Monday, January 25, 2016

Another View of Shakespeare's Religion

2016 is the Shakespeare year of our lifetime: the 400th anniversary of his death. Everybody is writing about him, performing his plays, doing something to honor him. Just one example: one of my favorite early music groups, Stile Antico, is honoring Shakespeare with a special program, "The Wonder of Will":

To mark of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, Stile Antico and the Folger Consort collaborate on a glorious programme of Elizabethan and Jacobean music. Shakespearean songs and music for his greatest patron King James I are heard along with works by his contemporaries William Byrd and John Dowland, including the Lachrimae for five viols and lute. Viols and voices join in period anthems, and Stile Antico performs contemporary settings of Shakespearean texts by acclaimed young composers Huw Watkins and Nico Muhly.
William ByrdO Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth 
John DowlandLachrimae Antique
DowlandSay, Love, if ever thou did’st find
DowlandLachrimae Antique Novae
Byrd: Why do I use my Paper, Ink and Pen
DowlandLachrimae gementes 
Byrd: Exsurge, Domine
DowlandLachrimae Tristes 
Huw WatkinsThe Phoenix and the Turtle
Will AytonFantasia on ‘Flow my Tears’
Thomas TomkinsBe strong and of a good courage
DowlandLachrimae Coactae 
Robert JohnsonFull fathom five
DowlandLachrimae Amantis
Nico MuhlyGentle sleep
DowlandLachrimae Verae
WilbyeDraw on, sweet night
Note that they had to cancel their Washington, DC dates because of the blizzard this past weekend. I hope Stile Antico releases a CD of that program.

The OUP (Oxford University Press) blog revisits a common question: Was Shakespeare a Catholic? Gillian Woods, author of Shakespeare's Unreformed Fictions, offers her insights:

Questions such as ‘was Shakespeare a Protestant or a Catholic?’ use terms that are too neat for the reality of post-Reformation England. The simple labels Catholic, Protestant, and Puritan paper over a complex lived experience. Even in less turbulent times, religion is a framework for belief; actual faith slips in and out of official doctrine. Religion establishes a set of principles about belief and practice, but individuals pick and choose which bits they listen to.

‘Catholicism’ was an especially tricky category in this era. Under pressure of crippling fines and even execution, early modern Catholics maintained their faith in a variety of ways. Not every so-called papist supported the pope. The Roman Catholic Church of this era encompassed ‘recusants’ (who openly displayed their Catholicism by refusing to attend mandatory Church of England services) and ‘church papists’ (who conformed to the monarch’s protestant customs, but secretly practiced Catholicism). Some Catholics supported Elizabeth politically, looking to the pope only in spiritual matters; others plotted her overthrow. Catholicism was in the eye of the beholder; hotter Protestants saw many elements of Elizabeth’s own Church as horrifyingly ‘Romish’, but to average Protestants those puritanical objections seemed hysterical. Some accepted the theology and politics of the reformation, but still harboured an emotional attachment to older traditions, like praying for the dead. Furthermore, people have a habit of changing their minds over time, shifting their beliefs at different moments of their lives. Asking about the confessional allegiance of any early modern individual is a much more difficult – and interesting – enterprise than figuring out an either/or choice. Whatever Shakespeare’s personal faith was, he wrote plays that worked for audiences who had to feel their way through these dilemmas, audiences for whom Protestantism was the official state religion, but who experienced a far messier reality.

Playhouses provided spaces to explore these anxieties. Even though the direct representation of specific theological controversy was banned, Renaissance plays frequently featured elements of the Roman Catholic religion that had been practically outlawed in real life. Purgatorial ghosts and well-meaning friars still appeared on stage; star-crossed lovers framed their first kiss in terms of saintly intercession and statue veneration (Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.206-19); and various characters swore ‘by the mass’, ‘by the rood’, and ‘by’r lady’. Shakespeare wrote over sixty years after Henry VIII set the Reformation in motion. By the 1590s, English friars, nuns and hermits belonged firmly to the past, and many writers used them like the formula ‘once upon a time’: to create a safely distant, fictional world.

Read the rest there. When she avers that "Religion establishes a set of principles about belief and practice, but individuals pick and choose which bits they listen to" I know what she means. But I usually think of that in the context of morality: choices in personal or sexual behavior, especially in my lifetime. A Catholic who does not attend Mass on Sundays or other Solemnities usually thinks of herself as being separated from the Church and in that era, Mass attendance was not only the mark of being a Catholic but the most dangerous since it required the presence of a priest (an act of treason); assistance to the priest (a felony); attendance at Mass (a felony) and absence, perhaps, from the Anglican service in the nearby parish (a fine at the least). 

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