Saturday, 27 February 2016

Shakespeare a secular writer? No!

I attended a lecture called 'Shakespeare and Religion' at the Bloxham Festival of Literature and Faith by Professor Alison Shell (University College, London). She came to the conclusion that William Shakespeare was 'a secular writer'. Sadly, there was no chance at the end for me to draw attention to his use of the Reformers' Geneva Bible (1599), his London lodging with French Huguenots, the fact that Anne, his wife, was sister to the Stratford churchwarden, his Will and several respected books on Shakespeare's expert use of the Bible.

There is a prevailing academic view shared by leading Shakespeare expert Professor Stanley Wells, that Shakespeare was a Protestant. His mastery of the Bible equals that of any modern Biblical scholar - or rather exceeds it.  His theology is orthodox, unlike many great writers, such as Tolstoy and Dickens. We know that moderate Puritan, Ambrose Dudley, Earl of (nearby) Warwick, whose chaplain penned the Geneva Bible, was paying for 'reformed' preachers for the people of Warwickshire.

Alison Shell overlooked all the texts referencing the Bible which lie partly hidden, under the surface of his writing. Instead, she focused on texts uttered by pagans (Lear and Macbeth) who had lost their moral compass and brought the innocent to ruin and death. She treated the views of benighted reprobates as if they represented the views of Shakespeare himself. Yet his Stratford inscription, sanctioned by the devout, states he was like 'Nestor' i.e. the Greek king of wisdom.

Such interpretations hang on whether modern, secular readers untrained in the Bible and Christian teachings, can pick up theological literary clues. Below, I examine just one of many examples, where the clues are as clear as day, to the theologically literate. Here are six lines from Hamlet - in which a high 'moral' tone comes through (not just from Ophelia, but from the author):

"But, good my brother,
Do not as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not (takes no notice of) his own rede (teaching)".
Ophelia to Laertes (Hamlet) Act 1 Scene III

Primula (Wikipedia)
Ophelia, or rather Shakespeare, examines the topic of ordained servants of the Church who are proud and reckless libertines. Was this in medieval Catholic Denmark, or Elizabethan London, or both? There have always been those masquerading under the cover of faith and charity who are living a double life. 'The primrose path' in Shakespeare's Works means the easy life that does not lead to salvation/eternal life (described as 'heaven'). Reference to this 'primrose path' appears in two plays - Hamlet and MacBeth. In Macbeth, the primrose path leads to 'the everlasting bonfire' (i.e. eternal separation from God).  The 'steep and thorny way' is a New Covenant reference since the Old Covenant says the way of the righteous is 'level'. The 'Way' is the New Testament's word for following Christ. Francis Bacon wrote that 'The blessing of the Old Testament is prosperity and the blessing of the New Testament is adversity' which adheres to the words of Jesus Christ that 'Strait is the gate and narrow the way that leads to eternal life'. Shakespeare, the poet, may have seen this path winding up a steep, precarious mountain.

Where does 'primrose' come from?
Its name comes from prima (Latin for first - prima rosa). It is a flower of the very first months of the year. In Shakespeare's work, primrose is usually the 'pale' flower of the year, an image of pale faces but the bank on which Venus (goddess of love) seduces Adonis in his poem 'Venus and Adonis' is covered in primroses. In folklore and healing, the primrose is associated with the Norse goddess of love (Freya) and the planet 'Venus'.  Venus is a symbol of sensuality. 

What is dalliance?
The word comes from the Middle English word 'dally' (rarely used now). ‘Dalliance’ is 'playing' behaviour. A dalliance a casual, light (sexual) relationship. In Shakespeare's works, the word ‘dalliance’ is coupled with the word 'wanton' and 'silky' indicating seductive garments - like wearing a silk shirt to the disco. There is the notion that dalliance lays waste one’s 'powers' (Henry V).

Hence, the 'primrose path' involves hedonism - short-lived pleasures of the flesh, casual, lustful sexual relationships especially in youth (early in one's 'year'), endangering one’s spiritual destiny and one's mental and physical reserves. The underlying irony is that (mad) Hamlet later sees his sexual relationship with Ophelia as 'dalliance' which effectively kills her since, pure of heart, she sees their relationship as a romantic lifelong bond of genuine love.

Shakespeare is airing critical thoughts about those pastors, priests, ministers of religion who are journeying along this 'primrose path'  lacking grace (grace of salvation, hence 'ungracious pastors'). Though they are paid by the Church, preach and minister to Christ, in his view their souls are not saved but heading for the 'bonfire'.  It is a bold attack on false teachers, in a highly religious age.

Why would a 'secular' writer risk this - or care about the eternity destinies of pastors  if he, himself did not believe in salvation/eternal life/heaven?  Heaven is a word that appears nearly seven hundred times in his Works where it often means 'God'?

What can one say about these lines?  Do they indicate Shakespeare was a 'secular author' or one who was always seeing human life by the light of Bible teaching - and eternal destinies?

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