Home is where the heart is
"Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age but for all time!”
— Ben Johnson
Rise of an Empire
In the beginning of the 17th century, England began it’s rise as a global Empire. After King Henry VIII, the son of Henry VII, the last Catholic King of England, much political and religious instability followed for decades until his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, was able to provide much needed political, religious, and cultural stability through her forty-five years as queen. Under “Good Queen Bess,” as she was affectionately known, England not only sailed the seas in search of wealth and riches, but finally the Protestant religion found firm root on English soil. Shakespeare was born during her reign and died during the reign of her successor, King James I, who likewise provided a strong measure of stability to England and Great Britain in a rapidly changing world.
But for Shakespeare, this stability was not felt. He lived through perilous times, filled with confusion about politics as well as religion. There were famines and wars and rumors of invasion. There was disagreement over who should reign over the throne. There were disputes over who was head of the Church in England. There was danger lurking everywhere, as England was not yet an empire, but only a small island nation struggling to maintain its sovereignty, with enemies and long-standing rivalries in every direction. England was in peril. It is amazing to think that now in hindsight, especially since the language of a tiny nation on a small island in the North Sea has become the global tongue of the world, but England back then was in danger. And although King James succeeded Queen Elizabeth, he is not a direct descendent of hers. There was “none of woman born,” as goes the frequent refrain from Macbeth, so leading up to the Virgin Queen’s death, there was fear and trembling over potential wars and rivalries for the English throne.
Almost one third of Shakespeare’s plays are based on English history. One of the major themes from his Histories is highlighting the various problems facing a community when there is little political stability or minimal plans for the peaceful transfer of power, things that later Americans would also deal with in creating our government. Shakespeare’s Histories deals with the issues that face a nation when various people seek to usurp power and take the throne. His first tetralogy ended with Richard III, and dealt with the story of how the Tudor dynasty came to power under King Henry VII, of whom Queen Elizabeth and King James are descendants. But because none were born of Elizabeth’s womb, there was no clear line of succession. There was much concern with respect to the stable transfer of power until the throne of England was justly claimed by King James VI of Scotland, a related cousin to Elizabeth, and direct and legitimate descendent of her grandfather, Henry VII. Shakespeare’s cry in Macbeth, “all hail king of Scotland,” is pregnant with meaning that most Americans cannot fathom, for it was also a plea to the English public to recognize and hail their new king from Scotland in one accord.
And so, when we wonder why an English playwright says “all hail King of Scotland” or why he focuses one third of his plays on English history, we recognize that the study of Shakespeare must concern itself with the political, cultural, and religious issues affecting his daily life. In this, we start to see the depth of his plays and artistry. To get a picture of Shakespeare, we need to consider his home country, and in the case of England, it was soon to become a global empire. By understanding Shakespeare’s life and the life of his countrymen, we better understand why Shakespeare lent his focus to eternal human themes like life, liberty, law, justice, goodness, mercy, and love. These are not only eternal themes affecting daily human life, but the unique times Shakespeare lived through made them monumentally important themes for his plays and his audiences. To know Shakespeare, we need to learn about England, and thereby get a feeling for the times.
As a playwright, Shakespeare was concerned not only with entertaining his audiences, but ensuring they were educated and aware of the issues affecting England. Shakespeare was concerned that this small island nation, an Empire on the rise, would be a force of goodness on the world, not evil. That this empire on the rise would carry the greatness of English institutions and culture throughout the world, not her problems. That this empire on the rise would bless the earth, not simply wage wars for new lands and revenues. Hence Shakespeare has one of his heroes proclaim in Richard II that England be renowned “for Christian service and true chivalry” and seeks not ambition to conquer others, for this would “make a shameful conquest of itself.” Unfortunately, Richard II goes to war in Ireland to increase revenues for his extravagant living. Shakespeare ends this tetralogy with a picture of the heroic King Henry V waging just war for what is rightly his. And like all good fairy tales, Henry V ends in celebration and a wedding. The king of England marries the daughter of the king of France “in love and dear alliance” as the playwright makes clear, “God is the best maker of all marriages.”
Empires rise in different ways. England is unique in the history of the world, for with the advent of the printing press, we have a strong historical record from many viewpoints about England’s rise. Whereas in the past, the ancient proverb was often true, “history goes to the victors,” in the aftermath of the printing press, we are able to record the testimony of the rise of the Empire from a variety of sources, including the oppressed and defeated. Moreover, the Empire which grew in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, also experienced its colonies fighting for and securing independence in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. And so, this empire not only gifted the world with our global English language, but also produced many countries from her bosom.
