Part 2: A Poet's Expression of His Religion
"Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences.
The supreme question about a work of art
is out of how deep a life does it spring?”
— James Joyce
None of Woman Born
In the time of Queen Elizabeth’s death, certain famous Englishman of the time chided Shakespeare for not writing an ode to Queen Elizabeth to memorialize and celebrate her life. Shakespeare didn’t jump immediately to the task, but he did write a masterpiece dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, only it was not in the type of play, poem, or ode they expected, it is the dark tale that is Macbeth. And for reasons we will get into, this play could not be published until years after his death. For Catholics, Queen Elizabeth is Lady Macbeth. Not only is there a similarity in sounded syllables between “Lady MacBeth” and “Elizabeth” (remember the Catholic faith is oriented towards hearing and sight, like plays), there is also a profound similarity in the effects these strong woman have on their respective kingdoms. Let us understand Shakespeare’s “ode to the Queen”.
Ode to the Queen
Now, as always, Shakespeare hides his messages in plain sight. Much like God, Shakespeare wraps truth in parables (and plays) so that some “see and yet don’t perceive, hear and yet don’t understand”. Remember, if Shakespeare was an English Catholic, his loyalties would lie to God, Church, and Country, in that order. Thus, his alliances would be as a child of God, a loyal Catholic, an Englishman, and finally a subject of Queen Elizabeth. To the extent Queen Elizabeth harms other people, whether Englishmen or Catholics or both, to the extent she harms other children of God, other people made in the image of their Maker, Shakespeare is bound to share the truth of her actions to the public for the sake of not only protecting the oppressed, but guiding Queen Elizabeth to genuine repentance. She must seek forgiveness for her wrongs and go about restoring the damage done. But speaking truth to power takes tact.
Shakespeare doesn’t burst on the English theatre scene with overt rebel literature. No, he starts with patriotic plays about England like the tetralogy that ends with Richard III, which justifies the current Tudor dynasty in power. In Richard III, Shakespeare gives Catholic audiences only glimpses of comforting messages to persevere in their faith and to see truth for what it is, namely, don’t trust devils disguised as saints. He comes further to theatrical preeminence with highly symbolic plays disguised in romances, existentialist reflections, and quirky comedies like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Midsummer Night’s Dream. As Shakespeare grows in popularity and becomes a favorite playwright of the English court and all of England, he becomes more overtly Catholic. He becomes such a favorite of the English people that towards the end of his career he might not need fear persecution, but he still must avoid censorship. And so by the time he ends his second tetralogy of English histories, culminating with Prince Harry who becomes King Henry V, Queen Elizabeth begins to understand how much Shakespeare speaks to the people about holding onto the ancient Catholic faith in England. Soon she bans plays that deal with English history. The Queen and her henchman in the Capital rightly perceive there is a deeper message to the English histories, and they need to suppress truth getting to the English masses.
Remember, tyrants have to remake history in their own image. Hence, a few decades later under Oliver Cromwell, not only are some plays banned based on their material but all plays are banned. The Puritan government understood the need to suppress truth and the voice of the people. Tyrants cannot abide any medium where truth might be told, even in story, especially in art. Tyrants must censor truth and control what is proclaimed to the people.
So bloody Queen Elizabeth has to sponsor state propaganda to ensure she is enshrined as “Good Ole Queen Bess”. But Shakespeare gives us the true memorial of who she is in Macbeth. This is why no published version of the play exists until nearly a decade after his death. This is why four of the five plays discussed in this section (Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus) are only handed down to us through the work of Shakespeare’s friends, preserving his plays for posterity. They are so overtly Catholic and for an English-Catholic audience, he’d be convicted of treason for crimes against the state had they been published. The written evidence is overwhelming when we compile Shakespeare’s canon and look for evidence of his catholicity. Hence, the most overtly catholic plays are published in 1623, nearly a decade after his death. Shakespeare is first and foremost a truth teller, and this includes telling the truth of the persecution of Catholics in England under Queen Elizabeth.
