23 April 2010

'Gentles, Do Not Reprehend'—William Shakespeare

Today, 23 April, is the birthday of the great Bard and chief poet of the English language, William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Already in the late 18th century, Samuel Johnson was writing of Shakespeare, ‘The poet of whose works I have undertaken the revision may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration.’ [1] Harold Bloom observes that, together with Dante, Shakespeare is ‘the center of the Canon’, and later in the same essay, ‘Shakespeare is the Canon.’ [2] C.S. Lewis once wrote in passing of Henry V’s ‘pep talks’ that they ‘were about as good as Shakespeare could make them, which means they were about as good as that kind of thing can be.’ [3] Here is the account of Shakespeare’s life in Willard Farnham’s Pelican edition of Hamlet, edited somewhat for greater brevity:

William Shakespeare was christened in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, April 26, 1564. His birth is traditionally assigned to April 23. He was the eldest of four boys and two girls who survivedinfancy in the family of John Shakespeare, glover and trader of Henley Street, and his wife Mary Arden, daughter of a small landowner of Wilmcote. In 1568 John was elected Bailiff (equivalent to Mayor) of Stratford, having already filled the minor municipal offices. The town maintained for the sons of the burgesses a free school, taught by a university graduate and offering preparation in Latin sufficient for
university entrance; its early registers are lost, but there can be little doubt that Shakespeare received the formal part of his education in this school.

On November 27, 1582, a license was issued for the marriage of William Shakespeare (aged eighteen) and Ann Hathaway (aged twenty-six), and on May 26, 1583, their child Susanna was christed in Holy Trinity Church. The inference that the marriage was forced upon the youth is natural but not inevitable; betrothal was legally binding at the time, and was sometimes regarded as conferring conjugal rights. Two additional children of the marriage, the twins Hamnet and Judith, were christened on Febraury 2, 1585. Meanwhile the prosperity of the elder Shakespeares had declined, and William was impelled to seek a career outside Stratford.

The tradition that he spent some time as a country teacher is old but unverifiable. Because of the absence of records his early twenties are called the ‘lost years’, and only one thing about them is certain—that at least some of these years were spent in winning a place in the acting profession. He may have begun as a provincial trouper, but by 1592 he was established in London and prominent enough to be attacked. . . .

The plague closed the London theatres for many months in 1592-94, denying the actors their livelihood. To this period belong Shakespeare’s two narrative poems, Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. No doubt the poet was rewarded with a gift of money as usual in such cases, but he did no further dedicated and we have no reliable information on whether Southampton, or anyone else, became his regular patron. His sonnets, first mentioned in 1598 and published without his consent in 1609, are intimate without being explicitly autobiographical. . . . The true distinction of the sonnets, at least of those not purely conventional, rests in the universality of the thoughts and moods they express, and in their poignancy and beauty.

In 1594 was formed the theatrical company known until 1603 as the Lord Chamberlain’s men, thereafter as the King’s men. Its original membership included, besides Shakespeare, the beloved clown Will Kempe and the famous actor Richard Burbage. The company acted in various London theatres and even toured the provinces, but it is chiefly associated in our minds with the Globe Theatre built on the south bank of the Thames in 1599. Shakespeare was an actor and joint owner of this company (and its Globe) through the remainder of his creative years. His plays, written at the average rate of two a year, together with Burbage’s acting won it its place of leadership among the London companies.

Individual plays began to appear in print, in editions both honest and piratical, and the publishers became increasingly aware of the value of Shakespeare’s name on the title pages. . . . In the second half of his writing career, history plays gave place to the great tragedies; and farces and light comedies gave place to the problem plays and symbolic romances. In 1623, seven years after his death, his former fellow-actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, cooperated with a group of London Printers in bringing out his plays in collected form. The volume is generally known as the First Folio.

