Tales of Love and Whispers of Revolution
"Shakespeare, wide, placid, far-seeing, as the Sun, the upper light of the world.”
— Thomas Carlyle
The work of a prophet is to bring truth to the world. Truth is eternal, so sometimes truths revealed blossom later, in the future, like a seed planted in a garden. Planted seeds bear fruit in time with nourishment. Likewise, great truths require time and nourishment to flourish. For example, Moses planted the seed that time was relative to God when he said “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” and “a thousand years are a breath in your sight.” Yet, it took thousands of years for us to root time in the life of Christ.
Moreover, it took thousands of years until another son of Abraham provided his theory of relativity of time. Only recently have scientists learned to tell the story Moses told thousands of years ago with scientific terms and language summarized in scientific laws and theories like thermodynamics and the Big Bang. Because truth is eternal, truth exists for scientists as well as for those who interpret the mysteries and riddles of the world and holy scriptures. Truth will not contradict itself, when the paradox seems irreconcilable, we simply need to enlarge our perspective, and go into the infinite.
The eternal nature of truth makes it a comfort for hurting and dying people, truth lasts through our aches, pains, and sorrows. Truth survives death. Truth’s ability to conquer death makes truth a warning to oppressors. Truth reminds one and all — oppressors and oppressed — things will change. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled, for one day every knee will bow and tongue confess that Christ is Lord. If you humble yourself, you will be exalted, for God has promised to raise the humble and contrite of heart on the last day.
And so, when a playwright comes into a specific time and place — Elizabethan and Jacobean England — and proclaims truth, there is an everlasting quality to his writings. The everlasting nature of the many truths Shakespeare wrote is widely known by the fact that the tongue he spoke has become the global language of the world. And so, more and more people throughout the Globe hear his writings in a language they know and understand. But, the question is, do we hear Shakespeare truly, as he intends us to hear him? That is the aim of this final Act, to understand Shakespeare The Prophet.
Let us uncover the eternal truths revealed in Shakespeare’s plays. First, we will review Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night to understand how they are tales of true love. Last, we will explore five plays (Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, King Lear, and The Tempest) to understand how they contain the whispers of a revolution, prophetic teachings about our new world order. Our aim is to get beyond the literal level of Shakespeare’s stories and into the deeper, spiritual, infinite side of his writings. Let us go into the mystic.
Juliet Capulet is a picture of Jesus Christ. Shakespeare’s genius is to wrap this deep spiritual allegory of the Catholic church in the garments of a tragic tale of young love. Shakespeare frequently reworked old stories into new plays. His English Histories, like The Life and Death of King John, were usually based on contemporary chronicles of English history, and Shakespeare was not shy in lifting whole passages from other works and inserting them into his plays. His Roman Tragedies, like Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, were often based on Plutarch’s Lives. And his Comedies found sources from various stories, for example, Troilus and Cressida and Two Noble Kinsmen were riffs off stories Chaucer wrote. Romeo and Juliet is similarly a story taken from a previous source. Shakespeare rewrote it for his own purposes, baptizing it in Christ, so to speak, much like the Catholic church “baptized” Gentile and Jewish literature and traditions in light of the eternal God. In “baptizing” an old Italian tale, Shakespeare created his own tale of true love, an allegory about the love of Catholics for their beloved church, the love of a pilgrim of Rome for JC.
To see the allegory of Romeo and Juliet, not only do we need to see the similar initials of Juliet Capulet and Jesus Christ, a similar pattern Shakespeare used in Julius Caesar; not only do we need to understand the meaning behind key names like Juliet (‘daughter of Jupiter’ — Jupiter is the head of the Roman gods) and Capulet (‘capo’ relates to head, and Capulet sounds like Catholic when said fast); but we also need to hear Shakespeare himself, for Romeo (whose name means ‘pilgrim to Rome’) proclaims, “Juliet is the Son.” Romeo is the lover of Juliet and becomes her spouse. One of the greatest love stories in all of literature is an allegory about the love between Catholics and Jesus Christ, the love of a pilgrim of Rome for JC.
Seen in this light, Romeo and Juliet is not simply a tragic tale of young love, it is a true tale of the experience of Catholics in Elizabethan England, wailing with Shakespeare, “prodigious birth of love it is to me that I must love a loathed enemy.” Romeo and Juliet is a prophetic call for Catholics to remain faithful to JC and his Catholic church even despite the societal pressures to conform to the State-run Anglican church. The Catholic church was seen as the hated and vilified enemy of Protestant England, and inasmuch as English Catholics loved their church they loved “the enemy.” But Catholics were able to see beyond the State pressures to conform to the church founded by the King of England and still cling in love to the church founded by the King of the Jews. The founder of the Catholic church did famously command his followers, “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”
The allegiance to the Catholic church for Romeos exceeds all earthly allegiances. All Romeos love both church and country, but if country outlaws the church, and thereby the country forces church and state to be at odds, the church commands our greater allegiance. It is the church which saves the state, and never the other way around. The state, at its best, can only protect the church, it can only protect the church’s right to operate in society. But it is the church which taught the world about our God-given human rights. It is the church which taught the world about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and provided the wisdom to root inalienable truths in the true God. It is the church that taught the world that there are self-evident truths, including “that all Men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” States and kingdoms and countries rise and fall over the centuries, but since the time of Christ there has only been one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church. That church is still here. She still exists. She exists in states which have declared her the enemy, like England in the 16th century or Mexico in the early 20th century, and she exists in states that allow her to operate freely, whether the United States of America or the aforementioned countries in other moments of their history. The love Catholics have is a love which never fails. And so, Shakespeare’s Romeo will not let the fact that his family and Juliet’s are sworn enemies dissuade him from loving and marrying her. As is written in Catholic holy scriptures, “They conquered the accuser by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony; love for life did not deter them from death. Therefore, rejoice you heavens.”
The prologue of Romeo and Juliet’s story promises that this “death-marked love” strives to mend the ancient grudge where “civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Sometimes it is only the blood of martyrs that wakes our conscience, many a prophet was killed simply for good deeds. In our country, great prophets like Abe Lincoln and Dr. King where shot and killed for their good deeds of freeing slaves and fighting for fairness. Only later were these American heroes given magnificent monuments for their sacrificial love. In the history of humanity, great prophets like Able son of Adam (from East of the garden of Eden) to Jesus son of God (arrested in the garden of Gethsemane) were unjustly slain by their own kinsmen. In the course of humanity, we sometimes find it is better for one to die than the rest perish. And while the blood of prophets does not always atone, it does cry out to God and our consciences. Willingness to lay done our lives for the sake of truth is a powerful testimony. The old world order was about killing for your rights, the new world order is about dying for the rights of others. Sometimes it takes a tragic love story to heal the hate between enemies, whether Montague and Capulet, or perhaps Tudor rulers and Catholic priests, or even between God and mankind. It is only love which bridges the great divide between sworn enemies. Only love conquers enemies. Love conquers because love has the power to transform, and love can even take sworn enemies and make them one family.
To see this deeper spiritual and healing message of Romeo and Juliet, we apply the same patterns Catholics use to understand ancient Jewish holy scriptures. Because the Catholic church existed before the printing press, before large swarms of humanity could read, Catholic liturgy is focused on the senses, especially sight and sound, much like Shakespeare’s plays. Our liturgy is more focused on hearing the word of God than reading it. We have one reader for many hearers. Protestant religions, which have arisen after the printing press, are more centered on devotional reading than hearing sounds, and therefore Protestants and other non-Catholics might miss the clues of how to see, hear, and understand Shakespeare.
