SIgns of the Times
"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.”
— Thomas Carlyle
Earthly kingdoms will continue to struggle with the balance between justice and mercy until the end of time. Ambassadors of the heavenly kingdom will always suffer and shed their blood for the people of this world to prove that the saying is always true when it comes to love, life, and goodness, “it is more blessed to give then to receive.” Laying down one’s own life for others is the height of love, and to do this is to be made fully into the true image of God, who is our soul’s maker, lover, and savior.
True Jewish and Christian faith will always identify intimately with persecuted people. Both religions are given the divine law and holy scriptures because God decided to send his servant to free slaves and guide them to live in freedom. Both religions remember the important sacrifice of the passover lamb whose blood is shed so that the angel of death might pass over all those covered in the blood of the lamb. Moreover, Christians worship a Jewish man as God in the flesh, a man crucified by an empire like a common criminal and rebel leader. The heart of Jewish and Christian religion is a revolution against the old world order, a rebellion intended to free slaves and help them walk in freedom, goodness, and love as they head towards the promised land.
With Christian religion, this rebellion is won when God decided to take upon his own shoulders the cross of human sin and suffering and die for us, “the least of these.” The old symbol of Roman execution and worldly domination was transformed into a new symbol of salvation and heavenly love. As the Son of God hung dying from the tree of life, he said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Because death cannot contain the living God, in accordance with the holy scriptures and divine promises, the Son of Man rose on the third day. Later, he told his apostles to go throughout the ends of the earth proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of heaven. The chief apostle and earthly leader, Simon Peter, went straight to the heart of the empire and preached the good news in Rome. Peter died in Rome, a martyr, crucified upside down in one of the many early persecutions of Christians. For one reason or another, the world often hates people who claim there is a true God, like Jews and Christians claim, and whose God bids us “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”
It took almost three hundred years for Christian faith to finally spread throughout the empire. By the middle of the third century, Roman emperors finally realized Christians are not a threat to goodness. Under Constantine, the edict of toleration of Christian religion was pronounced, and Christian religion was permanently accepted in the Roman empire. Also under Constantine, the Catholic church made clear — there is a separation between Church and State.
When Constantine moved the empire from Rome to Constantinople, the earthly head of the Catholic church — the office of Peter — stayed in Rome. This would later lead to one of the first schisms in Christendom, but the Catholic church made clear its stance. While worldly powers and kingdoms are concerned with temporal cares and earthly life, the Catholic church is charged with heavenly concerns and eternal life. Their is no need for the Church and State to be one, for the Church serves the souls of the people of the State by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, not while governing over earthly concerns and bodies. At the end of time, the State will be absorbed into the Church. Till that day, the Church exists to care for souls in the name of the Father, Son, and holy Spirit. Till that day, the Church will always has to fight off the State attempting to take over the Church. The State covets what the true Church has — devotion unto death and eternal life.
In the 16th century, King Henry VIII would revisit an old argument Catholics settled in the 4th century. For his own purposes, Henry VIII decided that in England the State should be in charge of the Church. Henry wanted a divorce so that he could remarry and produce a male heir. With the weird illogic that afflicts many religious fanatics, rather than simply “live in sin” or lay aside the desire for holy matrimony, he decided to take over the Church in England. He sought to secure a decree of divorce from the Church in order to have a new bride. And since the Church of Rome would not change their laws to suit his whim for more wives, he established his own church, the Anglican Church. He wanted to be lawfully wedded not only by the laws of England, but also by the laws of the Church.
But as Shakespeare wrote in A MidSummer Night’s Dream, “you do advance your cunning more and more, when truth kills truth, O devilish holy fray.” Holy matrimony cannot be secured while disavowing a previous vow. The truths spoken to Henry’s new bride broke vows he made to his still living wife, Catherine of Aragon. And so, Helena, a heroine of the play spoke words that five of Henry’s wives never did say, “These vows are hers. Will you give her over? Weigh oath with oath, and you will nothing weigh. Your vows to her and me, put in two scales, will even weigh, and both as light as tales.” In other words, vows that invalidate previous vows are worth nothing. The divine right of kings is to fulfill your vows, not abolish them. The divine right of kings is to give your life for your people, not take their lives, especially those of your wives.
