Rebel Literature and Church History
"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
To enjoy Shakespeare, we need only see, hear, or read one of his many plays. But to understand Shakespeare, we need to look beyond his influence on America and the Globe (The Person), beyond his homeland of England and the circumstances of his career as a playwright (The Place and The Playwright), and go to Shakespeare directly. The closest we can get to Shakespeare in this day and age is the creative product of his brilliant mind, his writings themselves. Let us turn to his plays, our first-hand source, and hear Shakespeare.
Shakespeare uses profoundly patterns of writing that closely mimics Jewish prophets, and in doing so, gives us principles to understand his plays. The way in which Christians interpret Jewish holy scriptures is a valuable aid in understanding Shakespeare’s writings. From hereon-out, we will reveal how Shakespeare uses these Judeo-Christian ways of disguising messages to create allegories about Jesus Christ and his church.
The Plays will focus on five plays — Richard III, Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus — as examples of how to properly interpret Shakespeare. We must begin with the foundation of the plays themselves, the five-act structure, a structure which mimics both the meditations of the rosary and the Law of Moses.
By understanding a little about the rosary we will understand a lot about Shakespeare. The rosary is an ancient form of Christian devotion and meditation, traced back at least a thousand years. There are various rosary meditations, but the standard is in sets of five meditations about critical moments in the life of Christ. Today, the meditations are organized under the titles of joyful, sorrowful, luminous, and glorious. For example, the sorrowful mysteries center on the suffering of Christ — his agony in the garden where he sweats blood, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross, and finally his death on a tree of life. Five scenes shape the meditations of every mystery, just like the five-act structure of every one of Shakespeare’s plays. The movement of themes throughout Shakespeare’s five acts are always patterned like the movement of themes in the rosary meditations.
The rosary is great practice for aspiring writers because as Christians revisit these same five moments week after week, we “see” them in our mind’s eye in countless ways. For writers and Christians, the rosary is great practice in perspective because the rosary enhances our ability to perceive. No two mediations are ever the same, and so the rosary demands us to see the same moment in Christ’s life through various lenses. Some days meditations on sorrowful mysteries might focus on all the people betraying Jesus, and we are forced to look inward at what would force us — whether friends, disciples, priests, rulers, or apostles — to forsake and betray the lord of lords. Other days, we might focus on imagining what Christ himself felt in those moments, uniting our sufferings to his. The potential for the rosary, for when we are “at our beads,” is limitless, and Shakespeare says of saying our beads, “so sweet is zealous contemplation.” The rosary fortifies our soul and helps Christians and writers see universal themes in many perspectives, exactly what Shakespeare does in his plays.
For example, in Richard III, the key theme woven throughout the play is kingship. Shakespeare uses the story of how the current Tudor dynasty came into power to contrast eternal against temporal rulers. The play is the conclusion of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, with the three plays on Henry VI preceding Richard III, which starts with the famous words, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” On a surface level, the play seems like propaganda justifying the current Tudor dynasty. But scratch the surface, and we see the play is a fabulous piece of rebel literature guiding English people to meditate on kingship, and compare and contrast their current circumstances with the only rebellions and revolutions that last, those done according to eternal principles.
In Act 1 we see the villain, the usurping Richard III, has decided to take the throne of England. He’s confessed to his audience that he is determined “to prove the villain” and do whatever it takes to become king, including killing his brothers and nephews in order that the throne of England would fall to him. Richard will do whatever it takes, and Act 1 ends with the murder of his brother, Clarence. Before Clarence dies he rebukes his 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.”
Shakespeare evokes both Jesus and Moses in Clarence’s deathbed speech. In doing so, he sets the audience up to contemplate two kinds of revolutions, the divine and eternal against the human and fleeting. If we want our rebellions and revolutions to produce everlasting goodness, the means we use matter. Despite what some famous philosophers state, the ends do not justify the means. The means must be done in accord with eternal truths. Otherwise, they are doomed to die, they are destined to fail.
Moses, in his life story, is a picture of both types of revolutions, the human and the divine. The first time Moses tries to free slaves, he kills an Egyptian and helps nobody. He’s forced to flee Egypt as a murderer. Moses spends forty years in the wilderness tending sheep and learning the divine ways of servant leadership. When he obeys the call of the Lord to return to Egypt, not one slave takes up arms against their oppressors. Unlike in his first flawed and human attempt at revolution, the slaves simply cover themselves with the blood of the passover lamb, eat flesh, and on the next day walk free. Out of Egypt God calls his people.
What on the surface level seems like a piece of Tudor propaganda is in fact a clarion call for Englishman to understand divine principles and not be easily fooled by their rulers. Richard readily confesses to the audience early in the play,
"But then I sigh, and with a piece of scripture
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil.
