Anthony, may we call you Tony? Thanks. It’s a joy to talk to you for this special issue on Shakespeare. Could you give us and our readers a sense of who you are, especially as related to the world of theater and to our theme?
Sure. Thanks for inviting me. I am a professional actor, and have been for thirty years. During that time, I’ve had the great privilege and pleasure to act in over thirty professional productions of plays by Shakespeare.
I happen to be a Christian actor. A Christian who is an actor, yes, but also someone who cares deeply about how I can express my Christian faith and hope in my work as an actor. I have performed adaptations of works by C.S. Lewis as far back as 1998, which I still do several times a year at Christian schools and churches as well as theatrical venues.
Can you point to a moment when you got serious about tracing out the “Christian” elements in Shakespeare? When that side of things started to click for you?
Yes, I can. In 1999, I was preparing to play Feste, the witty fool, in Twelfth Night. It was relatively early in my career, and I had never played one of the eccentric fools from Shakespeare’s canon, so I wanted to do some research. I live and work in Philadelphia, so I went to the library at St. Joseph’s University. There, I found a number of excellent books about the Christian content in Shakespeare’s plays. Not only did these books shed light on much of Feste’s dialogue, but they led me to further discoveries as I read more widely, especially about Shakespeare’s comedies.
As Shakespeare profs and scholars, that is exciting to us. Can you remember the names of any of those books?
Sadly, I cannot remember the titles or authors of any of them. It was the ideas that I remember. To add insult to injury, I have returned to St. Joseph’s a few times to hunt them down, but they are no longer on the shelves! But the impression those writings made on me has never ceased to influence my understanding of those plays, or my interpretation of those characters.
It would be fun to throw some names and titles at you to see if they ring a bell. But let’s go on. Do you think your arc of research into the Christian background of Shakespeare’s writing is a common one among your colleagues in the theater world?
Actually, that is a greater sadness than those missing books. Most of my collaborators in theater (over 95%, I reckon, of actors, directors and producers) seem to be unaware or uninterested in the Christian content of Shakespeare’s writing. My observation is that most of those professionals would be indifferent or hostile to any discussion of the Christian dimension of the work. What’s more, in an increasingly polarized culture, most audiences are unconscious of or hostile to that religiously inspired content.
That would be interesting to think about further. Even to push back on. Perhaps there are more people like you out there and you just don’t know each other yet. We can hope, perhaps. So, are you saying that almost nobody gets it?
What I’m suggesting is that due to this widespread ignorance, indifference and (sometimes) hostility, Shakespeare’s comedies are professionally produced with little if any effort to elucidate or realize one of Shakespeare’s most important themes. Artists and audiences alike, then, are baffled by distinctly Shakespearean images and ideas, but are unwilling (or unable) to unlock them with what is, to me, a very obvious key.
We really want to hear about how your views influenced your performances, your choices (as they say), and/or the frustration of working in a context that wouldn’t allow that. Although, even then, I imagine something good was created regardless. But first, tell us what you gleaned in all that reading and reflection (both on and off the job, so to speak) about Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was writing at least a century before the Enlightenment, when skepticism and atheism really caught on in Europe. Christianity in Shakespeare’s day was the central paradigm of European culture. Christianity was the prevalent zeitgeist of the era – it was the ideological and philosophical air that Europe breathed.
However, there seems to be a widespread assumption today that Shakespeare was a “humanist,” but that assumption is confused because we apply what we mean by humanist today (such as agnostic or atheist) to Shakespeare and his writings without understanding what Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have meant. Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays are produced today with this unarticulated assumption. Of course, he was a humanist, but the word has changed its meaning. Even a cursory glance at Shakespeare’s writings reveals a mind thoroughly steeped in the Bible. The text is replete with references to the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.
And it is reasonable to assume that his audience would, likewise, be familiar with Scripture. One of the literary strengths of the Bible is that its imagery and style can quickly become a fixture in the minds of even the very young and the illiterate. Even the penny-ticket “Groundlings” of Shakespeare’s era would have been conversant with most – if not all – of Shakespeare’s many biblical references.
So you see a lot of Christian imagery, even Christian narratives, influencing the plays? Let’s take “incarnation,” and the Incarnation for example. Tell us how you think that can be seen in Shakespeare’s plays.