Moreover, Shakespeare uses Catholic patterns in creating his allegories, and thereby Catholics are best prepared to interpret his allegories in the light of truth. For example, “Juliet is the sun” and “Juliet is the Son” are two different sentences when read, but the same when heard. To hear Shakespeare’s scripts and his deeper meanings, we have to hear like Catholics hear sacred scriptures in liturgical services. Shakespeare’s plays and Jewish holy scriptures are written to point to something greater, whether to a play that entertains in a theater or to a liturgy which celebrates the Lord’s supper.
In the case of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is a picture of an English Catholic while Juliet is a dual picture of Christ and his church. Their tragic love is the tragic situation Catholics found themselves suffering in Elizabethan England. For Romeo to love J.C. is costly because the rulers in England were sworn enemies with the priests of Rome, just as the Capulet’s and Montague's were sworn enemies in fair Verona. It would have been easier for Romeo to simply love Rosalind, just as it would have been easier for English Catholics to have become Anglican. Alas, as Romeo says, “Heaven is where Juliet lives.” And so, likewise, English Catholics realize true love sometimes calls pilgrims into suffering for the sake of truth and love. Heaven is where Jesus is. While many might settle for an easier love life, a pilgrim of Rome is called to live and die alongside their savior and true love — Jesus Christ and the holy Catholic church he founded.
One small example from the play, the marriage between Romeo and Juliet had to be done in secret because this was the social situation for Catholics at the time. Catholics were married in secret, and the secret marriage is an important theme in another one of Shakespeare’s stories, The Winter’s Tale. Catholic sacraments, including holy matrimony, were illegal in Elizabethan England, forced underground and into hiding. Yes, there is much to understand as we talk of the sad tale of Romeo and Juliet, for “never was a story of more woe” than of Jesus and his English Romeo.
Let us not misunderstand, Shakespeare’s plays are rebel literature, not conversion literature. He is not trying to convince Englishmen to be Catholic against their conscience, he simply records truth for people so that they may make informed decisions. He simply records his testimony for his generation and future generations. His mission was one of sharing truth in marvelously entertaining plays. Shakespeare writes his scripts to teach Englishmen to understand what it means to be Catholic in Elizabethan England, and for his fellow kinsmen and countrymen to make their decision about the Catholic church on right judgement, based on truth, and not based on appearances, rumors, slander, or state-sponsored propaganda.
Twelfth Night; Or, What You Will, is one special play, a delightful comedy, wherein Shakespeare teaches about the state of the church in England. In the end, the choice of what church to call home is as the title of the play states — or, “what you will.” Shakespeare simply crafts a comedic story that helps you understand your choices. It is best to know the options, not in lies or ignorance, but in truth and love. For the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob calls his people to worship in spirit and truth.
In Twelfth Night Shakespeare gives some of the details for why ‘Romeos’ are so important to a nation, why English people need Catholics in their midst. It is not simply to remember the rich Anglo-Catholic heritage of England and honor the history of their ancestors, it is for the functional differences between the various forms of Christian religion. There are things unique to Catholics within Christendom which cannot be done by Anglicans and Puritans — specifically, provide the fullness of the Christian sacraments. The fullness of the Christian sacraments exist only where there are valid priests, which requires churches that have direct ties to the apostles, also known as apostolic churches. The fullness of the sacraments exist only where bishops are the successors of the apostles. The bishops receive their authority from the apostles, who received their authority from Christ himself. It is these bishops with direct ties to Christ, an unbroken line of succession, who have the authority to consecrate and send out priests for Christ’s church. In Shakespeare’s time, the Catholic church was the only apostolic church in all of England, and therefore the only one with direct and unbroken ties to the original twelve apostles. Thus, from a Catholic perspective, it was vitally important for Catholic priests to continue to live out their vocations in England and for Catholic lay people to remain true to the church Jesus founded, the church with the office of Peter as the leader, the church with direct ties to heavenly origin (rather than human). The only church that fits those requirements — to be catholic and apostolic with Christ as founder — is the Catholic church under the leadership of the bishop of Rome.
If we do not read Twelfth Night as an allegory highlighting the state of Christendom in England, the symbolism and meaning of the play is entirely missed by readers and audiences. The confusion of identities between twins, whether in Twelfth Night or Comedy of Errors, is a prevalent theme in Shakespeare’s writings because this was the issue between the Anglican and Catholic church. The Anglican church was so similar, often taking Catholic priests and church buildings and lands as their own, that there was confusion about what was the true church in England. There was truly a case of mistaken identity, the Anglican church appeared Catholic in many ways, and in a brilliant move of marketing and branding, the Anglican church even named itself, “Church of England.” Shakespeare attempts to make sense of the confusion in England about what constitutes the true Church through his canon of writings. Let us consider just one of the various plot lines in Twelfth Night to understand the allegory.
Twelfth Night centers on two twins separated during shipwreck, Viola and her brother Sebastian. To survive, the young lady Viola disguises as a young man Cesario, and enters into the service of the Duke of Illyria. This Duke is in love with a countess, Olivia, and sends Cesario to proclaim his love to Olivia. Viola, disguised as Cesario, proclaims this love but the comedy ensues when Olivia falls in love not with the Duke, but instead with Cesario, who is truly Viola. (It’s confusing to summarize but a joy to read and hilarious to see). In other plays — like Cymbeline, Julius Caesar, and Antony & Cleopatra — Caesar symbolically represents the Catholic church, so it is no surprise that Olivia falls in love with one who appears to be “Cesar.”
As English-Catholic audiences watch the play, we keep in our mind’s eye the fact that the name Viola has echoes of the color violet, a color closely associated with royalty. So, the one with a royal name seems like Cesar. For an English Catholic, the profound similarities of the Anglican church, founded by English royalty, yet appearing to be like the Catholic church is too close to ignore. The fact that Twelfth Night wasn’t published until the First Folio was printed, long after Shakespeare’s death, continues to show that all these seemingly unrelated coincidences line up with consistent logic that prove Shakespeare composed Catholic allegories.
With many subplots, more comedy ensues when Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother appears on the scene. They are mistaken for each other in various hilarious instances. It is clear, Sebastian is the better Viola, for he is as he appears to be, whereas Viola is only disguised as Cesario. And so, when Sebastian’s friend, Antonio, looks at Viola and mistakes her for Sebastian and asks for the purse he loaned Sebastian, Viola does not have the means to repay Antonio. She freely confesses, “My having is not much.” Again, she is not who she appears to be, and Shakespeare creates another comedic situation exploring issues which arise from mistaken identities.
Antonio, just as in Merchant of Venice, represents the deep love that is a picture of Christ’s love for his followers, willing to die so that others might live well. Antonio protects Viola before the mischief of others. But when Antonio goes to exact the purse he handed over to Sebastian, he finds Viola is unprepared, unaware, and unable to give the purse entrusted to Sebastian. She only appears to be Sebastian, but she is not Sebastian. Antonio does not realize that Viola disguised as Cesario is not her brother, even though they look alike. Viola is not as she appears to be. In the end, all’s well that end’s well, but it requires Viola taking her true form as Viola. For all to end happily in this comedy, Viola needs to drop the disguise and be who she truly is. One wonders, if Shakespeare’s testimony was that for all to be well in England, the Anglican church needed to drop the Catholic disguise and be what it truly is, a state-founded organization. But this is a step too far for us here with limited knowledge, simply something to ponder.
