Part 1: Jesus CHrist in Shakespeare's Plays
"Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences.
The supreme question about a work of art
is out of how deep a life does it spring?”
— James Joyce
Memory of the World
Whether we acknowledge it or not, the Jewish and Christian religion has had a profound and positive influence on Western culture and the whole world. When we talk of universal human rights, these rights are universal only because Judeo-Christian values were taught by the Christian church to the whole world. The Church founded on Jewish apostles has made human rights universal. The ancient Jews believed their God made mankind in the image of their Maker, and because of this fact of Jewish life, each person has equal rights under God and among other men. In Jewish thought, each person is relative to God. When man is relative to man, it’s natural for ideas like “only the strong survive” or “adapt or die” to be the modus operandi. The great philosopher Aristotle, who is sometimes called a father of Western society for his influence on thought, justified slavery in his book, On Politics. Aristotle stated that even though slavery was man-made — a distinction made through laws of civil society and not laws of nature — nonetheless, it was natural for man to rule over one another, including master-slave relationships, because we did after all rule over the beasts.
As a contrast to this idea, one thousand years before Aristotle, we have a Jewish man named Moses sent into Egypt by God to free slaves. The Jewish exodus is a marvel of human history. Moses was the first slave liberator in history, and is among the greatest slave liberators of all time. All future slave liberators rely on ideas introduced to the world through the writings of Moses.
We find throughout history, when the idea that each person is relative to God is believed, their is a new way of being, and this way is that the strong should serve the weak. Oppression is for the godless or the false gods. The power of the true God resides in love and service, not in power of force. These are the thoughts revealed to the world through Moses; these are the thoughts developed and proclaimed by his Jewish and Christian descendants.
As Americans, this is the root of the idea behind our Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Our founding fathers believed men were relative to God, not each other. Our relation to the Judeo-Christian God is the basis of inalienable rights. Our government is formed to protect not the powerful, but the individual. Whether the individual is weak or strong, black or white, male or female, is of no matter. Every person has equal dignity under God, and this dignity should be protected. These thoughts came into the world first through Moses, his stories and law, and were spread throughout the world thanks to Jewish diasporas and the Christian followers of a Jewish rabbi.
Amnesia of Modern Man
In modern times, we have no memory. We have amnesia, ignoring the traditions and beliefs that formed our society, not recognizing how revolutionary it was that thousands of years ago, God sent his prophet to free slaves. In the history of the world, slavery was a natural aspect of humanity. Natural of course, until the God of the Jews revealed to the world how unnatural slavery is. He revealed this thought through action. He sets slaves free.
One hundred and fifty years ago, when Abraham Lincoln likewise set slaves free, it was the influence of this same God. One needs only read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address at the end of our Civil War, to see Lincoln’s thoughts about slavery. Our faulty memory, our amnesia about history, led some countries of Western Europe and our nation to revisit an error of colossal ruin to the dignity of mankind. Slavery, which had all but been removed in Western Europe, returned in the 16th century with a cruelty more severe than in the Roman Empire.
Today we still have governments that enslave their own people, like North Korea and Cuba. If anyone doubts these countries enslave their citizens, maybe because famous athletes and actors sometimes romanticize tyrants, one only needs look at recent facts. As recent as 2015, when the Cuban national team came to play in an international soccer tournament in the United States, they had five players defect from their team! One quarter of the team thought poverty in America was better than being an elite athlete in Cuba. American baseball is full of similar stories about the hopes of Cuban refugees fleeing their slavery to Castro. These are the elite athletes of Cuba, can you imagine if Lebron James or Tom Brady fled America for a better life in Cuba or North Korea? You can only imagine if so many great Cuban athletes flee as refugees, what the people stranded on that small island would do if given the opportunity to leave their slave status.