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.”
The audience is aware Richard is determined to become king at any cost, even deceit and murder. The play then becomes a study in villainy and how rulers fool others. Usurping Richard readily cloaks his evil actions by quoting holy writ and pretending to be good. Shakespeare encourages his audience not to be fooled by people simply because they say the right things, quote the right scriptures, and proclaim to act in the name of God. Shakespeare is well aware of the ancient stories and real life, even the devil disguises as an angel of light and uses holy writ to tempt the son of God away from his trial with death. If the angel of light does this, surely too human devils will disguise themselves as heavenly saints.
Shakespeare bids us to see truth. In order to do this, he desires we understand what makes a good foundation, whether it is the structure of his plays or the way we conduct holy rebellions and revolutions. He begs us to allow heavenly wisdom to inform our human ways. As Shakespeare writes, if “bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end. Shame serves thy life, and doth thy death attend.” For our writings, our rebellions, our revolutions to be everlasting, we need to heed divine principles. Otherwise, our efforts are doomed. What is of the earth is fleeting, what is of heaven is everlasting.
In a odd quirk of reality, Christian holy scriptures were written by ancient Jews. When one goes to a church and sits down to hear the holy word proclaimed, they are hearing the divine word given through a particular tribe of people — Jewish prophets and apostles. Christians take the sacred writings of one tribe of people and believe it applies universally to all peoples. How is this possible? It is through the principles by which Christians interpret these sacred tribal writings.
If we apply those principles to interpreting Shakespeare, we find he has written his plays as allegories about Jesus Christ and his church. As Shakespeare progressed in his skills and his renown, he became more overt in creating church allegories. The plays published in his lifetime are very subtle, but many of the plays published after his death are overt. The rest of the plays we will consider in Act 4 are only those that were printed after his death, when fear of punishment by a Protestant government was no longer an issue for a buried man.
The genius of Julius Caesar is that in one play we have a veiled story of three famous betrayals in history, that of Julius and Brutus, that of Jesus and Judas, and that of the Catholic church and Henry VIII. Julius Caesar is a historical account of what happened to the Catholic church in England when King Henry VIII took over the church. Shakespeare creates this allegory by mimicking how Christians interpret Jewish history in light of Christ.
For a Christian, Jewish holy scripture is primarily about a person, Jesus of Nazareth, and his kingdom. That is not to say that every obscure passage can be ripped out of context and applied to Jesus, it is that we see Jesus through eyes of faith developed by understanding key known facts of history and core character traits of God as revealed to his people. Christians cling to what is known in order to understand mysteries and texts with clarity. For example, when a passover lamb is slain in Egypt, blood covers people as they eat the lamb’s flesh, and those slaves leave slavery behind for union with God as his holy people, this event in Jewish history is how Christians understand their reality. The exodus foreshadowed how Christians understand Jesus’s life. Jesus is the passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world (code name: Egypt) so that those who eat the lamb’s flesh (that is, the Lord’s supper) are able to leave behind slavery (bondage to sin and death) and go to serve our Lord in the wilderness of this world.
In the story of the Jewish exodus, there are many details, and the balance of understanding these texts is not that every detail is allegorized. Hence, if we desire to interpret written texts well, we have to interpret according to certain principles. We have to be careful in noting what was simply a literal aspect of history, like Israel having twelve sons, versus what is meant to be allegorized. There is an art to interpreting written texts. Because Israel had twelve sons does not mean Jesus had twelve sons. But when it comes time for Jesus to build a church, it is natural for him to chose twelve apostles as the foundation of his church, for twelve tribes were the foundation of his nation. The myths, legends, and stories of his nation would have strongly influenced his thoughts and behaviors, his words and deeds.
When we seek to understand Shakespeare, we have to make sense of all the facts that we know. We cannot ignore facts for the sake of convenience. Hence, the more we know about Shakespeare’s life, English history, Christendom, Catholic culture, symbolism in stories, and how Christians interpret Jewish holy texts, the more we will have to make sense of all the facts. In doing so, we need to avoid excluding facts or elevating certain facts above others. The best interpretation uses clear logic to understand all the facts.
Communal knowledge will enhance our understanding of Shakespeare, which is why it’s important for historians, Catholics, Protestants, actors, playwrights, directors, poets, singers, judges, lawyers, rulers, and leaders, in short all people, to come together to offer their wisdom to aide our understanding of Shakespeare. It is vitally important for Catholics to translate our culture for non-Catholics, otherwise people will be perplexed by certain mysteries of Shakespeare’s life and his artistic choices, and not realize there are clear explanations for why things are as they are in life and in Shakespeare’s canon. The answer often is, whether we like it or not, because this is how Catholics do things. This is our culture. Our role becomes showing how our religion and culture influenced Shakespeare and how this influence pervades every one of his plays. Catholics must translate Shakespeare to a non-Catholic audience.
