Sunday Shakespeare – Easter 2016

Richard_II_King_of_England

Easter in Shakespeare? It barely exists. Rare are the Shakespearean references to Christianity: yes, members of the clergy are characters, and characters often invoke God, and use events from the Bible as poetic imagery, and as metaphor. Beyond that the Bard largely avoids the issue of Christian Theology.

Was this a reflection of Shakespeare’s own belief? It’d be a mistake to believe that; we really can’t know for certain. But what we do know is that Queen Elizabeth’s flavor of Protestantism was strictly enforced by her government, and it was not a good idea to be Catholic, Jew or Muslim. The other thing we know is that Shakespeare was a savvy businessman and for his own benefit avoided political controversy. Religious theology in Elizabethan England was extremely political.

So if some fool, like Yours Truly, is going to post some Easter blog about the beautiful things Shakespeare wrote about the Easter holiday, he’s going to come up quite short.  There’s a one-line reference to the holiday in Romeo and Juliet, and then perhaps some oblique references in other places. That’s about it.

There is, however, one delicious tidbit related to Easter: it’s a reference to the nasty business that went on after the Last Supper and on Good Friday.

In Shakespeare’s history play Richard II, written about 1595, King Richard, near play’s end is facing the end of his Machiavellian reign and dares to compare himself with none other than Jesus Christ:

Yet I well remember

The favours of these men. Were they not mine?

Did they not sometime cry “All hail’ to me?”

So Judas did to Christ. But he in twelve

Found truth in all but one; I in twelve thousand, none.

Richard II, Act IV

That’s not enough. The disposed Richard takes his bold comparison one step further, from Judas’ betrayal to Pilate’s prosecution:

Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,

Showing an outward pity, yet you Pilates

Have here delivered me to my sour cross,

And water cannot wash away your sin.

Richard II, Act IV

It was dangerous to put anything religious in print, but in the play Shakespeare could get away with these powerful images invoking Judas, Pilate, Christ and the crucifixion because they were words spoken by a character Shakespeare had managed to make villainous by play’s end. History paints a more ambivalent picture of King Richard II, but for generations, Shakespeare’s play skewed opinion. The powerful evocation of Judas’ betrayal and the Savior’s crucifixion would probably have shocked audiences in the day, all carefully exploited for the purposes of creating exciting drama.

And so while Shakespeare’s works are full of tales and imagery about things destroyed and then coming back to life (i.e., the Easter story), his only direct references to the Passion and Resurrection are the Last Supper betrayal and the Good Friday crucifixion–used to great effect in an impassioned speech by a King who knows he’s doomed.

The image is the definitive painting of Richard II, anonymous, now housed in Westminster Abbey.

Weekly Shakespeare Quote – 09 July 2015

2nd_Earl_of_Essex_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_Younger

This week Shakespeare gives us a lesson on how to deliver a brilliant take-down.   John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II unreels as a powerful and poetic testament to all that makes England great. But…

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

–from Richard II, Act II Scene i

In the end, however, at ‘Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it’, Gaunt turns his brilliant evocation of England’s beauty into a condemnation of Richard–to the King’s face. Gaunt delivers this speech from his deathbed, and after finishing it shambles off stage to die–before the infuriated Richard can have him killed.

More than just a turning point in the play, this speech is a great example of Shakespeare’s ability to set up expectations and then turn them on the audience. But rather than frustrate us, it surprises and delights.

Richard II was a risky play for Shakespeare. In Elizabethan times, any hint that a playwright might be criticizing the monarch could be taken the wrong way. In fact, years after the play was first produced, supporters of Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, arranged for a repeat performance of Richard II in connection with Essex’s attempted coup of Elizabeth’s throne. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, including Shakespeare, had to do some fast taking to exonerate themselves, pleading ignorance of Essex’s plot. Eventually, Essex was executed for treason.

The image is of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.