Slavery is a perpetual issue around this world, and when Western society talks about universal human rights, they are only universal because of the influence of Jewish and Christian people. No other belief system has taken such a clear and consistent stance against slavery in the history of humanity. As humans and Americans, we overlook how revolutionary these ideas are. Our present is built on the history of freedom fighters, stretching thousands of years from Abraham Lincoln to Moses, but we have to remind ourselves about these great leaders who help us see divine truth as common truth. We have to be aware of where our concept of universal human rights originates. We have to know this evolution of ideas. America has been given much by God, and much will be expected of our country. To understand these expectations, we must learn about the source. The fate of our society is dependent on us recovering our memory. America may perish, but God will not.
In modern times, we study world history, and focus on the great civilizations of the past, and completely ignore the one tribe of people that have lasted through the rise and fall of all these great civilizations. Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome have all come and gone. The British Empire spread throughout the world has returned to its small island. We study these civilizations in our classrooms and ignore the one tribe of people that have lasted, scattered throughout the globe, for thousands of years. We ignore the Israelites, the only everlasting tribe the world has seen, and it makes no sense.
A recent example, we learn about World War II in modern America classrooms, and hear about the atrocities committed against Jewish people without any explanation as to why. We are told how Nazi’s were consumed with an idea of racial purity which led them to act on the thought “only the strong survive” to systematically and ruthlessly kill Jews. In all this study, we never hear how the Jews are the only people in the history of the world which claim God revealed himself to them for the good of the world. We never hear that Christians take Jewish history and scripture as their own, and worship the God of the Jews throughout the world. We study world history and all these great empires that have come and gone, but we neglect this humble people, favored by God, who’ve outlasted all those empires. If, as Americans and global citizens, we truly wanted to create a sustainable society, we would study the world empires less and the Jewish people more. When we teach about World War II, we mention so little about the deep roots of this ancient people and only focus how they are cut down like common fruit. We talk little of history, we talk little of why the world has constantly tried to exile or annihilate a particular tribe to no avail. Because we are unaware of important details and facts about history, simple facts of the past, we completely misunderstand our present. We fail to realize the profound and positive effect of the Jewish people on this world. We fail to realize we must protect this heritage and teach it. We even fail to realize half the world is somehow a son of Abraham, if we even know who Abraham was or why he is important. For those who don’t know, Abraham is the patriarch of the Jews, the father of Isaac and Ishmael, and the grandfather of Israel. He is important because nearly half the world is a son of Abraham somehow, whether through the flesh (like Jews and Muslims) or through faith (like Christians).
But the return of a cruel and vicious form of slavery to Western society after its near extinction, the origins, sufferings, and destiny of the Israelites, the figure of Abraham, all these are only symptoms showing how bad our memory is.
The Rosary and Shakespeare
What does all this have to do with the rosary? The rosary is how Catholic Christians practice remembering. It’s how we fortify our memory, by replaying the life of Christ in our minds. By meditating on the life of Jesus, our Messiah, a descendent of David, the great King of Israel, we learn to remember. Our tendency is to study history and culture in its full form, and not realize how seeds of thought developed into the institutions and traditions that govern our lives and society today. Only by remembering the past, can we understand the present.
Even though most Jews don’t pray the rosary, the mysteries of the rosary are about Jewish heroes. The background on the Jews is illustrative because we study the church or Jewish people in these last days, without talking about how they originated and influenced our modern institutions in the early days. Because we don’t understand the early days, the in between days are fog and confusion and filled with riddles and questions. The result is we talk about universal human rights, and have no concept as to why they are only universal in Europe or America, but not across the world.
Human rights seem so basic and logical to an American mind. But this is a trait of divine revelation, it is at once both a fact and a mystery. Once the mystery is revealed, the facts make sense. Once God frees slaves, it makes sense that godly men would free slaves as well. Divine revelation is often so practical, we over look it. Divine revelation is often so simple, we take for granted how contrary it is to our human nature. We do this because divine revelation fits our human ideals.
Once the mysteries are revealed, they fit perfectly to explain all the riddles or our world. The wonderful writer and thinker, G.K. Chesterton, makes this point when he writes “I say the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity was that it was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar, but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer to a riddle, not the last truism uttered after a long talk”.