Since Henry was self-proclaimed head of the Church in England, he lawfully wed wife after wife by the laws of the Anglican church. In total, Henry had six wives, and as the nursery rhyme goes, “King Henry VIII, to six wives he was wedded, one died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded.” Some may find it hard to believe, but All Is True, Henry’s wives suffered greatly thanks to their relationship with him. These were by no means merry wives of windsor castle, but women violated by Henry’s penchant for breaking vows. Henry’s pattern of violating vows to his wives was the same pattern of violating his vows to his church. And to this day in England, almost five hundred years later, the head of the State is also the head of the Anglican Church.
During Shakespeare’s time, the State governed and controlled the daily life of all citizens, including marriage. Many people note that Shakespeare lawfully wedded his wife only six months before the birth of their first child. Moreover, historians of the time period note that Shakespeare’s apparent “shotgun wedding” was not abnormal, that one third of all marriages occurred less than nine months before the birth of their first child. Now, either the English, including Shakespeare, loved shotgun weddings — which may have been true — or, these rates may be a sign of a deeper reality — such as lingering Catholic refusal to acknowledge the Anglican church as the true church in England. For a Catholic, the laws of a nation only make a marriage legal, not holy.
And so, for a Catholic in Elizabethan England, there would only be a need to be legally married for the sake of having legitimate children, not a holy matrimony. For a holy matrimony, they’d be wed by a Catholic priest, and this wedding could not be documented because it would have been illegal. Therefore, for a Catholic in Elizabethan England, there was only a need to be legally married for the sake of your children, so that they would be consider legitimate in the eyes of the country. But, for a Catholic, legal marriages do not mean holy marriages. In the eyes of a Catholic, only the Catholic church can make a marriage holy. Holy matrimony is when the Catholic church blesses the marriage through a validly ordained minister because it is the Catholic church operating in the name of God which makes things holy, whether people, scripture, water, oil, marriages, or any other thing the Church consecrates and blesses.
Now, whether Shakespeare’s situation was one of Catholic recusancy, we do not know, but it’s important to understand how the few facts we have of Shakespeare’s life can be interpreted in different ways. In fact, knowledge of the circumstances of his life shades how we even interpret passages from his plays. For example, in the prologue to his play Henry VIII, the last verses are, “Think ye see the very persons of our noble story as they were living. Think you see them great, and followed with the general throng and sweat of thousand friends. Then, in a moment, see how soon this mightiness meets misery. And if you can be merry then, I’ll say a man may weep upon his wedding day.” How might we interpret or hear these lines differently based on our worldviews and biases and the knowledge of particular circumstances of 16th century English Catholic life? Henry VIII’s life forever impacted how marriage is viewed in England and her colonies, providing a divide in what constitutes a lawful and a holy marriage. To this day, we still deal with issues in many English speaking countries. For some, wedding days are still a cause for weeping.
And for any who would say, “No, there is no way Shakespeare had religion. He knows too much about the human condition. There must be another explanation.” Remember, the Judeo-Christian precept is that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Jesus is wise not because of sin, but because he is free from sin, he is free from the entanglements and darkness that comes with sin. The wise words of Moses and David are passed along for millennia because of their desire to obey — obey! — our heavenly Father.
Consider, there are two types of sinners — one who is aware of their sin and the other who is unaware, who knows more? The one who is aware, for they know something about themselves that the other is ignorant of. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And repentant sinners take heart, for our Lord and savior came to save, not condemn.
From a Judeo-Christian point of view, for Shakespeare’s words to be eternal, it would mean a closeness with God, not distance. God does not only make holy, but all who are in living in the new and eternal covenant with the living and everlasting God have the promise of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. God makes holy and he also makes everlasting. It is those close to God who receive attributes of his divine nature, such as holiness and eternity.
Shakespeare need not be Catholic to know God, the Jewish holy scriptures attest to many who were not Catholic yet knew God intimately, but it does behove us to consider, what would have been the life of a Catholic during Shakespeare’s lifetime? One of persecution.
First, all English citizens were forced to attend Anglican services every week, it was their duty as Englishmen. Freedom of conscience was not protected by the State but instead violated. Englishman were forced to be baptized and married in the Anglican church by English law. Whether they desire to be Anglican or not, Englishman were forced to be Anglican. To chose a church was not a freedom they had.
