George Austin on drama and salvation

It is the time of the year when we go to Stratford for our annual Shakespearian fix. This year it is the tragedy season, and we shall see Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and King Lear, not of course for the first time for any of them. Part of the joy of the Bard is that every director brings out a new facet, and with each new production the picture becomes sharper.

An itinerant priest like an archdeacon, at a service in a different church every Sunday, will often be told, ‘Oh, it’s just the usual thing we do here.’ Two minutes into the liturgy and you find it is unlike any other church you have every worshipped in, and you often struggle to keep up. Unnerving, exhausting, and at its worst without much opportunity for it to be a spiritual occasion for the celebrant.

Remembered productions

Shakespeare is somehow not like that, with the new interpretation an enhancement rather than a distraction. Looking back, some productions stand out: Hamlet played by John Neville, Mark Rylance or Sam West – all outstanding but quite unlike each other. There was the recent King Lear, with Timothy West brilliant as Lear, but with every other part played with distinction and Cordelia as the strong sister rather than as a silly teenager.

Personally I shall never forget John Neville’s Angelo in Measure for Measure, Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins in Antony and Cleopatra, and especially Orson Welles (on stage at the Manchester Opera House) in Othello, which he directed and in which he played the lead himself. Then there was a production of Merry Wives of Windsor set in the 1950s (I went three times) that could surely not be bettered.

But in recent years I have come to feel more and more that there is a hidden side to Shakespeare, which relates to the turbulent history of the age and from which he could hardly be immune. It is not simply that he needed to take care, not least in the historical plays, to avoid giving political offence that might lead him into serious, maybe deadly, danger.

What of the curious anticlimactic ending to Hamlet, with the sudden arrival of Fortinbras to take the place of the dead king Claudius just before the death of Hamlet? Does it diplomatically avoid an ending in which King, Queen, and heir apparent are all slain, with no-one to take the throne, lest it be thought to be putting ideas into English heads at such a time?

The better days

But there is more than that. I have gradually come to feel that there are hints in Shakespeare of a hidden sympathy towards the ‘old religion’ – not wise in an age when resistance could mean a quick and unpleasant end.

Certainly the Ardens, his mother Mary’s family, were Catholic and Michael Wood in his book, In Search of Shakespeare – accompanying the TV series of the same title – describes how Edward Arden, the head of her family ‘was a prominent Catholic who kept a priest disguised as a gardener.’

Arden was eventually arrested and sentenced to death. As he was led to the scaffold he protested his innocence of all of which he had been charged, claiming ‘that his real crime was profession of the Catholic faith.’

William’s father was John Shakespeare, and Wood is convincing in his interpretation of the records of John’s firm Catholic roots, with the appearance of his name in rolls of recusants and other evidence.

And William Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna’s name appears in a list of avowed Catholics and church papists who ‘did not appear’ at Protestant Easter Communion in Stratford, a church which was just around the corner from Hall’s Croft where she lived with her doctor husband. This is surely a Catholic family, and not only that, a Catholic family prepared to take risks in a world where to do so was to puts one’s life and liberty is grave danger.

Frank Kermode’s fascinating work, The Age of Shakespeare, looks carefully at the evidence but seems not convinced, and certainly the evidence is vague. But Warwickshire and Lancashire did harbour pockets of the ‘old faith’ and there is some possibility – ‘resting on shaky testimonies’ – that Shakespeare worked as a schoolmaster in Lancashire.

Possible evidence

One piece of possible evidence is that William’s last schoolmaster, John Cottam, was a Hoghton man, and the young Shakespeare’s first job was said to have been with Alexander Hoghton in whose will of 1581 he asked his neighbour Thomas Hesketh to take ‘William Shakeshafte’ into his service.

Hoghton’s family were not only Catholic but also ‘cultivated the drama’. And if it were the priest Thomas Campion who had brought William from Stratford to Lancashire, Kermode suggests that he could have taught him the dramatic craft, gained from his five years at university in Prague.

It is mostly circumstantial of course, but added together it does make a strong case, especially when to all that is added the coincidence, as Michael Wood records, that twenty years later Shakespeare’s ‘trustee and backer at the Globe, Thomas Savage, was himself from this part of Lancashire and his wife was a Hesketh; so the Shakespeare connection may not be pure fantasy.’

William Shakespeare lived in one of the most turbulent periods in English history. New worlds had been discovered, and the local world too was changing not least as the dissolution of the monasteries brought wealth to many secular landlords and dire poverty to some agricultural labourers.

Sudden change

As for the Church, Dom Gregory Dix commented that ‘with an inexcusable suddenness, between a Saturday night and a Sunday morning at Pentecost 1549, the English liturgical tradition of nearly a thousand years was altogether overturned.’ In its theology, that which had been natural became illegal, and continued adherence to the old ways could end on the scaffold or worse.

As always with change there are those who welcome it, those who regret the passing of the old and fight for it, those who seek to take the best from the old while at the same time welcoming the best in the new; and others who for whom pragmatism rather than integrity is the only way forward.

As we view our own church in much troubled times, we can understand those who hold back from open opposition, knowing what it might bring; and we can respect those who embrace the new, so long as they respect us. What is hardest to accept are those who are feathers for each wind that blows, and we know there are many in our church today, putting worldly advantage before the truths of God.

George Austin is a journalist and a broadcaster