a teacher, a carpenter. But he is also more. He is God in the flesh. And so you might say Jesus could not have been the last prophet because he never wrote the word of God. He was the word of God. God did not write. God allowed mankind to testify of him. This is God’s pattern. Mankind makes testimonies of God. Because Jesus was God in the flesh, he similarly followed the same pattern and precedence set before him through the prophets, and Jesus allowed his apostles to write of him like the prophets wrote of God. If Jesus wrote, if the church had accepted early gospels claiming to be written by Jesus, these would be strong arguments for the need for future prophets and future religions. This might be evidence that Jesus in fact was not god, because God does not write on tablets of stone but in tablets of the human heart. But because Jesus followed the divine pattern, we recognize his divinity. Because Jesus followed the divine pattern, not only in his life but also in laying down his life for others, we as Christians can trust the truth of our faith. It is the full revelation of God, and thereby the single deposit of faith necessary to safeguard the truth. The apostles were entrusted to protect this truth through the church.
The Islamic religion, on the other hand, is built on the testimony of only one person who claims he saw an angel of light. Even Adam and Eve could make the same claim when they saw the serpent in Eden. God’s pattern is not to limit testimony of such importance to one person! That is a recipe of disaster. That is the proof of devilish deviation. Shakespeare makes all this and more clear through the study of the villainy of Richard III who came quoting holy writ, a devil disguised as a saint. This is the message Shakespeare shares and which we Christians hear. This is how Shakespeare teaches us about our Savior Christ through his play on Richard’s villainy. The surface story of English history and a Plantagenet king is only the artistic medium Shakespeare chose to convey his message of a deeper story about Jesus Christ. Let those with eyes see and ears hear.
Erroneous vassals, the great King of kings
Hath in the tables of his law commanded
That thou shalt do no murder. Will you then
Spurn at his edict and fulfill a man’s?
Take heed. For he holds vengeance in his hand,
To hurl upon their heads that break his law.
Julius Caesar: Cult of Our Lord
Roman tragedies, like Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, loosely based on key characters or instances in Roman history, provide a great disguise to explore the story of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Roman history. Much like Jewish scriptures are a literal history of people and yet also symbolic stories of Jesus Christ, Shakespeare reworks Roman history to similarly point out key aspects of the life of Jesus foreshadowed in Roman history. Shakespeare allows himself freedom to stray from the original story to pursue his artistic purposes and the messages he wants to convey as a playwright, and thereby he creates his symbolic echoes which Christians recognize.
Julius Caesar offers a particularly important and interesting opportunity to compare betrayal, tyranny, and liberty. The Roman story would have fascinated an English audience living in a police state, tyrannical Britain where the liberties of individual citizens were trampled on for the purposes of the state government. During the lifetime of Shakespeare’s father, freedom of religion became a bygone freedom as King Henry VIII took over the church. The government ran the Church in England. During Shakespeare’s time, citizens were required to be a part of that Anglican Church, and any one who dissented, whether catholics or puritans or agnostics, they were penalized. In the case of Catholics, priests were imprisoned, tortured, and killed while the lay people were fined into either poverty or conformity with the state religion. Liberty of conscience did not exist in Shakespeare’s England.
Roman society, in contrast to Elizabethan England, was a pluralistic society. People groups from as far away as England and India and various peoples in-between and all around the Mediterranean, came under Pax Romana, that is “Roman Peace”. Pax Romana brought standards to the world which allowed various peoples to interact. It spread common languages, like Greek and Latin, throughout the civilized world for ease of commerce and learning. It created an infrastructure of roads and canals to facilitate travel throughout far reaching distances. It created a common calendar to monitor time. And, it created a common currency recognized worldwide which further fostered trade across many people groups and cultures. These factors civilized large portions of Europe, Africa, and Asia, creating common cultural touch points, and with the help of the Roman army, maintained peace throughout the Roman Empire.
The diversity of the empire allowed its culture to take on a mixture of great ideals found in various cultures, like the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews. One way the Romans were able to extend their influence was by recognizing the importance of the various gods and religions of local people, and allowing them to practice their religion freely, as long as it was not a threat to Roman society. Ultimately, this was the charge the priests of Jesus’s time brought against Christ, that he proclaims himself king while they maintained “We have no king but Caesar”. And so they requested Christ be crucified, and he was in accordance to their demands. But before being crucified like a criminal, he was crowned king and underwent the most odd and perplexing coronation ceremony the world has ever seen. Roman rulers ensured Christ’s cross proclaimed the message that revolutionized the world, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.
Betrayal is the very center of the Christian story. At the heart of the story of humanity is the story of salvation. Salvation comes because betrayal has occurred. Jewish scriptures are clear, God created the world and at the end of his creative act, he proclaimed “it is very good”. But God was betrayed by the devil and mankind, and in our fallen state he has promised to restore his creation to himself. At the height of the christian story, this new birth occurs precisely because Jesus was betrayed by his close friend and confident, the treasurer of his small band of followers, Judas Iscariot. The kiss of Judas sent Christ to the cross. And because of this great evil of betrayal, Jesus cries out on the cross to all his enemies “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” and also tells he who suffers with him “truly, today you will be with me in paradise”. The greatest evil mankind has ever performed — to kill our Creator — resulted in the greatest gift God could ever bestow — to live forever with him in paradise and eat from the tree of life.
This great act of forgiveness restores us to an even closer relationship than Adam and Eve could ever have hoped for. God dwells not only alongside us like he did in the garden of Eden, but dwells inside us thanks to the perfect obedience shown in the Garden of Gethsemane and fulfilled on the cross at Calvary. Our bodies are now able to be consecrated by the blood and be the ever-growing temple of the presence of God on earth. Jesus turns enemies of God into his adopted family who house his holy spirit in the tents of our bodies. We become his children and he makes his home in us. Adam and Eve could never have imagined that their simple act of disobedience would create a promise of such profound and beautiful love, an act of restoration from a generous, loving, and perfect Father.
With the story of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare does not cover the fullness of the positive outcome of Christ’s betrayal, instead he highlights the pain of betrayal and how the common people can see and recognize truth when political leaders proclaim their actions as the work of God or freedom from tyranny. Shakespeare shows the aftermath of betrayal; he shows us the harsh reality of betrayal and the false promises of leaders and rulers as they scheme and contrive to take power for themselves. Shakespeare teaches us common people to recognize the indicators, and this is why he is the greatest rebel writer and subversive revolutionary in the history of the world. He teaches us to recognize the lies of leaders who scheme for power and care not for people. So upon Caesar’s death, when we hear the cry “Liberty, freedom, Tyranny is dead!”, Shakespeare helps us see that while in the story of Jesus Christ this is true, in the story of Julius Caesar things are not always as they appear. Betrayal is at the middle of the play because we must explore how to judge truth in light of the aftermath of the situation. Throughout Julius Caesar, Shakespeare gives us a couple of hints to create a christian echo and dual contrast between the story of Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ. Let us consider Shakespeare’s patterns of revelation.
The first hint is in his use of names. Shakespeare uses initials to identify the Christ figure of the story. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet Capulet is a picture of Jesus Christ. In Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar is a picture of Jesus Christ. Not complicated right? That’s the beauty of divine revelation, it’s often so simple that children and babes see it and understand it. The message of Shakespeare is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Isaiah wrote, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside”. Hence Shakespeare writes, “He that of greatest works is finisher oft does them by the weakest minister. So holy writ in babes hath judgment shown when judges have been babes; great floods have flown from simple sources, and great seas have dried”. Shakespeare understands simple truths of God do not confuse, and hence the childlike (note: not childish but childlike) are the ones who draw closest to the savior. For children live on faith in their fathers and trust in their parents, and it is this type of daily dependence which is God’s design for his children. And through this daily dependence we are made wise, not by a wisdom of the earth or of any particular age, but by the wisdom of heaven and of all ages.
The second hint comes from the very first scene. Shakespeare mixes great comedy at the beginning of this tragedy so that we have a sense of irony from the very beginning. For the Englishman of the 16th century was very aware of the story of Julius Caesar. Because of Caesar, the Roman empire extended into Britain, bringing Roman civilization to the small isle off of mainland Europe. It was even common legend that Caesar built the Tower of London. The story of Julius Caesar was known in England, especially his unfortunate betrayal, and therefore becomes a particularly poignant artistic medium for Shakespeare to explore society and religion.
In the first scene of the play, there is a curious interaction that often occurs in a police state. (Remember, Shakespeare’s England was just that, a police state. It was a totalitarian state controlled by a political force which policed the activities of its citizens and secretly supervised their behaviors. Spying features prominently in many of Shakespeare’s plays because it was an everyday reality during his time). In the play, the authorities question the citizens, and the citizens respond evasively. They have to, because citizens under totalitarian regimes have to guard and hide their freedoms. They must cling to their liberties in secret. If our liberties are not protected publicly by our government, humans are great rebels and will figure out how to protect them privately, away from the government. Humans under totalitarian states have to create a false exterior to hide their inner joys from those who would so quickly and easily trample and violate their rights and take away their freedoms. People in totalitarian regimes learn quickly to lead dual lives, the public persona and the private persona. Therefore, totalitarian governments invest so much on spying, because they have to spy on citizen’s private lives. If tyrants cannot remake or control the conscience of their citizens, they have to rid society of those who practice liberty of conscience. They do this by spying. And violating the rights of their citizens by either creating unjust laws or working outside just laws.
The outward persona of the two tradesmen in the first scene is a carpenter and a “mender of bad soles”. But to the Christian hearing the play, we hear a carpenter and a “mender of bad souls”. Two pictures of our one Christ, who was known as a son of a carpenter, and thereby a carpenter himself. But he was more than a carpenter, he was also a healer of bad souls. And so, a Christian playgoer, who sees “Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar” on the cartel for a Sunday afternoon play, would have their hunch confirmed in this first scene — the play is an allegory of Jesus Christ.
Jewish people similarly have a story of great betrayal that is also a great allegory of Christ. It is the story of how they ended up in Egypt. It is the story of Joseph, the favorite son of Israel. Joseph was a man who always returned evil with good, no matter the situation. The Jewish people ended up in Egypt because in the divine providence of their saving God, evils done unto Joseph by all people were ultimately turned into salvation for God’s people. First, Joseph’s own brothers faked his death and sold him into slavery. From there, he went into the heart of Egypt, was wrongly imprisoned, and thereafter ascended to the right hand of Pharaoh as the prime minister of Egypt. By the age of 30, Joseph was the ruling authority of the land and acting governor of the great nation. Joseph had the wisdom to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh and knew how to respond. Because of Joseph’s divine gift, he was able to save all of Egypt in famine and make the Pharaoh rich. When severe famine hit the world, Joseph’s brothers came into Egypt seeking bread, for by then Joseph’s storehouses of grain were famous throughout the world and all people came to Joseph to trade their wealth for his abundant grain. When the world is in famine, wealth doesn’t matter but our daily bread does. Joseph, upon seeing his brothers, rather than being motivated by anger or revenge, had nothing but love and forgiveness to offer his fellow sons of Israel. After a short time of testing, he opened the storehouses for his family and these humbled refugees took shelter in Egypt under Joseph’s wing. Joseph told his brothers, “Weep not, what you had intended for evil God has meant for good to achieve this present end, the survival of many people”.
With only slight tweaks, the whole story of Joseph is a symbolic picture of Jesus. He was betrayed by his friend and given over to Jewish priests (sons of Israel) who sent him to the Roman rulers to be crucified. But the evil intentions were for the good of God’s people, for Christ, the everlasting God and prince of peace could not be contained by death. On the third day, he rose from the grave and after appearing to many people, he ascended into heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the Father (rather than Pharaoh). Until he comes again, he multiplies the body of his flesh for the food of his children, “Give us this our daily bread”. From Jesus’s storehouse, the household of God feast on our king of Kings while performing the work God has prepared for us in Egypt (that is, the work prepared for us in the world). We perform the work commanded by the son who is seated at the right hand of the father, the king of Kings and lord of Lords. And so, again, Israelite history is a close-to-perfect picture of Jesus. The details in the Jewish holy writings miraculously align with the life of Christ and the teachings of the Christian faith.