Shakespeare had never severed his relations with Stratford. His wife and children may sometimes have shared his London lodgings, but their home was Stratford. His son Hamnet was buried there in 1596, and his daughters Susanna and Judith were married there in 1607 and 1616 respectively. . . . His considerable earnings in London, as actor-sharer, part owner of the Globe and playwright, were invested chiefly in Stratford property. In 1597 he purchased for 60 lbs New Place, one of the two most imposing residences in the town. A number of other business transactions, as well as minor episodes in his career, have left documentary records. By 1611 he was in a position to retire, and he seems gradually to have withdrawn from theatrical activity in order to live in Stratford. In March, 1616, he made a will, leaving token bequests to Burbage, Heminge, and Condell, but the bulk of his estate to his family. The most famous feature of the will, the bequest of the second-best bed to his wife, reveals nothing about Shakespeare’s marriage; the quaintness of the provision seems
commonplace to those familiar with ancient testaments. Shakespeare died April 23, 1616, and was buried in the Stratford church where he had been christened. Within seven years a monument was erected to his memory on the north wall of the chancel. Its portrait bust and the Droeshout engraving on the title page of the First Folio provide the only likenesses with an established claim to authenticity. . . . [4]

The canonicity that Bloom emphasises is rooted in what is widely recognised as Shakespeare’s universality. Bloom writes, ‘Students and friends have described for me Shakespeare as they have seen him in Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Indonesian, and Italian, and the general report has been that the audiences were as one in finding that Shakespeare represented them upon the stage.’ [5] In the words of Mark Van Doren, whose course on Shakespeare at Columbia Thomas Merton once wrote ‘was the best course I ever had at college’: [6]

He had too much poetry, and—the same thing for him—too much sense, to be the slave of fashions in human being. He is typical of any world that can be understood, and he is the kind of story-teller who can be judged by the most general standards that we have. The ‘Poetics’ of Aristotle will explain him more readily than the unique literature of his age will explain him. It is difficult enough for such literature to explain itself; nor does Shakespeare seem to call for explanations beyond those which a whole heart and a free mind abundantly supply. [7]

For Van Doren, in addition to being temporal and cultural Shakespeare’s universality is also cosmic. ‘Shakespeare, starting with the world no man has made, and never indeed abandoning it, made many worlds within it’, and as he writes of the world of Midsummer Night’s Dream, it ‘is as big and as real as any world we know.’ [8] But also, Shakespeare does not ‘work without a full comprehension of the thing he is working at; of the probability that other and contrary things are of equal importance’. [9] As Van Doren states in his autobiography, ‘There is no subject like Shakespeare. It embraces the world.’ [10]

It certainly embraces the English language. Indeed, Shakespeare might almost be said to bear the same relationship to English that Homer once did to Greek. It is common knowledge that he actually introduced new words and expressions into our tongue, and that many of his lines have entered into common parlance even among those who have never read nor seen a single play. As an English-speaker I find Shakespeare’s words lodged very deeply in my psyche, whether I have read them on the page, heard them in stage or screen adaptations, read or heard them in the context of other works, or, most primally of all, simply picked them up from the culture around me. I think probably one of the snippets of Shakespeare to which I was exposed earliest was Puck’s closing monologue from Midsummer Night’s Dream, as performed by Robert Sean Leonard’s charactre in the film Dead Poets Society:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. [11]

Most recently I have become enamoured of the Epilogue of what is currently my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free. [12]

Although I would love to write in more depth about his work, I don’t wish to make this post over long, so I’ll have to make it point to explore the Bard a bit more in future posts. In the meantime, I feel I shouldn’t avoid saying something on the subject of Shakespeare and Christian faith. T.S. Eliot noted back in 1927:

There are, of course, a number of other current interpretations of Shakespeare: that is, of the conscious opinions of Shakespeare: interpretations of category, so to speak: which make him either a Tory journalist or a Liberal journalist, or a Socialist journalist (though Mr Shaw has done something to warn off his co-religionists from claiming Shakespeare, or from finding anything uplifting in his work); we have also a Protestant Shakespeare, and a sceptical Shakespeare, and some case may be made out for an Anglo-Catholic, or even a Papist Shakespeare. [13]

Robert Miola, of Loyola College, MD, has written a helpful overview of the religious issue for First Things (here), where he emphasises the evidence that Shakespeare may have been Roman Catholic, but refuses to consider the matter closed. I am intrigued by this. I can’t help but feel, however, that the Protestant/Catholic squabble over who gets to claim him is all rather a moot point. While I am open to the view, quoted by Rowland Cotterill from Stanley Cavell’s Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare, that ‘Religion is Shakespeare’s pervasive, hence invisible, business’, [14] and merely would like to see more evidence for it, [15] in the meantime I tend to find myself in agreement with George Santayana that Shakespeare ‘is remarkable among the greater poets for being without a philosophy and without a religion.’ [16] Santayana certainly finds this somewhat odd, especially in light of the usual claims, mentioned above, for Shakespeare’s universality. He points out that if archaeologists of some future age or distant planet were to try to discern ‘the truest portrait and best memorial of man’ through ‘a conscientious study’ of Shakespeare, they ‘would misconceive our life in one important respect. They would hardly understand that man had had a religion.’ [17]

