Monday, July 14, 2014

Shakespeare's Friars

Ken Colston writes about Shakespeare's Franciscan Friars in Homiletic & Pastoral Review:

Like the present Holy Father, William Shakespeare channeled an “inner Franciscan.” Despite Elizabethan persecution of Roman Catholics, the dramatic genius—who, according to Harold Bloom, invented the human personality—gave several pivotal roles to characters from an order that had virtually disappeared from England several generations earlier during Henry VIII’s first dissolution of the monasteries. These characters, while not leading protagonists, were much more than bit parts. Shakespeare took a political risk in overtly portraying them in their traditional garb onstage, where the royal censor, the Master of the Revels, might well have objected, demanded their removal, and even prosecuted the playwright’s company. What reasons, dramaturgical, political, or religious, might have led Shakespeare to take such a risk to his livelihood and person?

Using the example of Friar Laurence from Romeo and Juliet, Colston states:

Shakespeare may have had not just traditional Catholic leanings, but also personal memories behind his portrayal of Friar Laurence. Heinrich Mutschmann and Karl Wentersdorf suggest that Fr. Frist, the Roman Catholic priest of Temple Grafton (the likely venue of Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway), was the biographical model for Friar Laurence. Frist was also interested in medicine and healing, and the famously rushed marriage that he would have performed for the Warwickshire couple was by license rather than by the usual banns. A second personal Catholic association may also loom in Shakespeare’s memory in forming the Church regular. In Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire, a religious community, called the Guild of St. Anne, flourished prior to the Reformation. Its registry contains 16 brothers and sisters named Shakespeare, one of which was an abbess, Isabella, who bears the name of the Poor Clare heroine of Measure for Measure. Isabella Shakespeare may have been an aunt of William, the poet.

After discussing other Franciscan friars in Shakespeare's plays Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, Colston asks a couple of questions and draws some conclusions:

What can we conclude from Shakespeare’s use of these 10 followers of the via Franciscana?  First, he departs from the satirical tradition, both Catholic and Reformed, with universally sympathetic portrayals of Franciscans. He associates the Poor Clares with austerity, the friars with prudence and cunning. In fact, the friars operate somewhat in the reputed manner of Jesuits with their shadowy access to powerful aristocratic families, their confessional exactitude, and their deceptive tactics.  Second, in all three plays in which they have major roles, they take extraordinary means to move couples, and indeed, the entire small world of the drama, toward holy matrimony, which is seen as a means of reconciling conflicts, both between families and within the hearts of characters. Marriage resolves social enmities and the inner war between flesh and spirit. Third, the friars are instruments of moderation, wisdom, and peace; they know canon law with respect to marriage and confession; they move far more freely onstage than they did in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, where they were banned, persecuted, and pursued. Fourth, since they are the only order of regulars specifically depicted in the Shakespearean canon, and, except for the churchmen in the history plays, the only identifiable Roman Catholic characters, they are a strong clue to Shakespeare’s friendly feelings toward that bane of Elizabethan-Jacobean political rule, Roman Catholicism. He is unique among playwrights of the time in presenting in a positive light, and in the daylight exposure of a universally recognized habit, the dread enemy of the realm, the whore of Babylon, in a dangerous, even suspect, public space.  

So, why, then, Franciscans, and why such positive roles, on a stage where Catholic clergy would be so suspect, even threatening to the court?  First, dramaturgically, a Franciscan would be quickly, easily, and inexpensively identified by his simple habit. Second, popular respect for Franciscans as close followers of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience must have persisted in the popular imagination despite the centuries-old anti-fraternal tradition—obedience to moral authority, not power, being the emphasis. Third, as an order quasi-independent of the hierarchy, the Franciscans would not have been necessarily associated with the hypocrisy, corruption, venality, and thirst for power of the papacy feared and hated by the English court.  Fourth, Shakespeare, the consummate dramatist, sensed that the serious, even sacral theme of marriage as an instrument of peace could be reinforced by a highly visible “objective correlative,” to use T.S. Eliot’s term, of characters in religious habit independent enough of the hierarchical Church to not threaten Protestants and, yet, also representative of the best in traditional Catholicism. Dominicans were also associated with Spain and the Inquisition; Jesuits, also having a Spanish founder, also implicated in treason; the other orders, too obscure. While Franciscans come ready made in Shakespeare’s source material, he probably saw them immediately as robed crowd pleasers, even as Cardinal Bergoglio intuited their popularity on the anti-clerical world stage.

Read the rest here.

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