Many people consider it a mystery that Shakespeare did not publish his plays in his lifetime. Some try to explain it away with an offhand remark how it was simply not were money was to be made, that money was to be made by being an owner of a playhouse and reaping the profits, which Shakespeare so shrewdly did. But these people fail to recognize the environment Shakespeare lived in and wrote under. Shakespeare was forced to be shrewd as a serpent as a sign of the times, he was a persecuted playwright dedicated to speaking truth to power; speaking truth to his sovereign rulers and speaking up for the oppressed people persecuted by English monarchs and nobles.
Shakespeare’s rebel literature would have been banned if published, he had to evade censors to speak truth to the masses, and he did this by disguising his messages. He had to disguise the messages for the masses because in his country the mass was banned. But even though truth was banned in the fullest form — the Catholic liturgy — he still wanted people to know the truth of the times. He wanted his people, all Englishmen irregardless of professed religion or creed, to know the dark deeds of Queen Elizabeth and the bloodied hands that could never be washed of guilt. “Hail the king of Scotland” is not only a line from the heroes of Macbeth, but it is also the heart’s cry of many persecuted English-Catholics under Queen Elizabeth.
Remember, the fall away from Catholic faith in 16th century England was not a movement of the people like the fall away from Christian faith in 21st century America. England’s fall from grace was a top down persecution, not a general public forgetfulness as in America. English people in the latter end of the sixteenth century were longing for a return to the ancient faith that built their nation. For a long time they did not head the decrees coming from the English Capitol.
In Love’s Labor’s Lost, Shakespeare is able to speak this truth through a comedy, for he has the country clown Costard confess freely to loving his beloved wench even though it was outlawed by the king. “I do confess to hearing the proclamation, but little of the heeding of it”, were his words, and a Catholic audience recognized that in country parishes the old faith was practice even though the Capitol detested this practice. Even though it was illegal to love the Catholic church in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare spoke to the people in parables, which disguised his message, “Yes our kings and queens may tell us to live by Articles of the Church of England, but we live in a time where ‘this article is made in vain’ and so we must continue to practice the true faith”. And as the country clown taken by love for the ‘true girl’, the true church, Costard tells the Catholic audience “I suffer for the truth”, like all Catholics in Elizabethan England.
The theme of marriage is so frequent in Shakespeare’s plays not simply because it is common experience of human life and love, but namely because it is the closest image that represents the mystery of Christ and his true church. In Shakespeare’s plays, an earthly marriage is often used as a metaphor for Christ and the Church, just as in holy scripture. And cuckoldry is a frequent issue not only because it is a common fear that destroys many a marriage, but because it was how English Catholics perceived the severity of participating in the state church, the Church of England. Many English Catholics perceived becoming Anglican as a severe form of adultery to the true bride of Christ. It was an adulterous betrayal akin to the betrayal of God by the ancient Israelites who worshiped idols in the time of the prophets. This was a severe issue, and therefore a frequent theme in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s genius is he can make both tragedies and comedies out of this severe issue. He draws pleasure, or purpose at least, out of pain.
The English people loved the Catholic faith of their forefathers. This was a top down persecution, and not the will of the people as Protestant propaganda frequently claimed afterwards. Shakespeare defended the ancient Catholic faith, and this was one of the many reasons he was beloved during his time. The people loved Shakespeare because he publicly defended their faith and encouraged them to persevere in holding to the ancient Catholic traditions. For example, in All’s Well that End’s Well, Shakespeare has a beloved king state “Let me not live after my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff of younger spirits, whose apprehensive sense all but new things disdain; whose judgements are mere fathers of their garments; whose constancies expire before their fashions”. Or, in other words, “don’t let me live when the current generation forgets the traditions of our fathers”. Or, more simply, “let me live among those who honor tradition”.
Isn’t honoring tradition the spiritual fulfillment of the first great commandment with a promise, “honor your father and mother so that it shall go well with you in the land”? Should we not likewise honor the spiritual forefathers who so faithfully preserved and passed along the traditions which bring us eternal life? For if God commands that we honor the life-givers of society — our parents — should we not likewise honor the eternal life-givers of society? Should we not honor the traditions handed down by the priests, prophets, and apostles? For even Saint Paul with fatherly wisdom tells the Corinthians “hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you”. He tells the Thessalonians “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours”. And to his beloved child in the faith, Timothy, Paul says “deacons must hold fast to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience”. Earthly fathers must pass along and preserve truth for their children, and so too spiritual fathers. This preservation of truth forms what becomes ‘tradition’.