A comedy, Twelfth Night ends happily. Sebastian takes Viola’s place in two important ways. With Olivia, he weds her. He is everything Olivia saw good in Cesario but more, he is truly a man. Olivia did not realize she fell in love with an illusion. With Antonio, only Sebastian is able to return the purse entrusted to him. In Twelfth Night, the purse is a symbol for the sacraments. And so, while the Anglican church looks like the Catholic church, just like Viola looks like Cesario, the Anglican church was never entrusted with the fullness of Christian sacraments (for they don’t have valid priests that have direct ties to the original twelve apostles), just like Viola was never entrusted with Antonio’s purse. Only Sebastian was entrusted with the purse, only Sebastian can return the purse to Antonio or disperse the purse among others in Antonio’s name.
The story of this play is an allegorical warning to chose your church wisely, as the title says, “Or What You Will.” While all Christian churches are entrusted with proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven, only one church in Shakespeare’s England — the Catholic church! — was entrusted to dispense God’s grace through the sacraments. Only one church in Shakespeare’s England — the Catholic church! — has her founder as our Lord and Savior. Only one church in Shakespeare’s England — the Catholic church! — was given authority to forgive sin, and not simply carry the message about God’s love and the forgiveness of sins. Only one church in Shakespeare’s England — the Catholic church! — celebrated the wedding feast of the lamb. And so, while all churches may have some form of Christian sacraments, only the Catholic church in Shakespeare’s England had the fullness of the Christian sacraments God entrusted to his people. Many Catholics willingly gave up their life in order to preserve the testimony about the beauty and power of all the universal (‘catholic’) Christian sacraments. As is written, “The dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.”
Catholic sacraments teach us of the new world order installed on earth. Christ did not die only to conquer death and offer eternal life, he died and rose again from the dead so that we could participate in that eternal life on earth. On Calvary, Christ took wedding vows to wed us forever, he became a new and eternal covenant, his flesh and blood is our new testament. He is the new testament instituted at the Lord’s supper, finished on a cross in Calvary, and confirmed in his resurrection. Ours is a love that conquers death. Ours is a love that weds God with mankind. Not only is this message entrusted with the various Christian churches, but the Catholic church has been entrusted with something greater than simply the message of divine love, she has been entrusted with the body and blood of Christ. She has been entrusted to ensure that the bride of Christ not only hears about his love but participates in that love. The sacraments are the divine graces of God in our daily life. The Catholic church is entrusted with the physical manifestation of God’s love for us. God not only died for us, he gives us his body and says, “take, eat, for this is my body given up for you.” God not only dies for us, he pours out his blood and commands, “take, drink, for this is the cup of the new and eternal covenant poured out for you, for the many, for the forgiveness of sins.” God wills that the heavens rain graces on earth. He accomplishes his will through Catholic sacraments. Catholic sacraments are God’s grace invading this earth and renewing our world by his holy Spirit.
Both the Catholic church and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night teach us — there is something greater than the message of love, it is the act of love. The greater gift is spiritually and physically participating with God in a loving and intimate relationship, an intimate relationship whose closest earthly comparison can only be described as the marital covenant between man and wife. This intimacy with God, our God who gives us not only his body and blood in death and resurrection, but gives us his body in nourishment and his blood in covenant, is so deep that God created marriage in order to teach us about the depth of the intimacy he desires with us. The divine dwells in man, and “what God has united let no man tear asunder.” The mystery of the trinity is a mystery of an expansive God who is not limited only to spiritual communion with mankind, but invades the earth to have a physical communion with his people. Truly, God is in our midst. As Hosea wrote, “I will betroth you to me forever.” As Zechariah wrote, “Sing and rejoice daughter Zion! The king of Israel, the Lord is in your midst! There is a man whose name is Branch, and from his place he will branch out and he will build the temple of the Lord. And they who are from afar will come and build the temple of the Lord.”
There is a bridegroom carpenter from Nazareth that makes better houses than all grave-makers the world over. This carpenter has built an eternal house, a divine temple, an everlasting abode for God. And unlike Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, Jesus of Nazareth gave not of limited means but out of his unlimited, eternal, and divine self. Timon of Athens gave until he found himself cast out of house and land, banished into the woods and caves of the earth. Timon of Athens gave into poverty. On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth took our impoverished nature as his own in order to share his divine nature with his own. He gave himself fully in order to build our home with the eternal God. And, amazingly, Jesus of Nazareth raised the temple of God in only three days. This temple has been continually built for thousands of years. As the first pope wrote long ago, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
The kingdom of God, whether in England or Jerusalem, does not come in signs and wonder, it comes in silent surrender. It comes in the prayers of the faithful, in the deeds of believers empowered by the holy Spirit. Christ is making an eternal house, a temple for the holy God. He has prepared the place for God to dwell, and it is in the body of believers. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” First, it was with Mary, Mother of God, preserved from sin by heaven’s grace to carry the Word of God to the world. Now, it is with fellow believers, purified from sin by heaven’s grace to house the eternal Spirit of the Lord, not in tents and tabernacles of animal leather and plant materials, but in the tent and tabernacle of our bodies, flesh made from the chemicals of the universe and brought to life with the divine breath.
The mysteries of Shakespeare’s artistic choices are best understood when we understand the Catholic way of life. In this, we see his plays are tales of true love, a love that is not only willing to die for the sake of his beloved, but a love that is willing to give his own flesh and blood for his bride, a love that manifests God, that makes God flesh. A love that conquers all things, including sin and death, the true tyrants of this world. There is a new world order. We are no longer enslaved to a dying world, we are set free to renew the earth as heaven rains graces unto us. Just as from heaven the sacraments come down and do not return there till they have accomplished their purpose, bearing spiritual fruit, giving bread to the believer and wine to the one who drinks, so shall the sacraments go forth from God; they shall not return to God empty, but shall do what pleases him, achieving the end for which the sacraments are instituted. Yes, in joy we participate of the heavenly life on earth. In joy we receive our groom, the God of creation and the Lord of salvation.
New World Order
Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, in his masterpiece The Republic mentioned that the most just man is the one who willingly suffers injustice unto death. Among his various insights, Plato wrote, “for this is our notion of the just man, that even when he is in poverty or sickness, or any other misfortune, all things will in the end work together for good to him in life and death, for the gods have a care of anyone whose desire is to become just and to be like God, as far as man can attain the divine likeness.” Likewise, Isaiah, an ancient Hebrew prophet, in his poetic masterpiece spoke of a suffering and just servant who willingly dies for the “sins of his people.” Isaiah wrote that it was “the will of God” that the just one be crushed with pain and to make his life as a “guilt offering.” That God’s servant, “the just one, shall justify the many and their iniquity he shall bear.” The theme of justice and “the just man” consumed the thoughts of many great thinkers in history. So, it is no surprise, the great William Shakespeare took on these same themes.
In one of Shakespeare’s great comedies, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare writes, “that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy.” The fulfillment of the prophecies of Greek philosophers and Hebrew prophets is the mercy spoken of by an English playwright. The mercy of God sent the Just One so that we could live by mercy. It is the mercy of God which allows us to see salvation. Moreover, it is the mercy of God which leads to marriage with God. The greater story of salvation, is not simply how the mercy of the divine justifies humans and offers salvation, but how that mercy leads to marriage, so that the divine and human become one. The new world order starts with a marriage. As is written, “For your husband is your Maker, Lord of hosts is his name, your redeemer, the holy one of Israel, called God of all the earth.” The greater story to both holy Scripture and The Merchant of Venice is the story of marriage.