Moreover, Englishmen who did not attend the Anglican church would have been “outside the law,” which resulted impoverishment, such as fines or loss of employment depending on the frequency or severity of their delinquency, or imprisonment. Many a Catholic family lost their wealth and lives as a result of clinging to their Catholic faith. For example, Thomas More, famous for being a close friend of Henry VIII and known for his honesty with a good reputation as a lawyer and Lord Chancellor of England, was imprisoned in the tower of London and executed. His crime? Unwilling to sign an oath of allegiance that minimized his devotion to the Catholic church. As he prepared for death, his last recorded words were given with a smile, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Tyrants have various tools to enforce their will. In the case of 16th century English tyrants, they persecuted, fined, taxed, impoverished, imprisoned, and tortured (even unto death) Catholics so that Englishmen would fall into conformity with the country’s church, the Church of England. English rulers wrote and enforced laws that made Catholic religion illegal. Thomas Jefferson captured the work of tyrants with great wisdom, tyrants aim to destroy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Also, in England, the tyrannical rulers forced English people to take oaths exalting country above the Catholic church. Even though an oath may seem like simply words, to a faithful Catholic who worships the God who created the world through his Word, oaths become a fundamentally important pledge of allegiance and commitment. For a practicing Catholic, “my word is binding” is the ideal, and “let your yes be yes and your no be no,” is a command from our Christ. So, oaths are important because they communicate a promise of relationship, they form covenant bonds between two parties. For a Catholic, the supreme relationship in this life is not to country but to God through his holy Church. As More’s biographer notes, “To be a Christian is to be a Churchman, and there is only one Church (though plagued with many heresies), and the Pope is at her head.”
Moreover, laws in Elizabethan England made Catholic mass illegal. Laws made the Catholic priesthood a crime against the State. To be a Catholic priest in Elizabethan England was to commit a treasonous crime resulting in either exile or death. The result was Catholic priests had to practice their divine calling in disguise. When we wonder why so many of Shakespeare’s wisest characters are beggars or fools in rags, in exile, in disguise, we need look no further than the experience of Catholic priests and people in England to see where that idea comes from. When we wonder why heroes are banished from their homes and lands and suffer torture or imprisonment or impoverishment with nobility and kindness, we need look no further than the experience of Catholic priests and people in England to see where that idea comes from.
And so, in Merchant of Venice, when Shakespeare has an important court scene pleading for mercy above justice, he is speaking to the rulers of the garden of England, and encouraging them that to be godly is to season justice with mercy.
"The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest,
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
In such a monologue, Shakespeare is making a very public plea for the rulers in England to be merciful to others. For Christian audiences, who hear strong echoes of the holy book of James throughout the play, it is obvious Shakespeare’s plea is a public plea for the rulers to have mercy on all Christians in England, including Catholics. Amidst the persecution of Catholic lay people and priests, to be or not to be Catholic becomes a serious question. Only time will tell,
"Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing them, end them. To die, to sleep…”
Only time will tell whether it is worth being a faithful Catholic in Elizabethan England, to suffer persecution and even death for an idea — the idea that there is a one, true, holy, apostolic and Catholic church. Only eternity will tell whether it is better to lay down your own life rather than shed blood in the name of God, to suffer persecution rather than to persecute, to take a stand against tyranny rather than be a tyrant, for answers to these questions we look to a better world.
For a Christian, true love is laying down one’s life for your friends. Even better, true love is in laying down your life in order that the enemies of God may one day become family. We may never see whether it’s worth to suffer persecution in this life for others, but the Christian God makes clear when he takes upon himself the cross of shame, there is such a thing as the redemptive suffering that Jesus, Peter, and Dr. King eloquently spoke of. God is close to the broken-hearted and those who suffer, even if those who suffer feel so far away from God that they cry out amidst their suffering “my God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”
In spite of the fear of dungeon, fire, or sword, Shakespeare reminds countrymen to honor the faith of their fathers, a holy faith which made England great, and he reminds us that even in the face of prison and death, God is the one who sets free from sin, conquers death, and has the power to raise the dead. As the ancient English hymn sings, “Holy Faith, we will be true to thee till death.”