Interestingly, too, while I cannot condemn Shakespeare for this quite so strongly, I find myself curiously close to the judgement of Tolstoy (whom I can hardly help mentioning at this point!). As Bloom points out, he was the ‘most distinguished resenter of Shakespeare’, [18] believing that the Bard aimed ‘merely at the recreation and amusement of the spectators’, while ‘the teaching of life should be sought for in other sources’. [19] Even C.S. Lewis notes, ‘In all Shakespeare’s works the conception of good really operative—whatever the characters may say—seems to be purely worldly.’ [20]

In conclusion, however, I shall offer the one sonnet which Santayana suggests is a ‘doubtful exception’ to the rule that they ‘are not Christian’: [21]


Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Fooled by these rebel powers that thee array, [22]
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then. [23]

[1] Samuel Johnson, ‘Preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare’, Samuel Johnson, ed. Donald Greene (Oxford: Oxford U, 1990), p. 420.

[2] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books & School of the Ages (NY: Riverhead, 1995), pp. 43, 47.

[3] C.S. Lewis, ‘Private Bates’, Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harvest, 1986), p. 46.

[4] Willard Farnham, ed., Hamlet Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), pp. 7-11.

[5] Bloom, p. 49.

[6] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Garden City, NY: Garden City Books, 1951), p. 180. Keep in mind that Merton had attended Cambridge and Columbia at a time when there were some great men at both universities.

[7] Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953), p. xii.

[8] Ibid., pp. xii, 63.

[9] Ibid., p. 67.

[10] Mark Van Doren, The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (NY: Harcourt, 1958), p. 186.

[11] The Annotated Shakespeare, Vol. 1, ed. A.L. Rowse (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978), p. 277.

[12] The Annotated Shakespeare, Vol. III, ed. A.L. Rowse (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978), p. 907.

[13] T.S. Eliot, ‘Shakespeare & the Stoicism of Seneca’, Selected Essays (London: Faber, 1949), p. 127.

[14] Rowland Cotterill, ‘Shakespeare & Christianity’, The Discerning Reader: Christian Perspectives on Literature & Theory, ed. David Barratt, Roger Pooley, & Leland Ryken (Leicester, UK: Apollos, 1995), p. 174. Despite Harold Bloom’s assertion that Macbeth, for instance, does not ‘yield to Christianization’ (p. 48), I actually found Leland Ryken’s attempt at such a Christianisation in Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979), pp. 128-45, to be halfway persuasive.

Nevertheless, at the moment I certainly wish to go no further than Charles Williams: ‘It has been said that Shakespeare expressed supernatural values in natural terms; it is as far as we ought to go’ (‘Two Brief Essays on Shakespearean Topics’, The Image of the City & Other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler (London: Oxford U, 1970), p. 39.

[15] Indeed, it is intriguing enough to me that I would very much like to get my hands on a copy of Cavell’s book.

[16] George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry & Religion (NY: Harper, 1957), p. 163.

[17] Ibid., p. 147. Of course, part of the reason I am interested in Cavell’s book is that Santayana’s words might well be said too of Lord of the Rings, while Cavell’s words remind me a good deal of what Tolkien himself did say about his magnum opus.

[18] Bloom, p. 53.

[19] Qtd. in ibid., p. 54.

[20] C.S. Lewis, ‘Christianity & Culture’, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1996), p. 184.

[21] Santayana, p. 151.

[22] ‘Fooled by’ being the first reading suggested by Rowse, as well as that followed by Santayana (p. 151).

[23] The Annotated Shakespeare, Vol. II, ed. A.L. Rowse (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978), pp. 788-9.


The Ochlophobist said...

It is refreshing to read this. Among the Christian great books crowds and the Touchstonista sorts there has long been an attempt to glean a great deal of Christian virtue out of the Shakespeare and to use him as an example of the loss of Christian intuition when we stop teaching the great books, etc.

I have long found Shakespeare tedious, unprofound, and given to what struck me as that sort of humanism that is meant for display, but not for serious contemplation or formation. Even as an entertainment (among the literary entertainments I might find in his age) I find him lacking.

On another note, today is especial for bibliophiles, and the bard is something a part of that. I will note the details on my blog.

Taylor said...