The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice begins because Antonio fronts his friend, Bassanio, credit to pursue a bride, the renowned Portia. Out of Antonio’s credit, Bassanio journeys to pursue Portia. He solves the riddle given by Portia’s dead father to test potential suitors. Bassanio chooses the right casket, a casket of lead (rather than caskets of gold or silver) with the riddle, “who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” Because Christ gives us eternal life, we are to pick up our cross and follow him. When we chose God, we lay aside our earthly life for heavenly life, we give and hazard all we have, but we gain more than we could ever image — we gain God. When Bassanio choses the right casket, his borrowed money leads him to his future wife, Portia, who gives him a ring as a secure symbol of their love.
In the play, at that great moment where Portia presents Bassanio with the ring, Bassanio hears that Antonio’s financial ventures all went sour, and Antonio is unable to pay Bassanio’s loan. Antonio is called to court to pay what is due. Antonio has to offer “the pound of fair flesh” which is owed to Shylock the financier. This play is best seen as a Christian allegory. The small details and story lines, while often confusing, consistently reveal deeper truths about the mystery of the triune God of Catholics.
Bassanio is not a picture of Christ like it might seem at first, a bridegroom seeking to secure his bride. Instead, Bassanio is a picture of what his name means — ‘lowly, base man’ — who is wed to God based on the credit of his great friend, Antonio. Antonio, like Christ, offers his flesh to make a payment Bassanio could never pay, and makes it possible for Bassanio to marry Portia, a spouse of much renown. Portia is a picture of the Holy Spirit, and once Bassanio makes the right choice to wed her, it is Portia who protects and secures their relationship and marriage covenant. No matter how Bassanio messes up, Portia guides their relationship in goodness. She, as a picture of the Holy Spirit, will guide Bassanio and protect him, even though he seems to be doing the leading, she is in charge guiding everything to their rightful end. This quirky but important storyline woven into the play is one of the fundamental truths that only make sense when seen through a Christian worldview. The Catholic worldview and method of interpreting scriptures shows that even seemingly insignificant details enrich Shakespeare’s play with profound meaning and truth.
From a Catholic perspective, the beautiful part about marriage with God is he has promised to forgive our sins forever. Forgiveness is not a license to sin but a surety that when we do make mistakes, we can confess them and receive forgiveness. All marriages, whether heavenly or earthly, can only thrive where love and forgiveness reign. In the marriage covenant with God, this forgiveness is secured for us on a cross at Calvary and sealed by the coming of the promised Holy Spirit.
And so, in Shakespeare’s play, a Catholic allegory, when Bassanio wrongly gives away the promised ring, he gives it away to his bride. What should be a sorrowful moment Shakespeare turns into light-hearted romantic comedy communicating profound Catholic truths, namely, the greatness of God to secure forever his bride. As is written in Catholic holy scriptures, “for if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did no spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing can separate Bassanio from Portia, for the relationship does not depend on him but on the pictures of God in Shakespeare’s story — Antonio’s love and sacrifice, Portia’s love and wisdom. Bassanio, like all lowly men, is in good hands. Unknowingly, he is in relationship with Shakespeare’s portraits of two persons of the triune God. Unknowingly, Bassanio turned to God through all his difficulties, or at least, the God-figures of Shakespeare’s story. The new world order starts with a closer, more intimate union with God, not one where the Creator is far away, but an intimacy that is best describe as the union between husband and bride. Through Christ, we become one with God. The fulfillment of God’s promise to Hosea is here, “I will betroth you to me forever, I will betroth you to me with justice and with judgment, with loyalty and with compassion, I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know the Lord.”
Hamlet, like The Merchant of Venice, is another profound Christian allegory condensed into a beautiful play. In Hamlet, the kingdom of Denmark has been usurped. The brother of the king poisoned the king through his ear and the king died. The king was Hamlet’s father and the new king is his uncle, the murderer who also marries Hamlet’s mother. The ghost of Hamlet’s father haunts Hamlet until he speaks his last words to Hamlet before undergoing the fires of purgatory. The ghosts asks Hamlet to make right what has gone wrong in the Kingdom, giving Hamlet his commission, his life’s purpose. And even though this is not a holy ghost nor a holy commission, it does represent both, for Hamlet is the Christ-figure charged with wrestling the kingdom from an evil ruler and restoring it in goodness.
The whole play deals with Hamlet’s struggle to be who he is called to be, to be true to himself. The easier life for Hamlet is to accept the world as it is, settle down and marry Ophelia. The easier life for Hamlet is to enjoy the king’s court as the king’s nephew and queen’s son. But easy hardly ever makes good. And alas, humans are often all too willing, as Dr. King used to quote, “to bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.” Mankind is tempted by the easy way, not the good way. But ‘good’ is what Hamlet is called to, just like us. We are on earth to learn good, not ‘easy.’ It was said to our forefathers, “From now on your toil will be amidst thorn and thistle, and by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken.”
Hamlet as the story’s Christ-figure, the only begotten son of the King, laments his hard path. The beauty of the story is seeing Hamlet’s struggle to make sense of right and wrong, even if he cries out in mourning and melancholy, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” For Hamlet, his commission is to avenge the serpent’s sting. Similarly, the commission for Christians is to go about destroying the works of the devil and flesh. This is a hard road, but it is the right road. This road starts with our holy commission to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus commands his followers, “Go ye forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son, and holy spirit.”
The beauty of the Christian commission is both Catholics and Protestants unite in the common goal of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Both Catholics and Protestants unite in baptizing the children of God in the name of the father, son, and holy spirit. We baptize in the name of each person of the one God. And baptism is not only an adoption into the family of God, it is also a preparation for our wedding day with God. From this common base of the rite of baptism, Catholics have been entrusted with a greater gift. Catholics participate in the wedding, we live in the new and eternal covenant during our earthly journeys. Whereas Protestant brothers and sisters are baptized in preparation for a wedding, Catholics have the greater gift of participating in that marriage. Those who attend mass and eat of the Lord’s supper participate in the marriage covenant with God, for “blessed are those called to the wedding feast of the lamb.”
In the wedding feast of the lamb — also known as the Lord’s supper or the eucharist — we receive our Lord like a dutiful bride and loving spouse. In the lord’s supper we live in this brave new world where God not only dwells in man, but also weds his people in an eternal covenant. We receive our God in spirit and truth. The fall, which came by hearing the serpent’s words in the garden of Eden and eating fruit from the forbidden tree, is reversed by hearing the good news of the kingdom of heaven and eating flesh of the forgiving tree — the tree of life planted long ago on a hill at Calvary. For us to live in this marriage covenant, forgiveness must reign, hence we say in our daily prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgiveness is not only a key element in heavenly life, and the last scene of Hamlet, were Hamlet reconciles with Laertes before they both die, but forgiveness is also the main message behind the play, Measure for Measure.
Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays as this play doesn’t appear to fit neatly into any of the three categories of the First Folio. That is, of course, unless you are Catholic. If you are a Catholic, Measure for Measure is definitively a comedy. Measure for Measure is funny, quite funny in fact but not hilariously funny, and so it is difficult for non-Catholics to categorize it as a comedy, for it ends with a spy sentenced to death and a good woman married to a barely repentant scoundrel. Also, Measure for Measure is a little tragic, but not completely tragic, for it seems that in the end only the spy is punished. And it looks like he’d rather die than marry a whore, so even the touch of tragedy is lifted by Shakespearean comedy. To see how Catholics see Measure for Measure as a Catholic allegory and comedy, we need to take a moment and point out a few things regarding the play.