One example, in understanding Shakespeare, we must translate names and not transliterate. This is how Catholics interpret the deeper meaning of Jewish holy scriptures, and this method significantly aides in understanding Shakespeare because it communicates the underlying spiritual message. Transliterate is what is often done in English bibles, the names are written to approximate the sound of the original language, not the meaning. For example, in sacred scripture, the second story in Genesis is about Adam (‘man’) and Eve (‘mother of living’) in the garden of Eden (‘delight’). When Saint Paul says in his letter to Romans, Adam is “a type of the one to come,” the common Christian understanding of ancient Jewish stories is clear, they represent ideals that aide Christians in understanding how to make sense of life. So, this first story of mankind is not simply but our ancient forefathers, but applies to us in the here and now. This first story about man and wife teaches us true delight is in obedience to God. Once we disobey, death enters into our lives. And it doesn’t matter if a serpent speaks, more important than an animal talking is what the animal says, and in this story the sly serpent begs us to discount the divine word. For the serpent represents something more than an animal. These stories are wrapped in symbolism, truth is disguised, and how to interpret the stories accurately is of fundamental importance. Names always communicate a meaning and its translations (not transliterations!) clue a Christian in how to understand what the character represents. Understand what the name means, not just what it sounds like.
So, in Shakespeare, a fictional story like Taming of the Shrew has a husband named Petruchio. This is a clue that the Catholic church is being represented, for the office of ‘Petros’ is the leader of the church. When Peter tames the shrew, whose name is Katherine, which means ‘pure’, we realize that this is the role of the church, to take wild shrews and turn them into obedient and pure brides of our bridegroom. Shakespeare takes a common folk tale of his time, how to tame wild wives, and creates an allegory for the church, how to tame sinners and bring them into right relationship with God. This is the role of the church, and sometimes even bizarre rituals are important for the sake of exalting obedience above knowledge. For if we are obedient to the eternal one, we have access to infinite wisdom. The more disobedient we are, the more blind we become to eternity. This is the Catholic interpretation of Shakespeare’s fictional story, an interpretation that comes when we apply how Catholics read and understand sacred scripture to Shakespeare.
In plays like Julius Caesar, which are based on historical accounts, Shakespeare is limited, he will not change a person’s real name. To convey hints in how to interpret allegories, he often uses “set up” scenes to clue the audiences about the allegory of the play. Random and seemingly obscure discussions communicate meaning and hint at how to interpret the rest of the play, which is a disguised parable. In the first scene of Julius Caesar, a seemingly innocuous interaction in a police state, where officers unjustly harass two commoners, the audience is clued into a key hint that this story is not only an allegory about Jesus Christ, but more fully it is an allegory of the church in England.
The set up scene involves two tradesmen, one a carpenter and the other a “mender of bad soles.” The reader has to hear the play on “soles” as “souls,” like Shakespeare’s audience would hear it. This double allegory of the church is confirmed throughout the play via various discussions and phrases, like the destruction of Caesar’s images in the Capitol in that scene and also in the climactic scene when Julius Caesar slips into Latin as he dies and utters the famous words, “Eh Tu, Brute?” A Catholic audience would have unmistakably heard “And you, Henri?”
Again, it is difficult in the space of a few words to convey Catholic culture, but Latin was the language of the Roman rite of the Catholic church, it is one of four key languages that an English Catholic would have heard in their worship services, the others being Greek, Hebrew, and English. When Julius Caesar slips into the prayer language of our priests and people, when the English rhyme between Judas and Brutus is so easy, but instead Shakespeare stretches to latinate this line, this break in pattern is an artistic choice that communicates deep meaning. Catholics are trained through our religion to investigate breaks in patterns. When Moses sees a burning bush that won’t burn up, this is a sign to investigate further. When we hear of a virgin giving birth to a boy, this is a a sign to be investigated and a miracle to be pondered. When Shakespeare goes for a difficult Latin phrase over the easy English verse, this clues Catholic audiences that there is something deeper to be understood. Various later comparisons between Brutus and Henry confirm that Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s analysis of the fall of the Catholic church in England.
This is how persecuted peoples disguise our messages. We use parables so that the true story survives into future generations. This is why American slaves sang songs about Moses in Egypt and told trickster stories about fooling their masters, this is why Brazilian slaves disguised their martial arts in dance, this is why Jewish prophets hid their main messages in poetry, this is why Jesus told stories in parables, and this is why Shakespeare penned plays that chronicled church history under the guise of Roman history. Under tyrants, rebels and truth-tellers have to layer their stories in order to disguise important messages. This provides comfort to persecuted countrymen and is an important chronicle and testimony preserving truth for future generations.
