Shakespearean references are a familiar sight in English-speaking Christian writing and preaching. His works supply apt tags, dramatic ethical situations, familiar characters and ringing language. This ubiquity of Shakespeare is shaped by two unusual aspects of his reception history. Firstly, the centuries of appropriation of his works and reputation for political and cultural purposes, which have had the odd double effect of borrowing Shakespeare’s authority for a particular cause whilst bolstering that authority itself in the process. As Michael Dobson explores in The Making of the National Poet, when both eighteenth-century Whigs and Tories are using Shakespeare to “prove” their side of the political argument, then Shakespeare is becoming less a partisan cultural reference and more a generalised authority to be appealed to for all purposes. Secondly, Shakespeare’s anomalous position in British culture by the nineteenth-century meant that the invocation of him and his works became deeply intwined with religious language. In the 1840s Thomas Carlyle could even hail Shakespeare as some form of universal prophet of humanity, and a priest of a future enlightened world.
These two historical arcs meant that by the end of the nineteenth-century, Shakespeare could be used as a covert skirmishing-ground for arguments about the religious basis of British society. William Burgess’ 1903 study The Bible in Shakespeare asserts that the reader of Shakespeare finds that “God was in his thoughts,” that he “reverently acknowledges the God of the Bible in all His various attributes” and that “he was a sincere believer in the teachings of Scripture.” On the hand hand, Sidney Lee declared in 1898, in his The Life of William Shakespeare that that the Biblical allusions which appear in the works do no more than “indicate that general acquaintance with the narrative of both Old and New Testaments which a clever boy would be certain to acquire either in the schoolroom or at church on Sundays,” and that the Biblical material “suggests youthful reminiscence and the assimilative tendency of the mind in a stage of early development” rather than the deliberate study of a mature artist. The stakes of this argument were not the personal faith of a sixteenth-century poet from the Midlands. They were the extent to which the central icon of British culture was deeply informed by Christian religion, or a secular figure who could be easily separated from the historical accident of Christianity.
The examples of Shakespeare in cultural apologetics which I wish to explore in this article appear at the turn of the century after Burgess and Lee. They consist of an analogy about an incomplete Shakespeare play in N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, and the Shakespearean sonnets in Malcolm Guite’s The Word Within the Words. These examples are, in one sense, part of the same tradition I have just sketched, since they employ aspects of Shakespeare’s anomalous reception history in order to present a particular religious point of view. In another sense, they are a development from it, since Shakespeare’s authority does not operate in them via ideological appropriation or cultural capital, but via aesthetic form which takes on theological potential in the hands of Wright and Guite.
In both cases, an engagement with form, in its discipline and risks, provides the possibility of an intuition of order beyond the contingent mode of literature. Wright’s analogy of an incomplete Shakespeare play invites the reader to engage with Biblical texts using some of the approaches which theatre practitioners adopt, but suggests that in doing so they will find their actions and personalities shaped by something beyond them. Wright uses the historical conditions of the Shakespeare industry, and his sense of the distinctive mimetic qualities of drama, as a means to create a space where Christians can intuit a sense of order beyond either narrative repetition or propositional belief. As I will show, the form of the drama is crucial to Wright’s argument, since the sense of coherence and completion which might result depends on the conventions of a five-act structure. The reader’s familiarity with dramatic form is the means by which Wright’s model can be put into practice. It is the matrix within which interpolation may take place.
Guite uses form as a space for both insight and interpolation, in a wrestling with the theological potential of the Shakespearean sonnet. The making and breaking of form encourages the reader to intuit an order and meaning beyond the poems, which is both articulated by them and which transcends them. Sonnets, in The Word Within the Words, are a means for echoes of the Logos to be discerned. Thus in both Wright and Guite, the Shakespearean tradition is hospitable to analogies, intellectual and poetic, which do not simply depend on argumentative force. Nor are they persuasive by aesthetic means, as such, in the sense of an experience of beauty. Rather, poetic form provides a space for intuitions of meaning to develop, which begin as recognition of order in the world, and potentially end in hearing a call from beyond it.