First of all, Measure for Measure starts like the parable of the talents, the duke delegates his authority to rule the dukedom to his deputy. The main story centers around a young woman’s plea for her brother. Isabella asks for mercy for her brother, Claudio, who is jailed and sentenced to die for impregnating his beloved Juliet. The question Shakespeare implicitly asks through this story is what kind of government creates laws that punishes love and kills men who are only trying to make living images of God?
Let us remember a few things about this situation. One, Shakespeare himself was wed only six months before his first children were born. Under the letter of the law in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare wrote a play in which he would have identified with Claudio and he would have been sentenced to die. A perplexing topic to make an essential storyline to his play. Two, let us consider that before God created mankind he said, “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.” So, humans were created by God to be images of the divine. It is only later, that the divine image was marred by disobedience (also known as sin) that the human image was no longer a perfect image of God. So, mankind through our sin became flawed images of God. Three, Paul baptizes Plato’s words in Christ when he wrote to the Romans, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Did you catch that last line? God desires that we be conformed to the image of the son of God.
The new world order has a new ideal for man, the just man is no longer a theoretical concept prophesied by Gentile philosophers and Hebrew prophets, but has been made flesh in the God-man from Nazareth. The one conceived by the holy spirit and born of the virgin Mary, Jesus of Nazareth, took on human flesh in order to become in his one person both the perfect image of God made flesh and the ideal image of man. Jesus, who often referred to himself as the “son of Man” was crucified and killed for admitting the truth that he was the “son of God.” In Jesus, we’ve been given God made flesh (‘incarnate’) and the image of man restored to perfection. Mankind continues to make divine images by heeding God’s command to “go ye forth, be fruitful and multiply” and now is able to mold these divine images to the ideal model — the divine man born of the virgin Mary, Jesus of Nazareth. We are to teach mankind (images of God) to be like the son of God (the perfect image of both God and man). It takes three to create a divine image — God, man, and wife — and it takes the holy trinity working through his church to conform those divine images to the image of the only begotten son of God.
From a Catholic perspective, the role of the church, including priests, is to help people become conformed to the image of the divine Son. And so, Claudio is sentenced to die for creating an image of God. He is sentenced to die for living out his calling as a man, whether husband to a bride or husband to the church (such as a priest, known commonly to Catholics as “father”). Let us realize, in Elizabethan England, not only were Catholics forced into civil matrimony in Anglican churches to ensure their children were not considered bastards, but also priests were sentenced to die for trying to make images of the divine Son. In multiple ways, Shakespeare asks us to look at the law with new eyes, creating a love story between betrothed lovers as an allegory for the relationship between the people of God and his church.
The play asks how we could kill a man for overstepping love’s bounds. It was a twofold issue. One, Catholic couples did not want to be married in Anglican churches, but only did so when forced to because they were about to birth living images of the divine God. Two, Catholic priests were condemned as traitors, tortured, and killed for loving the Catholic church and hoping to make more sons and daughters of Mary. Thankfully, Measure for Measure is a comedy, and in the end all things work out for the good of everyone except the spy. The spy is sentenced to death. Unless of course, he marries a whore. Again, Shakespearean comedy, a Catholic comedy. Let us remember, a popular slander among some English-speaking Protestants is that Catholics are joined to the “whore of Babylon.”
One of the many beauties of Shakespeare is he is someone who loves to forgive. In one of his early plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare writes, “Who by repentance is not satisfied is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleased. By penitence th’ Eternal’s wrath’s appeased.” In other words, if God is satisfied with repentance, so should we be satisfied. This is the beauty of the love of God, it extends forgiveness to all through his son. And those betrothed and married to the divine bridegroom live in that divine forgiveness. The beauty of marriage with God is that he has promised to forgive us forever. All of Christendom is gifted with the sacrament of baptism to forgive our original sin. But the greater gift is given to the apostolic church, for we have all the Catholic sacraments, including the sacrament of reconciliation (commonly known as “confession,” “forgiveness,” “healing,” or, sometimes jokingly, “rehabilitation”), and are able to be forgiven of our sins. As Jesus tells the apostles after his rising from the dead, “Receive the holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgive them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
When someone takes marriage vows, whether it is a holy or earthly matrimony, they’ve promised to forgive the sins of their spouse forever — past, present, and future. But the practical reality is when one spouse sins against the other, there must be a process to communicate, confess, and receive forgiveness. Even though the sinned-against has already promised to forgive the sinner, for the health of the relationship, the sinner needs to recognize their error and confess it. By doing so, they are able to move forward in their marital relationship. The greater the sins, the greater the need to repent and confess in order to be reconciled. Otherwise, marital intimacy suffers. And if reconciliation is a great need for earthly marriages, how much a greater need is it for the heavenly marriage between God and his people? The issue is, because God is perfect, and we are not, he is always the sinned-against and we are always the sinner. His greatness and goodness is in taking on human flesh (‘incarnation’) and permanently and forever forgiving us sinners. His greatness and goodness is in gifting the church with the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation (aka confession, forgiveness, healing) in order to help his bride live in that eternal forgiveness. The psalmist did sing, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins form us” and promised that, “blessed is the one whose fault is removed, whose sin is forgiven. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whose spirit is no deceit.” Today, we are living in the days of blessedness.
And whereas earthly marriages are “till death do we part,” the heavenly marriage is “in his death do we start.” Hence we proclaim his death and resurrection every time we celebrate the wedding feast of the lamb until he comes again. We are remembering his promise and participating in that marriage while the fullness of the bride and body is built up for our Lord’s second coming. The sacrament of forgiveness is a necessary gift for the church. Remember, Jesus only performed miracles of healing people’s bodies — like healing the lame man’s sin before his his legs — in order to prove that he had the authority to heal our souls. The church is like a hospital, only whereas hospitals aim to heal bodies, the church aims to heal souls. Again, we sing with the psalmist, “Bless the Lord, my soul; and do not forget all his gifts, who pardons all your sins, and heals all your ills, who redeems your life from the pit, and crowns you with mercy and compassion.”
With respect to Measure for Measure, let us remember that the name of this play is taken from Jesus of Nazareth’s famous Sermon on the Mount. In one part of that sermon, Jesus encourages us to be merciful, not judgmental, and says, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” In an earlier moment, Jesus spoke, “blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” If mercy is the measure you use, mercy will be the measure you receive. If not from an earthly government, surely from a just God. The new world order asks us to institute divine mercy on this earth. We are best made into the image of the son of God when we give and grant mercy unto others. Remember, the divine son did intercede and forgive us — his enemies and killers and future lovers and bride — when he took his wedding day vows and cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Let us learn to live in this infinite mercy and loving marriage with our Lord.
King Lear, like Measure for Measure, is another great story about love, forgiveness, and a ruler transferring his authority to others. The play starts with the amazing scene where King Lear asks his daughters “Who doth love me most”? Lear has warned them that he will give them their inheritance and portions of the kingdom based on the greatness of their answers. Two of Lear’s three daughters begin to give eloquent expressions of their love, and the audience hears the third daughter’s thoughts as her sisters speak their many words. Cordelia, the third and most beloved daughter, has decided simply to “love and be silent.” She aims to love in her works, not her words. When it is her time to speak, Cordelia answers, “Nothing, my lord.”