Shakespeare proves to be one of the world’s eminent historians of the sufferings of Christendom in Protestant England. Unfortunately, as Americans, we have heard so much Protestant Propaganda sponsored by the English state, the State that stole from the Catholic church, that we have often been infected by an anti-Catholic bias that does not stand up to a true and objective review of world history or the writings of Shakespeare. Moreover, Protestant culture misunderstands the Catholic church, and thereby it is incumbent upon Catholics to explain how our culture seeps through all of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s canon of plays are dedicated to preserving the testimony of persecuted English Catholics. In one fell swoop he comforts fellow persecuted Englishman and tells the story for future generations, a story that was being whitewashed by government propaganda biased towards justifying Protestantism. Shakespeare warns, appearances are deceiving, do not be easily fooled.
Othello is a great warning about deception. The captivating villain, Iago, starts the play off with the promise, “I am not what I am.” Iago is committed to serving himself, not the great war hero and his general, Othello. The rest of the play chronicles Othello’s downfall as he’s fooled by Iago and commits great crimes, including murder. Othello trusts the wrong person and allows that trust to influence him and misinterpret important facts. Othello is deceived by a villain and the result is death and destruction.
There are two important types of seeing beyond appearances that Shakespeare teaches about. One, seeing great people act humbly, a model of our savior and king of Kings who as a child is a refugee fleeing tyrants and allows himself to be crucified like a common criminal by imperial soldiers. The other, seeing horrible people pretend to be better than they truly are, a model of satan who cloaks evil with a veneer of good. The former is a sign and wonder pointing to a greater glory, the latter is a snare and trap that leads to death. One disguises greatness, the other evil. Either way, appearances often deceive.
We have to see beyond how things appear to be to what they truly are. And this is the goal of Catholic religion, especially our liturgy which is our public religious service. A few key aspects of the liturgy helps Christians in learning to see reality as it truly is, not as it appears to be. As Saint Paul says, “what is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal.” For a Catholic, the best example of how appearances affect our perception of reality is in the Lord’s Supper, the “source and summit” of the Catholic Christian life.
This is a key distinction between Protestants and Catholics that is important to understand if we are going to hear Shakespeare. From a Catholic perspective, the key aspect of church life is living in the new and eternal covenant. To live in that covenant, we obey Christ’s commands, especially his command regarding his body and blood. Christ told us, “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. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
Admittedly, this is a hard saying, often considered cannibalistic, and the gospel of John records that people were shocked when Jesus said this then as now. John records many disciples no longer walked with Jesus after hearing these difficult words, this hard command. Also, this is also the first instance in John’s writing that mentions Judas’s future betrayal. It is important to understand Catholic Christians take Christ’s words to be both literal and allegorical, whereas Protestants discount the literal meaning. This creates an important divide in Christendom between Catholics and Protestants. This also helps understand the Catholic mindset, Catholics have to interpret passages not simply based on human logic, but rather using divine faith to inform our human logic. We must hear Christ and then make sense of reality based on his revelation. Let us consider how.
To make sense of heeding Christ’s word, Catholics are forced to search and understand many truths. For how can a Catholic take this difficult saying as an article of faith? To make sense of the reality that when we eat consecrated bread and wine, it is in fact the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord, we are forced to search for answers of how this is so. It is a profound mystery of faith. But we need to see how this mystery informs Catholic logic. It aides Catholics see beyond appearances and gives them practice in using the eyes of faith. The Lord’s Supper informs Catholic ability to interpret scripture and reality. How does a Catholic search for answers in how to understand this perplexing and hard saying from our Savior regarding the Lord’s Supper?