But Roman history is a far-from-perfect picture. Roman history, especially Julius Caesar, provides a great contrast, not in where the details align (like Israelite history) but where they differ. For example, whereas Christ is God who took on human flesh, Caesar is a man who is deified. Whereas Christ furthers his kingdom by disarming love, Caesar furthers the empire by armed force. Whereas the sons of God are made into the image of Christ, the citizens and slaves of the Empire use coins with the image of Caesar. Whereas Christ is a good shepherd who lays down his life, Caesar is a great general who takes lives. Whereas Christ was betrayed by the sons of Israel with a kiss by Judas, Caesar was betrayed by Roman senators and stabbed by his friend Brutus. Whereas Christ’s high priest Caiaphas thought it better for one man to die than the nation perish, Caesar’s high priest Marc Antony thought it was doomsday and fled to his house amazed. Whereas Christ’s peace is a heavenly peace allowing for heaven to invade earth, Caesar’s peace is an earthly peace allowing for barbarians to be civilized. Whereas Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, Caesar is not. Shakespeare’s genius is to see these parallels and paint a picture of Christ in glimpses and glimmers in the story of Julius Caesar.
But why chose a story from Roman history? Because the contrasts between Roman society in the time of Julius Caesar and English society in the time of Queen Elizabeth offers important ideas for which Shakespeare asks the audience to reflect on. Shakespeare is able to explore freedom and tyranny, from various perspectives, including political, civil, and religious. Again, England in the 16th century was a totalitarian state, a prototype of tyranny and dictators that is a firstfruits of what the rest of Europe and much of the Americas would experience over the course of the next five hundred years and continues to experience, whether 16th century England, 18th century America, 19th century France, 20th century Spain and Argentina, or present day countries like Venezuela and Cuba. When Catholic societies fall, tyrants take over. This contrast creates an artistic medium which Shakespeare highlights the difference between true and false religions, contrasting various ways people might truly and falsely say “God is on our side”. Throughout this contrast, he can point out for Christians how Christ is a “better Julius Caesar”, not in a manner that detracts from the greatness of Caesar, for Caesar is an honorable man, but by simply showing that Christ is truly God in the form of human flesh. Jesus is the ideal man. In him alone humans find true freedom.
The gospel of John, one of the four biographies of Jesus from people who knew him personally, forms a powerful counterpoint to Shakespeare’s play. In the gospel of John, it begins with the very powerful prologue which states “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God” and a little later clarifies “and the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”. The word is Jesus, and the whole gospel continues to show the various sides of Jesus important for all believers to know. Before Pilate, the Roman ruler, we see how we are asked to “Behold the man” and also “Behold your king”, creating powerful commentaries on who Jesus is. At once, he is god, he is man, and he is king. Shakespeare paints this picture in increasing interests throughout Julius Caesar.
In the first act of Julius Caesar, not only do we have the funny interchange of the two tradesmen, the carpenter and the “mender of bad soles”, but we also see the background to Caesar’s betrayal. Those closest to him are offended that Rome’s leader would be proclaimed as a god. Though the Roman society respected the religions of local cultures, there did arise a cult around the emperor which deified Caesar. Ancient societies, like Romans and Egyptians, had the habit of deifying men. Orthodox Christian faith states the opposite — God humbled himself to become man. Hence Christ is coeternal with the Father, born of the Father before all ages. Cassius, one of the lead conspirators and villains in the story, is naturally revolted at the idea of Caesar as a god. He complains to Brutus about Caesar’s human weaknesses,
Did I (carry) the tired Caesar. And this man
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
A wretched creature and must bend his body
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.
He (Caesar) had a fever when he was in Spain,
And when the (epileptic) fit was on him I did mark
How he did shake. ’Tis true, this god did shake,
His coward lips did from their color fly,
And that same eye whose bend doth awe the world
Did lose his luster. I did hear him groan.
Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans
Mark him, and write his speeches in their books,
Alas, it cried, “Give me some drink, Titinius'
As a sick girl. Ye gods, it doth amaze me
A man of such a feeble temper should
So get the start of the majestic world
And bear the palm alone.
The idea of Caesar as god is revolting to Cassius, a man close to Caesar. John records similarly that this idea of Christ as God is likewise revolting to some. When Jesus asked why certain Jews desired to stone him and picked up stones to do so, and specifically, for which of his good works were they about to stone him for, they answered “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God”. But yet, there was another group of Jews, the followers of Christ, who were close to Jesus and they proclaimed him as God. They proclaimed Jesus is a man who died on the cross and yet death cannot contain the Everlasting One, and so on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. We have a powerful contrast of the divine man in Christ and the deified man in Caesar. Those closest to Caesar betray him and doubt his divinity and kill him. Caesar stays dead. And we know from history, other Caesars take his place. On the other hand, with Christ, someone close to him likewise betrays him, but the ones closest to Jesus proclaim his divinity after his death and rising again to life. Jesus is the last king of the Jews and the current king of the world. We tell time relative to his birth and no king has taken his place in two thousand years. Even the nation of Israel is today a democracy and has not been a monarchy since Christ walked to Calvary. So at best, we uphold our king’s commands. At best, we are molded to be like him. He is the ideal man, the ideal king, and the ideal God, one who suffers for his subjects and loved ones and friends.
There was a cost to Jesus’s early followers and their testimony of Christ’s divinity, ten of the twelve original apostles are killed for their testimony about Jesus. The other two? Judas hangs himself in remorse for his direct role in betraying and killing the divine. John, the last apostle and only one who dies a natural death, writes a biography of Christ so that others might likewise believe the testimony about Jesus and his divine nature and and share it with others.
Remember, throughout the play a Christian play-goer hears Shakespeare’s insights on Jesus Christ. From the mouth of villains we hear the frequent misunderstandings about Jesus. The conspirators bemoan how he can’t be god. At the same time, there are true things said and phrases are filled with dual meanings. So when Caesar dies in the middle of the story, and someone proclaims, “Liberty, freedom! Tyranny is dead!” A Christian sits back and marvels how similarly the death of Christ is only part of the story. Because of Christ’s death there is liberty and freedom, we need not be slaves to sin. The debt has been paid (Shakespeare set us up to contemplate debt and cheap grace in the third scene of the first act).
Satan and sin have been defeated. Satan cannot accuse the children of God any longer. His son justifies us, in the legal sense, our debt has been paid. For the disobedience of the first Adam has been replaced with the perfect obedience of the last Adam. But more so, Christ rose from the dead. He proved that our last enemy — death — has no hold over us. Death cannot contain Christ, and likewise, it will not contain us. Hence we sing with ancient prophets, “O death where is thy victory; O death, where is thy sting?” We who abide in the everlasting God will be transformed from mere mortals to immortals by his divine (and costly) grace. So, in Act 4, we hear important Christ echoes when someone says “the Ides of March remember, did not great Julius bleed for justice sake?” And though Caesar never did resurrect in the play like our Christ did in life, Brutus says in the last Act “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet”.
Every society worships some God. The question is, which God. The Romans, like Americans today, are respectful of the various forms of religion and people’s need to practice their faith in liberty of conscience. Still, a cult of Caesar did arise before it was replaced with the cult of Christ. Triumph over death belongs to one man alone — Jesus Christ thou art mighty yet! And so, as Americans, we must determine which God we are going to worship as a community. Not to force conversions upon others, but to understand the true underpinnings of a healthy society. For every community has its religion, its way of relating to God. And these thoughts on God dictate the laws we create, uphold, and obey. These thoughts on God create the culture of our society. Even a lack of God is a stance because someone or something will fill the vacuum, someone will become the new Caesar. The point is, the god you worship affects ideas you hold with respect of how to relate to God and our fellow man. And those who deny God, will end by denying men. The product of this denial will take the shape of denying God-given rights in others.
The idea of God impacts beliefs and behaviors, and the variety of gods in this world affects how all societies are structured. The pagan gods of the ancients had certain requirements that needed to be fulfilled, same with the God of the Jews and the God of Muhammed and the God of Christians. Even the lack of God, like a communist society, has behaviors which take root in their people because of their ideas on God. But our American society was structured in faith of a particular God. And the values of this one God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — produce certain behaviors which honors the beliefs of others, proclaims truth, and conquers death. Our Declaration of Independence states governments are instituted among men to protect the God-given (and therefore inalienable) rights of all man, because we are all created equal and endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our country protects the rights of citizens because of our founders faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; our country was not based on the gods of Caesar, Mohammed, pagans, or any other. This is a historical fact, not an opinion. And the fact is if Christ would give people liberty to walk away from him, our founding fathers likewise realized they could only create an environment where all God is free to be worshiped as people believe or ignored as they desire, but faith in God can only be protected, never forced.
Unfortunately, right now, we Americans have blood on our hands because of our ideas. As our society has grown increasingly away from the true God, an ancient abhorrent idea has been reintroduced. We, in violation of our stated ideals in our Declaration of Independence, are violating the right to life in millions of young babies in our nation every year. For the last fifty years, we have not protected the God-given rights to all mankind, the right to life. Every year, we sacrifice the lives of millions of babies, and have reintroduced an ancient evil into modern society with our modern technology. All Americans have blood on our hands. None of us is innocent of this great evil. God is ready to forgive, but we must turn from our ways. Our tax dollars, the hard-won earnings of our labor, the work of our minds and hands, is going towards continuing a culture of death. Our representatives create and enforce laws which kill our own citizens.
We in fact have a state religion, and it is not aligned with the divine providence which secured our liberty. The religion of our government of the past seventy years kills citizens in violation of the beliefs of so many Americans. Right now, our government condones the practice of killing our babies. And since we are a government of the people and by the people and for the people, we the people of America are guilty of this great evil. If we do not change our ways, soon our government will kill our ancients. None are safe when a culture of death takes root in a community. If we are not careful, who knows what further footholds death will take upon our own people? We have forgotten our purpose, we are forgetting our God, we have forgotten that America exists because our forefathers believed and died for the faith that “governments are instituted among mankind to secure man’s inalienable rights among these the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. These rights are inalienable because they are Creator-given. They cannot be rightfully taken by any man, they must be upheld by all men. What have these innocent babies done to allow us to violate their right to life? What crime have they committed that we can justify the civil rules of “eye for eye and life for life” apply to these innocent babies? We are denying the right to life for the young babies of our land by killing them in their mother’s womb. We must end these detestable practices that negate the value of all human life.
Our only hope is to remember our values, to remember history, and to understand truth, especially divinely revealed truth. Our need is to learn the faith of our Jewish and Christian forefathers. We must learn again about Jesus and his forefathers. Shakespeare realized England and all future generations need to learn what it is about Jesus Christ that people still proclaim thousands of years after the birth of this babe “O Jesus Christ, thou art mighty yet”. Shakespeare gave the world Julius Caesar to teach us in part about this miraculous babe. What we know now in part will one day be fully known.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “Behold the Man”.
According to his virtue let us treat him
With all respect and rites of burial.
Within a rich man’s tomb his bones shall lie,
Most like a crowned king prepared honorably.
So summon the people, and let’s away
To part the glories of this Good Friday.
For he has conquered evil and won’t decay;
The Holy One will not suffer corruption,
Let us now celebrate God’s Son ev’ry Sunday.
Othello: I Am Not What I Am
In the previous two sections, we have seen Shakespeare often reworks history, whether English or Roman, to suit his own purposes and to create entertaining and educational plays for his audiences. In this section, we will see how other times Shakespeare reworks existing stories from fictional sources. He frequently created plays out of preexisting novels and poems. In the case of Othello, Shakespeare used the short story Un Capitano Moro by an Italian poet and novelist as his source. As always, Shakespeare masterfully reworks the story and creates Othello to explore themes close to his heart, namely, themes of purpose, deception, good and evil, treason, and identity.