We have amnesia. We have no memory. We assume things appear in full form and never realize things develop. We want to talk about the evolution of species but not the evolution of thought. We want to discuss how apes relate to man but not how man relates to Abraham. Because we fail to have a good memory, we moderns (or post moderns, or whatever terms we chose to call current generations) often miss not only the point but also the meaning. We have much information with little wisdom, much knowledge with little understanding, many ideas with little thought. This is a dangerous ill that must be cured for the salvation of not only our souls but society. Otherwise we’ll find 21st century America making the same mistakes as 16th century England or 4th century Rome and have only ourselves to blame.
History is not hid from us, wisdom and truth are. Wisdom wants to be found, but she’s not some floozy who is found among fools. She’s a kind mother who wants children — loyal and obedient children. She is the great lover of our souls, but also knows when she’s not wanted. She will not make a home where she is not wanted, she waits for the invitation to visit. Wisdom respects our desire if we chose to ignore her. But ignoring her is our destruction. Wisdom is the most self-giving and sacrificial person to anyone who would have but an ounce of desire for her. Wisdom constantly cries out, but few listen. Wisdom screams, “Let whoever is naive turn in here; to any who lack sense I say, Come, eat my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding”. Wisdom gives the invitation to all, but though all have ears, few hear.
One way the Catholic church hears wisdom is through the rosary. Part of our amnesia is we also fail to realize the Catholic church’s role in shaping modern society and culture. The Catholic church is like a huge funnel for ideas, gathering them from everywhere but only retaining truth. Because the Catholic church is universal, she has spread throughout the world. But because she was founded by Jews, she starts with divine revelation. This ancient institution, roughly two thousand years old, spread across the seas and centuries to transmit the wisdom of divine revelation to the world. At the same time, the Catholic church was able to incorporate truth from around the world into her fold. The wisdom of God as revealed to the world, whether Jewish Prophets or Greek Philosophers, has combined and intertwined with Christian simplicity and Roman practicality to contain the fullness of truth for proclamation to the world. This wisdom and influence of the Catholic church formed Europe, guiding the transition of the Roman Empire into the European Union. But also this influence has spread throughout the world, not only through the Catholic church but also the English Empire and her colonies. For Americans, this has had a profound effect on our institutions, culture, art, and language. And yes, you guessed it, this influence even extends to the plays of Shakespeare.
The rosary predates Shakespeare by hundreds of years, so we can’t say Shakespeare created the pattern of the rosary. In fact, England has long been referred to by Catholics as the Dowry of Mary because of the strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin by English Catholics. This devotion stretched back hundreds of years before Shakespeare, and the reference to England as the Dowry of Mary likewise long predates Shakespeare.
The five act structure of Shakespeare’s plays are patterned very closely to the prayers of the rosary made popular in the 12th and 13th centuries by Saint Dominic. Now, I am not saying Shakespeare using this pattern makes him a Catholic. I believe the question of whether Shakespeare is a Catholic is largely irrelevant. Irrelevant for a few reasons, one of which being even if you could prove it beyond reasonable doubt, what does that matter? Are great stories lessened or improved because a writer is Catholic? Do we love Lord of the Rings because Tolkien is Catholic or because he is a great story teller? Maybe a mixture of both, for a Catholic influenced imagination like James Joyce or Shakespeare or Tolkien or Sylvester Stallone reveals itself in unique ways. But my aim is not to prove the private beliefs of someone who lived hundreds of years ago. My aim is to focus on what messages Shakespeare speaks to Catholics and how he does it. Let us show how Shakespeare uses a clearly Catholic pattern of thinking to structure his plays, and also understand how a Catholic imagination unlocks the messages from within his plays for all audiences. Ultimately, I believe the argument of whether or not Shakespeare was Catholic misses the point. I believe, for us today, the better question is what does Shakespeare say to Catholics?