One, the scripture plants the seed of this truth, for the gospel of John records Christ’s very words. Two, the scriptures testify to profound miracles that foreshadow the “bread of life.” Jews had to eat the passover lamb in order to be saved from death. Also, they ate daily the manna in the wilderness as they journeyed towards the promised land. If the principle that Jesus taught is true, that he is the true temple, the better Jonah, the better Solomon, that he is what the prophets pointed foreword to and proclaimed in riddle and mystery, then it makes sense that he’d be the better passover lamb and the better manna in the wilderness. That he’d offer his flesh as daily bread for his people, in full agreement with our prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Moreover, this makes his feeding miracles like the multiplication of the loaves even greater signers than we imagine, for they are signs that pointed forward to what life in the new and eternal covenant would be. Three, the apostolic churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) have maintained this testimony across seas and centuries. All apostolic Christians believe this truth. There is testimony of key bishops in the early church of the first centuries, like Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who hold to our current understanding of the Lord’s supper, “the medicine of immortality,” as well as testimony from modern Catholic heroes like Mother Theresa who requested priests be everywhere her sisters of charity worked in order to participate daily in this important aspect of Catholic life. This testimony leads to a fourth reason, the point of a valid priesthood. This is why Shakespeare concerned so many of his plays with themes on true images, confused identities, and heroes in disguise, he had a strong opinion on this and his plays mark his testimony. For a Catholic, the lord’s supper requires priests to be sent out by the church, which also requires a clear line of succession, not division, back to the church headquartered in Rome. For valid priests, they need to have lines of succession tracing back to the apostles, like all Catholic or Orthodox churches have. Our fifth and final point, this question of seeing beyond appearances leads us to search secular life for examples of trusting authority. One example, paper and ink stamped with the right image, let’s say Ben Franklin’s portrait, and officially distributed by an authoritative body, like the United States of America, has a value much more than the mere appearances of paper and ink. People sees beyond mere appearances of paper and ink to see the value of a hundred dollar bill. They are able to trust the authority of the government and the judgement of people to see value beyond mere appearances.
And so, in summary, when a Catholic approaches a difficult teaching or a hard portion of sacred scripture — in other words, a hard saying — we are forced to seek answers. First, we consider what the scriptures actually say — the particular verse, it’s context, and related verses throughout the whole of holy scriptures. Second, we look to hear testimonies of how the text has been interpreted by the universal (‘catholic’) church since the time of Christ. In order to do this, we give priority to Catholics Christians above other Christians, Apostolic Christians above non-Apostolic Christians, and of Christendom above the world. In short, we give priority to those with a direct ties that trace clearly back to Jesus himself. Third, we look to see if there are any worldly examples which might function as an example of the logic of divine revelation. It's this kind of robust interpretation, as a community of people with a focus on facts from various witnesses and various types of testimony, which help us understand reality as God desires us Catholics to see the world.
Returning to the Lord’s Supper, the question for a Catholic becomes, can we trust Christ and his church? Can we trust the word of Christ and his authority and the testimony and judgement of the people of God to trust that Christ meant literally what he said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”? If we can trust Christ, and if we can trust the consistent testimony of the church, going back to Christ’s himself, then we have to align our perception of reality with divinely revealed truth. This effort is not in haste, for then, logic informs our faith. Protestants need not wrestle with any of these facts or truths because they can believe what they want about the Lord’s Supper. But a Catholic holds onto this truth, and in doing so unravels many other truths, including truths about life, government, lines of authority and succession, delegation of authority, the priesthood, testimony of the church, testimony of sacred scripture, and Christ’s very own words.
This is how Catholics reconcile hard statements, by verifying with various testimonies, human logic, divine faith, and the divine Word. God is truth, and God has enabled his people to find truth by understanding it in various lights, never by discounting logic through faith, but more accurately, letting faith inform our reason to make sense of all facts and truth. There is so much mystery in the world, it’s so easy for us to be fooled by appearances, Shakespeare warns us to judge with right judgement. Cling to the few things we know to help make sense of the unknown. When in doubt, it’s better to be a Desdemona who dies a willing martyr for love rather than an Othello who kills for the sake of his own name and reputation.
The fall of Othello is because he misunderstands everything he sees. He trusts only one source, the villain Iago, and rather than verifying Iago’s insinuations with various data points and true evidence and perspective, he acts in fits of rage and jealousy. Othello was so wrapped up in one person’s insinuations, it clouded his heart with fear which led to disastrous consequences, including murder, treason, and the bodily destruction of innocent people, including his wife. Othello is a profound warning about how we make sense of reality, and see beyond appearances to the truth of the matter.
Seeing truth by eyes of faith becomes the walk of the Christian life, for our focus is on the unseen, the eternal, the everlasting. How we see life affects how we interpret facts, texts, mysteries. Let us not be deceived, even by our own eyes and thoughts. Let those with eyes, see, and with ears, hear. Let us hear Othello’s last words and mourn...
Reflect on the following brief reading from the gospel of John. Specifically consider, how does your interpretation depend on your identity? Pretend you are a Christian or an agnostic, or part of any other worldview, how would the following written text influence you depending on your identity and worldview? What are the facts? What are various interpretations of these facts? If you are not Christian, do you see why Jesus of Nazareth becomes such an important figure for Christians?
A reading from the gospel according to John —
And the soldiers wove a crown out of thorns and placed it on his head, and clothed him in a purple cloak, and they came to him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they struck him repeatedly. Once more Pilate went out and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you, so that you may know that I find no guilt in him.”
So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak. And he said to them, “Behold, the man!” When the chief priests saw him they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no guilt in him.” The Jews answered, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.”