In Othello, Shakespeare inverts one of the most famous phrases in all of scripture, the name God reveals to Moses at the burning bush “Yahweh”, and constructs the whole play based on the devilish inversion of this divine name. Whereas God says “I am who I am” to Moses in the wilderness, Iago proclaims to play-going audiences in theaters worldwide “I am not what I am”. With this statement, a Judeo-Christian playgoer recognizes Shakespeare creates Othello as a study on the anti-God.
Why is the phrase and name “I am” so important? In the beginning, God gave Adam (‘man’) the unique privilege to name all the animals. Mankind did not stop there. Humans have searched and studied this world and named the things we have discovered. We have classified and categorized and put names to these classifications and categories. To name something or someone is a part of our divinely given role. To name things is a part of what it means to be human. To name something or someone is an important privilege. Parents name their children, friends and family give each other nicknames, scientists name their inventions, and in many cultures a man even gives his last name to his wife and children — to name something or call someone by name notes a personal relationship. The closer we are in intimacy with people, not only do we know their names, but we call them by their name as a sign of our relationship and love. Family terms alone surpass the intimacy of calling someone by name. Calling someone “dad” or “mom” or “child” or “honey” or a litany of other familial and familiar words, like sister, brother, and friend, is the only way to surpass the intimacy of calling someone by name. God calls us into an intimate relationship with his created world when he asks us to name the living creatures of this world.
But yet, in the following stories of Genesis there is a unique refrain and counterpoint as the Genesis writer notes periodically, “At that time, people began to invoke God by name”. At this point in the biblical narrative and in history, mankind does not know the divine name. It remains a mystery. The name of God remains unknown throughout the whole book of Genesis. The divine name is not revealed, not even to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob — the great heroes of Judeo-Christian faith. In fact, it’s just the opposite, God renames Abraham and Jacob while not revealing his own name. Their new names denote aspects of their divine calling and relationship with himself. Abram is renamed “Abraham” because God gives Abraham the divine promise to make him “the father of a multitude”, which is what his new name means. Abraham’s new name marks the divine promise given to him on the basis of faith. Similarly, Jacob is renamed “Israel” to mark Jacob’s long night wrestling with God. Even though Jacob asks his wrestling partner for his name, it is not revealed to him. Jacob wrestled all evening with the divine man, received a blessing, and knew he had “seen God face to face and yet my life has been spared”, and yet he was never given the name of God. God calls people and renames some, but throughout Genesis God has yet to reveal his divine name, not even to the forefathers of the people of God, including Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Mankind names many things, but we cannot name God. He names us, and He names himself. And we must wait until he reveals himself, including his divine name, the name above all names. Thankfully, at the appointed time, our Creator revealed his name to mankind. But when the whole book of Genesis passes by, and we have yet to know the name of God, we know scripture is not complete with Genesis. There needs to be more. There is more.
The mystery of God’s name is revealed in the second book of the Hebrew-Christian bible, the book of Exodus. The famous story about Moses and the burning bush is important for many reasons, not only was this when Moses was given his divine calling to “go and free slaves”, but Moses was also given the revelation of God’s name, “I am who I am”. Moses asks God, “who shall I say sent me”, and God tells him, “Yahweh”. Or translated into English, “I am who I am”.
What does a name mean? Moses means “drawn out of water”, and it describes not only the circumstances of his birth but also his divine calling to lead his people through the Red Sea. David means “beloved”, and it describes exactly who he is in the sight of God, “the beloved of our lord”. And Joshua and Jesus both mean “Yahweh saves”, which represents their role in saving the people of God and leading them into the promised land. But what does it mean that God’s own name for himself is “I am who I am”?
It means God is pure essence, pure being. Language is inadequate to describe our Creator, our Maker simply take for himself a name that describes himself — I am who I am. God’s name represents the fullness of existence and identity — He is who he is. Our names represent aspects of ourself. Our last names mark our families, our first names mark our unique place in our family. But with God, language cannot express who he is, for God is who he is. Everything and everyone finds our meaning in Him, our source, our Creator, our God. We can only find ourselves in relationship to God — he is the objective standard of our relational lives. We can call him Creator, Maker, God, and even Lord, these are categories for God, but God has a name and he revealed his name to Moses as “YHWH”. Hebrew language in the time of Moses, and for some centuries thereafter, did not have written symbols for vowels; marks to signify vowels was a later development in Hebrew script.
And so when Iago in the first scene of Shakespeare’s play says, “I am not what I am”, we have the anti-God burst into the story. Whereas Exodus is a story where we see God at work in the life of Moses, in the lives of the Jewish people and fulfillment of many of the divine promises, the Jewish and Christian playgoer understands that Othello is a study in villainy, a study on the anti-God, a study of the demi-devil Iago and his work in the life of Othello.
Throughout the play, Iago appears to be one thing while secretly being another. Interestingly, the name Iago is a Latinization of the Hebrew Jacob, which roughly could be translated as “deceiver”. Shakespeare is thorough even in small and seemingly insignificant details of his plays. Shakespeare is a master craftsman, and Iago lives up to his name, Iago is a deceiver. The result of Iago’s deception is evil prevails over good. Iago appears to be Othello’s friend and confident, yet he secretly hates Othello and desires Othello’s death and destruction. Iago appears to be a good sign bearer in the Venetian armed forces, but he is a treasonous soldier causing the fall of those higher up in the chain of command. Iago appears to be a friend to Othello’s wife, Desdemona, yet his actions and advice entice Othello to kill Desdemona in a jealous rage. At every stage, we see Iago weave his masterful web of deceit. Ultimately, largely due to Iago’s deception, all that is left in the wake of Othello’s life is death. Othello kills his wife and commits suicide as he is fooled by Iago. Iago is not what he seems to be.
This issue of identity strikes at the heart of the Christian faith. The gospel writer John the Evangelist understands this perfectly. Hence, throughout the gospel of John we hear how John, like Shakespeare, masterfully builds on the theme of “I am”. We hear throughout the gospel Jesus state many times “I am”.
Sometimes, Jesus relates images of this world, like bread and light, so that his followers could understand who he is. Hence, Jesus says “I am the bread of life” or “I am the light of the world”, and we different perspectives of who Jesus is. Bread and light are created in order to teach us about Jesus, the one who was and is and is to come. When Jesus uses created images to teach about himself, we are only getting small glimpses of who he really is.
Other times, Jesus says things like, “Truly, before Abraham was, I am”. In these moments, we learn Jesus intimately ties himself to God by taking on the divine name of eternal existence. Before Abraham existed — Abraham the forefather of the Hebrews and an ancestor of Jesus, a man who died almost two thousand years before Christ was born — yet even before Abraham lived, Jesus is. “Abraham was but I am”. Note the tense of the language. Others come and go but Jesus remains. Jesus was begotten, not made, and Jesus teaches this by tying himself to the divine name of eternal existence. There is no past, present, future outside of Christ, for he is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow; Jesus lives in eternity. He came to this earth as man at a particular place and moment in time, but this taking on of human flesh did not invalidate his divine and eternal nature. He is divine and eternal. He is.
Christ’s eternal existence is confirmed in the last prayer with his apostles before his arrest and death. John records Christ’s words, “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began. I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word”.
In the next chapter Jesus is arrested by a band of soldiers and guards. They come looking for Jesus the Nazorean. Jesus tells the soldiers, “I Am”. This phrase is so powerful to the Jewish mind, evoking the revelation of God to Moses in the wilderness, that John the Evangelist notes, “when Jesus said to them, ‘I Am’, they turned away and fell to the ground”. Throughout the gospel Jesus might have said to others many things about himself, things like “I am the gate” or “I am the good shepherd” or “I am the resurrection”, but in the crucial moment, Jesus simply says, “I am”. He evokes the divine name. Jesus is. We may call him Jesus because it means “Yahweh saves”, we may call him Christ because it is his title as our Messiah, we may call him Lord because he is lord of heaven and earth, but in the crucial moments, Jesus like God the Father, simply is.
When Jesus renames apostles, calling Simon “Peter” and Saul “Paul”, he isn’t dishonoring the earthly parents of Simon or Saul, he is simply revealing their new name as children of God — “rock” and “humble”. And to be Christ’s “rock” or Jesus’s “humble one” is both a privilege and a calling. Christ’s self-identity and self-understanding is so clear, he has not only the audacity, but more importantly, the authority to bestow a new identity on his followers, which is represented by the giving of a new name. Like God in Genesis, Jesus in the gospels gives followers a new name as he gives them a new identity, an identity which is found in relationship to himself. We take on this new name when we are born again, born from above, born not of the flesh but of the spirit.
Jesus is the anti-Iago. Whereas Iago is not what he seems to be, Jesus is much more than what he seems to be. Jesus claims to be many things, and we find these claims are inadequate to describe Jesus. In fact, we find that the Creator created all things to teach us about himself, whether fatherhood or family, bread or light, sheep or shepherds, all things were created to teach us about our Maker, the lover of our souls, and his son Jesus, the savior of our souls. John himself testified of our limitations, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written”.
Jesus is much more than can be described, he is much more than we can teach. And so we might pass along to others, like John does, that Jesus is “the bread of life” or “the light of the world” or “the good shepherd”, but as we learn about Jesus and this world, we find that Jesus is much more than bread, light, or a good shepherd. Two thousand years after Christ’s pilgrimage on earth, we are still discovering who Jesus is. Unlike Iago, who appears to be the friend of Othello and in the end is discovered as a demi-devil, Jesus appears to be our friend and in the end we find he his a much greater friend than we could ever imagine. He lays down his life for his friends. Who is this great friend of ours? Who is this Jesus?
The mystery of Jesus is the mystery that explains our world. The mystery of Jesus reveals the meaning behind many facts of life. Understanding who Jesus is will help us understand things as wide-ranging as time (why is time recorded relative to a single man?), existence (why are we here?), and life (what does it mean?). Jesus unlocks many of the mysteries and riddles we come across in this world. It is a profound mystery that a poor Jewish man — a refugee fleeing tyrants and born of a virgin, a rambling rabbi and son of a carpenter, a preacher crucified like a criminal — that this man would have such an effect on the world. But Jesus is not a mystery in the sense that he is elusive or hidden or withdrawn, he is mysterious in the sense that we could spend thousands of years attempting to discover and describe who he is and yet still fall far, far short. He simply is. And that is everything, because everything finds its relation to him, from time to why we exist and what is the purpose of our lives. All mysteries of life find their solution in Christ.
With Iago, the deceiver, we find the source of Othello’s problems, not his solutions. The only solution for Othello is to be removed from relationship with the deceiver, as soon as that happens, is when the play finds resolution, Cassio is promoted, Othello realizes he was fooled and takes his own life, Iago is found out as the various people deceived by the demi-devil have testimonies which are consistent, Iago is not what he appeared to be. Othello finds some semblance of resolution by breaking communion with the deceiver. Unfortunately for him, it is too late and he does what Hamlet could never do as Hamlet recognized self-slaughter was against God’s canon. Christ calls us to die to ourselves, not kill ourselves and suicide is the ultimate selfishness, for we are to give our lives for others, not give up our lives for ourselves. Suicide excludes God from showing us Christ.
Christ's identity as the eternal one and his relationship with God the Father provides the context to understand all of us earthly ones. Isolation is one of the talents of the deceiver, Iago. The deceiver causes others to view reality based on how he wants them to see it, and not as it actually is. Othello allows his reality to be shaped by the deceiver and not the divine. For Othello, things like Desdemona speaking with Cassio or his beloved handkerchief missing, Iago is able to use as false evidence and thereby color Othello’s perception of the situation. Something as simple as Cassio begging for Desdemona to put in a good word for him with Othello, the deceiver convinces Othello that he is being cuckolded. Something as innocuous as Desdemona misplacing the handkerchief, Iago convinces Othello she gave it as a token of love, and supposed “proof” of cuckoldry. Shakespeare teaches us through Othello to perceive truly, and gives us Othello as the prime example of how a man is fooled. Othello asks us, do we make sense of the facts of life as they are, or are we being deceived? Ultimately, it is important for humans to have reality shaped by the divine and not the deceiver.