Well, take Twelfth Night, for example. In Twelfth Night, the two principal characters, Orsino and Olivia, are blinded with self-conceit. Even Orsino, who claims to love Olivia, seems to really be more in love with the idea of love, and his self-conscious lovesickness, than with a real person. In Illyria, not only are Orsino and Olivia thus blinded, but so is everyone: Malvolio, in Olivia’s words, is “sick with self-love,” and Sir Toby Belch is afflicted with the same disease, though to differing degrees and extremes.
Only Feste, Olivia’s jester, can hint at a world larger than the adolescent navel-gazing of the other Illyrians. He is a voice crying in the wilderness — a prophet — in this self-absorbed world. His super-objective is to lead his fellows out of their prisons, but he is hampered by his material dependence on them. He fears being beaten and cast out if he is too direct with his patrons, so he speaks only indirectly to them, in jokes and riddles. His wisdom seems foolishness to them (which makes me think of 1 Corinthians 1:21).
So, the Fool here is a kind of John the Baptist, perhaps?
Yes, and then from outside this narcissistic world arrives an alien figure — Viola — who, in the guise of a servant, teaches Olivia and Orsino to love someone other than themselves. She is a feminine soul, whose strength is yin rather than yang: soft rather than hard. But when the Illyrians challenge her, her masculine twin, Sebastian, fortuitously arrives, and conquers with force and majesty.
Some Christian interpreters see a reflection of the Incarnation in this narrative. Only the Christ figure is split in two. In Viola, they see Christ’s character as Suffering Servant, but in Sebastian, her twin, they see the other side of that coin: the Conquering King, who comes on Judgment Day.
It’s interesting that Twelfth Night is connected to the Epiphany, which is officially the celebration of the revelation of Christ in the Christian liturgical calendar. Another Christian “big idea” you see reflected in the plays is “Resurrection.” Tell us how you think that works.
There are several examples, but the main one, for me, is All’s Well That Ends Well, often thought of as a problem play. In another gender switch, the Christ figure is a woman, Helena. Somewhat like Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew, Helena loves an unlovable partner: Bertram.
Ah yes, Betram, notoriously disliked amongst audiences for his caddish treatment of Helena – from leaving her lists of things to do after rejecting her as a partner to sending her packing back to France (once married) so he can chase after other women in Italy. Charming fellow.
Yes, well, as you’ve mentioned, Bertram treats Helena very badly. So Helena fakes her own death. Bertram expresses remorse that he didn’t value Helena more highly. She reappears. He thanks his lucky stars that she is still alive, and he gets another chance with her. This is a dramatization of grace, or grace performed and felt on and off stage. They marry. Happy ending.
Here, again, we have the celestial spouse (this time, the Bride) who redeems an unlovable mate with her overflowing abundance of transcendent love. And here, too, we see the Resurrection imagery that Shakespeare will use again and again in these comedies and problem plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Winter’s Tale, Pericles, for example.
That’s super interesting. I don’t think a lot of people know that Shakespeare, especially in his later plays, had a lot of resurrections and miraculous reunions and such. Is that because these plays aren’t performed much? Is that part of your complaint?
Exactly. I mean, All’s Well is a pretty good play, and we don’t see many productions of it, again because of the secular failure to understand Shakespeare’s spiritual or at least religious level of meaning, I think. A secular audience (and production company) sees Helena as a ninny, because she loves a guy who treats her like garbage. This response is perfectly reasonable, if we take Helena and the play at face value. If Helena is just any other human, then, yes, she is a ninny. But if she stands for something greater than humanity, or suggests a higher form of humanity, then she is a mystery, a goddess. Then she is compelling not least in her embodiment (in her redemptive capabilities) of Divine love and forgiveness.
Hmmm. That sounds a lot like Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale” but we will save that for the special Chaucer issue [no one laughs]. What you are saying is difficult to capture in a production perhaps, particularly in a secular production, to a secular audience, as you suggest. But, is there hope? What might such a production look like, how might an actor set about expressing some of these truths you suggest the play explores?
To consciously and reliably realize the mystery and transcendence in these plays, perhaps everyone involved in production (producer, director, actors and designers) need to be on the same page with regard to Shakespeare’s intention, and the desired mood/idea that the play is trying to evoke. Divine truths might emerge anyway, but to do so in a conscious manner requires some acknowledgement of and willingness to engage with them at the earliest stages of production.