Now when Pilate heard this statement, he became even more afraid, and went back into the Praetorium and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” Jesus did not answer him. So Pilate said to him, “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above. For this reason the one who has handed me over to you has the greater sin.” Consequently, Pilate tried to release him; but the Jews cried out, “If you release him, you are not a Friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”
When Pilate heard these words he brought Jesus out and seated him on the judge’s bench in the place called Stone Pavement, in Hebrew, Gabbatha. It was preparation day for Passover, and it was about noon. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your king!” They cried out, “Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then he handed him over to be crucified.
So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Now many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
Rebel literature is open for all to hear and read, but the deeper meanings are only understood by the community which produces it. So, it is easy for many people, including all Christians, to see Macbeth as a Christian allegory. More than that, Macbeth is a timely social commentary, a historical document, and an ode to an English Queen. Catholics understand Lady Macbeth is a picture of Queen Elizabeth I. Obviously, this is not a flattering biopic.
Understanding Macbeth offers insights in how we often chose to interpret facts and texts differently. Depending on where our alliances or allegiances lie, we either hear this fuller picture of Shakespeare’s ode to the English queen or we do not. Knowledge of Elizabethan England and Catholic persecution helps understand the various refrains and phrases throughout the play. It bears mentioning, Shakespeare can be interpreted in many ways, what is important about the Catholic interpretation is that it can never be disproved by understanding the context of Shakespeare’s situation — his life, where the plays fall in his canon, whether they were meant to be published in his life or hid until after his death, the social situation of England, and who were the rulers. Only by including the Catholic approach to Shakespeare do we hear his deeper and true message and have clear answers for his artistic career and choices. Only by understanding Catholic culture do we hear Shakespeare more fully. Let us consider a few facts from Macbeth to understand this Catholic commentary on Queen Elizabeth I.
First and foremost, at a surface level, Macbeth seems like the main protagonist on this study of “what is man?” But, reality is the witches and his wife drive the man and the play. The prophecy of the witches sets the great war hero and general, Macbeth, contemplating dark deeds, like murder and usurping a kingdom. And in key moments, his wife Lady Macbeth urges him on to fulfill the prophecies of the witches. As Macbeth contemplates damnation and pity at the end of Act 1, Lady Macbeth comes to entice him to not “live a coward in thine own esteem” by going forth to kill the king and take the kingdom.
Second, the Macbeth’s were great in the kingdom, but they were not rightful heirs. This is how Catholics viewed Queen Elizabeth I, for she was the product of an illegitimate marriage, so she was not a rightful heir to the throne of England. She may have been a great queen by English standards, but to the Catholics of the time, as a product of an illegitimate marriage, she was not a rightful heir or ruler. The dubious circumstances that the Macbeth’s and Elizabeth came to rule their kingdoms would have troubled many Englishmen of Shakespeare’s time.
Third, there are also various plays on the name meaning of Macbeth and what it sounds like. Catholic faith is geared towards sounds, and so the similarity between “Lady Macbeth” and “Elizabeth” is to close too ignore in light of the other facts. Moreover, the Macbeth’s had no issue of their own, no children to possibly be heirs. There was no son of (‘mac’) Beth, there was no living baby Macbeth.
This creates multiple lenses to consider the promise to Macbeth, that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” For Christians, this is an obvious allusion to the need to be “born from above” to see the Kingdom of God and to destroy the works of the devil and the flesh. But at the hands of a Catholic playwright, this is also a taunt against the barren English queen. She had “none of woman born.” All her evil and duplicity would have been for naught, as the hereditary line of succession ends with both the Macbeth’s and Queen Elizabeth. And so, none of woman born would harm Queen Bess, as the ruler she died of natural causes, but at the same time, there would be “none of woman born.”
Finally, the refrain of “Hail King of Scotland!” is pregnant with meaning considering that King James VI of Scotland was the man to replace Queen Bess. So, both Elizabeth and the Macbeth’s were succeeded by the King of Scotland.
These are key facts we must consider in interpreting Macbeth. Any analysis that excludes the Catholic pleas of a persecuted playwright will miss the greater truths that Shakespeare was trying to convey in penning this play. Shakespeare wanted to ensure Englishman knew the true story about how he saw Queen Elizabeth I, but only those with eyes to see and ears to hear will see, hear, and understand.
And it’s not only Macbeth where Shakespeare provides this commentary on Queen Bess. Even in a later play like Cymbeline, those with ears to hear know what Shakespeare means as he pronounces his edict on his evil queen, “Although the victor, we submit to Caesar and to the Roman empire, promising to pay our wonted tribute, from which we were dissuaded by our wicked queen, whom heavens in justice, both on her and hers, have laid most heavy hand.”