In Jesus’s time, his neighbors and compatriots were divided about who Jesus is. The division was so extreme that even his own friend betrayed him to certain sons of Israel in order that he’d be charged with blasphemy and crucified. He was crucified for testifying to the truth. The traitor confessed “I have betrayed innocent blood” and the governor professed “I find no guilt in him”, yet we crucified him. The governor — rightfully appointed by Caesar! — also proclaimed to the people that Jesus is “Jesus the Nazorean, King of the Jews”. Written in the right language, this proclamation creates an acrostic of the divine name, “YHWH”. Despite all these facts, our response is still to shout “Crucify”. The beloved son of the creator of the world revealed himself to us and we killed him by nailing and hanging him to a dead tree. Likewise, Othello, like us, is so deceived by Iago that he doesn’t make sense of the facts of his life. Iago twists and turns them so Othello becomes convinced that he is being cuckolded by his wife. He is so insecure in his identity as “beloved husband”, he is easily convinced that he is instead “cuckolded husband”. Iago has fooled him. Demi-devils fool many people, including you and me.
One reason priests and people called for the death of Jesus was because, as they said, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God”. But what if Jesus taught truly when he acknowledges he is the son of God? If so, Christ was crucified simply because he could not deny the truth. In this, he becomes the model of all Jewish and Christian martyrs — a man who chooses to testify to the truth and die, rather than to lie and live. He is Plato’s hero of the just man; he is Isaiah’s ideal of the suffering servant; and his resurrection proves, he is the son of God.
When we called for Christ to be crucified, we were making decisions based on appearances, and not truth — the same mistake Othello made, who decided his wife should die based on appearances, and not truth. Incredibly, for the Christian, our inability to understand Christ while he lives among us is a mystery that leads to even greater mysteries. The story of Christ becomes greater than all fairy tales for it is a real story with real implications. Sadly, for Othello, his story is a tragedy and serves as a valuable warning. If we believe the deceiver, at the end of our life, there is nothing left. But if we believe the divine one, there is everything, including abundant life and eternity.
Jesus’s decision to testify to the truth and accept crucifixion led other sons of Israel, the followers of Jesus, to understand he was indeed divine. The wages of sin is death, but if the sinless one dies, then death has no right to hold him. Hence, Jesus raises from the dead to new life, eternal life. Christ’s resurrection convinced the apostles that he is God in the flesh, that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us”. Now, those who follow Christ didn’t come to this conclusion in haste. The tragedy of Othello takes place in a shortened time frame, where Othello’s conclusions about Desdemona has no time to be reviewed before his judgement decides her fate, “thou must die”. Instead, the apostles make their conclusions in the aftermath of the resurrection. Yes they fled, but they were saved by Jesus from further bloodshed or taking up the sword. Christ new his fate from above was “thou must die”, and like Desdemona knew the guiltless death he was to die.
For example, Thomas’s epiphany about Jesus, “My lord and my God” came after Christ’s resurrection and one week of hearing his fellow brothers in Christ claim, “We’ve seen the Lord and ate bread with him”. Thomas just wouldn’t believe until he had seen the resurrected Christ. And Christ was kind to reveal himself to Thomas and make a blessing for the rest of us, as he tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed”.
Moreover, John’s gospel was written at the end of a long life, reflecting on his experiences as a persecuted follower of Christ. When John writes at the end, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name”, we recognize these are John’s reflections after many years. He who walked with Christ came to be certain that Jesus is the son of God.
The tragedy of Othello is everything happens so fast. The circumstances of the play happens over a few days, and in the emotions of such a short time period, Othello makes horrible and permanent decisions. Othello kills his wife and himself due to the fact he believed the lies of the deceiver. Many Christians have died because of Jesus Christ, but they, like Christ, laid down their lives rather than take the lives of others. Martyrs die simply by testifying to the truth, like their savior, because they believed in the one who said “I am the resurrection”.
In fact, ten of the original twelve apostles died for this testimony that Jesus is God. Of the two remaining apostles, one was his betrayer and killed himself. The other is said by tradition to have been boiled alive and yet wouldn’t die, this is the man who wrote the gospel of John, the great model for Shakespeare’s exploration of the “I am” theme. Whereas John gives us the divine and positive picture of “I am who I am”, Shakespeare gives us the devilish inversion in “I am not what I am”. Othello made all his decisions about life, about his wife, based simply on Iago’s deception. There were no other witnesses, no other testimonies. Everything happened so fast, that people’s testimony about Iago’s deceptions wasn’t available until the end, after it was too late, after Desdemona died. Rather than getting insight or testimony from many people, from Cassio and Desdemona perhaps, Othello went only with Iago’s deceptive insinuations and found himself committing murder based only on appearances, not truth. The tragedy of Othello is one of isolation. Testimony becomes an important aspect not only in Shakespeare’s Othello, but also in the life of Christ. We’ve had two thousand years to hear the testimony of the church about Jesus Christ. And even Shakespeare’s play Othello, in its own unique way serves as a testimony, but we must have ears to hear and eyes to see. The testimony is — Jesus is God in the flesh — and this testimony has survived since the time of Christ thanks to his apostles and their successors.
People who call ourselves Christians can be divided into two types of Christians — apostolic and non-apostolic. Apostolic Christians (commonly known by communion with either the Catholic or Orthodox churches) are Christians who have direct ties through Church tradition, hierarchy, and authority to the original twelve apostles. All apostolic Christians believe Jesus is God in the flesh. The gospel of John was written by an apostolic Christian to preserve and pass along this testimony. In fact, for two thousand years apostolic Christians consistently testified against much opposition that Jesus is God in the flesh. He is both fully God and fully man. Apostolic Christians have preserved a testimony the rest of the world finds impossible to believe — Jesus is God. But what is impossible for man is possible with God.
Non-apostolic Christians (often grouped into various forms of Protestantism) do not have direct ties to the twelve apostles. They have a variety of beliefs about Jesus. Some, like Presbyterians or Pentecostals, hold to many apostolic teachings, including the mystery that Jesus is God in the flesh. While others, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, deny Jesus is God in the flesh. When non-apostolic Christians teach about Jesus, they do so based on the scriptures written, preserved, and compiled by the apostolic Church. And non-apostolic Christians, who hold traditional and orthodox views about Jesus Christ and his divine nature, rely on apostolic teachings in the form of church councils, apostolic creeds, and liturgical scriptures of the apostolic Church. An issue for non-apostolic Christians to consider — the extent you are removed from direct ties to Jesus and his apostolic church, you open yourself up to errors. With this comes an incomplete understanding of the divine mysteries of the Christian faith. What non-apostolic Christians have done is choose many of the sacred scriptures and many of the traditional teachings about Jesus, but not all. But like Paul wrote, “what difference does it make, as long as in every way, Christ is being proclaimed. And in that I rejoice”.
In this harsh world, we need to know more about the word of God, the one who says “love your enemies” and “return evil with good” and “love one another”. It is beautiful whenever the name of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and taught throughout the world because he sets the highest standard the world has ever heard of with respect to humans loving others. That said, there is still much confusion about who Jesus is. With so much misunderstanding and disagreement about who Jesus is, we need to have some way to resolve these misunderstandings and understand truth, because Jesus is a real person and it is important to understand who this great hero truly is. The safest bet to handle these discrepancies — and the historically accurate and scientifically preferred way — is to go with the testimonies of those closest to Christ. We need to get as close to the source as possible. And that would be the testimony of apostolic Christians.
In the case of Othello, the deceiver was able to keep him away from knowing the truth, largely because he was able to be the only voice in Othello’s life. Othello trusted the wrong person. Othello had no process to discover or understand truth. Othello did not confront his own wife until he had already decided, “Thou art to die”. His mind was decided, and he closed his ears to his own wife’s testimony. It is important to get testimony from many sources, including deceivers like Iago, but we cannot make our decisions about life by a reality shaped by anything other than truth. This was Othello’s mistake, his reality was shaped not by the one who says “I am the truth”, but he makes great and important decisions, like whether or not to kill someone (his wife!), by a reality shaped by the one who says “I am not what I am”.
When Jesus invokes the name “I am”, he is uniquely unifying himself to God. The apostolic Christian sees this unification as Jesus possessing equality with God. This understanding led to a concept known as the trinity, that Jesus is so united in God to be part of the Godhead. In fact, apostolic Christians taught this eternal relationship between God the Father and his Son Jesus as a mystery, the mystery of the trinity. The trinity explains that God is triune, three-in-one. Prior to apostolic Christians, no other peoples in the history of the world have ever even had an idea or clue that God is triune. To this day, the triune God is still a mystery which only a few people believe. Many people believe in multiple gods, many people believe in only one true God, but to believe in a triune God is unique to orthodox Christian faith. Throughout the ages this has been a difficult mystery to believe, not to mention to teach. The trinity is unique and perplexing. It’s not even explicitly mentioned in the scriptures written and preserved by the people of God; it is only inferred and understood by those who understand Jewish culture and traditions. Hence, this hidden mystery was entrusted to the Jewish apostles in order to be revealed and taught to the nations. It is a profound mystery. For, how can God be three-in-one?
Though it is difficult to understand how God is three in one, there were riddles in the ancient Jewish scriptures that testified to this truth. The scriptures prepared the people of God to know he is triune. One riddle was from the first story, God said “Let us make man in our image”. God used the royal “we” that we often hear kings use. This, in and of itself, isn’t proof. It’s only a hint of what’s to come. But, if we explore further in this verse, we find that God makes them male and female, God makes a community. And for male and female to unite in one flesh, they work in accord with God’s command “be fruitful and multiply” to create new life, other living images of God. So, for life to be created, there is the unification of three — male, female, and God — and in this new life is created. This becomes an important pattern as Christ tells us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, for the three unite to create eternal life in a person. But again, these are only hints that make sense in hindsight of the revelation. Solutions to the riddle that make sense once taught, but everybody stumbles over until revealed by the riddle maker.
Other hints came through the rest of the scriptures, especially prophetic books like Isaiah. In Isaiah, God promised that a child would be born of a virgin who would be called “God with us”, Emmanuel in Hebrew. Isaiah mentions this child is a son given to us and will be called by various divine monikers like “Mighty God, Wise Counselor, Father Forever, and Prince of Peace”. Another prophet, Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, both of whom lived about seven hundred years before Christ was born of a virgin, told the people of Israel,
“You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah (Jesus’s birthplace)
least among the clans of Judah (Jesus’s tribe),
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel (Jesus is crowned by Caesar and robed by Herod as King of the Jews);
whose origin is from of old, from ancient times”.
When Micah says that the Christ’s origin is from ancient times, this is a hint of the eternal nature of the promised Messiah. This Messiah would exist before he came in the flesh, hence Jesus says of himself, “Before Abraham was, I am”. A couple of verses later, Micah continues, “He shall take his place as shepherd by the strength of Yahweh, by the majestic name of Yahweh, his God; and they shall dwell securely, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth — he shall be peace”.
Christ is proclaimed throughout the world, everyone is aware of his birth, we mark our lives by the believed date of his birth. (This is not only fact, but also an apt metaphor and truth about how we are to measure not only our birthdays and deathdays, but our lives in general — always in the light of Christ). These prophecies are only a few examples of many, literally only three prophecies of thousands contained in the whole Old Testament. But these two examples are helpful to highlight why many Christians, like John the gospel-writer and Thomas our Lord's confessor, claim Jesus is God.