Tyrants have another all important tool — censorship. They can use the law to force people not only into poverty, prison, exile, or death, but also they can use the law to suppress truth. They can censor what stories are told in the nation. Hence a free press, free speech, free media becomes one of the key ways to disarm tyrants. Tyrants want to suppress truth, they have to erase the memory of the people. Tyrants have to recondition the public and conform them to their own will, and their success at being believed ensures their longevity. If the true story never gets out there, the people will believe what they are told. There is good reason why half the story has never been told, because it is one of the best ways to further oppression, it is one of the best tools of downpressors. And one of the most frequent tools of tyrants is propaganda and suppressing truth. For tyrants, it is all too important to control truth. Hence, in a free society, the ability to proclaim truth will be protected. Remember, the wiseman promises, “ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” For their to be liberty, there must be truth.
Art, especially in totalitarian regimes, is an all-important way to speak truth to the public. For art allows symbols to communicate meaning. Also, art allows truth to be disguised as a lie, or hidden in a fable, or covered by a myth. We have to remember, Shakespeare wrote under severe laws of censorship. And so, to be heard by the public, he had to disguise his message. We will better hear Shakespeare the more we understand (1) English and Church history and symbolism, (2) tribal epics, heroes, and mythologies, especially Israelite, Greek, and Roman, and (3) how Christians interpret sacred Jewish writings. The more we understand these key items, the more we will detect patterns of how Shakespeare layers his plays with profound meaning.
National and mythical symbols like roses and lions carry great meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. Consider As You Like It, a play that is easily recognizable as a comedy. There are many jokes, much hilarity, evil-doers repent and the world is restored to goodness, and the play ends in many weddings and one great celebration. But the story also deals with tyrannical rulers, heroes banished and fleeing in disguise, love notes written on trees, a daughter mourning her banished father, and a brother who persecutes his brother in violation of their father’s testament. This is comedy? Somehow, Shakespeare makes it so.
This comedy deals with the exact themes that English Catholics suffered in Elizabethan England. When we consider the heroes are all unjustly banished to the forest of Arden, for a poet of Shakespeare’s greatness, it is no coincidence that he named this forest of exiled heroes after his mother’s family, famous for their Catholic faith and recusancy. Moreover, it is no coincidence that the lion is an ancient and English symbol of royalty, and so when the hero wrestles with a lioness and defeats her at the risk of life and limb, and as a result of this battle a once evil brother is converted to goodness, this is an allegory hiding a deeper message. This is how persecuted people hide messages in plain sight.
As You Like It is not only a comedy, more importantly it is an allegory. The lioness is not chosen by happenstance, but communicates meaning. In Shakespeare, symbols are specifically chosen, phrases are carefully crafted. The mysteries of Shakespeare’s artistic choices have clear answers when we consider the environment Shakespeare wrote under, one of persecution and censorship. We need only apply Church methods of interpreting holy Jewish texts to find our true answers. Shakespeare’s art is as much a chronicle of history as it is entertainment. He teaches us about English life of the 16th and 17th centuries.
When As You Like It is published only after his wife’s death, we see that Shakespeare not only had to avoid censures, but feared for his family’s life if the play were to be openly understood. These are the writings of a persecuted playwright speaking truth to power, at the threat of imprisonment and death, and possibly even writing a fantasy of what he wished would happen in England — that evil rulers would repent and restore things as they should be.
The preface to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida hits straight to the heart of his goal as a playwright, and to clarify that his comedies are “so framed to the life that they serve for the most common commentaries of all the actions of our lives.” He writes with a specific purpose, to provide commentary to the lives of his audiences, his countrymen, his brethren. The resulting play is both comedic and tragic, for that is human life. But the playwright had to write a preface to one of the few published plays in his lifetime to confirm great truths for his audiences — even his comedies are written to evade censors and communicate truth! Shakespeare writes with a purpose. His artistic genius was the result of a great mind working in a difficult environment, one of unjust persecution and severe censorship. His plays are not only “plays within a play,” but importantly, they disguise truth to evade censors and be heard by the public. There is a wit outwitting government censors to speak to the people. Half the story has been told in allegory, disguised to fly under the radar of government censors. But we need tools of interpretation to unlock their deeper meanings. Half the story is disguised.
The problem with censorship laws is that in their very essence, they believe truth must be limited. That truth shall not go free. Censorship laws state that only a select few can handle the truth, and everyone else must have truth filtered by those select few who determine what tales are told, what news is noteworthy, what songs are sung. Censorship of truth has no place among a free people, for at its root it is an ignoble idea which seeks to enslave people to the ones who control the truth — those in power. But truth is eternal. Truth will not stay dead, truth will rise again.