"that sort of humanism that is meant for display, but not for serious contemplation or formation."

I must disagree. Part of the English genius seems to be expressing the natural goods and virtues - marriage, the joys and sorrows of family life, the glory of battles and kings - in which Christian faith and the supernatural form the necessary backdrop, even though it is not often explicitly present. One finds the same sort of thing in Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. As Chesterton said somewhere, "once the supernatural is lost, the natural soon follows" (a very loose paraphrase from memory). English culture, at least until Darwin and the 19th C. crisis in belief occasioned by German biblical criticism, still survived on the momentum from true Orthodox Christianity. I think Shakespeare is a good example of that, though one can already see elements of the turn from a unified vision to fragmentation - what Eliot called the 'dissociation of sensiblity.'

Shakespeare, to me, is a philosopher-poet, but a poet before a philosopher. When I began to read his plays closely (and repetitively) and see them in action, I realized what an incredible artist he is. Each of his plays combines the looseness of life with the intricacy of art. In his beauty and the fullness of his humanity, I think he is entirely suitable for serious contemplation and formation - for building up the 'middle part of the soul' as Fr. Seraphim Rose put it. This kind of formation is especially important for children (and for those of us who have grown up on too much 'junk culture'!). Perhaps we have to work a little bit to appreciate Shakespeare sometimes, but I think it's very much worth it, in the end.

The Ochlophobist said...


Part of the English genius seems to be expressing the natural goods and virtues - marriage, the joys and sorrows of family life, the glory of battles and kings - in which Christian faith and the supernatural form the necessary backdrop, even though it is not often explicitly present.

On this I agree with you. I disagree that Shakespeare achieved or well embodied this genius. I think that literary minded folk read that genius into the bard, perhaps in part because there is so much of that genius in English letters that it is assumed it must reign supreme in the man deemed by many to be the greatest of English writers. I count Shakespeare as a middle of the road poet who wrote a few great poems, and a writer who stumbled into philosophical themes, sometimes approaching profundity (The Tempest), but usually not.

orrologion said...

Och, I don't think I have ever heard anyone dismiss Shakespeare as you have. Who says there's nothing new under the sun?

I would disagree with Taylor that "Christian faith and the supernatural form the necessary backdrop" to Shakesepeare's work, though I would agree that the Bard represents a Christianity in English culture that "survived on the momentum from true Orthodox Christianity" - that is, Christianity is mere context (like any other footnoted reference in the collected works) and not in any way a theme.

Perhaps I should require more explicit Christianity in my art and entertainment, but I don't. Mayhap I will reconsider as I think on it further, but he's always been the most beautiful of the mundane poets, the earthy village sorts. Were he Orthodox, he'd be ordering Dominos Pizza at midnight and drinking a good deal of vodka (or ouzo) mixed in with lamb and cheese, i.e., he is nominally Christian and in now way writing about Christian themes.

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, I for one certainly don't find Shakespeare tedious or unprofound, though not as profound as many people seem to think. But as I suggested, on the surface the plays seem very worldly and irreligious. In this I find myself pretty much on the side of Tolstoy, Santayana, Lewis, & Bloom. What makes me half-way willing to give the 'Christianising' reading a chance is that I'm intrigued that the Christianising critics don't see it my way. I find myself thinking they must have seen something I've missed or they must know something I don't, and I want to be let in on it! Maybe we should call it the 'gnostic' heresy in literary criticism, but there it is!

aaronandbrighid said...

By the way, Orr, if you've never seen anyone dismiss Shakespeare, you should read Tolstoy on him: 'The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare's fame was and is this--that his dramas...corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time and ours.' Tolkien on the other hand claims to have 'cordially disliked' him.

orrologion said...

Pish, moralizers all! :)

Of course, one would not expect to find too many Shakespeare haters in a classical training program, so I guess it makes sense I've only ever heard him lauded.

I would say he is more to the 'way things are' than the 'way things should be' side of things, and beautifully, earthily so.

To be fair, I've also never heard Shakespeare lauded in any sort of christianizing way, either. I can't say I see it in there, except in the way any writer or poet might use religious imagery common in a given culture. Nominally, culturally, accidentally, absent-mindedly and unimportantly Christian, sure, but he was far from a "Christian Writer" - but neither were Tolstoy or Chekhov and I like reading them, too.

The Ochlophobist said...