The bare minimum of preserving traditions comes in writing traditions down. The written word is only to preserve the basics, but there is so much more in preserving tradition than what is written. For we perceive through many senses, not just hearing and sight. And so, when laws are written we must remember it is written for the lawless, those who are unable to live by the maxims “love God” and “love your neighbor” need further laws. Children need clear commands, not mature adults. Mature adults live by striving towards ideals like love, not by being lifted up by laws that state “thou shalt not”. And when traditions are written it is to preserve the most important, but the writing down of tradition does not preserve all of the tradition. Writing is such a limited means of preservation. It is helpful, but limited. Writing is the bare necessity, the baseline, the roadmap for a much richer religion and faith. Likewise, Shakespeare’s plays are today passed along simply through written dialogue, but there is much more to the interpretation of his plays than just reading words on a page. The play comes alive only when it is practiced, when we participate in it as either an audience or the actors of the play.
Moreover, the allegories of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in Shakespeare’s plays come in glimpses. So beyond the proper and faithful reproduction of his plays, the plays contain imbedded Catholic messages that come in glimpses. For non-catholics, the true meaning of Shakespeare is veiled and is only revealed through the light of Catholic faith. Catholics must teach people how to interpret Shakespeare, for to a non-Catholic audience they ‘hear without understanding, they see without perceiving’. That’s not to say that non-catholics cannot enjoy Shakespeare, they most certainly can, but it’s only to relate the fact that non-catholics are outside of the inner meaning. Similar to non-christians can enjoy this world, it’s Christians who more fully understand the Grand Artist and therefore the meaning of his artistic creation. To use another example, just like a family has ‘inside jokes and phrases’ that only family members are privy to the whole story or whole meaning, Shakespeare’s plays have a fuller meaning which only English Catholics of the 16th century can more fully draw out. And because all of them have since passed one, it’s up to their Catholic descendants to share the deeper meanings of our family stories, of Shakespeare’s plays.
Interpreting Shakespeare is akin to interpreting sacred scripture. The principles are similar. Moreover, Shakespeare gave us clues in how to interpret his plays, how to interpret the hidden principles in his parables and symbols. Like sacred scripture, these meanings are hidden in a phrase, a line of dialogue, just a moment of mystery so the audience fills in the rest of the revelation in their mind’s eye. Remember, a Catholic audience would be much skilled in this, for this is who we understand our own sacred scriptures and the mysteries of our faith. Simple bread and wine by the prayers of priest and people may appear to be bread and wine but the reality is that is has become the flesh, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord. There is a much deeper reality. Catholics are trained to see beyond the surface image and into the hidden and deeper meaning and reality. Only a Catholic can interpret the greater realities of the simple rituals and actions that any mass or play-goer can “see without perceiving or hear without understanding”. A catholic is well practiced in heavenly realities represented in simple earthly images and actions. Catholics must continue to teach others how to interpret these realities in truth.
One of Shakespeare’s hints is how he frequently invokes the theme of a “play within a play” to remind audiences there are deeper meanings in his plays. And so even though Macbeth does not contain a play within a play, a Shakespearean audience would have already been trained by Hamlet, MidSummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and his other plays to recognize that their is always a deeper message within each of his plays. Every play has truth hidden in it to convict the conscience of his countrymen. There is a reality in his plays below the surface. So let the disciples of Christ interpret Shakespeare lest the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in England go forgotten. Lest the truth be revised into falsehood, half-truths, and lies.
And so we use one important Catholic principle of letting scripture interpret scripture, we look to see how Shakespeare clues how to interpret himself by understanding his canon as a whole. The patterns Shakespeare uses in other plays becomes a hint in how to understand particular plays. This very catholic pattern for understanding writings (that is, scriptures), becomes one of the best ways to understand Shakespeare, only superseded by direct testimony from Catholics, whether Shakespeare himself or others intimately familiar with Catholic culture and patterns of thinking.