Therefore, censoring truth is not inline with everlasting principles. Healthy societies cannot abide censorship. Under totalitarian regimes, there is great need for truth-tellers of society to evade censorship at all costs, so that people’s minds are not enslaved to lies or the father of lies, and the true story gets told. In Elizabethan England, Shakespeare ensured truth got to the masses.
For an English Catholic, when the mass is banned, how will truth get to the masses? One way is for Catholic playwrights to pen plays which speak truth publicly to the masses and chronicles history before State propaganda whitewashes the true story. Under State propaganda — and, remember, Elizabethan England was specifically a Protestant State — the Catholic church is painted and classed as an evil whore who deserved to be stolen from and slaughtered. To proclaim truth publicly, it had to be hidden in plain sight. Playwrights had to evade censors so that the plays would be allowed to see the light of day on the English stage. And great playwrights went to great lengths to ensure their message slipped by the censors to be heard by the masses, even if it stretched their creative genius to awe-inspiring levels. Even if the plays were only published after death.
In doing so, Shakespeare created the greatest canon of rebel literature since The New Testament was penned in the streets and prisons of the Roman Empire in the first century. Both canons preach that Christ is Lord, not Caesar or earthly kings; that Christ is the shepherd of souls, not earthly rulers or English monarchs. Both canons took truth to the masses in disguise and with much personal cost, loss, and suffering, evaded imperial rulers that desired Catholics dead and Catholic religion extinguished. Both canons changed the world, for truth transforms the world, and not simply conforms citizens to a country, but conforms a country to everlasting principles and ideals, and thereby preserves the soul of a country for eternity. And, both canons recognize, a person might never meet their country’s rulers, but one day we will all be face to face with our Savior, with our soul’s maker, the King of Kings. And both the great Shakespeare and holy Scripture bid us, whether we are princes or paupers, to prepare this day for that day.
Soul of a Country
A country is one even though it has many parts, and like the parts of a body, all the parts of a country, though many, are still one. The soul of that country, like a body, lives on long after individual parts come and go, live and die. The soul is its essence, its identity, its memory. Because the soul contains the memory of its people, a memory informs who we are, the soul of a country, body, or community is what makes it unique.
It is no surprise, then, when English rulers rebel against the church in the sixteenth century, that people rebel against their rulers and government in later centuries. Whether Henry VIII realized it at the time or not, he planted a seed of rebellion in the 16th century that reaped a bigger harvest in following centuries. His daughter was able to quell rebellion for a time (by forcing uniformity). Her successor, James I, sympathized with differing factions and even sponsored the first participants of the English exodus. His successor, Charles I, was beheaded by the people as rebellion came to its fulfillment in native English soil. Rebellion and revolution was afoot all over England. And more than a century later, another revolution came to its fulfillment, this time not only in the garden of England but also in the continent of America. At the heart of both English and American history is rebellion against tyranny.
An important outcome of a successful rebellion is greater liberty. One of the underlying currents of English and American history is the desire to worship God freely. And both England and America would prove in their own time that various forms of Christian religion could exist peacefully in a nation — that Anglicans, Catholics, and Puritans can dwell as citizens of one country even though they are of different beliefs. What is important for a body of people to live peacefully is unity, not uniformity. When uniformity is forced, this becomes a sign of tyranny. When unity is encouraged, it flourishes because liberty and justice for all is protected.
In America, one of the greatest tools to fight tyrants is the First Amendment. It protects against tyranny in important ways, building on the great wisdom of the English experience. The First Amendment contains the promise of free speech, that truth shall be free. It contains other important promises, like the right to assemble peacefully and the right to petition the government for justice. Amazingly, these come on the heels of the first promise in the First Amendment, a promise that limits the powers of the State. The first amendment starts with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment limits the State, for it states that the government will never establish a religion. The State will no longer take over the Church. People of any religion are able to practice their religion freely on our sweet shores, so long as they hold to the greater values proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence, values like preserving the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
And so, what may have started as a practical need to allow thirteen disparate colonies to form one nation — respect each other’s religion — became a foundational principle for all Americans. When the Constitution is enacted years later, it is for the explicit purpose “to form a more perfect union.” The more perfect union is one that upholds (and not discards) the values proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence.