King Lear, angry that his most beloved daughter refuses to wax eloquent of her love for him, flies into a hostile rage. Lear decides to banish her from his presence and give her choice portion of the kingdom to her sisters. Her suitor, now without a dowry, leaves her. One might say this was Cordelia’s sacrifice, she took a stand for truth and lost nearly everything — her father, fiancé, and financial wealth. She is banished from the presence of her father and exiled from her homeland. She suffered and sacrificed for truth like Catholics suffered and sacrificed in 16th century England.
And yet, good came from this stand for truth. The king of France, a witness to the proceedings, values her character more than her financial state, and swoops in to ask for her to be his bride. The King of France says to Cordelia, echoing phrases used by sacred scripture writers to describe the people of God,
"Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor,
Most choice forsaken, and most loved despised,
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon,
Be it lawful I take up what’s cast away.
Gods, gods! ’Tis strange that from their cold’st neglect
My love should kindle to inflamed respect.
— Thy dowerless daughter, King, thrown to my chance,
Is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France.
Not all the dukes of wat’rish Burgundy
Can buy this unpriced precious maid of me.
—Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind.
Thou losest here, a better where to find.”
Cordelia is cast from her country, banished from the king’s presence, forsaken by her fiancé, and she must move into a new home, a new world, all for the sake of truth. And this is only the first scene of this masterpiece!
As the play plays out, we see King Lear becomes like an inverted Book of Job. Only, whereas Job suffers due to his righteousness, Lear suffers due to his folly. And whereas Job is given bad advice by his friends, wrongly blaming some “unconfessed sin” for Job’s suffering, Lear finds himself surrounded by guardian angels at his lowest points. A blooming critic, one who often heralds Shakespeare’s greatness, notes that the one given in the play is that all people on the side of goodness love King Lear. They even take new roles when banished from his presence, like disguised guardian angels, to help alleviate his suffering and help him on his pilgrimage. There suffering redeems him. Now, King Lear’s troubles come upon him for shirking his responsibilities, but in the end, because of the troubles he finds himself impoverished of all wealth and authority, and yet rich in true heavenly treasures like love. All who loved him falsely alienate themselves from him while they strip him of his earthly treasures while all who love him truly take his poverty upon themselves and love him well. Lear’s servants show him true, redemptive suffering for the sake of love. A suffering that takes another’s burdens upon their own shoulders. A love which Isaiah wrote millenniums ago, “Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth.” Isaiah wrote a good description not only of the just man from Nazareth, but also of the true servants of Lear.
King Lear is both a heart-wrenching and beautiful story. Shakespeare takes a known legend from English history, and creates multiple story-lines that converge to shine light on current and contemporary issues, including true love, the church, kingship, authority, the duties and rights of leaders and followers in society, and much more. Because of Shakespeare’s ability to create multiple lenses to view characters and situations, King Lear is not only a picture of a redeemed man but also a picture of an inverted god. King Lear, as a parent and king is in a place of god-like authority over family and kingdom. We see, as he negates his god-like responsibilities, the world around him descends into chaos. So, King Lear is more than a picture of the redemption of man (King Lear) by the Church (his guardian angels like Cordelia, Kent, and others), but the play also functions to show the chaos and disaster that comes upon humanity when mankind does not live up to their god-like functions and responsibilities to practice good and hate evil.
In the end, Lear and Cordelia, find death in each other’s arms. The parallels to the Catholic experience in Shakespeare’s England are many, and I know it’s a stretch for many to see the Catholicity of this play, but even in Shakespeare’s time this play was noted for its strong Catholic tendencies. In 1609, an acting troupe was charged with sedition for staging versions of King Lear and Pericles, another one of Shakespeare’s plays. For some, it might be hard to realize that Shakespeare’s plays were so revolutionary that actors were arrested simply for bringing his scripts to the public. But in a country where beloved fathers (that is, priests) were imprisoned for bringing the king (that is, Jesus of Nazareth in the Lord’s supper) to his people (faithful Catholics), one can hear Shakespeare’s encouragement to embrace their redemptive suffering. Our earthly sojourns are simply a prelude to eternal bliss in true love’s embrace. Hear Lear and draw strength all you persecuted peoples and priests of Shakespeare’s England or any other totalitarian regime,
"…Come; let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh,
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too —
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out —
And take upon ’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense…”
As an American, one wonders if Shakespeare’s stories honoring redemptive suffering, sacrifice, and standing for truth encouraged our founding fathers to protect certain rights in our First Amendment, especially the right to free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to peaceably assemble. Maybe one way they honored our favorite playwright was to ensure future script-writers would never be silenced by the government. It is amazing to reflect how love transforms this world, whether the love of Shakespeare, Scripture, or the Silent Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.
Let us note, Shakespeare was not one to encourage war and rebellion, but he was on a mission to teach us about divine revolutions. He knew our war is not with flesh and blood but instead against the powers and principalities of this world. Hence, the possibility is for all flesh to be redeemed. Hence, the invitation for eternal love and forgiveness is extended to all mankind. Some will chose to accept this invitation and enter into eternal glory, others will reject the invitation and enter into everlasting shame. But make no mistake, the new world order is a revolution of love and mercy, not war and hate. Our weapons of war are meant to be forged into tools for farming, that is the prophecy of the great prophets, that we shall war no more. Whereas before it had been said “love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” the new world order tells us to “love our enemy and pray for our persecutors.” Life’s a miracle and meant to be honored. The new world order is about true love, a love that dies for the beloved, not one that kills; a love that seeks the beloved, not exiles; a love that continually calls and frees, not burdens and enslaves; a love that finds it more blessed to give than to receive; a love where God desires to dwell with humanity; a love that weds creature with Creator. The new world order is not meant to be a world far away, but one that is near, that is in our midst, that is among us. As the savior said, “The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.” The new world order is here, and the whispers of our divine revolution are the great works of love done among mankind.
The Tempest is another Job-like story, a profoundly English-Catholic allegory that in the epilogue ask for prayers for the dead and requests indulgences to set the author free — two of various key issues for which Protestants left the Catholic church and began their own religions. And, of course, these are two of many religious differences for which the Protestant government suppressed the Catholic church in England. One might think hearing the sorrowful details of Shakespeare’s life that the The Tempest would be full of world-weary wailing, but that is far from the truth. The Tempest is a picture of hope for England and the world, a Catholic playwright’s attempt to understand the fracturing of Christendom on his fair island. The Tempest is a youthful cry from an aging poet, “Brave new world!” still proclaiming “how beauteous mankind is!” Astonishing.
One of the most surprising aspects of The Tempest is its strong association with Spanish names — for example, Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, Francisco — very odd for an English poet and playwright who lived through the frightful times of the failed Spanish Armada invasion of 1588. This invasion was within a couple of years of his first plays hitting the English stage. More so, while The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s last written plays, it is the first play published in his famous First Folio. The Tempest has the preeminent position within Shakespeare’s posthumously printed canon. Can you imagine the surprise of an Englishman in the 1620s opening the First Folio and seeing this previously unpublished play in first place in Shakespeare’s canon? One would think that maybe renowned and recognized masterpieces like Hamlet or King Lear would take first place. Or, maybe a fan favorite like Romeo & Juliet would hold the great honor of being first in his canon. But instead, we find this previously unpublished comedy about shipwreck on an island that is filled with Spanish names. Perplexing.