My personal gripe with the Shake has nothing to do with how explicit his Christianity happens to have been, or how nominal I suspect him to be, or any of that (my comments along those lines have only to do with the irony I find in Touchstonista great books types putting forth the bard as lit with a particular capacity to help form virtue in the soul). I love Chaucer. Hell, I love Thomas Hardy, and would rather have my children read Hardy than Shakespeare.

orrologion said...

Fr. Seraphim Rose took some of his young novices and charges to see Shakespeare for the same reason he played them classical music and had them read Dickens. They may not be spiritual reading, but they help develop a certain sensitivity that can be lacking in modern men. It's put much better in his biography, but I don't have it at hand having lent it out.

I would agree that Shakespeare is does not have "a particular capacity to help form virtue in the soul". At best he is neutral on such matters, at worst he stokes the bawdiness so loved by Englishmen, as well as their other vices and virtues - but that is not the same thing as being 'Christian'.

(I'm reminded of a story by C.S. Lewis, perhaps?, regarding a teacher or headmaster who read the Gospel in chapel and inserted all sorts of references to being a 'gentleman'. Perhaps old timey Episcopalians, Anglicans and anglophiles see Shakespeare as being 'Christian' in the way they equate being a 'good Englishman' - whatever that is - with being Christian. (I think we can see that same temptation in certain ethnic Orthodox circles, as well, so perhaps this is a failing of 'pious' humanity, generally.)

aaronandbrighid said...

The story you're thinking of, Orr, is Merton's. It's in The Seven Storey Mountain.

orrologion said...

Ah, thanks. The Seven Storey Mountain, Augustine's Confessions and The Way of a Pilgrim were my first real introductions to a Christianity other than Protestantism or a Protestant understanding of the Christian 'others' (i.e., papism or various sects). All three were read in 1994, oddly enough, which is the same year I first performed Chekhov. I date the start of my conversion in September 1994 at my reading of The Way of a Pilgrim; I was baptized in January 2001.

The Ochlophobist said...


The Fr. Seraphim Rose took some of his young novices and charges to see Shakespeare for the same reason he played them classical music and had them read Dickens story gets a lot of traction in Orthoblogdom.

I am not an expert on Bl Seraphim by any means, having only read a few of his books and perhaps 75 pages of the big bio. Is there a list of the plays, music, and literature he had these young men engage?

Dickens is a mixed bag. I think Trollope the perfect counterpart. One should not read one without reading the other. So much of Dickens is journalistic sentiment and in the end Dickens abandoned his own wife and two children, leaving them with nothing, which is astounding given some of Dickens' novelistic agendas. His work stands on its own of course, but in a way I think Dickens' life (at least the end of it) flows out of his work, there is a superficiality to most of it, But the man did go after bankers and lawyers and must be lauded for that.

Classical music begs so many questions. I would love to know what music. Simple basics like Vivaldi's Four Seasons, sure; the further you get into baroque, the more complicated the matter becomes. And did he miss the real spiritual geniuses, such as Heinrich Biber? Of course once you get to classical music as it is normally defined, meaning Beethoven and beyond, one often would be better off to have them listen to folk music.

As for taking his young men to Shakespeare plays, my first thought is that Bl Seraphim did struggle with homosexuality and the culture of homosexuality found in CA during his earlier days. The theatre is perhaps the icon and the principle medium (from plays to radio to tv to omnipresent narrative media) of the transition of early modern virtue-moralistic bourgeois living to late modern style-moralistic bohemian bourgeois lifestylizations. Bl Seraphim saw as well as anyone the problems of modernity, but everybody has their blind spots. The theatre and homosexuality represent the pinnacle of the new late modern bourgeois (bobo) aesthetic. I think that one of the easiest ways we can dissent from bobo culture is to openly disdain theatre, excepting, of course, that theatre which disdains itself, which the blessed French were kind enough to give us. Bl Seraphim would have been better off sending them to see Waiting for Godot or The Bald Soprano.

The Ochlophobist said...

Oh, and before anyone chides me, it is not homosexuality qua homosexuality that I express a problem with here. My problem is not with homosexuals. Theirs is a sin like any other. It is the particular place of what is deemed and sold as homosexual aesthetics and forms within bobo lifestylization embraced by bobos that I have a problem with, as it is a most antichrist of decadences. Any given homosexual might hate that aesthetic as much as I do (indeed, I know several who do). Just as heterosexual marriages have been narrowly packaged and aestheticized in mass media, so have homosexeual motifs, and we now have what we have. The issue with Bl Seraphim is not that he had homosexual inclinations, but that he engaged in a certain culture, and cultural lenses are very difficult to entirely remove.