The trinity is important because unlike Othello, Jesus is never isolated. Even if his disciples are scattered, he is still in communion with God. Even though he may claim on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, we know he is simply singing the first line of a psalm that ends with lines like “In the assembly I will praise you” and “And I will live for Yahweh”. With the trinity is the unique revelation that within the Godhead there is community from eternity past. Somehow, authentic community and love become traits of God to be passed on, something the deceiver barred Othello from experiencing.
This eternal community within the Godhead is a divine mystery. Divine mysteries are perplexing riddles and only make sense once divinely revealed. They are not given by human teaching or human knowledge, they are only given through human testimony. They are understood by faith and reason. No one could know God’s name or his nature unless it was revealed by God himself. But once it’s revealed, like “I am who I am”, it makes since of all things. God is the perfect and infinite being who is. It makes sense that Yahweh is his name, in hindsight of course. It’s like knowing a person’s favorite color, you can possibly see hints in their clothes and possessions, but it is not confirmed until they tell you. It must be revealed to be known. Before that revelation, at best, you can have an educated guess. For the people of God, once God reveals divine mysteries, we are called to preserve and pass along the testimony of divine revelation. We may be able to mix water with wine, but we are not to mix human teaching with divine.
Christians find ways to relate how divine mysteries are true. Divine mysteries never contradict facts of life. Between Shakespeare and John, we have two writers teaching us the importance of determining reality based on divine truth, not devilish deception. John teaches us through the positive picture, Shakespeare through the negative. In Othello, Iago permanently clouds Othello’s ability to make any true conclusions about the various scenarios surrounding his life. Iago is able to distort and twist and use various situations to encourage Othello to believe falsehoods. Othello, unlike Christ, has separated himself from true communion, and finds himself isolated and forsaken, and in isolation he cannot make good decisions because he does not understand reality as it is. Instead, Othello understands reality through eyes that the deceiver gives him. Othello needs to learn to see. Unfortunately, once he does, he sees how easily he was fooled. But what we learn from Othello and the Godhead, the best antidote for lies is a community wherein truth is valued. In the triune God, we have not only the one by whom and through whom all things exists, the great “I am who I am”, but we have the son who says “I am the truth” and we have the Spirit which testifies to truth. The testimony of the three persons of the one God guides people into a full understanding of truth. Only the Christian God, the triune God, has the fullness of testimony in himself. All other monotheistic God’s must rely on the testimony of man or angels to be complete. The Christian God alone has the fullness of the requirements testimony within himself.
Let’s take a moment to create a vivid image for the trinity, because it is so important to understand the deception of Iago and the fall of Othello. Jesus often used parables and stories to explain divine truths because, often, the closest we get to understanding the spiritual world is by using images from our material world. Jesus often composed parables and stories as creative ways to communicate heavenly truths. So when Jesus teaches on the kingdom of heaven, he starts by saying “the kingdom of heaven is like…”. He then goes on to use earthly images like mustard seeds or yeast in bread to teach divine truths. Let’s attempt to do the same for the trinity.
The trinity is like a video game designer who plays the game he designed and created. Imagine there is a popular video game, whether Pac-Man, Contra, Mario Bros or Halo, it doesn’t matter, any game will do, but let us use Contra. Let’s pretend a man named Konami designs Contra and creates it by writing the software code. Konami is like the Willy Wonka of video game creators, he loves filling his games with practical jokes and letting fans discover and delight in these touches of love from the designer. Konami releases the game for all gamers to play and also makes some outlandish promises to his friends. For a period of thousands of days he offers hints to different friends, giving them instructions and advice for how to pass through certain levels and difficult situations of the game. His friends begin compiling his advice on internet sites, creating an official website for “True advice from Konami”, but lots of other websites also exist as other players figure out different aspects of the game on their own and share their insights with others.
One of Konami's more outlandish promises is at the appointed time, he himself is going to play the game. That one day he’s going to play the game and conquer it, and in doing so will fulfill all the requirements within the game to unlock a unique feature he’s designed. The feature is this, he’s going to allow players to have unlimited lives, so that they too might conquer the game through him.
Finally, the day comes. It seems like at this point the whole world is waiting for some special sign for Konami. But humbly, and without much fanfare, he takes his place among other gamers. But he’s not like other gamers, he knows this game. And incredibly, he moves through all the levels, fulfilling all the requirements. And in the last stage, after he’s conquered everything, he has one last choice. He can take the heart of the world and keep it to himself, or he can shed his own blood over this heart, and in doing so will unlock the feature of unlimited lives for all other gamers. Out of his great love for the game and for gamers, he sheds his own blood, experiencing death by giving his own life so that others might have unlimited lives and play the game forever.
Once he fulfills the requirements, unlimited lives are available to all but they can only access it by punching in a special code. He entrusts his friends to tell others about the cheat code. He tells them, “all you have to do to have unlimited lives is to punch a code before the game starts, ‘Up down up down left right left right b a b a’, but if you don’t punch the code, you won’t have access to unlimited lives. The unlimited lives don’t go away, but people will perish without this knowledge. So go and preach this good news from Japan to China and to the South Sea Islands until you reach the ends of the earth”.
Now, granted, this is a very weak parable. For one, we are not gamers playing a game, but actually born into the game. Secondly, the game is our life. There is no restart button that takes us back to the beginning, but their is a renew button that gives us access to eternity from the moment we believe. But, barring these weak analogies, please let me ask you, dear reader, to consider, would you like to play the game with the designer and his friends? Or would you rather play alone? Do you think the game is more beautiful if played with Konami? Or would you rather play the game alone, separated from helpful insights about how the game is designed and works? The Christian faith answers, the game is more beautiful in relationship with the designer. And this relationship is through Jesus Christ in communion with his Church.
And, as weak as the analogy is, the consistent Christian testimony across two thousand years is that this is what we have with God. We have the Creator who designed and created the world entering into this world to free us from sin and death so that we might have everlasting life through him. Hence, God in his incarnation (taking on human flesh), crucifixion (suffering unto death for others), and resurrection (being raised from death to life), we too are offered the gift to be partakers of divine life. As Homer notes, the gods are undying. Yet, even though our God dies, death cannot contain the Creator, death has no hold over the sinless one, and so as unfathomable as it sounds, the apostolic Christian belief is that the Creator of the world, the one by whom and for whom all things were made, both visible and invisible, this Creator was conceived by the Holy Spirit and thanks to the Virgin Mary took on human flesh in a particular time and place in order to free us from the tyranny of sin and death. This time and place was first century Bethlehem, as the prophet Micah foretold.
The creator of the universe was born into the world he created. More so, as man he lived the perfect life we could not live. Not only that, he lived to experience the perfect death — a death that secures life for others, a sacrifice. A death of perfect injustice that rains divine love upon sinful man so that in perfect justice and holy righteousness mankind could be offered eternal life. One day, by God, we will be made sinless as we’re released from our mortal bodies to be clothed with the immortality our God promises us. Our God died not for his own sin but for the sins of others, and in doing so opened up heaven and eternity for all of us who were born in the flesh with the shadow of death looming over our heads. But the gates of death do not prevail over us who have been born of the spirit, born into abundant and eternal life. And so, even though are bodies may decay and die, they will only be placed into the earth for a short time, before being raised to everlasting life. Othello makes huge decisions based on the antithesis of this reality, he makes decisions based not on the divine but the deceiver, and in doing so, he finds death and destruction, not everlasting life. Iago is like the person telling people the wrong cheat codes for unlimited lives, or convincing them the cheat code doesn’t exist, or if they learn the cheat code somehow hampering their ability to communicate it with others. The deceiver is all about isolation because that is the anti-thesis of God, the one who exists in communion from eternity past and will forever exist in communion with his angels and saints.
And so, this weak analogy of a video game designer playing and conquering his own game suffices as an imperfect illustration of the trinity. Imperfect because the trinity is much greater than our poor parable. God is more than a video game designer playing a game, and we are not simply gamers, but people born into this world, and the designer of this world takes on flesh in order that his Spirit may dwell in us, to empower us to live in this world, to guides us into his divine ways, and to bring heaven down to earth. One day, the moral life of the universe will learn perfect obedience to our Creator, just as the physical laws of the universe live in perfect obedience to our Creator. One day, every knee will bow and tongue confess Jesus is Lord. One day, death will no longer remain. One day, sin will no longer be possible. On this day, the last day, the people of God will rejoice forever more.
For the Christian, life is more beautiful lived in intimacy with divine. For Othello, life becomes a living hell as his intimacy with the deceiver increases. At the end of Othello’s life, all his accomplishments as a great war hero are marred and forgotten and in the end we have a tragedy of epic proportions. Evil abounds as people die for lies. Ugliness abounds where the deceiver deceives. For Christians, when we struggle with our doubts and in understanding divine faith, let us remember our God is the God of truth, goodness, and beauty. Beauty becomes a great test to understand divine mysteries. And so, when the Christian struggles in learning our faith, we can reflect on beauty to help us draw closer to our Creator. And Christian mysteries provide answers that are of supreme beauty.
The incarnation tells us God is near. Jesus, the son of a virgin was given the prophetic name Emmanuel, “God with us”, because he is with us. He is not distant in some far off galaxy but is as pervasive as the very air we breathe. And it is more beautiful to have a God who is near, who cares, and who is involved in his creation than one who is distant and unreachable. It is more beautiful that even the one through whom all things are created, subjected himself to the creatures of his creation, trusting himself into our hands. And incredibly, through our greatest mistake he grants us his greatest gift, eternal life in him. Our God gives great gifts to all, especially his enemies whom he is able to turn into family, God is willing to make us his adopted sons and daughters. We only need ask.
The crucifixion tells us sin has been dealt with, because Yahweh saves us from our sins by sending our savior Jesus, whose name means “Yahweh saves”. The blood shed in agony in Gethsemane and Calvary is sprinkled over us to prepare us as a dwelling place for our Lord. The New Eve had to be immaculately conceived, prepared from conception as the dwelling place of the divine man. Humans may dwell in sinful flesh but God cannot unless it is either free from sin or purified by blood. Mary was the former; we, the rest of humanity, are the latter. We needed to be sprinkled by the blood of the last Adam in order to be made into dwelling places of the divine Spirit. Moreover, the crucifixion tells us suffering is not something to be avoided. In fact, to be perfected, to be made more fully into the image of our God, we have to take the sufferings of this world upon our own shoulders, even giving our lives for the sake of others, as the only begotten son of God does. For the Christian, it is more beautiful to have a God who suffers with us, rather than one who does not know what it is like to suffer. Yes, our God alone has wounds.
The resurrection proves that death has no power or hold over us. Our God saves. Jesus name means “Yahweh saves” because that is what he does, he saves us from sin and death. Both sin and death are conquered. And though the battles rage, the war is won. And it was won by God’s own son. And it is more beautiful that in this world death does not have the last word, but everlasting life reigns through God’s word. (The person, not the scripture).
The Lord’s supper, our eucharist and thanksgiving, tells us that the manna in the wilderness was a faint glimmer of the daily bread we’d experience by the one who confirms for his apostles, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day”. Which makes sense, if we have to eat and drink earthly things to live earthly lives, would we not similarly need to eat and drink of the heavenly being to live heavenly lives? It is more beautiful that while other gods demand sacrifice and demand our lives, our God first gives of himself fully, he is our sacrifice and he gives us his divine life. From a human perspective, it’s a beautiful exchange, we give our death and doom-filled life in exchange for divine and undying life. Christians willingly give back to God our little bit of earthly dust because he’s already given us all of his Son. It’s easy to trust the one whose not only willing to die for us, but actually did.
In the ascension Christ takes his seat at the right hand of the Father as his enemies become his footstool. We who have crucified Christ in enmity are conquered in love to become his access point to teach others of the love that comes in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins; and thus we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And it is more beautiful that we have an advocate in heaven who knows what it is to be both God and man, for he alone can bridge the gap from divinity to humanity and from humanity to divinity.