THE MIGHTY ACTS
In The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright uses Shakespeare to propose a model for relating the authority of the Scriptures to the contemporary world. This begins with a thought experiment, which asks the reader to “uppose there exists a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act has been lost.” The play has great apparent value, including “a remarkable wealth of characterization” along with a “crescendo of excitement within the plot” and “it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged.” The means of staging it, in this thought experiment, would not involve writing a new fifth act, because this would “freeze the play into one form” and “commit Shakespeare” to “work not in fact his own.” The solution offered is that the play should be handed over to “sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors,” who would inhabit the characters and produce a fifth act themselves. Wright draws out some of the implications of this model, including the ideas that the existing four acts would be the “authority” for the work of producing the fifth, but that authority “could not consist” of “an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier parts of the play.” The “impetus and forward movement” in the existing acts would shape the conclusion, and would enable “a free and responsible entering into the story” to conclude it with “innovation and consistency.” Those first four acts would also allow for objections by others if the final act the actors produced was not fitting or meaningful.
The notion of an incomplete Shakespeare play allows Wright to move beyond the two approaches he has been outlining in the introduction to The New Testament and the People of God. On one side is a purely historical-literary reading, which treats the Biblical text more or less as the sum of its contexts and its conditions, and on the other a presentist approach which treats the Bible as normative, but only within a given contemporary hermeneutic. These could be caricatured as an “academic” and “fundamentalist” approach, though Wright is careful not to identify them too closely with any particular (or single) groups. The former approach is implicitly ruled out in Wright’s model by his suggestion that the contents of the script were so powerful that there was general agreement it should be staged, and the latter explicitly by the insistence that the final act’s performance could not consist in merely repeating earlier material.
Wright continues to develop his idea, noting that “it provides an analogy for the way in which any story, any work of art, may possess in itself a kind of “authority,” intriguingly suggesting that this authority may be particularly present “when in a state of needing completion.” In purely aesthetic terms, he notes, the fact that the model involves a play with five acts “is an unnecessary refinement,” and an incomplete symphony being given to a composer would make the same point. However, he believes there is something more which the dramatic model adds beyond aesthetic logic, because it offers “a more direct and specific analogy to illustrate what I take to be at issue within the story of the creator and the creation as seen by the biblical writers, or at least some of them.”
These additions both defend and deepen the model. If I read Wright correctly, the analogy with a symphony seems less precise and useful to him because of orchestral music’s greater level of abstraction (at least in the Classical period.) A play is more obviously a work of art in which human bodies, personalities and actions form the material basis of the performance. This commentary suggests that Wright sees faithful engagement with the Biblical text as involving a form of interpellation, in the Althusserian sense. The performer does not simply interpret the text and then improvise the next scenes; they find themselves being addressed and formed by the text in ways which enable the next scenes to develop.
The aptness of Wright’s analogy is also shaped by the history of Shakespeare reception. Invoking Shakespeare brings in a cluster of associations which strengthen and direct the imaginative appeal of Wright’s lost play. The two most significant are intertwined with each other, as both developed from the late nineteenth century through the twentieth century: the emphasis on Shakespeare’s place in the theatre, and on the dramatic integrity of his scripts. The former may seem too obvious to state, for an early twenty-first century discussion of Shakespeare, but the assumption that live performance was the natural mode for Shakespeare’s plays to express their meaning is a distinct phase of their cultural history. Having moved from being regarded as dramatic scripts in the seventeenth century to being regarded as cornerstones of British cultural identity in the eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s works underwent an odd bifurcation. As detailed in studies such as Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare and Jean I. Marsden’s The Re-Imagined Text, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers often revered the text of Shakespeare’s works, whilst adapting them fairly freely on the stage. The veneration of the plays as poetic genius reached a point where Samuel Coleridge could declare that Shakespeare did not need to be staged for the full glory of the plays to express themselves. Charles Lamb’s essay “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to their Fitness for Stage Representation” goes even further, stating that their greatness is lost when the plays are performed: “instead of realising an idea, we have only materialised and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood.” This same attitude carried over into the twentieth century with, among others, C.S. Lewis. In a letter to D.L. Sayers, he claims that “about Shakespeare read and Shakespeare acted his rise to the position of ‘next, if not superior to, Homer’ has come largely through reading. Aren’t even our productions now steeped in the literary critics?”