Anonymous said...

I honestly really liked reading "The Ochlophobist" blog until today. I'm a stuck-up, bobo-bashing, elitist myself, but reading Och's contemptuous and cavalier condemnations of Shakespeare made me a bit uncomfortable. (BTW, this criticism is not meant to apply to today's levelheaded-as-usual post on this blog.) Now, this just takes the cake: Fr. Seraphim took young men to see Shakespeare because he was really a not-quite-regenerate poofter. Thanks for the analysis Och.

The Ochlophobist said...

bobo-bashing, but transitioning from "really liked" to something other because of being made "a bit uncomfortable." Is Anon Rod Dreher?

I have written many thousands of words with regard to the cathartic elements in theatre as theatre which in my estimation make it a deformed art. I link to the principles of these posts on the sidebar of my blog. Contemptuous, yes. Cavalier, well, perhaps in the older usage of that word. Setting aside the problems of theatre and considering poetry, as Aaron suggests here and we could have a further conversation concerning, the notion that Shakespeare is not a top tier poet (and thus is overrated, generally speaking) is certainly not novel.

The Ochlophobist said...


With regard to Bl. Seraphim, your comment ignores my own clarification. The issue has nothing to do with his being homosexual, in and of homosexuality itself. It has to do with the homosexual cultural aestheticism he engaged with prior to Orthodoxy.

When one reads Seraphim Rose, one is either ignorant or in pious delusion if one thinks that his criticisms and observations and the manner in which he frames his arguments are such that he 'learned' or adopted them solely from his Orthodox experience. There is a great deal in the tone, intellectual posture, and rhetorical style of Rose's work which is very much in keeping with the writings of others who came out the sorts of countercultural movements Rose was familiar with. Those countercultural movements formed him intellectually, and that formation is at least quite evident in the works of his I have read, and I suspect never left him. There is nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. But with regard to the question of the formation of young men, one might well ask what in a person's background might motivate him to think that taking them to a Shakespeare play would be good for their formation in some sense. The fact that Rose came out of the sort of (among others) subculture that so embraces theatrical aestheticism is, it seems to me, a rather obvious observation. That Rose, even if he is a saint, did a given act, does not mean the act must be held as sanctified by all Orthodox. He may have been well on the way to theosis, and meant nothing but good things, and been inclined towards theatre for the wrong reasons. Reasons there being related to reason, and not intention. One might not be in a state of regeneracy but still, from time to time, on rare occasion even, not have reason fully conformed to reality.

Anonymous said...

My comment does not ignore your clarification (which ends with a split infinitive, BTW). Basically, my problem is with this: "my first thought is that Bl Seraphim did struggle with homosexuality." Why just cavalierly (in the newer usage of that word) blurt out one's first thought? especially when it is so shallow? I understand that your "problem is not with homosexuals" but with their aesthetic, which you say Fr. Seraphim absorbed. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't, I don't know. What I do know is that to pass off as sophisticated critique the theory that Fr. Seraphim's apparent appreciation for Shakespeare must necessarily have come from his pre-conversion engagement with the antichrist decadence of 1950s gay San Francisco, is ridiculous. It sounds like something I would say, and think I was really brilliant for saying, after staying up all night snorting cocaine.

To everything after "That Rose, even if he is a saint..." you'll have no argument from me.

Taylor said...

It seems that, from the evidence given in the biography by Fr. Damascene (which I have no reason to distrust), that Fr. Seraphim recognized a tendency in the novices who showed up at his monastery which made him realize their need for some kind of formation in the 'middle part of the soul'. As I understand it, this aspect of the soul has to do with emotional, natural maturity and wholeness - the affections and what Lewis called the 'stock responses'. It is not the highest, spiritual part of the soul, yet without having some kind of formation in this middle part of the soul, spiritual growth is often stunted or abandoned, unable to grow to any depth.

Fr. Seraphim concluded that a major reason why these young men were so emotionally stunted is because they had grown up without any 'soul formation' on that middle level. The best way to remedy that, he thought, was to teach them how to appreciate the best of 'high culture' - not because this is an end in itself, but because this builds up in the soul a sensitivity which is necessary in beginning the spiritual life. Dickens, Shakespeare (and yes, even the theatrical performance of Shakespeare), Jane Austen, Sir Phillip Sidney, etc., are excellent nourishment for this part of the soul, which I think is something Fr. Seraphim rightly recognized.