In fact, Catholics recognize more than a Catholic style in Shakespeare. We receive a teaching — a catechism — from him about the nuances of our Catholic faith. The details of his stories, whether perplexing characters or subtle symbols or the structure of his plays, over an over point to Catholic truth. All people get joy of his stories on a literal level, but Shakespeare’s plays use Catholic patterns of communicating truth to give us a catechism on Catholic faith on a symbolic level. Through our common culture, Catholics recognize how Shakespeare uses Catholic symbolism, images, and phrases, even if we have difficulty explaining how. The plays of Shakespeare are steeped in Catholic symbolism. It is time we learn to express this truth to non-Catholics. It is time we learn to share the mysteries of Shakespeare. The rosary is but one example of many.
Our job for the remainder of Acts 4 and 5, is to translate this Catholic wisdom so that non-Catholics can understand Shakespeare better. We aim to understand Shakespeare’s message as an artist, and show why certain confusion and riddles in Shakespeare’s plays are only answered by understanding history and Catholic culture. In doing so, we will all grow in appreciation of the profound genius of Shakespeare, a rebel who openly defied tyrants. Not only did he give the world amazing plays, but he teaches Catholics their faith in times of heavy persecution.
Who else but a Catholic would recognize Shakespeare’s profoundly Catholic way of thinking? Who else but a Catholic can share these truths? If languages need translators, so do Catholic stories. An agnostic, an atheist, or a Hindu wouldn’t recognize Catholic patterns of thinking, or Catholic symbolism, or Christian faith in Shakespeare. They need cultural translators. Much like when an American watches a foreign movie, we need subtitles to recognize more fully what’s going on, Catholics have to translate Shakespeare’s plays for a non-Catholic world, so that they might understand our symbolism, images, and patterns of thought.
The rosary helps Catholics remember, but why is meditation so important? Let us talk first about meditation before we talk specifically about the meditations of the rosary.
Meditation for Mind and Body
Meditation is mental training. Let’s see how meditation works using soccer players as an example.
Soccer players are taught to visualize their games, both before and after they play, to see in their mind’s eyes the many situations they may find themselves in during a game. Soccer is a very dynamic game, the only stoppages are for fouls or when the ball goes out of bounds. The game is free flowing otherwise. When a soccer player goes through the game in their minds, the situations are diverse. With twenty two players on the field and very little stoppages, there are few opportunities for set plays, unlike football or basketball. Soccer players have strategies for how to score, but the dynamics of the game lends itself to very few plays but instead a constant creativity for recognizing how to react in moments. Meditation helps players relive moments to prepare our minds and bodies to react in the future.
By playing game situations in our mind, the mind is trained to see what works and doesn’t work in games. Game-time mistakes are revisited to be learnt from and to plan what to do differently in the future. Maybe there is a skill that needs to be worked on; maybe a strategy needs to be modified for particular scenarios. In meditation, the mind gets practice in visualizing and develops a knack for remembering details. As one practices meditation, the mind becomes better at recalling valuable details that influence outcomes. This provides a player with mental practice needed to make best of situations.
When a player meditates on what went well, the mind relives and remembers moments. As they replay the moment, they focus their bodies and muscles with how to react, and thereby help engrain how good behaviors feel. Then when they practice they have an ideal to attempt to achieve. Our actions are guided by our mind, so if our mind is prepared, the actions became easier. Meditating replays scenes in the mind’s eye. A mind is like a recorder, and a soccer player is able to fast forward and slow down the scene in the mind. As players get better at slowing key moments down, the result is the actual play feels like it slows down in real life. Something about meditating allows a player’s mind to find comfort in new scenarios; they know what details they should pay attention to and what details the mind can ignore. This ability to slow real life down in crucial moments is what separates great athletes and allows them to perform in high-stake scenarios. At full speed, their mind is calm. Their mind has learned to process all the information it needs, and this is why when players are “in the zone” it has an almost dream-like, timeless sensation. A two-hour game feels like moments when it is passed.