And so, when Shakespeare has the characters frequently allude that the dark man Macbeth will be vanquished by one “none of woman born”, this is not simply a profound theological point, but on the pen of a Catholic playwright writing for a Catholic audience, this becomes a taunt of the long-standing Queen. For Queen Elizabeth was barren, there was quite literally “none of (that) woman born”.
On the theological side, Macbeth is filled with Christian symbolism and allegories. Whether Shakespeare has Macbeth invert scriptures like “thou shalt not kill” into truths like “thou shalt not live”, or Shakespeare gives a Pauline view of crucifying sin on the cross of Christ when Macduff states, “Painted on a pole, and underwrit, ‘Here may you see the tyrant’”, this play is filled with Christian symbolism. And first and foremost is that sin is conquered through one that is not simply of woman born but also born from above, of the holy Spirit. For a Christian watching Macbeth, there is a curious tension, for we know the powers of darkness are only overcome by those born of the spirit, or “born from above” as the John the Gospel writer might say, or “born again” as Christian fundamentalists might teach. The power to tread upon the serpent, the power to dispel the forces of darkness is in the cross of Christ. To participate in that power, we must be born from above, or born again, or born of the holy spirit more than simply of a woman. And to a modern audience, where the power of demons and darkness is believed to be a sign of bygone eras, of ancient superstitions, the amount of references in the gospels of Jesus casting out of demons reminds the Christian of the deeper reality of fighting evil. Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but “with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens”. Therefore, this fight requires the armor of God. We must be more than simply born of a woman, we must be born of the Holy Spirit. Shakespeare’s Macbeth reminds us of the effect of the powers of darkness working through fallen and darkened and doomed men. What might have been viewed as curious superstitions that don’t make sense according to our materialistic and “post-Christian” worldview, Shakespeare reminds his fellow countrymen of the war Christendom is engaged in. And though the war is won, the battles will rage on until the end of time.
Shakespeare masterfully creates this tension through the prophecy that Macbeth would be defeated by one “not of woman born”. For the Christian playgoer, there is such overt Christian symbolism that there is almost a riddle-like quality to Shakespeare’s play where we wonder how Shakespeare is going to fulfill a Christian understanding of “none of woman born” with the particular circumstances of the play Macbeth. Shakespeare creates resonance, where his plays reverberate in a Catholic’s mind for days if not a lifetime. Now, for a non-christian, there is no tension with this point, it’s simply curious dialogue in a play. But for a Christian versed in scripture, for a Catholic versed in other plays by Shakespeare, there is a strong tension seeing how the play will unfold. It almost becomes a point of hilarity when the answer is so simple, Macduff, the savior, is simply one who “was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”. The answer was so simple, but Shakespeare in his great artistry is able to create this tension and resonance in a catholic audience. Moreover, the simple resolution is profoundly biblical as Shakespeare evokes the ancient Jewish story about the serpent tied to the stake as a public spectacle for all to see and some to believe. Macbeth is slain by one “none of woman born”.
But Shakespeare addresses ancient truths of overcoming the dark evil forces of this world not simply because the King of Scotland wrote treatises on the subject of demons, but because in a society forgetting its Catholic faith, the darkness was returning. As our forgetfulness increases, as we do not honor the life-givers and eternal life-givers of society, the powers of darkness will encroach until the only light in the world are the flickers and splatters of the blood of Christian martyrs poured out to purify an unholy society until the savior returns. Let us not lose battles for a war that is won. Let us not forget the God who loves our ancestors — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and let us “fix in our heart that our Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other”.