One can always find 'subconscious' reasons for someone else's actions - which are hard to question because subconscious motivations are by definition hidden from the person performing the action. However, Fr. Seraphim's given reasons for having his novices and students partake of Shakespeare and Dickens seem sound to me, and I think we ought to grapple with his reasoning before dismissing the particular acts so quickly.

The Ochlophobist said...

The reasoning being presented here is that I could find in every other issue of Touchstone. Thanks fellas.

All of this assumes that the middle soul work is done well by Shakespeare and Dickens. Thus far everyone in this thread who takes this position has done so by mere assertion. I deny as much by mere assertion (Dickens is better than Shakespeare for such a work, but certainly not among the first writers I would turn to).

The assertion that theatre is intrinsically decadent and not really ever a high or fine art is one that has longstanding traction in Christian traditions, Orthodox, Catholic, and Prot (there is my play at a 'mere Christianity' - just kidding). There is no need in a thread forum for me to give a history of such, any person with any education regarding Christianity and the arts knows as much. The idea that virtually all 'camps' of Christianity came to accept theatre as an art and a good which might be used toward Christian ends (or pre-Christian middle soul ends) at the same time of the triumph of an aestheticism that is closely associated with pansexualism is an idea which certainly does not originate with me. Late modernity has a pansexualist culture. It is my convinction that when one has, without reservation, the intuition that theatre as theatre is a good which can be used to well form the soul (with a Christian teleology of soul in mind), then one has been influenced by late modern aesthetics, and thus by pansexualist aesthetics, as the two are inseparable. Anyone who took part in homosexual culture in CA from the 50s on is going to have been formed more intensely in such aesthetic intuitions than others might have. Hence my first thought.

Dismiss my views as you will. Socrates rejected the written word. St. Augustine believed that musical instruments were intrinsically evil. A host of Fathers and Christians of all sorts have condemned theatre and dramatic 'arts.' My assertion that the triumph of the theatre (now the 'art' of late modernity) is associated with pansexualism has been articulated by writers as far ranging as E. Michael Jones to Michel Foucault (though Foucault, of course, used different language to describe this phenomenon). Bl Seraphim Rose was a man who had no problems rejecting certain late modern conventions which he felt must be rejected by Christians. He certainly could have rejected theatre, qouting this or that father, without anyone thinking him outside of the bounds of his normal approach to late modernity. He clearly did not. Given that this thread is about Shakespeare, an academic area which is full of nothing but speculation with regard to the man's formation, intellectual and spiritual allegiances, intent, etc., I thought it perfectly appropriate to speculate that it is at least possible that at the time Rose took young men to see Shakespeare his intuition regarding the goodness of theatre may have been formed by an aesthetic paradigm he acquired elsewhere. Given that theatre is worshipped as a god in one of his former cultural environs I will suggest that my "first thought" was neither brilliant nor cocaine induced, but rather mundane and obvious.

aaronandbrighid said...

I know this is disappointing since I am the resident blogger around here and since I am seen as a 'leveheaded-as-usual' kind of guy, but I actually have little to contribute to this exchange. Although I am by temperament very much inclined to enjoy Shakespeare, on the stage or the page, and while my thoughts on the subject are very rudimentary, I am sympathetic to Owen's call, rightly noted as being in the spirit of Fr Seraphim, to reject 'certain late modern conventions', and knee-jerk reactions to that call only intensify my sympathy. I am reminded of the response I got to a post on St Gregory the Theologian's use of a metaphor of God at 'play', as well as conversations I've had on other subjects. My veneration for Fr Seraphim is great, and I'm always inclined to believe he knew what he was doing, but I also think there is something to Owen's perspective here. It may well be my romanticism and not merely my veneration for Fr Seraphim that inclines me in Shakespeare's favour (not for his Christianity, but for his artistic ability). Perhaps also it's undetected bobo influence! ;-)

Taylor said...


You seem to be making two separate points: 1) Shakespeare is simply a bad writer; 2) The theater is intrinsically corrupt - a) based on the authority of Christian history and the fathers; b) based on the idea that late modernity is intrinsically 'pansexualist' (not sure what you mean by this term) and theater is the art of late modernity.

As to point 1, I think we are at an impasse. One cannot argue in matters of taste; however, I think that when one finds oneself struggling to appreciate a writer who is generally considered great by many people over a long period of time, one should begin by questioning one's distaste, assuming that the problem is in one's judgements and not in the writer himself. Shakespeare deserves at least this much consideration.