England rose to become an empire upon whom “the sun never sets” in three key ways. One, through marriage alliances and merging Kingdoms, like what occurred with France in Shakespeare’s Henry V as well as in Scotland with Shakespeare’s King, James I. Two, England sent out settlers to colonize new lands, like the English exodus to America. And three, conquerors conquered new lands, as many natives felt the English did in America and elsewhere.
In the case of the last two ways, there are various shades in between. The categories are helpful to understand, but as often is the case with life, things get blurry. Let us consider one important reason for the blur.
In the case of America, when English settlers first came, they came by the authority of the king of England. They had to receive special charters from the king to settle the lands in the name of England. They had a legal right to the land and had the papers to prove it. Now, the natives did not have the same way of documenting their land, writing did not have a similar significance in their culture. Their culture was mostly oral, with very little need, if any, for writing. In some cases, they had fought for and settled the lands already. In other cases, their cultural mindsets found it preposterous that someone could one the land, for they thought how could one own the land, air, or sea? It was of Nature’s God for us to steward, not own. Moreover, in some cases in America, the land was so sparsely populated that there was no need to fight for abundant lands. Tribes could live alongside each other and only war when resources were scarce, hence the old phrase “they will turn their swords into plowshares.” When the land produces bountifully, and people’s needs are easily met, mankind usually prefers to live in luxury and comfort as good neighbors, rather than in hardship and on rations while in danger of war as fierce enemies.
In America, the natives had no charters or documents to prove land ownership. Now, this explanation does not seek to justify or condone pushing natives from their lands, but simply to note a tendency in human existence and English history, people with written proof in the form of land grants, charters, and deeds often make claims to land and enforce them through legal means, which often honors written documents above oral claims. This is how lands are “civilized,” and this is how England not only exported her national language, but also many of her cultural institutions, including her legal processes and traditions.
And so, whether Englishmen sent out by the authority of the king of England had any right or authority to settle America, is not for us to determine here, but it is important to note that they thought they did. In their own eyes, they were settlers, not conquerors. In the eyes of natives, they were often considered conquerors who significantly changed the native way of life for the worse. To take Darwin’s phrase, natives had to “adapt or die” as it was “survival of the fittest.” And the answer is not simply that the English had guns, germs, and steel, it’s that they also had a culture that lent itself to a particular way of life. This way of life dominated. And this way of life honored written documents above oral claims.
No longer do we live in a time that says “history goes to the victor” or “only the strong survive.” Now we live in a world which is coming to believe that there are universal human rights that should be guaranteed for the sake of all peoples. As Americans, we live in a country that professes “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The rise of the English empire is a very interesting phenomenon in history — it was a mix of settlers and conquerors. Both types of rulers are pictured in Shakespeare’s Histories. Shakespeare gives us a hero like Henry V, who before he sets out to claim France considers his legal rights to claim France, the truth of the situation according to French law because he is descended from French and English royalty. Henry even contemplates the will of God because he knows wars are costly, not only in expense of national treasuries, but more importantly, in the cost of human lives. War is not to be taken lightly. Hence, Henry does not go to France simply to increase his fame, but does so in contemplation of what is right and true and in God’s good name. Henry knows, “Either our history shall with full mouth speak freely of our acts or else our grave, like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth, not worshipped with a waxen epitaph.”
But Richard II, the one who started the tetralogy which culminated in Henry V, is a picture of a bad king, who goes to war to increase his revenues. He wants to “farm our royal realm” in order “to supply our wants.” He spends lavishly, with “liberal largess” that lightened the national treasury, and now needs to subjugate people (Ireland, in his case) to enrich himself. So, in Shakespeare the good king goes to war to secure what is justly his and knows when it comes to claiming kingdoms “the gentler gamester is the soonest winner”, while the bad king goes to war to live lavishly upon others.
With respect to England’s rise, there is one more important thing to consider — King Henry VIII nationalized the church. There was no separation of church and state because Henry, who had been proclaimed by the Catholic church with the title “defender of the faith”, like many a South American dictator, confiscated private property and claimed it as his own. The state took over the church. In one fell swoop, Henry declared England independent and separated from Rome and himself as the supreme head of the Church in England. What had formerly been built by the Catholic church was taken from her as “the king’s property” and became Henry VIII’s as the new and self-appointed head of the Church in England. As one historian writes, “Henry saw the riches of the monasteries and helped himself. Most of the extensive monastic lands ended up in the hands of the aristocracy and a rising new class of country gentlemen. And many of the great abbey churches were plundered for building materials, leaving England studded with the ‘bare ruined choirs’ mourned by Shakespeare.”