The descent of the Holy Spirit shows that God is spirit and flesh and dwells in man. Jesus prepared the way for the third person of the trinity to take permanent residence on this earth in the hearts of Christ’s followers. Not only has Christ shown us the Father, but he hasn't left us as orphans. Christ’s blood secured the permanent dwelling place of God, not in a temple in Jerusalem, but in the temples of our bodies, spread throughout the earth. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds spreads and becomes the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches. Believers baptized in water and confirmed by the Holy Spirit are walking temples of the divine. It is more beautiful that the whole world is covered with living temples of the living God than only having one temple in one city in one country. It is more beautiful to have temples made of human flesh as the house of the divine, and not inert stones without life nor movement nor wisdom.
In the sacraments of the Church, we experience God’s grace daily. Divine grace is much more than a moment two thousand years ago, but everyday gifts of God granted to his church and available to all on the basis of faith. God continues to miraculously manifest his presence and goodness in our daily lives. God’s grace truly transforms, whether it’s bread, water, and wine that become the body and blood of our lord, or whether it’s his holy breath giving eternal life to what would otherwise be dead dust and sprinkled ashes. That even in the simple prayers of God’s holy ones we are absolved of our sins. Through the church of God, we experience a daily renewal of our minds, hearts, and bodies as our souls are lifted from earthly materials into heavenly essences. It is more beautiful that through God's grace heaven continues to invade earth in the daily lives of the people of God. It is more beautiful that the church is a living house of the living God, now and forever.
In all these beautiful mysteries, we find they continue to shine forth answers to help guide our lives. This is part of divine revelation. The deceiver works to negate true answers, and in it we find what Othello finds, loss of purpose in life, deception becomes par for the course, evil triumphs over good, the state is endangered from within, and people lose their identity. In Christ we have the reversal, we have purpose given to life, truth reigns, good triumphs over evil, the world is blessed as the promises to Abraham made thousands of years ago continue to come true, and people are secure in their identity as they find relationship with God — as sons and daughters, no longer enemies.
Christian mysteries build on each other, and work together. Once a mystery is revealed, you cannot un-reveal it, instead you are called to preserve it and pass it along. It is more blessed to give than to receive, so if we’ve received so great an insight into the mysteries of God, we must give it abundantly to others. The beauty of these mysteries, once learned, they stick with you and stay with you. And if you believe them, they change you and transform, not only individual people but the whole world, renewing it in the light of our Creator. As psalmists sing, “Send forth your spirit and renew the face of the earth”.
The beauty of the triune God satisfies two important problems of religious faith. One, we gaze upon the face of God in this world and know how he truly is. And two, our Creator provides the ideal image of man and begins the process of restoring fallen man into conformity with our true and ideal image of mankind. In Jesus, we have the true image of both God and man in one person. Jesus is fully divine and fully human because he is both the son of God and the son of Man. In one person, we have God and man.
One of the issues is humans learn through images. Mankind lives in a world filled with images. Once a certain image is ingrained in your mind, it is very difficult to remove it or even change it. This takes imagination, and images help our imagination because the more images we have, the more we can imagine things and understand reality. God created a world filled with images to help us imagine what he is like. But, when false images take root in our minds they are very hard to change. These false images are destroyed not by the deceiver, but by the divine.
The first commandment God gave the people of Israel was to make no graven images because he didn’t want the wrong images of himself taking root in their life as the people of God. As he revealed through Moses, they were not to make images of God “because you saw no form at all on the day Yahweh spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire”. God continued to tell the people of Israel, “be strictly on your guard not to act corruptly by fashioning an idol for yourselves to represent any figure, lest you forget the covenant which Yahweh, your God, has made with you, and fashion for yourselves against his command an idol in any form whatsoever”. God makes the true image of himself, and he is not the work of human hands. Yet, when he came in the form of human flesh, he did respect human freewill by asking a virgin to allow him to be made flesh. She said yes, more accurately, “let it be done to your handmaiden according to your word”.
God knows how difficult it is once humans get an idea stuck in our heads, how hard it is for us to change or see things differently. He didn’t want us to have any false ideas about himself until he provided the true image of himself. He understood the danger was great, for people have been creating false images of God (that is, idols) since the beginning and bowing down to them in our attempts to worship God. So, the first commandment he gave the Israelites was to make no images of God because he had yet to take form in their midst. Once he provides the true image, then we can make images because we are basing them on his revelation, we are basing them on truth, not a faulty imagination but concrete reality. Hence, Christians can make movies (moving images) about Jesus, including scenes of his life, death, and resurrection, for God has finally dwelled in our midst. We are basing our images of God on who he truly is, Jesus Christ. God finally took on form, and he did so in the form of man. Hence, Jesus is both son of God and son of Man, Jesus is both God and man.
The triune God — the Father, Son, and Spirit — allows God to have attributes that are both outside and within this world. He is able to be both divine and human, eternal and dying, outside and inside space and time, infinite and intimate, spirit and flesh, a living God and a dead man, a life-giving spirit and flesh free from sin. With Christ, God takes upon himself human flesh in order to bridge great divide between human and divine. When Mary said to the angel Gabriel, “let it be according to your word” she allowed for God to take on human flesh. With those words, she allowed her flesh to receive divinity. When we echo Mary and tell the Church, “let it be according to the word of God”, we allow his Spirit to be received in our flesh. We allow our flesh to receive divinity. Ultimately, it is the triune God that is able to redeem, transform, and restore creation to what we were created to be. The triune God allows genuine transformation because it offers the picture not only of the ideal man, but provides the Spirit to dwell inside us and guide us on the way to perfection.
Ultimately, this is the issue with Othello, he doesn’t meet God but a devil. He doesn’t meet the one who says, “I am who I am” but instead meets the one who says “I am not what I am”. In this, Othello does not experience a genuine transformation into true life, but hastens his own slide into death and destruction. And he brings others along with him, including his wife Desdemona, who dies a willing sacrifice for Othello’s rage, like a Shakespearean Able, she confides, “I am a Christian” and later “a guiltless death I die”. The tragedy of Othello is a study of the devil in the character of Iago. Shakespeare’s Othello is a counterpoint to John’s gospel. And they are best read together, to see the contrasting effects of the deceiver and the divine.
Moses, on the other hand, with his encounter with the divine “I am” finds a genuine transformation, he is transformed and changes from the son of slaves to the Father of a nation. He transforms from a murderer to a law giver permanently inscribing on the hearts of Jews and Christians forever, “Thou shalt not kill”. He transforms from a lowly shepherd into the good shepherd, a friend of God who talks face to face with his creator, not in riddles and visions but in plain-speak. He transforms from someone fleeing the error of his ways into someone scaling the mountain to meet his Maker and speak with him on the Mount of Transfiguration. The example Moses sets for us is that our lives only find their true and ultimate meaning when we come to know God, when God reveals himself to be “I am” and calls us by our name in Him. For thousands, maybe millions of years, humans had been seeking God and yet only to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did God finally reveal himself and his name. Moses wrote of Jesus, let us believe him. But as Jesus told his contemporaries, “But if you do not believe Moses’s writings, how will you believe my words?”.
Othello instead meets Iago, the anti-christ. Whereas Christ transforms people, lifting lowly humans to their divine destiny, Iago only hastens their death and destruction. Othello was lead to the pit of death, and never was raised. There is no transformation in Othello, their is only a quick descending into the pit of death. Othello didn’t meet the Holy One in whom there is no corruption, he met the demi-devil who destines others to die in jealousy and anger. And in this, Shakespeare give us a valuable study into the ways of devils, as a warning for hopeful saints.
The bible is full of stories of transformation and gives us many insights into God. But, forgive my impiety, but from my perspective, the scriptures seem incomplete, like the scriptures point elsewhere. Not only do they seem to point to a person, God himself, but because they seem to point so thoroughly to God, we seem to be missing insights that must have been passed along in other ways, whether by a living tradition or sustained by a living church.
For example, the bible does not have many insights into the devil. We only have a handful of stories, the fall in the garden of Eden, the Revelation of the end times where he is defeated and casts with his fellow angels into the lake of fire, odd verses in various letters here and there, and also the book of Job. But even in Job, satan is in the background, simply making accusations that Job is only good because he’s favored by God.
In Othello, Shakespeare completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions as he gives us a much detailed and in-depth study into the ways of the devil. Like C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Shakespeare gives us details of what the devil looks like in everyday life. In all appearances, Iago is a friend of Othello, and yet only in the end after Othello has committed much evil does he recognize Iago for who he is, the demi-devil who destroyed his life and used him to destroy others, including the people who loved him like Desdemona and Cassio. Shakespeare gives the Church insight into the dark ways of the demonic. And he teaches us, often the scariest thing is not the pitchfork carrying horned red-devil, but simply the one who is not who he appears to be. Beware Christian, beware. Let us learn from Othello, let us learn from Shakespeare, let us learn.
Soft you, a word or two before you go.
Shakespeare has done Christ service, and we know’t.
Remember, I pray you, when in Church letters read,
You do hear of divine deeds related,
How Christ preached “I am”. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down but in simple truth. Then must you speak
Of one that loved perfectly and all so well.
He himself commands us: “love one another
as I love you. No one has greater love
than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.
Soft you, this is the example set before us,
How we model our God and king, our Christ Jesus.
Macbeth: Thou Shalt Not Live
In Richard III, Shakespeare provides a glimpse into divine patterns which are fulfilled alone in Christ Jesus. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare gives a comparison between deifying a man and the deity made flesh, implicitly asking the audience who is to be worshipped as Lord, Julius Caesar or Jesus Christ? In Othello, Shakespeare provides an in-depth study into the anti-Christ, the one who claims “I am not what I am”, and thereby helps us “see” the work of the devil, who as the father of lies is not what he appears to be. In Macbeth, Shakespeare provides another important study, this time on the image of man and the restoration of a kingdom. Macbeth is a study on true manhood and Shakespeare gives us this study by giving his audience a picture of a darkened man in Macbeth, whose name ironically means “son of light”. Through his plays, Shakespeare proves to be a consistently Christian-influenced and Christ-revealing playwright, poet, and storyteller.
Macbeth, a profound Christian allegory, is a masterpiece of literature. Shakespeare makes ample and inventive use of church scriptures to teach Christians about the image of man. He proves masterful in weaving biblical scriptures in and out of a story, taking lines and themes from Genesis to the Gospel of John, from the letters of Paul to the books of Moses’s law. Lines like Moses’s “thou shalt not kill” become Macbeth’s “thou shalt not live”, and Christ’s insights into those of “woman born” and “born again” blur into one as Macbeth is told of his downfall that shall come through one “not of woman born”. Shakespeare hits various scriptural themes, weaving in and out like a master jazz musician who builds tension until it finally releases in the climatic scene where Macbeth is defeated by one “not of woman born”, restoring the kingdom into the hands of the rightful king. The story provides suspense, theological insight, and great biblical commentary as we see this dark study on devils, darkened consciences, and doomed man.
The focus on “what is man?” is seen throughout the five acts of Macbeth through various lenses. As we proceed through the play we see how Macbeth proves in all his actions to be the epitome of fallen man, a perfect counterpoint to Christ, the picture of perfect man. Rather than a life of Christ-like obedience to heavenly ways, Macbeth lives a life of self-absorption. And in his last breaths confesses his perfectly nihilistic worldview, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Macbeth speaks from a conscience darkened due to his own dastardly deeds done in a lust of power and great hate. For Macbeth, life has no meaning. Surely, this is a tough way to end a life that had significant accomplishments. By objective worldly measures, Macbeth was a great man of this world. At points throughout this play he was a great war hero, a valued general and countryman, and even the king of his own country. Yet, what happened that this great man ends his life saying “life signifies nothing”? How can this be?