The long reaction against this anti-theatrical attitude in Shakespeare scholarship is traced in J.L. Styan’s The Shakespeare Revolution. He describes the shift, from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, in which the theatre took over from the study as the place where Shakespeare could be best appreciated. The moment of performance itself became the focus for Shakespearean meanings to be realized, in the stage-centred criticism which Styan identified. Shakespearean performance studies took this idea even further in the last decades of the twentieth century, in the work of scholars such as William Worthen and Carol Chillington Rutter. They saw performance as the moment where the plays’ meanings were not revealed, but where they were actually made. Staging the plays became the process by which the inert texts produced new meanings, which could not have been predicted by simply studying the texts. This element in Shakespearean history reinforces the strength of Wright’s analogy, since it assumes that actors are the natural people to finish the play. Whilst an unfinished symphony could be given to a composer, in his comparison, giving the play to a playwright would apparently compromise Shakespeare’s authority. This is an essential part of the “lost play” model, since Wright is understandably not interested in handing over Biblical authority to a single determining “author” in the modern world. His analogy appeals to the experience of his readers, who are used to the idea that Shakespeare’s enormous authority is correctly realized by the work of actors.
Those actors operate within a dramatic structure whose integrity has been increasingly emphasized since the late nineteenth century. The free adaptation and rewriting of the Restoration and eighteenth century (in which new characters and scenes appeared in Shakespeare plays) had given way to a nineteenth-century stage which was rather more “faithful” to the text. A symbolic example is provided by Nahum Tate’s Restoration rewriting of King Lear to give it a happy ending. This was the dominant version which appeared on the English stage until the 1830s. Victorian actor-managers still regarded the plays as fair game to be cut and altered to fit their requirements. Those were most often the elaborate and heavy sets of the commercial theatre, which required time and stage-hands to shift, and the theatrical stars who required big heroic or impassioned speeches to give their tour de force. Neither fit well with Shakespeare’s swift dramaturgy, which often cuts from one location to another and back again. Even Henry Irving’s performance of The Merchant of Venice, which was praised for its accuracy to the text, sometimes lopped off the fifth act as unnecessary to his portrayal of Shylock. It was only in the last decades of the nineteenth century, with the work of theatrical radicals such as William Poel and the Elizabethan Stage Society, that theatrical opinion started to move towards playing Shakespeare’s scenes in order. Poel argued that the staging conditions of Shakespeare’s own theatre, with little scenery and few props, enabled the dramatic flow of the plays, which was destroyed by the ponderous spectacle of the Victorian theatre.
The spreading of this idea, that Shakespeare’s stagecraft is deliberate and suited to the theatre of his time, is witnessed by the huge success of Shakespeare’ Globe in London, and the layout of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s main stage in Stratford. This “discovery” of the integrity of Shakespeare’s dramatic structures is one of the orthodoxies of modern Shakespeare performance. Like the shift towards the stage as the play’s natural home, it is a crucial element in the appeal of Wright’s lost play. Shakespeare’s reception history has produced a sense that the dramatic structure is an essential part of the plays’ meaning, and that actors inhabiting those plays can experience that structure from the inside. Thus two contingent but major elements of recent Shakespearean history shape the way Wright’s analogy appeals to the imagination of modern readers. The image of a partial play, which can be best completed by performance, and whose dramatic structure calls the performers towards integrity, installs distinctively Shakespearean elements in Wright’s model of the Bible’s authority.