Shakespeare creates this magnificent taunt “none of woman born” as a way to provide a play for all to hear but in which those versed in the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven can teach their fellow brothers and sisters so that all can learn to hear. Let us hear Shakespeare. For the darkness of Lady Macbeth who encourages her husband to be a devilish man rather than a heavenly man, who encourages murder and bloodshed, who encourages the killing of a king for her own crown and to steal a kingdom, this illegitimate queen becomes the best representation of Queen Elizabeth, who like Lady Macbeth was an illegitimate queen who in wickedness and evil rose to power, who like Lady Macbeth was barren and would have no legitimate issue to further her dark and devilish tendencies. The hope was the dark days of her bloody reign would be over. That the English faithful would no longer deal with her darkened conscience and reveling in blood and torture of God’s holy men in an attempt to root out the true Catholic faith in a country built upon its principles. Queen Elizabeth, like Lady Macbeth, committed grievous errors and died in the disease of sin that stained her forever, as she herself proclaimed, “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” and a little later, “Here’s the smell of the blood, still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”. Shakespeare puts a confession of evil on Lady Macbeth’s lips intended to be Queen Elizabeth’s last words, and proclaims the sentence of judgment from the doctor’s lips,
“Foul whisperings are abroad. Unnatural deeds
do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.
More needs she the divine than the physician.
God, God forgive us all! Look after her,
Remove from her the means of all annoyance,
And still keep eyes upon her. So, good night.
My mind she’s mated, and amazed my sight.
I think, but dare not speak.”
And so, yes, when Shakespeare has the refrain “none of woman born”, he’s not only speaking a prophetic theological point that the dark and demonic powers cannot be conquered by those who live according to the flesh, but he’s taunting the dead queen for though she committed evil, there is none born of her to further the dark days of 16th century England and there is no Macbeth — no son of Beth — to carry on her evil legacy. Behold, there is a new hope in England, “Hail king of Scotland!”.
Hail to the King
Let us not forget, King James I of England, was crowned king of Scotland years before becoming king of England. Hence the plea of “Hail King of Scotland” had a deeper meaning to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The English monarch to follow the evil Queen Elizabeth was in fact the current king of Scotland. Moreover, for a Catholic of the time, King James represented hope that the ancient faith might return, for King James was not only a legitimate descendent of King Henry VII, the last Catholic king of England, but he was also the child of a Catholic mother and married to a Catholic wife. Surely, in such a situation, the Catholic faith would be allowed to return to the isle which had so strongly embraced it. In Shakespeare’s time, there was great hope for Catholics that the faith that was driven into hiding for a period of 70 years through the reigns of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I would experience a rebirth, a renaissance, and would return to the isle previously known as Mary’s Dowry.
But, alas, this was not to happen in Shakespeare’s time. For even though King James I was more tolerant of the Catholic faith than the evil Queen Elizabeth, he did much to guide England away from the ancient faith that had formed and shaped the culture and institutions of the island. But, nevertheless, there was strong benefit to the Catholic faith elsewhere, for King James planted the seed of freedom of religion that would take root in America, guaranteed by the first Amendment in our Constitution. So, Americans — both Protestant and Catholic — can be grateful for this king in strong measure. Let us understand how so.
For American Protestants, the King James Bible produced during the reign of King James and published in 1611 become within a few centuries the preeminent version of the bible for many English-speaking Protestants. As head of the Church of England, he commissioned many translators to provide the authoritative version sacred scriptures for the Church of England. King James provided the supreme bible translation for English Protestants that would become among the most printed books in history. Moreover, this translation would spurn movements like the King James Only Movement which believe this translation and printing to be especially inspired by God and therefore the only adequate version of the bible to be used in English. Of course, since King James was the head of the Church of England, Catholics do not use this version for our liturgical uses and have different opinions regarding the translation. Nevertheless, it is quite a milestone and marker for the Protestant world.
But there is another reason, a more important reason, for why all Americans celebrate King James. The first English settlers to settle in the New World by the authority of the monarchs of England did so thanks to charters granted by King James. Settlers in Jamestown, Virginia and later the Puritans in Massachusetts settled during King James’s reign. Shortly, thereafter, Catholics settled Maryland thanks to charters given to Lord Baltimore by King James’s son, King Charles. And so, as the persecutions of nonconformists took place in England, various English settlers were fleeing England to find freedom to practice Christian religion as they saw fit. Anglicans, Puritans, and Catholics all fled England for America during King James reign or soon thereafter.