This is one of the joys of the meditative state, it’s almost like “unplugging” the mind. But not unplugging in the sense of not working, but more like entering into a state of consciousness that is beyond verbal expression. We’ve gone beyond what words can express. However we enter this state — a state of enhanced perception — whether through sports, music, painting, or any other activity one gets lost in and notes how “time flies”, the practice of meditation enhances the experiences. Meditation unites the mind and body in mystical and transcendent ways to see the world through “timeless” eyes.
As an aside on mystical experiences, I am convinced drugs and drunkenness are so popular because they allow for people to experience a semblance of, a faint glimmer of the depth of a mystical experience without the fullness of love, goodness, beauty, or truth that God designs us to live in. But whereas divine mystical experiences only increase given purity, love, beauty, goodness, and truth, earthly mystical experiences only decrease because they are artificially enhanced. You need ever higher dosages or new drugs to enter into the same level of altered states. But the design of our bodies by the divine lover of our souls is to enter into heightened mystical experiences with more of God, not less of him. With more of God we experience these mystical experiences in more regular and heightened fierce ecstasy of life and love found in the divine community of the triune God and his purified people. The pain of the dark night of the soul is so deep because once you’ve tasted of the divine love, nothing else satisfies.
Athletes and artists may enter into mystical states through mediations and growth in their skills and talents, and this is a hint of a greater experience found in the divine. It may take athletes or musicians years to be able to seamlessly put themselves in these mystical states whenever they want. Unfortunately for athletes, as our bodies decay long before our minds, it becomes harder and harder to enter into these mystical experiences. Retirement is sometimes hard for athletes who do not realize these athletic experiences are only pointing to something much greater. The great training and talent and dedication allowed them to tap into their minds and bodies, but this is only training for the soul. At some point, the soul must be trained like our minds and bodies. The training of our bodies is only a type of preparation meant to point us to the divine creator of mankind. But the Church exists to help train the soul, and help people make the transition into the divine love of our Creator. The Catholic saints experience the divine union with their Maker and undergo the earthly preparation for heavenly and eternal existence. Hence, the mystical experiences of the saints increase until they are drawn permanently into the lord’s presence, assumed into heaven.
A practical way to understand this. As you get better at virtues, you are able to enter into mystical experiences easier. As you get better at vices, you will need higher and higher dosages which will lead to your destruction. Be on guard. God designed our bodies, but he designs them with his purposes in mind. We can only get so far on our own.
Meditation is a way to shape and improve our mind. By using past experiences — our history — we sharpen our memory in order to perform better in the future. We are able to do this by seeing and replaying scenes in our mind, so that when they occur again, we have practiced it thousands of times and know how to react. At a basic level, this is how meditation works, and these principles transfer into any skill, whether athletics, life, or any other endeavor. For Catholics, the rosary is how we meditate. For a Catholic, meditation on the life of Christ is a heightened sense of any other mediation. Because in the rosary, we are uniting ourselves to the life of Christ, specifically various mysteries of his life, suffering, and heavenly kingdom.
Mysteries and Perspective
I know there is much misunderstanding regarding the rosary, so let us unpack for non-Catholics what the rosary is and what it is not. It is not a series of incantations said out of rote obedience to a pattern of mindless phrases. It is a series of meditations on the life of Christ. These meditations include prayers taught to the apostles by Jesus (for example, the “Our Father” prayer said daily) as well as phrases from Sacred Scripture (for example, the words recorded in the gospel of Luke of Gabriel and Elizabeth to the Virgin Mary) as well as summaries of our beliefs (for example, the Apostle’s Creed). The Apostles Creed is a short summary of what Catholic Christians believe and has been passed down for nearly two millennia. Our legend is that each apostle had his hand in creating one article of the creed. Overall, the rosary is practicing in our mind’s eye what has been passed down through the centuries and taught to us. It’s remembering our history. It’s training our mind to see what is important in life.