A TURN IN THE VERSE
In My Theology: The Word Within the Words, Malcom Guite lays out an account of his own experience and understanding of faith. The book is interspersed with his poems; all of them have been published elsewhere, but I intend to discuss them as they appear in this volume. Reading them in the context of his articulations of faith, and in the sequence in which they are arranged, reveals a particular engagement with the theological meanings of Shakespearean poetic form. Early in the book, Guite cites the account of poetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
He explains that “I used to read this as simply and only an account of poetry,” but “it was only when I came to re-read this passage in light of the Prologue to John’s Gospel that I realized . . . Shakespeare was John’s account of the art of the Divine Poet.” Guite declares that
it is all there: the gap between heaven and earth, the need for a connection, and then the moment of bodying forth: the Word is made flesh and then that flesh is made available for us to see, is given a local habitation and best of all a name: the holy name of Jesus.
He connects this term “habitation” to the fact that “the first question of the disciples to Jesus in John’s Gospel is ‘where are you staying?’, or as Shakespeare would have known in the Vulgate Magister, ubi habitat.” Thus the use of Shakespeare is implicitly grounded in a Biblical allusion, but Guite does not stress the idea that Shakespeare can provide access to Christian truths because of his own reading of the Bible. Rather, the passage of Midsummer Night’s Dream is advanced as a poetic gloss on the opening of John’s Gospel, which both draws out the text’s implications and demonstrates an analogy between incarnation and poetry.
The fact that this is a personal account of Guite’s own theological reflections and his experience of faith prevents the reference from moving explicitly into theological argument. It offers Shakespeare not as evidence, but as a spur for reflection. He explains that he had known the text, and came to reread it in the light of John’s Gospel. That the passage is by Shakespeare, however, still seems significant. The theological vision Guite develops involves the notions of the “Word within the words,” the revelation of a pre-existent Word and the realization that “I myself might be part of a poem, that as I speak and breathe, I am being breathed and spoken into being.” The emphasis on a transcendent Logos being gestured towards by familiar texts is dramatized in this passage by the use of Shakespeare. For the feeling of realization to be effected, Guite needs to use a text which a large number of readers will recognise, and then suggest that the passage actually points to something beyond its assumed meaning. The historical accident of Shakespeare’s use in education and public culture becomes the means for Guite’s theology of the Word to enact itself in these early pages of the book. Without Shakespeare already familiar (to some extent) to most readers, the text would not be able to dramatize the “Emmaus” moment of being shown a radical truth in well-known lines.
But Shakespeare does not simply provide illustration in The Word Within the Words; the book includes a series of Guite’s own poems, and these are often used to explore or embody a theological idea or a Biblical text. His “O Sapientia,” for example, is used in response to the antiphon of the same title, his “Emmaus” is placed next to that Biblical narrative, his “Trinity Sunday” after a discussion of the doctrine and the liturgical year. Almost every poem in the book is a sonnet, and thus Shakespeare provides the literary structure within which Christian ideas are embodied. It is worth noting that in literary historical terms, the sonnet did not originate with Shakespeare. Its arrival in English poetry from the Italian tradition in the sixteenth century, and its use by the “courtly makers” Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard meant that there was a tradition of English sonneteering before Shakespeare. In his own generation, Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser have equal claims to the form, and after Shakespeare there have been a long line of notable sonneteers. However, it would be unreasonable to deny that Shakespeare is strongly identified with the form in English-speaking culture. His are the most famous examples of the form and the terms “English sonnet” and “Shakespearean sonnet” are used interchangeably.