As the play continues, can you imagine the perplexed look on a seventeenth century Englishman’s face as he realizes that all the heroes of the story not only have Spanish names like Prospero and Miranda, but are also named after famous Spanish-Catholic kings and military heroes, like Ferdinand and Gonzalo? The first play of the First Folio is filled with Spanish-Catholic heroes of the 15th and 16th centuries! This fact is more astonishing when we consider that composing a play filled with Spanish-Catholic heroes is the very anti-thesis of “The Black Legend” that had begun in Protestant England. The English slander is so sever that scholars have given it a name, “The Black Legend,” for so obviously falsely accusing Spain and the Catholic church of many crimes which were not rooted in objective or historical facts. We, as English-speakers and Americans, are still living under the biases produced by the consistently false propaganda and slander which has continued for over four hundred years. The slanders begun around the time of Shakespeare’s generation and continue to this day. This is not to say that Catholic men have not committed grievous errors, they most certainly have. For example, famous Catholics are founders of the longest-lasting Protestant religions. This includes Lutherans (founded by Father Martin Luther), Anglicans (founded by King Henry VIII, proclaimed a defender of the faith by the Pope Leo X), and various forms of Calvinists (Jean Calvin was a lay Catholic and trained lawyer who composed the theology and religious doctrines which have guided many Protestant religions, including Presbyterians, Huguenots, and Baptists, to name a few). And yet, in the tail end of the first generation after these lapsed Catholics became Protestant heroes, here is the greatest playwright of English history and a poet for all ages composing plays that form the greatest canon of Catholic literature since the New Testament was penned by members of the Catholic church in the streets and prisons of the Roman Empire. And the first play of this new canon of rebel literature, The Tempest, is filled with great protagonists named after Spanish-Catholic heroes rather than famous fellow countrymen and Englishmen. Astonishing.
Let us consider a couple facts to root our claims with historical evidence. Important historical touch points between The Tempest and Spanish history include the following. One, in the play Alonso is King of Naples and his son is Ferdinand. This is true in real life. In real life, King Ferdinand II of Aragon was king of Naples in 1504, and Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba was the general who secured Naples from the French. In the play, Gonzalo is “an honest old counselor.” In real life, Gonzalo is a Catholic military hero, known for his military tactics and praying for fallen soldiers. Praying for fallen soldiers is a Catholic tradition we inherited from our Jewish forefathers.
The book of Maccabees, which is read in our liturgical services, is a historical account about the rededication of the temple after a Greek ruler sacrificed a pig to Greek gods in the temple of Jerusalem, desecrating the holy place of the Jews. The Maccabees’ story is about Jewish rebels who fight for God’s law in a hellenistic environment attempting to whitewash Jewish traditions, law, and history in an attempt to erase the God of the Jews in favor of a pluralistic environment of Greek culture and many deities.
The Maccabean warrior-priests and revolutionaries were celebrated by Jesus of Nazareth who journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the Hanukkah memorial (see John 10:22). To this day, Jews and Catholics still celebrate this historical moment, whether by enjoying Hanukkah festivities or by reading the books of Maccabees and celebrating the Lord’s Supper, an even newer rededication of the altar of God by our savior priest. The hero of Maccabees, Judas Maccabeus, famously prayed for fallen soldiers so that “the sinful deed might be fully blotted out.” The holy Spirit testifies, “in doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this witha view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.”
Two, King Ferdinand II was married to Queen Isabella, the famous couple for sponsoring another Catholic, Christopher Columbus, to journey around the world. A journey which led to the discovery of the new world, the Americas, and whose discovery had a profound influence on the ideas behind this play, allowing Shakespeare to shout, “Brave new world!” As a reminder, Isabella is also the name of the heroine from another of Shakespeare’s plays, Measure for Measure.
Three, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are also famous for fathering Catherine of Aragon, who married King Henry VIII of England. Queen Catherine is the the last Catholic queen of England before the Anglican church was created under her husband, Henry VIII, and her daughter Queen Mary was the last ruling Catholic monarch in English history. She is the one known by the famous slander “Bloody Mary.” Why her half-sister isn’t commonly known as “Bloody Bess” probably has lots to do with the Black Legend mentioned earlier. Either way, Mary’s father, Henry VIII, created the church in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon according to “church law” and legally wed one of her ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, with the hopes of producing a male heir. Oddly enough, it was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn — Queen Elizabeth I — which brought the much desired cultural stability to England, making one wonder in hindsight, “why all the fuss for a male heir?” Throughout Shakespeare’s canon, Katherine is always a name of heroines, whether in Henry VIII or Taming the Shrew.
If one or two of these things were alone, we could mark them as curious coincidences. But the fact is point after point consistently shows Shakespeare’s writings are strongly pro-Catholic, especially when interpreted within context of his canon and English history. Shakespeare is a great model and example for how rebels disguise their literature and stories to survive for later generations. Curious coincidences in Shakespeare are the careful crafting of a wonderful wordsmith and an amazing artist. Storyline after storyline and curious plot points and artistic choices constantly confirm Shakespeare was a Catholic playwright and prophet forced to wrap his message in allegorical plays in order to evade government censors and speak truth to the people of God. In doing so, all of Christendom has clear testimony of what happened in Protestant England from the pen of one of the greatest English poets, playwrights, and historians.
Within this context, we can continue to consider other “curious coincidences.” For example, as we read the list of characters in The Tempest, we see some fascinating play-on-words and messages. Prospero, who is the play’s main protagonist, is called the “true duke of Milan,” which any rapper worth his salt could easily contort to sound curiously close to “England.” When we read the play we see Prospero has many hints that he represents maybe not just the king of England but also the king of the universe. In his god-like capabilities, we find it as no surprise that when the next play of the First Folio canon, Two Gentlemen of Verona, likewise has the duke of Milan represent the king of England, we see certain stylistic patterns throughout all of Shakespeare’s canon. Moreover, Caliban, the savage and deformed slave, sounds curiously close to “Anglican.” During the play, when we hear Caliban complain he is “slave to a tyrant,” it’s hard not to miss the allusion for Anglicans were slaves to the tyrannical kings and queens of 16th century England. For the Church in England was and still is slave to the monarchs of England.
And let’s skip from first to last in Shakespeare’s canon. Cymbeline, the last play of Shakespeare’s First Folio is another previously unpublished play. Cymbeline is composed of 27 scenes like the Catholic New Testament scriptures are composed of 27 books. When we consider that Cymbeline is the king ruling England during the birth of Christ, and this king is led astray by an evil queen and returns to the idea of paying tribute to Rome after her death, there are deeper underlying commentaries surely not missed by English Catholics under the influence of Lady Macbeth, I mean Queen Elizabeth. Moreover, when we consider some of Shakespeare’s comedies deal with a Fairy Queen, like Merry Wives of Windsor and A MidSummer Night’s Dream, it is no coincidence that they reverse the flattering view by another popular poet, Edmund Spenser, whose magnum opus is entitled Faerie Queen, which is an allegorical ode to Queen Elizabeth. These strands of coincidences point to a greater reality. These strands of coincidences are simply too many to be anything other than purposeful composition by a Catholic playwright on a mission to record his testimony of 16th century English-Catholic life. Curious coincidences in Shakespeare are divine patterns and instances of a great mission to speak truth to the old world powers and principalities.