When America separates from the Empire during the birth of our nation, it was simply building on the great example of our English forefathers who constantly and continually fought for people’s rights, fighting for the soul of their country. But if we don’t understand the English history that birthed this great promise to the people, we won’t understand how to live in that promise. For this, we must note Shakespeare’s testimony because it is so valuable to help Americans understand who we are.
England and America are different in profound ways. For one, England does not have founding documents. The history of the English peoples traces back before recorded history. The English are an indigenous population that continued to evolve, their history traces back to epics and legends and mythology, not to founding documents. They have no birth certificates, yet they exist. Their identity has morphed as they searched to know their forefathers and ancestors. The English are like the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews, indigenous populations that became great civilizations. In becoming great civilizations, they formed their corporate identity not through a set of clearly outlined written documents, but instead looked back to stories to tell them who they were. These great civilizations and empires have roots which predate the technological innovation that is writing. Their evolution as communities comes not from one specific day, but as an organic development slowly over millennia and chronicled in myths, legends, and epics.
Shakespeare’s canon of plays wages war for the health and soul of his country. As a playwright and poet, his scriptures fight for the soul of his native country, encouraging each Englishman to know who they are, what they are, and to understand what they will be. His Histories provide national epics that reimagine complex issues surrounding kingdoms, like the need for good rulers and clear lines of succession to power. He begged for the civil wars to stop, for the rulers to do good, and for the people to love justice and kindness. His Comedies provide much mirth while teaching people profound cultural truths and moral points, such as the importance of standing against tyrants while living for the sake of love. And his Tragedies remind us that this life is but a moment in time, and there are greater things in a world to come. All people die, and some by the grace of God, will rise to everlasting glory. What the English lacked in official documents, Shakespeare attempted to memorialize in stories and plays, creating a complex view of English society that evades easy categorization, but firmly implants profound truths in play-goers minds. Shakespeare’s amazing stories and characters — heroes, villains, and everyday people — help shape the character and soul of his country.
Americans, and even certain religious communities like Catholics and Protestants, are all different communities than the English. We have a birth certificate. We have a clear moment in history to say, “this is when we came into existence.” There are historical moments that note when America and various Christian communities were formed. The history of this moment of conception, even if its two thousand years old, comes out of clear existing traditions, and is memorialized with foundational documents. Americans know the English are our patriarchs, we announced our separation from England centuries ago. Catholics know the Jews are our patriarchs, we have the New Testament to explain how we are different. And Protestants know they are in protest of the holy Catholic church, and in many cases, have the founding articles which explain their differences, such as the Articles of the Church of England.
Founding documents are important because they capture the essence, the soul of a community. Americans have foundational documents which justify our existence and explain our ideals. Our Declaration of Independence provides the guiding principles of who we are as a nation, a nation who seeks to secure God-given rights for people, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But these ideals are a natural outgrowth of what our English forefathers, including Shakespeare, helped to birth in us.
As Americans, we are many states that form one nation, many religions that form one people, many tribes and tongues that gather as one. We are as our motto states — out of many, one. We have not only governmental documents like the Declaration of Independence to guide us, but we also have many religious documents that informed the minds of our English forefathers, such as the English Magna Carta, the Catholic new testament, ancient Jewish holy scriptures, and foundational Protestant documents, like the Articles of the Church of England and the Mayflower Compact.
All these many documents become clear pictures of the soul of who we are. As Americans, we are a mix of many peoples and religions. We have all this underlying the foundation of who we are. Foundational documents, for communities like our nation which are young enough to have them, allow us to clearly understand the core foundational principles that we are built on. To understand who we are, we have to look not only at our core documents, but back further into history of what led to them. Only by looking further into the past do we understand our own communities in context of why we exist. Hence, to understand American history, we have to look into English history. To understand Protestantism, we have to look into Catholicism. To understand Catholicism, we have to look into Judaism. In seeing these pre-existent communities, we understand the fathers and mothers that birthed us. We understand what makes the essence of our community. Let us remember, the first commandment that leads to a promise was “to honor thy father and mother so that it may go well with you in the land.” Hence, Americans must honor the English, Catholics must honor Jews, and Protestants must honor Catholics.