Well, Tony, I know you have a special place in your heart for another late play, full of religious imagery and symbolism, Measure for Measure. I know this play is quite controversial because the Duke figure, who supposedly leaves his dukedom but actually sticks around in disguise to spy on everyone, seems more than a little creepy to many modern audiences (and theater people as far as we can tell). You disagree, I suppose?
Well yes and no. The Duke is questionable, and his disappearance (and continued spying) makes him seem all the more so. But that questionability points to something more than is acknowledged by those who just shudder at him, I think. Indeed, Measure is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, because the extreme eccentricity and obliviousness of the Duke points, brilliantly, if the play is seen as a kind of allegory, towards the ineffability and seeming ambivalence – and even apparent cruelty – of the Christian God.
Yes, there is that whole idea of the “Deus Absconditus” – the God who hides himself in the Christian tradition, that we don’t expect to find, maybe, in a Shakespeare play.
Measure marvelously addresses the many ambiguities, difficulties and trials of relating to a God who can seem, at times, from our limited knowledge, distant or even cruel and crazy. It recalls the unfathomability of God we hear of in Isaiah 20:28 or the God of mysteries beyond human understanding Zophar describes in Job 11:7-8:
Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
We cannot. But, as the passage goes on, and as Measure shows us, there is hope (Job 11:13-15) unfathomable also. And there is another connection to this Job passage in Measure, and that is the power and potential of silence. Zophar challenges Job’s assumption that silence from God is terrible, while Isabella’s weighty silence in response to the Duke’s unexpected marriage proposal is one of the most striking parts of this or any Shakespeare play. I love that Shakespeare gives no language to Isabella in the way of responding to the Duke. There are endless ways for Isabella to reject this proposal, or otherwise keep the Duke at arm’s length, or respond equivocally. So yes, I love Measure. I think it is one of Shakespeare’s most successful efforts at articulating the mystery of being human, with one foot in space and time and the other in Eternity.
Thanks Tony. We knew that you knew a lot about acting, because we have seen you in your production of The Great Divorce. But it’s fun to meet a Christian actor so interested in Shakespearean interpretation. I suppose you would say that you are partial to the comedies, right? Why is that?
Well, I am interested in all of Shakespeare’s plays, though perhaps for different reasons. In Shakespeare’s Histories, he seems to mostly address the psychology and philosophy of politics. In the Tragedies, he mostly wants to anatomize hubris and failure. In some of his Comedies (e.g. Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It), he seems mostly concerned with the psychology of romantic love and human sexuality. But in many of his comedies and problem plays, he also seems to want to script a pageant of the dance between mere mortals and the Ineffable God.
As a Christian actor, I have a little power to realize what I think was Shakespeare’s vision for these works. I can try to evoke the mood of mystery and transcendence I think he was looking for, if the role I’m playing calls for it. And I can do that work without consulting anyone, not even the director. The plays are well-written enough to bear that kind of interpretation. And even upon a secular audience, the play can, I think, have its intended effect, if only on a subconscious level.
Such work is rather lonely, though, in an atmosphere where it’s virtually impossible for me to say out loud what I think the plays are really about. And I don’t think the plays can ever live up to their full potential if the majority of artists and audiences are ignorant of or hostile to the playwright’s real intentions. In an increasingly polarized culture, too many non-Christians and Christians tend to see each other in absolute polar terms. Non-Christians often see Christians as superstitious and fascistic. But Christianity is not a monolith. There are Christians who embrace mystery without superstition and Christians who embrace truth and obedience without sliding into fascism. Shakespeare was, I think, such a Christian. And so, I hope, am I.
Thank you, Tony.
Anthony Lawton has acted in Philadelphia for thirty years. In 2005, Lawton received grants from the Independence Foundation and Philadelphia Theatre Initiative to write and develop The Foocy, which garnered five Barrymore nominations (including Best New Play). In 2017, Lawton’s musical adaptation of George MacDonald’s The Light Princess won the Barrymore for Best Original Music, for which Lawton shared credit as lyricist. The Philadelphia City Paper named him the city’s “Best One-Man Theatre” for his solo productions of The Devil and Billy Markham, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. For more information on these shows, go to: www.anthonylawtonactor.com.