And of course, when the descendants of these English settlers, colonial English men and women, realized over a hundred and fifty years later that their God-given rights as Englishman where being infringed upon by King George, a king they described as “a Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant” and thereby proclaimed him “unfit to be the ruler of a free people” and declared independence in order to govern themselves justly. This new nation which declared itself independent required all Americans — irregardless of religious creed — to band together, to unite, to fight a common enemy, their English oppressors. Christendom united in America to fight a common oppressor, the king of England, who was head of both church and state on that island.
When time came for these founding fathers to institute “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people”, the first right that they guaranteed for all people was the freedom of religion and the freedom of the press. Our first amendment right is the freedom to worship freely as our consciences dictate, and the ability to speak truth in all circumstances. These are rights to be treasured by a free people — and protected.
In order for these colonies to become one nation, Americans had to respect each other’s rights to worship freely. Because King James and his son King Charles were sympathetic to various ‘types’ of Christians settling America, whether Anglican, Catholic, or Puritan, or even men who sought to come to America for financial reasons above religious reasons, America was settled by Englishmen and many other men who worshiped God as they saw fit. To get along, they respected each other’s rights to worship God as they saw fit…mostly, anyways. No country is perfect.
But this is the aftermath of Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare has inklings of what a bright future lay ahead for Englishman, and submitted his meditations in the form of The Tempest, as he proclaimed, “How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t!”. But let us return to the time Shakespeare lived in and the monarch who died at the height of his playwriting powers. Let’s understand Shakespeare’s judgement upon Queen Elizabeth’s actions. “For ye shall know a tree by its fruit”.
A great movie of recent times has strong references to Catholic heroes. “The Drop” starring Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini has a title character who attends mass frequently, abstains from the Lord’s Supper, and also references the music of a great Catholic poet and storyteller, Bruce Springsteen. It is replete with Catholic imagery. But one of the strongest scenes was towards the end when the title character, who the movie going audience knows has committed two murders amidst other crimes, washes his hands. The blood washes off.
This was a telling moment in the movie, even though he’s committed wrongs, his hands are clean. It's telling that Shakespeare doesn't allow for Lady Macbeth's hands to be clean, and neither Queen Elizabeth. The blood does not wash off. The audience would have been attuned to this commentary, especially Catholics who are seeing their priests suffer torture and isolation and are hanged, drawn, quartered and killed before having their heads impaled on stakes. Plus, our liturgy has literal and symbolic washing of the hands in preparation for the sacrifice, so this scene takes heightened, for the priest’s hands are made clean by Christ’s blood, but Elizabeth is never washed by the blood of the lamb, hence the blood stains remain. Shakespeare uses powerful and evocative Catholic imagery here. Elizabeth's perverse lust for blood and torture of English priests ended in her “life signifying nothing, full of sound and fury”. Only the Protestant propaganda of following years could rework truth and glorify her as "good Queen Bess". Good in the devil's eyes. But Shakespeare shows us that what is exalted by man is an abomination to God. And unless she repented and asked forgiveness upon her death, no amount of purgatorial fires could save her soul on the day of judgement where and when the evil doers of this world are cast out from the presence of a good and just God to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and the worm does not die.
The persecution of Catholics in sixteenth century England was a top-down approach, mandated by the government against its own populace. Under Queen Elizabeth, the primary focus of the persecution was by making the vocation of catholic priesthood extinct. In her mind, “if there are no priests, there are no catholics”. Queen Elizabeth made the catholic priesthood a crime against the state worthy of death. Catholic priests in Elizabethan England were tortured, hanged, drawn, and quartered. Their heads were removed and placed on top of city gates. They were made into a public spectacle in order to instill fear and terror upon Catholics to give up their faith and instead enter the false church of the Church of England.
