Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Shakespeare on the trials of life

In the great first Act of Shakespeare's rarely read play, "Troilus and Cressida", Ulysses expounds classic Christian teaching on the trials of life. Shakespeare, clearly the most brilliant and eloquent man of his highly educated generation, did not go to Oxford or Cambridge universities because his father was in debt. We know he keenly felt the shame of being an outcast actor, which at that time was equivalent to being a vagabond or rogue. No doubt, through his social exclusion, he learnt to understand how God works for good, through trials. Alongside each line, I insert in brackets the meaning:

Trials are:

...but the protractive trials of great Jove
(long-lasting work caused by the Divine deity)
To find persistive constancy in man.
(To highlight those qualities of faithfulness which persist).
The fineness of which metal is not found
(For the quality of this enduring faith is not found)
In Fortune's love; for then the bold and coward,
(In times of ease; for in easy times, the valiant and fearful)
The wise and fool, the artist and the unread
(The wise and foolish, the creative artist and the Philistine)
The hard and soft, seem all affined and kin
(The tough and cowardly, all appear much the same)
But in the wind and tempest of Her frown
(But in adversity and life's bitter trials)
Distinction, with a broad and powerful fan
(Distinction works like a winnowing fan)
Puffing at all, winnows the light away
(Blows on everyone and removes what is worthless in them)
And what hath mass or matter by itself
(And leaves only what is weighty and full of substance)
Lies rich in virtue and unmingled.
(In those of now refined character, in the form of purified virtue)

If anyone doubts that Shakespeare was a believer, this is one of those passages which should convince them that he had carefully studied the Biblical doctrine of suffering. His image of the wheat and the chaff is borrowed directly from the Bible. The last word (unmingled) is taken from the metalworker images of the Old Testament in which metal is purified and the dross no longer "mingles" with the silver to spoil it. This passage is also a fine setting of the text from Job:
"When he has tested me I shall come forth as gold".
We know that there are more references to the "Book of Job" in Shakespeare than to any other book in the Bible (and there are numerous underlying Bible references throughout this work). Shakespeare's knowledge of the Bible has never really been matched, even by theologians since.

We also know that Shakespeare read The Geneva Bible, which was the version written by the reformed exiles in Geneva during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary. In the late sixteenth century, not everyone read this version, which suggests that he had a leaning to the reformed faith, but a more "generous" faith than most Puritans. It was, in my view, from the reformed faith which so clearly condemns evil, that he drew his clear sense of right and wrong and from which derives his real hatred of human sin.

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