Often what unites many new communities is that “Exodus” experience, taking a stand against tyranny and birthing something new. This is what unites Shakespeare, Englishmen, Americans, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. This Exodus experience is what unites all the oppressed people of the world fighting to be free in their communities, to lay aside the chains of slavery for the hope of a promised land. “Proclaim to the land and all the inhabitants thereof, liberty!” The stand against tyrants is what unites the people who change the world for a better place, it’s what unites the poor and oppressed peoples of the world with God.
If we Americans ever forget who we are, thankfully, we are young enough to have a birth certificate. We have our Declaration of Independence, which notes the key principles of what our forefathers fought for. This Declaration roots us in the fundamental core values of what it is to be American. Moreover, as Americans, we have the cannon of Shakespeare and the holy canon of Jewish tribal and Christian Church scriptures to remind us how to live in a way that allows love and goodness to invade the earth and bless all peoples. Great Americans in history loved both William Shakespeare and Sacred Scripture.
Let us note, great Americans in history all fought for the ideals in the Declaration. Remember, the Constitution exists only “to form a more perfect union,” and a more perfect union does not invalidate the Declaration of Independence but upholds it in order that the ideals of the Declaration are achieved. The Constitution is only ever a tool to help the Declaration. So, as Americans, we must not fight to uphold the Constitution but instead modify the Constitution to honor the values of the Declaration. The Constitution must adapt to fulfill the eternal values of the Declaration, a Declaration which is rooted in immutable, human, and eternal values revealed by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the world. These values are well summarized as the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As long as we honor the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in others, we will be fighting for eternal truths, and we will be part of a culture of life in our nation and throughout the world.
This is why when child sacrifice becomes the norm in our country, when more souls are sent prematurely to their maker than under Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, when millions of children are untimely ripped from their mother’s womb and barely a peep is heard on our shores — Beware! for the culture of death has taken root. Death is not eternal. And unjust death is evil. Death always needs a united Christendom, a fellowship of the sons of Abraham, a unity that our forefathers modeled, to fight evil and cast it from our fair land. Currently, we Americans are living in a most unfair manner, denying basic right of live to the “least of these” — children still in the womb yearning to breathe free and live long enough to die a natural death. For they are denied their God-given right to life.
O angels, O Americans, make assay, fight for the newborn babes. Note this, every great American fought not to uphold the Constitution but fought to secure the values in our Declaration. The Constitution has been only every created or changed to uphold the values of our Declaration. Let us not be Constitutionalists but Declarationalists. Let us fight for the rights of others, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Then, and only then, all may be well. Then and only then, is their a chance for the soul of our country to renew our sick, ailing country.
Soul of a Person
Throughout Shakespeare’s canon he not only desires to help fellow Englishman to understand the signs of the times, but helps each person understand themselves, to look inward, to save their soul for the eternal paradise. The garden of England is just a proving ground to arrive at the new garden of Eden.
The body is doomed to die, but the soul yearns to be free, to live eternally, not in a house of death but in a temple of life. And whether English or American, whether Protestant or Catholic, whether a son of Abraham or a son of the world, mankind desires to be free. It’s not a matter of country or religion, it’s a call of humanity. It’s the faith of our fathers living inside us, it is the eternal soul desiring to live beyond doomed and dying walls and into an eternity beyond space and time. And just as the soul of a country lives beyond the individual body parts, so does the soul of a person live on.
Recent science has shockingly proven what the ancient Jewish myths have told us for millennia, we are born of dust (i.e. ‘chemicals’) and to dust we shall return. But science of the 20th century has taught us that our bodies are even more impermanent than that. For within a decade, all the atoms we take in — what we breathe, drink, and eat, — will change out all the atoms in our bodies. Materially, within a decade, you are not the same person. It’s our soul which makes us who we are, not our bodies. Our body comes and goes throughout our lifetime. Our soul provides our identity, our soul shapes our memory, our person, and our soul remembers who we were, and affects who we are, and helps us become who we are destined to be. So, at our last breath, when our soul’s leave our bodies, the body it leaves is not the one we were born with, and it’s not the one which we will have in eternity, that body was just a phase, a proving ground for a time.