Why such a hatred for the priesthood? Because the work of the priest is to make people holy before God. They offer the sacrifice, they counsel and guide the people of God, they preserve the traditions of true religion and teach the scriptures, and they constantly manifest Jesus bodily to the people of God. The spirit of Christ is eternal, but his body is rooted in time and space. Jesus took on human flesh roughly two thousand years ago to begin his earthly and human pilgrimage. He died and rose to eternal life in his thirty fourth year. But since his ascension in that same year, he’s been made available bodily in the “breaking of bread and prayers” of his people. We wait for the heavenly manna to manifest as a daily, earthly reality. The apostles made this happen throughout the world and they transferred the authority to local churches through the office of the priesthood. This transfer of authority has happened from when our King named his first apostles and taught them his word. There is an unbroken line in the transfer of apostolic authority, whose origin is heavenly, not human, for it was started and given by Christ, the heavenly man and king of the Jews. Priests are a visible sign of the transfer of authority in Christendom, and Queen Bess attacked this visible sign with her fury. She wanted the church whose origin was heavenly to be replaced by a church who origin was human.
Because Shakespeare was avoid censorship, rather, pass the censorship, he has to embed these truths in allegory. Macbeth is that allegory. Shakespeare can only speak the truth in glimpses of fictional stories. He might speak truth in a phrase, a line of dialogue, a moment so that the audience fills in the rest in their mind’s eye. Shakespeare is a wonderfully subversive, rebel writer. Moreover, Shakespeare is a true patriot, a Catholic who brings truth to society, an Englishman concerned with the soul of his society. And the pattern with which Shakespeare offered glimpses of truth in these stories is the same pattern Christians see Jesus in the ancient history of the Israelites, in glimpse and wrapped in mystery. This is why so many people can look at the same scriptures and interpret in so many ways. But the Catholic church, though filled with diversity, is able to interpret with authority what the scriptures mean because it is the community which wrote the scriptures, compiled them, and determined which ones were holy scripture to use in sacred liturgy. The Catholic church wrote the scriptures for the people of God, and for the context of reading the scriptures in the liturgy as the people of God celebrate the Lord’s supper. Shakespeare, formed by this Catholic church, likewise is best interpreted by the Catholic church. Thomas Carlyle, a famous English writer and historian says, notes the influence of the Catholic community, “In some sense it may be said that this glorious Elizabethan Era with its Shakespeare, as the outcome and flowerage of all which had preceded it, is itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages”.
Shakespeare is such a universal — that is, little “c” catholic — writer that it is natural for all people to see a little of themselves in him. So nihilists claim Shakespeare is nihilistic, likewise homosexuals or protestants or women’s rights advocates or human right’s fighters or colonizers or rebels or communists all want to claim this catholic (in sense of universal) writer as their own. But the fact of the matter is, there are facts in his plays and his patterns of composition. Whether he was a practicing Catholic, whether he died a loyal papist or becomes a canonized saint, that’s not for us to determine, but his plays must be understood in their full context. His plays, like all the random facts about Shakespeare are interpreted. And the only interpretation that accounts for the many quirky artistic choices, the few facts we have of his earthly pilgrimage, the plays he composed, the plays published long after his death, his focus on the theater as an artistic medium to speak truth, all of these facts are satisfactorily answered, each and every one, by accepting that Shakespeare was thoroughly Catholic in upbringing and practice. The depth of his Catholic pattern of thinking and his ability to so effectively evade censorship comes from his depth in awareness of Catholic faith, theology, and practice, a depth that can only be explained by a deep understanding and love for Catholic religion and most importantly, the one, true, holy Catholic church. Shakespeare shows unrelenting passion to speak Catholic truth through all his plays.
For example, only a Catholic interpretation of the facts can explain things as diverse as why does Shakespeare exhibit so much grace for everyone in his plays but spies? Why does he frequently evoke “play within a play” or hidden identities or true love and wooed lovers in disguise or cuckoldry or such severe tragedies? These are experiences of daily life for a persecuted Catholic in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare saw friends and family live through harrowing times in this island on the cusp of becoming an Empire.