Now, by way of confession, I have a horrible memory for verbatim words, so I mess up the prayers constantly. But my favorite part of the rosary is not the prayers but the meditations on the mysteries of the life of Christ. The mysteries are grouped in five scenes, always five! — like the five acts of Shakespeare’s plays — only instead of one of Shakespeare’s amazing stories, we are meditating on important moments in the life of Christ. The four main mysteries are: the Joyful Mysteries (five meditations on the incarnation of God), the Sorrowful Mysteries (five meditations on the cross of Jesus), the Luminous Mysteries (five meditations on the kingdom of heaven), and the Glorious Mysteries (five meditations on the family of God).
There is no need to go through each of the mysteries, but we should attempt to answer the question, how might the rosary be of special benefit to writers? It is because the meditations of the rosary are practice in perspective. These same scenes are meditated day after day, week after week, multiple times a week, and over a lifetime, a lifelong Catholic sees these scenes thousands of times in their mind’s eye. No two meditations are ever the same; so as you search your mind for details of the life of Christ, you see them through the various people involved. You see them through your own life experiences which are ever growing. You see things from your perspective, from the perspective of history, from the perspective of the scripture writers, from the perspective of the various characters involved — you see from many perspectives!
Remember, Jesus had a tough life. Everywhere he went, people were pressing him or pressing upon him. He was handed over by his religious leaders to be crucified by Roman rulers. He was betrayed by one of his closest followers with a kiss. He was denied three times on the night of his arrest by one of his closest friends and appointed leader of his church. In the end, the only one faithful to him, from beginning to end, was God his father, Mary his mother, and his beloved disciple.
For a writer, the mysteries are great because you get practice in seeing how people behave. Often, the villains are as interesting as the heroes, and meditations on the life of Christ offer plenty of meditations on heroes and villains and every character in between. For example, at some point you’d be forced to think about what would it take for a high priest to say, “it is better for one man to die than the nation perish”. At another point, you’d be forced to think about what circumstances would a man who acknowledges Christ as guiltless still send him to be crucified. Other moments you might think about what would it take for one of your closest friends to betray you with a kiss? You have to ask yourself, do I betray God with my kisses? These are the things Catholics have to come to grips with as we pray through the rosary. And these are the meditations of only one day! This is just the sorrowful day; we have glorious and luminous and joyful days as well.
One minor explanation of why Shakespeare is able to create so many vivid and great characters is because the rosary provides more than a structure in how to organize a story, it provides practice in perspective and telling the story in various ways. The rosary provides practice in seeing scenes through the eyes of various people, heroes and villains alike. This, combined with the tumultuous times he lived through, helps explain why he was able to create such great villains and heroes, and shape so many fascinating stories, breathing new life into old story lines. Of course, countless saints have prayed the rosary and yet there is no other playwright like Shakespeare, so this does not get us to the depths of Shakespeare’s plays. But it does help understand some of the influences that affect the pattern of his plays, even something so simple as his five act structure.
This only focuses on superficial issues, we must keep in mind Catholics were persecuted in Shakespeare’s time. Not only was attendance to mass illegal (which is our heaven meets earth moment), but also our priests were tortured and executed if discovered doing the Lord’s work. The rosary provides more than just meditations on historical moments in the life of Christ, it helps Catholics cope with the sufferings in life. Can you imagine the deep peace that affects all Catholics as they go through the struggles in life, to know even God suffered for us and suffers with us? That through the betrayals and denials and joys and love, God is always with us? That no matter what life throws at us, Christ rose from the dead and sends us his Holy Spirit so that we can seek to love others and serve them like Christ loves and serves us? That there is a power that conquers death and gives life to whoever should come to Jesus and receive his love? This is the power behind the rosary.
The rosary is only a small part of the rich Jewish and Catholic heritage which has impacted our lives, and shaped the foremost of our poets and playwrights. Let us look closer at the “peculiar Christian faith” in order to understand a little more about how it shaped and influenced the plays Shakespeare wrote. Let us wrap up our discussion on the rosary with our Shakespearean echo,