It is the “Shakespearean” sonnet which provides the model for Guite’s poems in The Word Within the Words. This variant includes the usual specifications of fourteen lines, end-rhyme and iambic pentameter, and uses the rhyme to group those lines into three quatrains and a final couplet. Though the rhymes produce these groupings, splitting the fourteen lines of a Shakespearean sonnet 4-4-4-2, it is also conventional to read (and write) them as if they are also divided 8-6, into an opening octave and a concluding sestet. Guite makes extensive use of these patterns in the poems included in The Word Within the Words, using the rhetorical structures of the sonnet to arrange his material and develop the reader’s experience of the poem. For example, “The Baptism of Christ” describes the scene and its theological significance, then turns to its implication for the reader in the concluding couplet: “He calls us, too, to step into the river,/ To die and rise and live and love forever.” “Emmaus” sets the octave in the voice of the disciples on the road, “We thought that everything was lost and gone,/ Disaster on disaster overtook us,” and the sestet in the voice (implicitly) of Jesus, “Oh foolish heart, why do you grieve?/ Here is good news and comfort to your soul.” In “Love’s Choice,” the account of the Eucharist uses the octave to depict the fleeting, small physical experience of taking the sacrament, “A little visitation on my tongue . . . This taste of wine is brief in flavour,” and the lines beyond the volta (the turn in line 9) contrast this with how one might imagine Christ’s arrival, “He does not come in unimagined light/ Too bright to be denied, too absolute/ For consciousness, too strong for sight.”
In these poems, the conventions of the sonnet form become aligned with theological method and devotional experience. “Emmaus” has the disciples despair in the octave that “we had hoped that he had been the one/ Till crucifixion proved he was a curse” and the sestet picks up the same image, “He bore the curse for you to make you whole.” The pairing of the two parts allows Guite to embed a typology in his poem. Behind the lines is a quotation from Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’,” but Paul’s argument involves reinterpreting the declaration in Deuteronomy 21 that “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you must bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Jesus’ action in showing the disciples the scriptural passages which referred to him is mimicked by the inclusion of Paul’s rereading of Deuteronomy, but this is enabled by the conventional form of the sonnet. Octave and sestet become the means for anti-type and type to be placed within the poem, and for their relationship to make emotional and aesthetic sense.
This suitability of form and subject becomes a locus of anxiety, or at least concern, as Guite’s account of poetry, scripture, liturgy and sacrament continues. This is one of the points where his engagement with form is most focused on Shakespeare, since it is the Shakespearean couplet which he uses to dramatize this anxiety. He stresses that the words, and the devotional embodiments of faith, should always point beyond themselves, rather than becoming a subject for contemplation and attraction in themselves. The poem “A Lens” begins “Not that we think he is confined to us,/ Locked in the box of our religious rites” and opens the sestet with “Not that we summon him, but that he lends / The very means whereby he might be known.” Two points are noticeable about the technique of this poem. The rhymewords in the octave are more Latinate, abstract and polysyllabic, sometimes rhyming on unstressed syllables: “confined to us” with “creed compendius” and “emptiness” and “spaciousness.” The sestet’s rhymes are comparatively more concrete and secure: “known . . . stone,” “air . . . . everywhere.” The rhyme patterns also diverge from the Shakespearean variant of the sonnet, with the octave rhyming A-B-C-A-B-C-D-D and the sestet rhyming E-F-G-E-F-G. The couplet is no longer in its “Shakespearean” position at the end of the poem, and is thus no longer able to sum up the poem’s ideas, invite the reader to apply its insights, or to invite another voice in to finish the lines. Moreover, its existence as a couplet depends on the least harmonious, most abstract and most diffuse rhyme in the poem (“emptiness” and “spaciousness”). The variation from the Shakespearean form happens via the redeploying of its most characteristic element, the couplet. It embodies a discomfort at the potential for form and experience to be too decorous, too glib. They might even become too predictable. The apt movement of octave and sestet, with couplet, is avoided here as too likely to close off other actions and experiences.