Shakespeare comes to us and reminds us of that very fact. He asks us not to be Englishman or Anglican, he asks us to be human, and to love others wisely and well. He asks us to look at ourselves and note what is worth living for and what is worth dying for. In Hamlet, he reminds us there are things worth giving our last breath for, there are important values like love and honor which are worth counting all other things as loss for, and sometimes we are even called to give up our lives to right the wrongs of our Father’s kingdom. In Merchant of Venice, he reminds us that mercy is a trait of God, hence we should be merciful and thereby earn the name “children of God.” In Troilus and Cressida, he shocks a nation that attempts to see itself as a “new Troy,” and gives that nation a story that reminds them that ancient stories are often told ignoring important realities. Usually half the story never gets told, and Shakespeare warns us not to lose ourselves wooing the wrong woman, fighting the wrong war, but instead to live this earthly life with honor and do in deed what we say in word. In Much Ado about Nothing, he helps us by noting whats important in life — to love, to not be deceived by false accusations, even if they come from people with good reputations, and to “serve God, love man, and mend.” And in Love’s Labor’s Lost, he reminds us that the things of this earth are fleeting, destined to die, and that the paradise that awaits is from heaven, renewing the face of the earth as the ancient psalmist promised. Shakespeare begs us not to forfeit true paradise by placing earthly allegiances above our heavenly relationships.
To be well versed in Shakespeare is to have a personal soul doctor. His canon of plays offer a great measuring stick for us to look inward and help diagnose what is good and what needs improvement. Always he cautions us, do not be deceived by people appearing to be good but are not. It is better to die in honor than live in villainy. He tells us, “confess yourself to heaven, repent what’s past, avoid what is to come.”
The ancient Jews have the prescription for a healthy society — the ten commandments. The various “negative” commands, the “thou shalt nots” and “do nots” are in fact hidden ideals. When Moses says “thou shalt not kill,” the ideal is life is sacred. When Moses says “thou shalt not commit adultery,” the ideal is the marriage bed is to be honored. And so, the context of the ten commandments is God is freeing a family of slaves and desires them to live as a nation of freemen through whom the whole world is blessed. In order to do that, God gives them ten ideals to help them walk in freedom. The first three ideals deal with our relationship to God (love, honor, and serve him as our first priority in life, for it is only write, he is the life-giver and slave-liberator) and the last seven ideals deal with our relationship to our fellow man (honor parents, life, marriage, family, property, truth, and our neighbor’s rights). Or, as summarized by ancient rabbis, “love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as told by Shakespeare, “take heed o’ th’ foul fiend. Obey thy parents; keep thy word’s justice; swear not; commit not with man’s sworn spouse; set not thy sweet heart on proud array.” Shakespeare tells us what scripture spoke millennia ago, obey the divine commandments, obey our Lord’s commands.
And so, whether we find ourselves in a rebellion, or as rulers in a burgeoning empire, or simply as everyday people, just like our body cells and fleeting hairs come and go, just as our bodies decay and die, so also earthly communities and countries and empires and rebellions rise and fall, but our souls live on. Let us note, there is a heavenly community of people who exist to guide and care for souls, who teach about the true God, who trace the divine promises across the seas and centuries to the first man and woman in the garden of Eden, and these people help us with the eternal ideals worth living for, that of abundant life, true liberty, and dutiful service to the true God.
Shakespeare’s canon reminds us of this service. And when rulers come to tell people to speak an oath that invalidates their allegiance to the Eternal One, or asks them to sacrifice their heavenly relationship with oaths to temporary authorities, whether it be to a country or a king, Shakespeare bids us, “what fool is not so wise to lose an oath to win a paradise.” The Anglican church demanded oaths from every Englishman, and that oath was a denial of who they were as men, with the right to worship God as they saw fit, whether Protestant or Catholic, whether Jew or Gentile, whether Colonial or Imperial, and Shakespeare notes “these articles will prove idle scorn” and reminds us not to lose our soul’s paradise for those who can only harm the body. Who would remain united to the garden of England when the garden of Gethsemane won a new garden of Eden? Who would not take the torture rack in England for the sake of uniting to the tree of life in Calvary? Who would not seek to serve the king of the Jews above the king of England or any other earthly king?
As the ancient carpenter wisely said, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or, what can one give in exchange for his life?” There is only one love that brings the dead to life. Shakespeare reminds us to live and die in that love.