In fact, Shakespeare’s words to start Titus Andronicus can be allegorized to his own experience. For when the play starts with “I am his first-born son that was the last that wore the imperial diadem of Rome,” there is a hint of a deeper meaning. Shakespeare is the first-born son of the last openly practicing Catholics in England. Shakespeare’s father was the last generation where it was possible to legally be both Roman Catholic and English for centuries. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, to be Catholic was to be persecuted. Catholics were fined into conformity with the Anglican church, the State-run church, and Catholic priests were charged with treason and sentenced to torture and death.
And so, when England rose as an Empire, she not only shared her language and legal traditions with the world, but also her versions of Christian religion. For the empire was a “Christian” nation, the ruler of England was head of both Church and State. England’s rise as an Empire exported forms of Christian religion via force to other parts of the world. To understand Shakespeare, we need to understand Christendom, and not just England’s various forms of Protestantism, but also Rome and Roman Catholicism.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Roman Catholics in London, the island of England, and throughout the Globe wish true peace among all people of goodwill. They also wish to practice their religion freely. When we talk of Shakespeare, we shall also talk of Rome. Not only did a good portion of his plays focus on Roman history, but the Catholic church, the church of his ancestors and headquartered in Rome, had tremendous impact on England. In Shakespeare’s England, Christendom was divided, and the church was in turmoil. To understand Shakespeare and his plays, we must consider the impact of the Catholic-Protestant divide on the lives of Shakespeare and his compatriots.
King Henry VIII, decreed by the pope a “defender of the faith,” decided to take over the Church in England, exerting his right as the head of government and king of England to rule over all things in England, including the church. At first, his decree does not seem to affect much the life of Catholics in England, other than possibly in the Capitol close to the King. In Love’s Labor’s Lost, one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, we hear Shakespeare’s testimony through the clown Costard. Costard violates the king’s law by being taken with a wench, “a child of our grandmother Eve” and must answer to the king. Eve in Jewish and Christian folklore is the mother of all living people, and an archetype for the heavenly community, so the parallels between fiction and reality are significant. Costard confesses regarding the King’s proclamation, “I do confess much of the hearing it, but little of the marking of it.” In other words, and speaking for the people, Costard notes everyone heard what the king proclaimed, but few cared. The country cared not for the laws of the Capitol when it concerned the church.
The play audience is set up by Shakespeare through the dialogue and phrasing, and the audience understands that Costard is referring to the Articles of the Church in England. These Articles establish the separation of the Church in England from the Church in Rome, and is the foundational documents that sets the King of England as head of the Church in England. Few noticed or heeded the Articles outside of the Capitol. As Shakespeare voiced in the play, many throughout the country thought “this Article is made in vain” and “these oaths and laws will prove an idle scorn.” In the near term, the laws of the Capitol reordering the relationship between Church and State had very little effect on the country. But soon, this would all change.
Under the rule of Henry’s illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth I (illegitimate from a Catholic point of view), there were three types of Christians. Catholics held to the ancient faith and were under the leadership of the Holy Father in Rome; Anglicans were a part of the Church in England headed by the reigning monarch of England; and Puritans, viewed the other two churches as irreparably corrupt and separated themselves in order to “purify” Christian religion through their own interpretation of holy scriptures. The last two, Anglicans and Puritans, are under the branch of Christendom known as Protestantism, for they are in “protest” of the Catholic church.
Now, Protestants and Catholics view the church of Christ in drastically different ways. It’s important to understand these viewpoints in order to understand many allusions in Shakespeare’s writings, especially his comedies and tragedies. Understanding the division in Christendom will also help us understand why so many of his tragedies are concerned with Roman history and great Roman heroes and pilgrims.
One of the main issues for Shakespeare’s contemporaries is what constitutes the church. A Protestant is free to protest the Catholic church in any way they see fit, whether by being Anglican, Puritan, or a part of any other Protestant community. And so, Anglicans might view the church as an important national institution, a bedrock of the nation for creating a common culture and morality. While Puritans might view the church as a community of like-minded believers who have similar interpretations of holy scriptures. But Catholics view the church differently. For a Catholic, the church is not a national institution or a gathering of like-minded believers, but is the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” founded by Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.
The true church, for a Catholic, is the church of heavenly, not human origins. And the only church of heavenly origin is the one who is in communion with the office of Peter — the Catholic church. Jesus Christ, the heavenly man, the rock of God, gives Simon bar Jonah his own divine name “rock” as a sign of Simon Peter’s divine calling as the earthly representative of the heavenly man. But Simon’s position of leadership was for the sake of the office he inhabited, not because of his own greatness. Hence, Catholics trace their current pope through a lineage of men in office all the way back to Simon Peter, just like Americans trace their current President through a clear line of succession of Presidents back to their first President, George Washington. For a Roman Catholic, there is more to the universal church than national ties or similar scriptures, it’s the people of God who trace their origins to the eternal man, and not an earthly man, even if that man was once a Catholic like King Henry VIII, Martin Luther, or Jean Calvin, great protestant heroes and founders of different Protestant sects like Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians.