Let us take a moment to outline the play in order to understand the trajectory of Macbeth’s devilish descent into darkness, his manic fall from a good image of man. Act 1 starts the play with the prophetic warning that “fair is foul and foul is fair” as witches hover through Scottish fog and filthy air to meet with Macbeth. Act 1 ends with Macbeth’s confession to his wife that he will “dare do all that may become a man” as he promises to murder the current king and take the crown and kingdom for himself. In Act 2, the murderous deed is done and Macbeth, who kills the king, is the one on whom the sovereignty falls. The kingship is not given to the son of the king as was right according to the laws of the land. The kingship is taken by Macbeth. Macbeth comes to power via iniquity; he takes the kingdom through murder. Act 3 includes Macbeth’s inner descent into madness as he wrestles with Banquo’s ghost. Yet, outwardly, people still believe Macbeth “has borne all things well”. For a time, Macbeth’s dark deeds are hidden from the light of the people. In Act 4 comes the prophetic insight of the play and the power of man, for “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”. As John the gospel writer might say, “it’s not the people born of the flesh who defeat the powers of darkness”. As Jesus teaches, we wait for one “born from above”. Macbeth misunderstands the prophecy, and assumes he will survive unharmed from his chief enemy, Macduff, the future savior of Scotland. Macbeth proclaims in reference to Macduff “thou shalt not live”. Macduff suffers greatly in Act 4 as his family is murdered, but proves in Act 5 to be the savior as he vanquishes Macbeth and hands over the kingdom to the rightful king, Malcolm. Macduff is the new man, not of woman born, and he restores the kingdom of Scotland to its rightful ruler. In restoring the kingdom, Malcolm ties the son of light (that is, Macbeth) to the stake and proclaims on a pole “Here may you see the tyrant”.
The play Macbeth is theologically rich. Even though there are many contrasts with the life of Christ, these contrasts never stay within clear boundaries. Shakespeare’s art crosses many theological categories, his stories seem to blur and fit in-between strict man-made teachings on Christian doctrines. And yet, while always blurring lines and crossing boundaries, Shakespeare still proves to be a profoundly orthodox Christian in his art. Let us understand how.
Macbeth is a picture of sinful man. When he’s tied to the stake and vanquished by Macduff, the Christian playgoer has promises echo in their minds from throughout the holy scriptures, from writers as varied as Moses, the lawgiver and nation builder, to Paul, the Pharisee and missionary, and to John, the gospel-writer and fisherman. This particular passage of Macbeth at once evokes multiple passages of sacred scripture. For example, Genesis 3, when the promise comes that the serpent will be subdued, vanquished by the promised son; Numbers 21, when Moses mounts a serpent on a pole so that all who looked at the bronze serpent would be restored to health (the modern symbol of hospitals and healing comes from ancient Jewish stories); John 3, when Jesus explains this passage about the bronze serpent is a foreshadow of his life and ministry and purpose in this world; and Colossians 2 when our transgressions are forgiven us by being nailed to the cross and thereby despoiling the powers of this world, making a public spectacle of them — and these are only a few highlights from scripture of many! There are many other scriptures which Shakespeare evokes in this scene alone of Macbeth, time limits us to discuss them all. One thing is clear, the better we now church scriptures and teachings, the more we understand Shakespeare. The better we understand the bible, the more insight we receive in understanding Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare is a master of infusing the whole of scripture into his own written stories. A Christian recognizes Shakespeare’s allegories as profoundly Christian because of Shakespeare’s ability to quote church scripture, but not simply quote it as is, but also invert the scripture in some fascinating way. We recognize the scripture but also see how Shakespeare uses the scriptures to suit his own storytelling purposes. Hence “thou shalt not kill” becomes “thou shalt not live” while on the lips of Macbeth, his doomed man and key protagonist.
Shakespeare mastery of church scriptures is more apparent as we reflect on the play. Macduff restores the kingdom to the true son — in this we have multiple pictures of not simply Christ who reconciles the world to his heavenly Father, but also the Christian who seeks to participate in what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings so that the world is made new by the Spirit of God. As the psalmist sings, “Send forth your spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth”. The face of the earth is renewed through the Spirit working in us, the living images of the living God. Shakespeare not only gives us multiple lenses to view the same characters, he gives us multiple characters to view our Christ, and even encourages us to see ourselves in the play, are we Macbeth or Macduff? Are we going to do whatever it takes to steal a kingdom from the rightful heir — like Macbeth? Or, are we going to live a life aligned with the prophecies and promises, and when the kingdom is in our hands, hand it over to the rightful king and encourage all our compatriots to obey the true king and say “Hail, King” — like Macduff? Who are we going to be like?
Ultimately, this question of who we are going to be like leads us back to Christ. Are we going to model ourselves off the pattern of Christ’s life? Or are we going to pattern ourselves to the ways of the world? Out of the whole of humanity, Christ alone was born to die. And in this he becomes our unique model. Every single person dies. We live under the divine decree “the wages of sin is death” and hence Macbeth can rightly speak to all of humanity “thou shalt not live”. Yet, Christ, born by the will of God and the obedience of a virgin, was not born of sinful flesh but of a willful spirit. He did not have sin and did not need die. Therefore, whereas we are born to live, Christ alone was born to die. We — constantly living under the shadow of death — grown and yearn for someone to vanquish the last enemy. Christ proves he conquered death by rising from the dead. Death cannot contain the sinless one. So, if we carry our cross and die with Christ, the grave cannot contain us either, we are one with him. Hence Paul tells us “for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. If then you were raised with Christ, when Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory”. Hence, John testifies that Jesus told Nicodemus, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”. We are born, and we will die. But if we die in Christ, we but taste death as a payment of our sins and inherit eternal life, the gift of God in Christ Jesus. Eternal life is possible thanks to the son of God who became a son of Man and was willing to be born in order to die. Christ alone was born to die. The rest of humanity is born for life, eternal life. Let us reach out and lay hold of this great gift of God.
More so, Christ was born of a virgin, and every person is born of a woman. But this is the perplexing part of Shakespeare’s Christian allegory. It is an invitation. It is a story that begs a response. Because ultimately, the story is about restoring a kingdom to the rightful king. The small example of Scotland is a picture of the world. Christ teaches that even the greatest of those men born of a woman are less than the least of those in the kingdom of heaven. We must be born from above. Or in modern terms, we must be born again. We cannot go back into a mother’s womb, for that was a birth of life gifted to us as a work of the flesh, our parents act of physical love. We must be born by a will of the spirit, our spirit joining with God’s. The flesh is condemned to death while the spirit is undying. The flesh learns to die daily while the spirit lives forever. The flesh is inhabited by the spirit, and only in this way is the flesh drawn upwards as it is purified. But corruptible flesh must be cast aside in order to take on the incorruptible body. What is dishonorable shall be raised glorious. What is worn weakly shall be transformed powerfully. What is natural shall be made supernatural. And so we, living beings, shall be made into life-giving spirits. Everyone is born to live. Christ alone was born to die. We, at birth, are all destined to die once and have hope of immortality. Christ, our sinless one, at birth, had the right to live forever. In submitting to death and mortality, he gave his life and immortality for all. Let us bear the image not of sinful man but of the heavenly Christ.
And so, Macduff, the man “not born of a woman” is the one who works to restore the kingdom. Shakespeare makes light of these biblical truths by telling us Macduff was “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb”. But Christians understand Shakespeare’s deeper truth, we need to be infused with the life-giving spirit of God. Only then are we united with our heavenly Father’s will in living a life of purpose, restoring the face of the world in light of Christ our King. The work is in progress. All ancient kingdoms told time by the reign of their kings, we now have renewed the world and tell time by the reign of our king, Christ Jesus, the king of Kings and lord of Lords. Let us not forget why we are in the 21st century. It is the 21st century of the reign of our king! Let us never be traitors to heavenly truth and divine law, for divinity is everlasting. All that is earthly will perish unless it is renewed by the Spirit. And so, Macduff is not simply a picture of Christ, on a much deeper level, he is a picture of who we are made to be as Christians.
The play Macbeth through the savior Macduff is Shakespeare’s clarion call to all Christians, a playwright’s plea to his fellow countrymen to restore the world to its true king. Macbeth comes after the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (Lady Macbeth, possibly? — the illegitimate daughter of King Henry VIII) and the transfer of the kingdom to King James VI of Scotland, the great grandson of King Henry VII, and a rightful heir to the throne of England as King James I. Shakespeare’s allegory was a timely and poignant message to an audience who had experienced the shock of many kings and queens striving for power and authority in a land under intense shock, turmoil, and instability — cultural, political, and religious.
Shakespeare, in Macbeth, begs the question which kingdom is everlasting? Which is sustainable? One whose rulers kill and war for power, or one whose rulers are given power by a higher power, whether the law of love or the laws of the land? For the Christian, power is given, granted, bestowed. Power is never to be taken. It is never to be sought. The transfer of power fulfills a process. God proclaimed about Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, “This is my son, whom I love, listen to him”. Jesus was given authority by God the Father. Jesus told the apostles, “This is Peter, and upon Peter I will build my church”. Peter and the apostles were given authority by Jesus. The English people, too, had a system of power transfer which Queen Elizabeth circumvented to make herself queen. Shakespeare begs us to be more like Macduff and less like Macbeth, Shakespeare encourages us to be more like Christ and less like worldly leaders. Shakespeare teaches us not to seek power but to serve the true and rightful king.
And so, King Macbeth and Christ MacJoseph (or, Jesus bar ‘son of’ Joseph) provide contrasting views of the image of man and how to restore a kingdom. While Macbeth tells his enemy “thou shalt not live”, Jesus gives us a higher standard than even the ancient law “thou shalt not kill” by saying to us “I say to you don’t even be angry with your fellow man for whoever is angry will be liable to judgement” and also “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors”. Whereas Macbeth boasts “I dare do all that may become man” and proceeds to kill the king and take the crown, Jesus tells our heavenly Father “yet not my will but yours be done” as he prepares to lay down his life so enemies of God may become adopted family. Whereas Macbeth takes a kingdom not his own, Jesus is given a crown of thorns and disrobed as he’s proclaimed “King of the Jews” by the rightful rulers and governors. Macbeth took for himself a temporary throne while Christ was given an everlasting kingdom by his Father. In all these things Christ gives us a new image of man, a new world order that is being instituted, and by his example begins to transform humanity. We now have the true ideal and godly standard of what mankind is created to be like.
And so, which image of man is sustainable? Macbeth or Jesus? Which one allows for an everlasting kingdom? Which image gives us a pattern of behaviors which allow for everlasting life and goodness? This is the meditation which Shakespeare’s Macbeth produces for a Judeo-Christian audience. And while the facts are clear, the interpretations are varied. But the church of God is spreading Christendom across this world. Across the seas and centuries all kinds of people — of every tribe and tongue — proclaim “Jesus is King, Christ is Lord”. Christ’s kingship and lordship is spreading across the earth. We count years according to his life. We purify pagan cultures in his light, transforming the pagan Roman Empire into Catholic Europe. We cross the seas in order to build societies that know his name and attempt to follow his precepts. Let not the English-speaking world forget Christ’s greatness. Their are no grandsons of Abraham, only sons. Their are no grandchildren of God, only children. Each generation must learn truth, and each generation must pass it along to the next.
The constant danger is to forget the divine way, and thereby lose our own way, and ultimately follow people like Macbeth who don’t value life, authority, or kingship. These men destroy in order to take. They do not live in order to give. Ultimately, we cannot simply be of woman-born. We must be given a divine birth by uniting our human will with the divine will of our Father. In this way we have hope of participating in the divine life. For what is born of the flesh will die to the flesh, but what is born of the spirit lives forever. For the flesh is dying, the spirit is eternal. The flesh is doomed, the spirit is alive. The flesh is enslaved to sin, the spirit is free in Christ.