This exercise could continue to exhaustively review The Tempest and the whole First Folio, but the main issue here is not an exhaustive explanation of how rebellious or beauteous Shakespeare is, but instead to simply understand Shakespeare composed great rebel literature. This is the same type of catholic, rebel literature that would have Bruce Springsteen compose a roaring anthem like Born in the U.S.A. Rather than composing a mindless rah-rah song, Born in the U.S.A is a prophetic and patriotic ode questioning our use of war as means to further empires, whether political or financial. This is the same type of catholic, rebel literature that would have the apostles and early Catholics compose a New Testament canon starting with Jewish genealogies (the gospel of Matthew) that tie a humble, crucified carpenter (and not the ‘officially’ recognized religious rulers and leaders and chief priests) back to Jewish heroes and patriarchs. This is the same type of catholic, rebel literature composed by a rag-tag group of outcasts, cowards, and rejects who go straight to the heart of the Empire and cry out over and over that “Christ is Lord” in a time when the Empire was trying to convince the world “Caesar is Lord.” Julius Caesar might create a calendar that the whole empire uses, but the curious band of meek followers are responsible for that calendar being rooted to this God-man from Nazareth, born of a virgin and crucified like a common criminal.
But it is not only Catholics who compose great rebel literature. American Protestants, like Thomas Jefferson and many of our founding fathers and heroes, did the same. The founding father and former President, Thomas Jefferson, penned the lines “all men are created equal” as he was among a group of men and women seeking to separate from an empire to found a new nation. And even though he was a slave-owner at the time of composing this revolutionary document, he armed future generations of Americans with the words to permanently win the battle against slavery in America. He inserted the lines in our Declaration of Independence which were the basis for freeing the slaves and furthering the civil rights movement in America. A selfless achievement and marvelous example of rebel literature not only fighting an empire, birthing a country, but also helping save a country by giving it ideals to live up to.
Rebel literature is meant to fly under the radar for a time. They are seeds planted, and the more divine the rebellion, the more need for that seed to be disguised in order to not be uprooted until long after it has begun to bear fruit. Shakespeare’s canon of rebel literature had to be disguised in order to survive. More than that, as rebel literature it has to be interpreted and explained. Only those of the rebellion of the new world order have the awareness, tools, and knowledge to interpret it for others. As Shakespeare himself notes, our great God often does his greatest works through humblest means. The Red Sea was parted and slaves liberated by a stuttering shepherd sent at eighty years old to confront the ruler of the world (Moses the Prophet, slave-liberator, and nation-builder facing Pharaoh). A shepherd boy and court musician was chosen to slay Goliath and become king to whom an eternal house and kingdom was promised (King David, the warrior and songwriter and great King of a unified Israel). And a struggling fisherman of the sea of Galilee is chosen to be the rock of Christendom (Simon Peter is the first pope of the Catholic church and all of Christendom). Shakespeare summarizes sacred scripture well when he writes in All’s Well That Ends Well,
"He that of greatest works is finisher
Oft does them by the weakest minister.
So holy writ in babes hath judgment shown
When judges have been babes; great floods have flown
From simple sources, and great seas have dried
When miracles have by the greatest been denied.
Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises; and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest and despair most shifts.”
Amazingly, this English country boy who became a famous actor, poet, and playwright was on a mission to record history that was being whitewashed and forgotten and replaced by lies and slander. The greatest English poet and playwright produced a canon of catholic, rebel literature which clarifies the many historical lies that would arise not only during his lifetime, but still affects the world centuries later. The Tempest is one of the key plays to help understand the whole canon.
We find throughout The Tempest Shakespeare struggles to understand what has befallen his country in the previous hundred years. Catholic England has ceased to be Catholic (the true king has been usurped). Yet, it seems that God is behind these events, orchestrating them for his good pleasure. In the end, we see Prospero — the orchestrator of the events of the island, the wronged yet rightful ruler — extends forgiveness to all parties after the enchantment is lifted, including his enemies. From a religious-teaching perspective, this is a little troubling, for if we are under a spell, and can’t see reality, what responsibility do we have for our actions? But Prospero, as a picture of God the Father and Christ the king, offers forgiveness and redemption to those who would chose to live in the new world order, irregardless of the path they take to finally chose fear of the Lord and obedience to God.
Throughout history, mankind has shown that our ideas do possess us. God allows us to go down these paths that our ideas lead us. In our freewill, we often chose our ideas over God, and this puts us at risk of possession for either good or evil. We’ve chosen to eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, and that choice has allowed us to experience much suffering. Yet somehow, God, who has the whole of universal and human history in view, is able to guide people of all tribes and tongues towards his purpose. Who are we to argue against God’s methods? Like Job, let us end by saying to our Maker, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have spoken but did not understand things too marvelous for me, which I did not know. By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” In this end is the beginning of the new world order.
Somehow, even though our ideas possess us, God has the antidote — truth. Let us be renewed in our minds, let us walk in the light of truth, remembering that Jesus himself said “I am the truth,” and only then do we begin to correct the ills of humanity with the possession of God and install the new world order.
Christ entered the garden of this earth, was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, and crucified on a hill called Calvary, so that we could return from exile from the garden of Eden and eat of the tree of life. The divine man is a living God, and since death cannot contain its Maker, Christ bursts forth in glory on the third day and since then all Christians have freely taunted death with the ancient words, “O death, where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?” For the sting of death is sin, but the sinless one conquered sin and through him we are more than conquerors, we are heirs of eternal life and shall never taste death again.
And so, a Catholic can echo the great writer Fyodor Dostoevsky when he says, “I do not know the answer to evil and suffering, but I do know love.” Thankfully. evil and suffering, sin and death, are only for a time. They are things limited, they will come to an end and Jesus of Nazareth is the firstfruits to prove that death will never again have the last word. The eternal word is love. Shakespeare knew this. Hence, Hamlet can walk knowingly into troubles that lead to his death and say, “there is special Providence in the fall of a sparrow.”
This is one of the greatest mysteries of the triune God of Catholics. That in order to perfectly protect our freewill, and yet still be perfectly just, the all-powerful God chose to take world and human suffering upon himself. He did not chose to remove suffering from this world, but instead the living God did something infinitely greater by redeeming suffering. And so, rather than remain distant and far away, the infinite God chose also to be the intimate God and the eternal Word took on human flesh in order to dwell in our midst. To love us, to laugh with us, to eat with us, to drink with us, to heal us, to wed us, and even to suffer alongside us, and with us, and for us.
Ultimately, it is as Isaiah had predicted centuries before the virgin birth, “by his stripes we are healed.” Powerful words from a poet who according to popular tradition suffered death by being sawn in two. Only divine love heals unjust suffering. Only divine love makes unjust suffering worthwhile. Only divine, trinitarian love enters into suffering and not only experiences it, but redeems it. It’s only this kind of divine, trinitarian love by which our Just One, born of the New Eve, can lead Paul to quote Plato to the Philippians, “to die is gain.” For in the Just One’s death, we gained God. In our death, we gain God. Christ’s death on the sixth hour at Calvary gained eternal life for our King and ’s followers.
Truly, there is a divinity that shapes our ends. Divine wisdom solves the riddles of Shakespeare and the mysteries of this world. I suppose there are many more things that could be written of the great William Shakespeare and his life and play-scripts. Alas, we have only written these things so that you might see Shakespeare and learn to hear him. Those who learn to hear Shakespeare will be pointed to the beauty of the Catholic church. And even more, those who hear Shakespeare will be pointed to the humble Jesus of Nazareth, Plato’s truly Just Man, Isaiah’s suffering servant, true God from true God, whom we approach in order to receive eternal life in his name. For Catholics, whether we have another canonized saint in William Shakespeare may not be for us to decide, but we certainly do have another great Catholic hero. Into thy hands I commend his spirit. It is finished.