And so, during Shakespeare’s time, there was much confusion in England about which church was the true church. Is the true church the one started by the king of England or the king of the Jews? Is the true church the one headed by an English monarch or a Roman bishop? Moreover, during Shakespeare’s time, freedom of choice didn’t exist. Queen Bess made it a requirement of English citizenship to also be Anglican. To be Catholic was illegal, and anyone who did not conform to the laws of England were persecuted, whether through fines that impoverished, or imprisonment that led to death. But since King Henry VIII, the founder of the Anglican church, was also a “defender of the faith,” the Anglican church always kept many Catholic traditions and practices and appeared to be Catholic in many ways. As one can imagine, this led to issues of identity and confusion amongst the English populace who were forced to be a part of the State church.
Shakespeare’s plays help English Catholics understand the religious situation in England. His comedies and tragedies all address this key question in some form, which we will explore in detail in Acts 4 and 5. For now, let us simply highlight a few examples of how Shakespeare hints at the comic and tragic extremes that represent the life of an English Catholic in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
For example, heroes are often banished or exiled (As You Like It), bad laws and false oaths unfairly trouble kind people (Love’s Labor’s Lost), pure and good brides are slandered or forsaken (Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well), a ruler disguised as a simple friar hears confessions and offers forgiveness (Measure for Measure), disguised lovers plead for mercy (Merchant of Venice), wild shrews are tamed and made obedient by the one with a name which alludes to the office of Peter (Taming of the Shrew), hilarity arises from mistaken identities and misinterpreted letters (Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night; Or, What You Will), profound love turns tragic (Romeo & Juliet), and the Roman tragedies end in the deaths of many heroes (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus). Let us also note that of the fourteen plays mentioned in this paragraph, only two of them were published prior to 1623, the year of his wife’s death and nearly a decade after his. His wife, Anne, “hath a way” to preserve his plays, but we shall soon see why Shakespeare could not publish his plays during their lifetime. One needs not search too much for evidence of the impact Catholicism on Shakespeare. What we need is a translator of Catholic culture to clearly explain Shakespeare’s quotes and allusions to a non-Catholic audience.
One more thing to consider are Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” The First Folio organized his plays into three categories — comedies, histories, and tragedies. The title “problem plays” was given later as many critics felt some plays do not fit into their assigned categories. In truth, they are only problem plays for non-Catholics. For Catholics, they are categorized correctly and perfectly by the First Folio. Tragedies are tragedies, comedies are comedies, there is no confusion. The comedies make light of the tragedy of the Catholic church in England, while the tragedies carry profound truths for all people to consider and contemplate. Even thought the Catholic life is filled with mirth and joy, there was deep dirge and sadness for English Catholics in their homeland, where we mourn the “bare ruined choirs” of our churches, saddened that our lands and monasteries were unjustly taken from our church to enrich friends of the king, lament our altars stripped of their beauty and power, and rue that our religion is outlawed. For a religious Catholic in Elizabethan England, what reigned was death, tyranny, exile, banishment, injustice, evil cloaked in goodness, legal severity, and hatred; not the universal ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Amazingly, Shakespeare himself doesn’t seem to pass judgement, only proclaim the truth of what was happening. The frequent refrain of his plays remind us, “judge not lest we be judged. For the measure we use will be used against us.” He encourages Englishmen to be merciful to one another so that mercy would be the measure received. Shakespeare simply aims to proclaim truth. In his tragedies, like Hamlet, many people die except for the few charged to share the true story. In his comedies, like Measure for Measure, things always seem to work out in the end, except for spies. Spies die even in Shakespeare’s comedies. Shakespeare will forgive just about anyone, but spies must receive a cruel punishment for their sins. That crime, pretending to be who you are not in order to ensnare someone unjustly, is the very anti-thesis of God whose name is “I am who am.” In Shakespeare’s plays, being a spy is worthy of punishment and cruel death. To pretend to be one thing while being another is akin to being made in the image of satan, who disguises as an angel of light to steal, destroy, and kill. Satan — the father of lies — is not as he appears to be, and is instead the very antithesis of the God who says “I am who am” and the son of God who says more simply, “I am.”
To know and understand and love Shakespeare, to appreciate his great artistry and creative genius, we have to consider the circumstances of his career as a playwright. Let us now turn to our 3rd Act, The Playwright, were we will see how persecution and censorship pushed Shakespeare to creative heights never to be surpassed by any artist. We shall see, with Shakespeare, all’s well that ends well. And we shall see why such a great poet turned to plays as his medium of expression, for no labor of his is lost. The play’s the thing. The play’s the thing. The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king.