Shakespeare wrapped his feelings and commentary in very entertaining disguises. Shakespeare was forced into creative genius in order to tell the true story of persecuted Catholics in England, where Catholics were considered traitors, and where priests were banished, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for treason while lay people were impoverished unto conformity. Shakespeare’s play is more than just a piece of entertainment, it is the testimony of his suffering under persecution and hope that a Scottish king with Catholic sympathies would restore the kingdom in goodness.
In the century after the advent of the printing press, the availability for Catholic holy scriptures to be printed out and read outside the original context — the celebration of the Lord’s supper — led many people to protest the holy Catholic church. This lead to much anarchy and confusion throughout Christendom and Western Europe.
On the occasions corresponding to the profound and particular protests of various Catholic priests, kings, and people in the 16th century, all thoughts were anxiously directed toward the preservation of Christendom. Many dreaded division, many sought to avert it. While councils were planned, devoted to preserving the Church from heresy, insurgent agents were seeking to destroy Christendom by assailing her long-held traditions — seeking to assail the Church and divide Christ’s body.
Both parties — Catholics and Protestants — professed to hate division and falsehood, while the Catholic church would rather fight for and defend divine truth as one body, Protestant parties felt it necessary to reform from outside the body. And so, the Catholic-Protestant divide came. Christendom suffered. The world too.
Western Europe was the main battleground. Sacred scripture, the writings of God written about the word of God, constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that holy scripture is inspired by God. Catholics knew sacred tradition birthed sacred scripture, Protestants desired to use sacred Catholic scriptures to create new man-made traditions and change long-held Christian beliefs. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend the knowledge of the gospel and holy scripture was the professed reason for which Protestant insurgents would rend Christendom, even by division and separation; while the Catholic church claimed no right to do more than preserve and pass along divinely revealed truth, whether by sacred scripture or by sacred tradition, whether orally or through writings.
Much came down to how to interpret written texts. This problem remains with us today, not only with respect to holy scriptures, but many writings, ranging from Shakespeare’s own canon to the legal laws of nations. The problems afflicting Christendom are spread throughout the world. Neither party, Catholic or Protestant, expected the sufferings of Christendom to impact the world to such a magnitude or duration which it has done. Neither anticipated that the homeland of Western Europe, which was the main battlefield of this war, would one day be called “post-Christian”. Neither foresaw the impact upon the Americas — a brave new world discovered by Europeans though long before inhabited by Natives. Each — Protestant and Catholic alike — looked for their version of Christian religion to triumph in their communities and in the world. Both read similar bibles and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid in furthering Christ’s kingdom. It may seem strange that Protestants would take holy Catholic scriptures to start their own churches while attempting to further Christ’s kingdom; but let us judge not, lest we be judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh”.
If we shall suppose that the split in Christendom is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove it, and that He has given both Catholics and Protestants the savior who has borne our sins by his wounds on the cross, should we not attempt to heal the cause of our division? Should we not attempt to cross the divide between Catholics and Protestants? Should we not cross the great Tiber?
Let us use our similar and sacred scriptures to heal and mend. Would not the savior who said “Love your enemy and pray for your persecutors” desire us to pray for separated brothers and sisters and walk with each other into the fullness of divine truth and into full communion with our God? Our God is the one who conquers repentant enemies by adopting them as family, not by making them slaves or reminding each other of our past errors and sins. Our hope is to be judged by our relationships, not our mistakes. Let us confess our errors, let us receive and give forgiveness, let us remember “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”.
But woe be to him who attempts to divide the one, holy, Catholic church or attempts to mar her beauty. That is a war against God bound to fail for Christ himself promised, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”. Shall we discern in Christ any departure from the living God who is faithful to his promises? Is God so weak as to not keep this great promise to Peter and his church? Are we not part of the great tradition of the sons of Abraham who trace God’s promises through millennia, extending back to the first Man and Eve?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of division in Christendom — the kingdom of heaven — may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until the second coming of Christ, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said today “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up Christendom’s wounds, to save souls, to forgive sins, to heal the world, to renew the earth and restore the children of God to their heavenly father, to prepare the people of God as the bride of Christ, to guide the people of God to live in the new and eternal covenant, and to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations, peoples, tribes, tongues, races, and religions.
O Christians, O sons of Abraham, we are the stewards of the mysteries of Shakespeare. More so, we are the stewards of the mysteries and riddles of the world. Let us be faithful stewards. Let us be faithful to our good shepherd, faithful to our holy father, faithful to our heavenly father. Let us be faithful. Truly, truly, amen.