Ultimately, Macbeth is part of a much larger canon of work, much like the holy scriptures are a part of something much larger. And all the quirks and mysteries of either scripture or Shakespeare are simply clues that a deeper reality exists in this world. For non-Catholics, this may mean nothing. But for Catholics this is confirmation that the same principles and practices we use to interpret scripture (within the church body, in context of our liturgy, in application of knowledge of life and world history — ‘his story’, God’s story) becomes a pattern for how to interpret Shakespeare (as a community, in context of his whole canon of plays, through application of knowledge of English history and later influence). Catholics are well aware that “no genius ever flourished apart from community but lots of lunatics were driven to isolation”. The church community is a check to ensure proper interpretation. This is why interpreting both sacred scripture and sublime Shakespeare is done as one body, Christ’s. So, the same principles for Catholic interpretation of scripture are fundamental to understand Shakespeare and the sometimes bizarre symbolism he uses in his plays. And when we say “use writings to interpret writings”, it means we use the consistent patterns of thought and imagery in universal writings to understand particular writings and passages. People interpret. We interpret as a community, not individuals. There is an art to good interpretation, and good interpretation is done in a diverse community with heavenly authority. Hence, Catholics are neither sola scripture nor sola Shakespeare, we use all the evidence and balance and propose the best understanding that satisfies a coherent understanding of both scripture and Shakespeare. In fact, a catholic understanding of both Scripture and Shakespeare will make the most sense of the many riddles, parables, and allegories embedded in those writings. A catholic understanding of scripture and shakespeare is the only fully logical, consistent, and coherent way to understand Scripture or Shakespeare. And for those perishing, the catholicism of scripture or Shakespeare is foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power and glory of God.
It is important to understand, the scriptures or plays of Shakespeare are the same. How we interpret them is the choice of an individual or community. But the catholic interpretation of either Shakespeare or sacred scripture will never be disproved. The catholic interpretation is consistent with truth because the methods of catholic interpretation of scripture is the tradition by which God has permanently guarded the understanding of the fullness of truth. And so, an individual may chose to interpret scripture as they see fit. But the more aligned they are with the catholic interpretation, the more aligned they will be with the fullness of truth.
Lastly, in regards to Shakespeare, let us apply Jesus’s golden rule gleaned from the book of Tobit, “do unto others what you’d have them do to you”, and reflect on Shakespeare’s life. Let us consider for a moment, if you were a Catholic playwright in Elizabethan England, what would you write? What would your plays look like if the queen you served killed the priests of your religion, tortured and killed your cousin, and fined your family into poverty? Would you stay silent? Would you stay quiet? If you were a great playwright, gifted with immense talents that the world still marvels at, who has permanently changed world literature, who is seen as the benchmark for literary greatness, would you stay silent? Would you stay quiet in the midst of the persecution of your family and friends? Or, and this is a big “or”, would you speak truth to power? Would you carry the Catholic message to the masses?
Shakespeare didn’t suffer in silence. Shakespeare spoke through his writings. Protestant propaganda may speak of “Good Ole Queen Bess”, but Shakespeare spoke truth and gave us Lady Macbeth, or as she’s truly known to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Queen Elizabeth I. Ultimately, Macbeth is much more than a Christian allegory; it is profoundly, and more specifically, a Catholic allegory. And although all the Anglicans in the Queen’s realm obeyed her, so that many forsook the religion of their ancestors and consented to the Queen’s orders, yet many Catholics, including playwrights and actors and audiences, kept to the covenant of our ancestors. Heaven forbid that Catholics should forsake the Lord’s supper and Christ’s commandments. Shakespeare begged Catholics through Macbeth, “do not obey the words of the Queen by departing from our religion in the slightest degree”. For only the Catholic church has heavenly origins and heavenly authority.
"Good ole Queen Bess” was a bloody distress
To English Catholics; I profess, for the faithful,
Queen Elizabeth was worse than Lady Macbeth.
For the Lady was simply a role in a masterpiece,
While the Queen was real and sent many to their death.
Oh that the Queen’s old, warped bones never find rest
While her hands are stained with innocent bloodshed.
May the Lord rebuke her, she’s like her father,
the maker of many a great Christian martyr,
and quite a few Catholic saints living out their firm faith.
May her memory be like Holofernes or Haman,
everlasting plights to the people of God,
living beings, devils, demons, and satans,
whose very name is followed with hissing and gnarling,
temporary torments to the people of God.