In the final poem, with which the book ends, this use of (and even argument with) the Shakespearean sonnet reaches its height. Guite relates that he wrote a poem on Easter morning in 2020, when he would usually have been at the Communion service. The lines continue the concern already stressed in “A Lens,” for faith not to become trapped within rituals or structures, and describes how Jesus might have been in the Eucharist today, but is in fact outside in the world: “instead he slips/ Away from church . . . To don his apron with a nurse: he grips/ And lifts a stretcher.” The last stanza relates how “he came/ And served us in a thousand names and faces/ Mopping our sickroom floors” and “Good Friday happened in a thousand places/ Where Jesus held the helpless.” The poem is not in sonnet form, rather it consists of three eight-line stanzas. Nonetheless, I read it as an engagement with the theological articulation of the sonnet which Guite has developed through The Word Within the Words. Its imagery, and the idea of Christ appearing in the persons of others, is influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous sonnet “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,” especially its sestet.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
That conclusion’s image, but not its finality, reappears in “Easter 2020”. The presence of Christ is attributed to those tending the ill and dying, and the poem concludes with the declaration that Jesus “died with them/ That they might share his Easter in their need,/ Now they are risen with him, risen indeed.” The theological vision of Hopkins’ sestet is diffused through the redistribution of the rhyme of “ ten thousand places” and “faces” into “thousand names and faces” and “thousand places” in separate stanzas of “Easter 2020”. They are no longer part of a concluding vision, and no sestet appears in the poem. Instead, the three eight-line stanzas are complete in themselves but can also be read as the octaves of three sonnets which are never given closure by a sestet.
These stanzas continue the deconstruction of the Shakespearean sonnet visible in “A Lens.” Relating them to the form, which appears so often in Guite’s work and in The Word Within the Words, frames them as the final stage of the development of his theological engagement with the form here. The lack of (en)closure which was gestured towards in “A Lens” becomes embodied in the form of “Easter 2020,” whose sonnet form exists only as a trace or a hermeneutic imposition on the lines actually present on the page. The conclusion of the last stanza deepens this sense of abandoning the sonnet’s form, as it cites the liturgy for Easter Day. The service opens, in many liturgies, with the greeting “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and the reply “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” The acclamation, which goes unexchanged in the scene imagined by “Easter 2020,” appears at the end of the poem. The octave refuses closure by the sonnet form, instead lending its last line to a liturgical acclamation which marks the opening of another form of life and insight beyond itself.
Jem Bloomfield, “Disclosures of Form: Theological Poetics and Shakespearean Analogies in Wright and Guite,” An Unexpected Journal: Shakespeare & Cultural Apologetics 5, no. 4. (Advent 2022), 109-124.
Significantly, Christian fantasist and heterodox preacher, George MacDonald, also argued that Shakespeare was heavily influenced by the Bible, so much so that he often preached Sermons from Shakespeare. See “George MacDonald on Shakespeare” also in this volume.
I use the term “interpellation” here to mean the ways in which persons come to recognize themselves as the subjects of an ideological system, and come to inhabit that identity. The classic example which Louis Althusser gives is of a policeman calling out “Hey, you!” in a crowd, and someone turning round, thus accepting a position as the person called upon and as a subject of the system of law. Of course, in Wright’s model, “interpellation” does not carry the negative connotations which it did for Althusser, since by “interpellation” persons recognize their status as subjects within a divinely created world, and in a relationship with God. They do not answer to the call of a metaphysical policeman; instead, they respond to a calling (vocation).
(October 1972): 248-264, 250.
Ibid., 83. I would suggest, as an aside, that “A Lens” reads rather as if several John Donne poems are being gathered and reworked. Most notably, in “The Sun Rising” the poet chides the “busy old fool, unruly sun” who calls on the lovers “through windows and through curtains” and declares that all the world lies within their room, concluding that “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;/ This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere” (92). In “A Lens” the poet insists that “we” do not think that “he” is “curtained by these frail cathedral walls,” but that the “sacred space” may be a lens “to sense his presence who is everywhere” (84). The poem embodies anxiety about the potential glibness of form. The influence of a Donne who would “build in sonnets pretty rooms” (punning on the term “stanza”) in “The Canonization” is chastened by this sonnet’s reluctance to make the form so neat and self-satisfactory (96).