It is amazing that Shakespeare is able to weave so many meditation-worthy insights in one short play of merely 18,000 words. A play that can be experienced in its entirety in less than two hours, and yet, a play that is worthy of a lifetime of meditation. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is rooted in the veiled representation of eternal truths given to us by the eternal one who proclaims “I am the way and the truth and the life”. Let us contemplate the divine way, truth, and life.
Divinity, formed as a naked newborn babe,
Wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger,
Bound by great duty: a babe born to die.
He’ll prove “I dare do all that may become a man”,
Son of God, son of Man, the great “I am”.
He has come to gift eternal life to mankind.
Let us follow him, the truly good man.
Coriolanus: Hunger for Bread
Whereas Macbeth is a Christian allegory, equally insightful for all of Christendom, Coriolanus is more specifically a Catholic allegory, best appreciated by Catholics of Shakespearean England. To understand why Coriolanus is primarily a Catholic work of art, one has to understand the differences in Christian faith in England during Shakespeare’s time.
England had three types of Christians. (1) Anglicans comprised the official Church of England, a “State Church” run by the government which persecuted all other Christians. (2) Catholics, they were part of the ancient faith of the isle, whose land and holdings were confiscated by the government in the 16th century and whose priests were charged with treason, a crime punishable by death according to the laws of the land. Finally, (3), the third kind of Christians were the Puritans. Puritans were non-conformists who sought freedom, like Catholics, from the official State religion. Puritans wanted to practice the faith as they believed, not as they were compelled to practice by the State, nor as it had been handed down by Catholics over the centuries.
Between these three general types of Christians in Shakespearean England, the Catholics alone believed that the Lord’s Supper is the participation in eating the flesh and blood of our lord and savior. This is the unique difference which makes Coriolanus specifically a Catholic Christian work of art, unlike some of Shakespeare’s other works which can be more universally appreciated by all of Christendom.
When the English government under Queen Elizabeth made being a priest a treason against the State, it created a profound “grain shortage” in England, the motif that begins the play Coriolanus. The people clamor, “we hunger for bread, not thirst for revenge”. Shakespeare is making the Catholic plea public, “we simply hunger to practice our faith freely and publicly, and do not desire revenge against our persecutors”. Mother Theresa in her book “Loving Jesus” expresses the Catholic perspective, “Without priests, we have no Jesus. Without priests, we have no absolution. Without priests, we cannot receive Holy Communion”. Let us unpack this Catholic mindset.
Catholics believe in the clear transfer of authority and lawful obedience to divine authority. Jesus gave his authority to Peter and the apostles, and said that upon them the church would be built. The apostles transferred their authority to their successors, the bishops, with the office of Peter as the head bishop. This is the Catholic point of view. Our current pope, Pope Francis at the time of this writing, is the 266th pope and traces his position as pope all the way to Peter, the first pope. This is like Americans tracing the presidency from President Barack Obama back to the first President, George Washington. Similar to all communities and organizations with a clear line of leadership, there were good popes and bad popes, just like there are good presidents and bad presidents. But, just like Americans do not cease being American simply because a president is bad, likewise, Catholics do not cease being Catholic simply because a pope is bad. For a Catholic, the office of the Pope is to be respected like an American respects the office of the Presidency.
The Pope is a bishop of Bishops, and it is the bishops who rightfully ordain priests and send them out into our communities. The office of priesthood is a necessary office for every Catholic community, as it is only the priests that can rightfully offer sacrifice to God. Only priests make the sacrifice of Christ present for the people. Therefore, only priests can make the bread of life visibly present, hence the words from Mother Theresa quoted earlier. Priests practicing in their divinely instituted office allow the Catholic community to obey our savior’s command, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have not life in you”.
So, in summary, Jesus transferred his authority to the apostles under the leadership of Peter. The apostles transferred their authority to the bishops, under the head bishop of Rome who is in the office of Peter. It is the bishops who ordain priests. And it is these men who hold a priestly office who alone are able to make present among the people the sacrifice of the passover lamb at mass.
So, returning to Shakespeare’s England, when Queen Elizabeth persecuted priests, she was attempting to remove the priesthood from England which removes the bodily presence of our Savior among the English people. For the Catholic, Queen Elizabeth created a profound “grain” shortage. The “bread of life” was driven into hiding and seclusion. Catholic faith could no longer be celebrated openly but had to be practiced in secret. What may have been a true reality for famine stricken lands (historians say there was a true grain shortage in England prior to Coriolanus being written in 1608), Shakespeare used to create a deeper symbolic meaning. The “grain” shortage also represented a deeper spiritual hunger in Catholic England. Without priests, there is no Jesus, there is no bread of life, the eucharist (what Catholics call the Lord’s Supper, it simply means “thanksgiving”). Like Mother Theresa said, “I have never realized the greatness of the priesthood until I saw in Yemen that when the priest came, the altar, the tabernacle, and Jesus came with him…This is the greatness of the priesthood!”. She represents the Catholic mindset well when she says, “The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the focus of our love. The Eucharist is our strength, our joy, our love, and our peace, enabling us to receive Jesus and then share him with others. And the priest is our guide, for the heart of Jesus is in him”.
Catholics believe Christ was speaking a literal truth when he said “truly, truly, I say unto you, unless you eat my bread and drink my blood, you have not life within you”. And so, the Lord’s Supper (aka the Eucharist) becomes a fundamental part of practicing our faith. Otherwise, we are unable to obey our Savior’s words. Without priests (men who occupy the office of priesthood), we cannot have communion.
This first scene of Coriolanus, which identifies the grain shortage, identifies for a Catholic viewing Coriolanus, “This is Catholic art”. This becomes the lens we use to understand the spiritual message of Shakespeare’s play. And Coriolanus becomes a beautiful work of art for Catholics to ponder and treasure. Let us understand this Catholic allegory.
Act 1 ends with a “crucifixion” scene as Coriolanus, our Christ figure, is baptized in blood and figuratively comes back from the dead after he storms the gates of the enemy and comes back victorious. The first Act ends with a resurrection-type as Coriolanus is found to be alive after so deadly a war. It is said, “He alone saved Rome”.
Act 2 starts with a reference to lamb, an appropriate parallel because for Catholics Christ is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. And so, the good news of Coriolanus’s work is proclaimed to the people. Incidentally, as an interesting aside, Coriolanus true name is Caius Martius. He is renamed “Coriolanus” as a mark of his war he alone won at Corioles’ gate, which is similar to Jesus of Nazareth being given the moniker “Christ” as a result of his resurrection from the dead. The second Act for the Christian audience has great allusions to the suffering servant of Isaiah’s gospel, as the people wait for Coriolanus to “show his wounds and tell his deeds”. Coriolanus’s greatness was in suffering for his people, and thereby saving them. Act 2 ends with certain senators attempting to besmirch the good name of Coriolanus, saying slanderous things of his character, trying to turn the people of the Capitol against him. They claim Coriolanus is proud and is simply a petty servant to the State, no one special, and that his wounds were borne in malice against the people and not out of love for them. Only two senators are able to sway a mob of people by making illogical claims. Shakespeare masterfully teaches us about mob behavior, and how the masses can be so easily fooled.
By Act 3, the mob of people are swayed against Coriolanus by a few insincere senators and he is banished from the Capitol. He is exiled. He is driven away. Exile and banishment is a theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays because that is what was happening to Catholics, they were being forced into either hiding or exile or conversion to the State religion. Under King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, the Catholic faith was being rooted out of England. A few leaders were deciding and influencing for the whole of England. The rulers were not serving the interests of the people, simply their own. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is a veiled plea for James I of England (also known as James VI of Scotland) to reverse this trend of removing Catholic faith from England. Shakespeare’s plea is for the Catholic faith to be practiced freely in Mary’s Dowry. Unfortunately, the Savior is seen as enemy and banished from the Capitol. Mary’s Dowry (England’s prior nickname as a reminder of its Catholic faith) is forgetting her Catholic roots, and English rulers during Shakespeare’s lifetime were stamping out the Catholic faith that helped build the nation into a budding global powerhouse.
Act 4 starts with the profound truth as the Christ figure states, “I will be loved when I am lacked”. Coriolanus is banished from the Capitol and enters the city of his enemies, the Volscians. They accept him, noting, “he is simply the rarest man in all the world”. The whole play highlights Coriolanus’s singular greatness. He alone saved Rome. And he is uniquely great. With the Volscian Army, Coriolanus will return to the Capitol. Much like Christ’s second coming, it is a fearful day for those who love not their Savior.
Act 5 identifies Coriolanus as “Yond Cornerstone”, the same term Jesus and Paul use to identify Christ, as foretold in the book of Isaiah and the psalms. Jesus is the cornerstone rejected by the builders but used by God as the chief cornerstone to build his God’s living temple. Amazingly, the Capitol is spared because of the intercessions of Coriolanus’s mother. Volumnia, his mother, draws out his merciful side and Coriolanus does not attack the Capitol but instead returns home. The play ends with Coriolanus killed by the army who had taken him in. The people agree, “He shall have a noble memory”.
In Coriolanus, Shakespeare used the story of a real Roman historical figure. His source was Plutarch’s Lives, and it is marvelous to see which details he was able to keep in the play. Yet, though he kept certain details from the historical source, he still fictionalized the story to “catholicize” the life of Caius Martius. In the “catholicization” of Coriolanus’s life, Shakespeare proves to be among the greatest Catholic writers of all time, only matched by various New Testament writers and possibly certain saints.
Let us understand, all English Christians of Shakespeare’s time could agree that Christ was baptized in blood (that is, crucified), that he was raised from certain death, that the good news of his wounds should be preached, that his deeds should be spoken of, that he’s “simply the rarest man in the world” and he is “Yond Cornerstone” — all consistent with how Shakespeare represents Coriolanus. It is the issue regarding the famine that separates the Christian religions in England, dividing the Protestant Christian religions away from Catholic faith. Nevertheless, the Christian religions are the most beautiful religions the world has ever known. For God becomes a babe, lives among us, dies for us and is raised from the dead. The Christian God has wounds, no other god does. And Isaiah foretold the ancient Israelites about our Christ, “he bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed”.
And yet, even though their is much in common among the Christian religions of Shakespeare’s England, it is the Catholic faith that is most beautiful. For, let us not forget that when Mary brought forth the Ancient of Days from her womb in the town called “House of Bread”, and she laid him in a manger, the feeding trough for animals, he’d actually was to be the food for people, not animals. The Passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world is not only to be sacrificed, but also consumed. We are to drink his blood and eat his flesh. For the blood is a new covenant, and the flesh is our bread of life. All Christians believe in the sacrifice of Christ. Yet, it is only the Catholic Christians who eat and drink of this new covenant, it is only the Catholic Christians who fully participate in the promises of God. It is only the Catholic Christians who know how to satisfy our spiritual hunger.
Shakespeare understood the greater glory of the Catholic church. For Christian religion is unique among the religions of the world that God becomes man and dwells among us. But Catholic faith is unique among the Christian religions that God doesn’t stop there. He actually becomes not only our salvation but also our sustenance. What other God gives of himself so fully not only to die for his people but also to offer his own flesh as our daily bread? What other religion does God allow the people to feast on himself? This is the greatness of the Eucharist, this is the greatness of Jesus, and this greatness was taught by Catholics in Shakespeare’s England and throughout the centuries. So, if the priests were not able to offer masses freely, great playwrights and Catholics were able to take the message to the masses using the medium of entertainment to educate the people of England and Catholics everywhere.
Shakespeare entertained. But he did so in order to speak to his people. He could comfort his fellow Catholics best if he could entertain people well. Shakespeare created wonderful plays, and the law of the land, especially laws of censorship, forced him to hide his overtly Catholic messages in symbolic ways in order to educate all Christians about true Catholic faith. In the next book, we will go through these same five plays (Richard III, Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus) and discuss how profoundly and overtly Catholic they are. We will show how people can understand patterns in Shakespeare’s style to see the “Catholic Church in Shakespeare”.
O Christians, O Catholics, we are the stewards of the mysteries of Shakespeare.