The context is the thing
George Austin reflects on Shakespearean and Scriptural interpretation
Many years ago, sitting in the gods at the Old Vic, I watched Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. It was the only time I have ever seen it, and it was memorable because when the messenger brought in the heads of Andronicus’ two sons in sacks dripping with blood, a young man sitting below me in the stalls stood up, screamed, and fainted in the aisle.
Other Shakespearian memories are more pleasant. There was Frankie Howard’s portrayal of Bottom, also at the Old Vic, when Judi Dench was the Second Fairy. I can recall her performance in the same season as Ophelia to John Neville’s Hamlet, but not I confess her Second Fairy. One always has to take care in describing Bottom – a former Bishop of Chichester, now departed this life, once gave a vote of thanks at Roedean School for their performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and commented, ‘I shall particularly remember this evening as it is the first time I have ever seen a female Bottom.’
The more bizarre sometimes effects unexpected brilliance, such at the when The Merry Wives of Windsor was set in the 1950s, or the occasion when Mark Rylance played Hamlet’s madness wearing the stained pyjamas of an inmate in a psychiatric hospital. Had I known beforehand, I probably would not have gone, which would certainly have been my loss for Rylance’s was one of the great Hamlets.
Never the same thing twice
Something that marks the genius of Shakespeare is that one never ceases to learn more from repeated encounters, rather like the experience of reading the same lections year by year in Holy Scripture. The current production of Hamlet, now at Stratford but later to move to London, features Sam West as Hamlet, and is played without any cuts at all – over four hours of it, and worth every minute.
Now I was brought up at school and university to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes as men with one great fault that brings their downfall. Hamlet’s is in his indecision and that is certainly there in West’s portrayal. But he is not mad, at least in the conventional sense usual to the character. Rather, he has that political astuteness which many of us have had to learn in church life, that if you can’t or don’t want to join them, you have to beat them.
This Hamlet knows that the King is trying to destroy him, that his love for Ophelia must be set aside for the moment lest she too be caught up in what is to come. When he goes to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he is perfectly aware they are false friends with orders to kill him. The showdown is in the duel and it is only the fact of the poisoned tip of the rapier that prevents his victory over the King’s intentions.
But Shakespeare is always different. And I’ve recently discovered a factor in his work that had never struck me before – though it ought to have done. Eighteen years as vicar of a parish with a large Jewish population taught me that one cannot read the scriptures (and especially the gospels) without being aware of their context in Judaism. And an understanding of Shakespeare is equally brought to life in the light of the political history under which he worked.
A few years ago, I saw a production directed by the remarkable Matthew Warchus (who happens to be the son of former York incumbent, now retired). I had always previously been uneasy with the play’s ending. Hamlet is wounded in a duel with Laertes, exchanges rapiers and mortally wounds Laertes, who tells him that the point had been laced with a deadly poison. His mother, Gertrude the queen, drinks the poisoned cup meant for Hamlet, and Hamlet kills his stepfather, King Claudius, whom he knows to be the murderer of Hamlet’s father.
As Hamlet dies, his friend Horatio commits him to heaven with the words, ‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’ Warchus ended the play there, which had always seemed to me to be right, without the arrival of Fortinbras to take over the throne. But as I saw the stage full of dead royals, I realized that for Shakespeare it would politically have been far too dangerous to leave it like that. Men were losing their heads for less incitement than that in an age when the throne of England was still far from secure.
Players, princes and politics
Shakespeare lived in an age of political turmoil and this is reflected again and again in his work. King John is a case in point. Rarely played at all, we have seen it twice already this year – once in Leeds by the Northern Broadsides (with a Yorkshire accent) and once at Stratford.
John reigned weakly from 1199 to 1216, the year after Magna Carta, having replaced his brother, Richard Lionheart, and the clashes between Church and State were a major part of the history of an England that had recently seen the murder by royal instigation of Archbishop Becket. But Shakespeare’s King John was written for another age equally riven by Church/State clashes, centred on anti-papal sentiment, and this is well reflected in the play’s portrayal of the Cardinal Pandulph’s interference in English affairs. One can imagine the audience booing as the Cardinal dared to excommunicate the King of England.
Interpretation and exegesis
Just as we cannot divorce the historical context of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries from our understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare, so we lose much if we ignore the Jewish context of the scriptures we read, in both the Old and the New Testament. I know it is the current practice among some interpreters to assert that this diverts us from their relevance for today.
But how can we comprehend the religious authorities’ attack on Jesus without being aware of the political danger to their own authority in an occupied land; or the misunderstandings about Jesus’ own interpretation of his messiahship without knowing the political expectations of the people of Israel for a military leader; or the significance of the Ascension if we concentrate on the manner of his departure (did he climb up the Mount of Olives into the mist or take off like a space rocket into the clouds?) rather than on the Old Testament symbolism of the cloud as the presence and glory of God, to which he was returning? And so on.
Shakespeare or Scripture, in either we risk grievous misunderstanding if we take either from the context of their age. What they mean for us depends upon what they meant for their own age.
George Austin was formerly Archdeacon of York