June 17, 2011

Portsmouth Institute, "The Catholic Shakespeare?," Saturday, June 11

Justin Katz

The Saturday sessions of the Portsmouth Institute's conference, this year, began with Clare Asquith, speaking on "As You Like It and the Elizabethan Catholic Dilemma":

Mrs. Asquith's acute thesis is that Shakespeare wrote the play with a particular Catholic family in mind — indeed, perhaps under that family's patronage. Her broader suggestion is that the religious atmosphere of the time couldn't help but permeate the plays. For one thing, the various religious identity groups created character types who would have to appear in order for the play to seem authentic; for another, religious images were very useful for drawing characters and creating allegory.

One interesting example of the deep questions and interesting dynamics that were practically in the air for the plucking was the conflict between those who favored light and those who favored dark. The "Golden Bride," for example, could be seen as desirable because pure or otherwise because phony, thus creating a fabulous literary device that depended on perspective — say the distinction between Roman Catholics and Calvinists.

At any rate, there persisted, at the time, to be a sizable class of wealthy Catholics from whom Shakespeare could have derived patronage.

Next up was Dr. Glenn Arbery, of Assumption College, talking about "The Problem of Catholic Piety in the Henry VI Plays":

As you'll note from his accent, Dr. Arbery is a Southern man, and it's therefore not entirely surprising that he drew parallels between Shakespeare and William Faulkner, both of whom wrote at times of social adjustment, with all of the anxieties and changing orders that such times bring. When a society is thus shaking at its core, authors come to realize more deeply what its characteristics are — who its people are — and observe what it is being urged to become. There are good and bad in both, of course, just as there are positives and negatives in both the dark and the light (as Asquith put them), and part of what makes contemporary literature so rich is authors' inclination to highlight aspects of each, explicitly or inherently as a means of encouraging their societies to preserve or discard certain aspects.

Reading between the lines of Arbery's speech, one can discern inchoate buds of a distinction being made between what makes a good man and what makes a good leader (in the context of religion and monarchy). Secular democracy, though still a good distance off, was on its way — an excellent development, to be sure. But Shakespeare's history plays warn of the sorts of men and women who will strive to be the alternative to the "good man" who is not such a good king.

After Arbery's talk (and lunch) buses took us down the length of Aquidneck Island to Stanford White's Newport Casino Theater, which has not been entirely completed, yet, but which hosted the next presentation for the conference, scenes from Hamlet performed by
Theater of the Word Incorporated interspersed with analytical narration by Joseph Pearce:

The method of presentation was an excellent and entertaining method of explaining a thesis (although it was dark and so entertaining that I didn't take notes). And the theater itself was sufficiently compelling as to make me wish I had time to write plays again.

Back on the campus of the Portsmouth Abbey School, Saturday finished with a dinner talk by Father Peter Milward, whom I understand to have led the charge of research into the Catholic dimension of Shakespeare's plays.

Fr. Milward made among the most interesting points of the weekend when he noted that persecution of Catholics had gradually increased over the 1500s, climaxing during Shakespeare's time. Ever since, the Protestants have written the history, as it were, making Shakespeare seem to be a secular writer. Now, as Milward puts it, England "is not so much anti-Catholic as anti-Christian."

So it goes. See it as evolution or progressive devolution, a society that teases its profundity away from the underlying conclusion that made it profound in the first place will drift until its philosophy is hollow and its language unable to support the many layers of true depth.