Coriolanus is among the most important books in Shakespeare’s canon. It is frequently misunderstood, it is profoundly historical, it is English and Roman, it is religious, and it is Catholic. It is at the height of Shakespeare doing to Roman history what Christians do to Jewish history, he baptizes it to reveal Jesus Christ and his church, making an ancient Roman story applicable to Englishmen and Catholics. He takes an ancient story from Plutarch’s Lives, and reworks it to incorporate great allegories about the kingdom of heaven. Unless we see Coriolanus from this point of view, as a bloodied savior who is often despised and rejected, we will never hear the prophetic warnings of Shakespeare.
The set up is from the start. The first scene makes the Catholic plea public, “You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?” followed with “for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.” Shakespeare uses what is likely a true social situation in England at the time, complaint at how grain is hoarded by the government and not distributed to the people, the same issue which drove millions of Irishman in the 19th century to flee in hunger and starvation from their homeland for a better place, and phrases it to communicate a deeper spiritual meaning. The way Shakespeare phrases the issue hints at Catholic plea in Protestant England, “let us practice our religion freely.” Without valid priests, there is no bread of life in all of England. There is a profound shortage, and it is hard for non-Catholics to realize Shakespeare’s plea and the dire circumstances for a Catholic, but until they understand how Catholics see the Lord’s supper, they will never understand. But the Lord’s Supper presided over by valid priests is the “source and summit” of Catholic life.
For a Catholic, everything is centered not on sacred scripture, but the Lord’s supper. It is more important to eat of the new covenant than to read it. Holy scriptures was written for the purpose of pointing us to the person of Jesus, and Jesus commands us to eat his flesh and drink his wine. Catholics hear the holy scriptures in preparation for the Lord’s Supper. So, the Protestant habit of reading scripture strictly for devotional or private reading misses, from a Catholic point of view, the greater truths taught in the scriptures. Christ himself gives us his flesh and blood to feast on in the new and eternal covenant! Holy scriptures can be used to great benefit in private devotions, but holy scripture is best understood in context of the liturgy and in preparation for the Lord’s Supper — that’s where the holy scriptures are meant to be heard and understood by the people of God. Both the holy scriptures and plays by Shakespeare are scripts, the former for a supper and the latter for a show. Much more than simple scripts, they point to something much greater, whether a supper or a show. And so, for those who hear the scripts outside of the liturgy or the theater (as applicable) can enjoy the scripts and glean gray wisdom and apply it to one’s life, but there are deeper messages within both sacred scripture and the great Shakespeare that are only applicable to Catholics. These deeper messages help Catholics understand better our faith and encourage Catholics in times of persecution to persist and cling to the ancient faith.
And so, in Coriolanus, the many Catholic truths that pervade the story include the veiled plea for the bread of life, the role of the mother of our savior, the bestowal of a new name upon his great deed of salvation, the honorable wounds he’s earned in the service of his people, and the stern and strict adherence to truth and unwillingness to pander to others, whether senators scheming to have their way or the mobs of people easily swayed by populist sentiments. Over and over, a Catholic hears the greater genius of Shakespeare, to take aspects of our earthly life that govern and guide us and bestow upon them a greater spiritual meaning that eludes those unfamiliar with Catholic culture, and especially eludes those unfamiliar with how to interpret the divine prophets. Catholics receive great aide in interpreting writings, for we hear tribal writings read daily in our mass in the light of Christ in order to prepare us for the Lord’s supper. We are given constant practice in seeing truth by the eyes of faith, for though we see dimly, one day we will see clearly.
And in Coriolanus, Shakespeare gives a clear warning. Honor the saviors and institutions that form the goodness of the nation. Gratitude, not entitlement, is what is to constitute our thoughts and actions. We are a people constantly reminded in the psalms of David and songs of Marley to give “thanks and praise.” And so, let all of Christendom heed Shakespeare’s warning about Christ and his one holy church, “We have power in ourselves to do it, but it is a power that we have no power to do: for, if he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them: so, if he tell us his noble deeds, we must also tell him our noble acceptance of them. Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful, were to make a monster of the multitude: of the which we, being members, should brings ourselves to be monstrous members.”
Ultimately, the tragic end which Coriolanus receives is consistent with how the messengers of God are treated in this world. The great prophets of this world, whether Socrates, Coriolanus, Jesus of Nazareth, Abe Lincoln, or Dr. King — or many others too numerous to mention in this section — are hated, reviled, beaten, mocked, stoned, stabbed, shot, tortured, quartered, drawn, crucified, and killed. But this was foretold and recorded long ago, for the Hebrew canon ends with these last words, “Early and often the Lord, God of our ancestors, sent his messengers to us, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets, until the Lord’s anger against people blazed up beyond remedy.”
Likewise, Coriolanus ends with these last words, and many who hear will hear a play by Shakespeare echoing sacred Scripture —