As to point 2.a., I think that we ought to consider whether the fathers rejected the theater because it was inextricably connected with pagan worship in classical times and late antiquity. If this is why the fathers rejected the theater, then we don't have to assume that the rejection applies to all theater at all times.

As to 2.b, I am not sure how to respond to this charge, as it seems to rely on a history of culture that I'm not familiar with. However, I would ask whether Shakespeare has to be included in the general condemnation of late modernity. Is Shakespeare pansexualist? Is a production of Shakespeare intrinsically corrupt because it takes place in a theater? It seems like you're hastily conflating Shakespeare with particular problems in late modernity.

To address the question of Fr. Seraphim's endorsement of Shakespeare and the value of high culture for the human soul - I think you're missing the larger intuition that Fr. Seraphim had and which I also hold (and which I think Aaron has endorsed here as well, if I can bring him into this argument), that a) modern popular culture is so pervasive that it cannot be counteracted without conscious work to replace it with something else; b) popular culture is so bad for the soul and so barbaric that, in order to counteract its bad effects, Orthodox Christians have to seek out a high culture that is not specifically Orthodox and perhaps not even specifically Christian in order to form that middle part of the soul. (I think one could draw the same conclusion from Abolition of Man). Without striving to attain the simply human sensibilities, affections and virtues, which high culture helps us to do, how can we expect to make any progress in the spiritual life? In an increasingly anti-human culture, in which human nature is an arcane concept, we have to take the 'spoils of Egypt' where we find culture which still has value for the soul - even if it means going to the theater.

The Ochlophobist said...


My arguments concerning the nature of drama have been drawn out in a series of posts on my blog and I will not go further into the matter here, except to say that one need not accept or reject such arguments to recognize that the position is found (not uniformly) throughout the history of the Church and thus it is fair play, as it were, for a Christian to suggest that drama is a lower or debased form of art.

I don't believe I ever said Shakespeare is a bad writer. I have argued two things with regard to his writing: that it is not the best art to be found, and that among works of art it is not the best for the formation of the Christian soul, middle soul or some other portion of the soul. Most of this, yes, has been based on mere assertion, but the detraction on this thread has also been mere assertion. We shall have to agree to disagree.

My problem with an appeal to 'high culture' is that many Christians doing this today are following a Roger Scruton sort of paradigm. Much 'high art' is complex in a way that coming to an understanding of it may make one more intelligent but it may yet be not good for the formation of the soul. Further, much 'high art' is beautiful in a sensual way that really won't do much good for the soul. Thus above when it comes to music I ask the questions I ask. There is a pollyanna assumption about in many great books Christian circles today that having a young man view a given piece of art from, say, 1540, is always better than listening to hip hop music. It may be better at educating a person in the older senses of education, but it may not be better for the soul. Remember in Dostoevsky's The Idiot the role of the Hans Holbein painting, which Dostoevsky thought to be antichrist. Let us assume Dostoevsky is correct. It may be no better for the soul to love that 'high art' painting than it is to love the music of Snoop Dogg. It is not Bl Seraphim's fundamental project I question here, only that I wonder what high art he turned to, and I would not have chosen Shakespeare as an art to replace pop art, when there are better options available for his stated task.

Taylor said...


Regarding the argument from Christian history, I would say that we would have to investigate the reasons why theater was condemned in certain periods and places, and whether that condemnation was meant to be universal. We could also mention the fact that fiction has not always been looked upon favorably by Christians throughout the history of the church. In both cases, even if both art forms have been condemned in the past, the question is whether, in facing the pervasive and debased popular culture which surrounds us, viewing a Shakespeare play at a theater or reading a novel is really so bad when compared to what most people are filling their minds with from junk culture. Should we equate Shakespeare with 'the hippodrome, the theater and the races' which are condemned by the fathers? I would rather equate modern junk culture with those ancient spectacles and leave the best of 'high' culture free from such a condemnation.

I would agree that arguments pro and con Shakespeare have been mere assertion - however, I think that I can claim the weight of authority for the pro-Shakespeare camp.

As for the criticism of the Christian great books movement, you are certainly correct in arguing that one should not take in high culture without discernment. However, the likelihood of a modern American young man becoming enamored with Hans Holbien instead of Snoop Dogg is so small that I'm not sure it's something we ought to be worried about. The return to classical education and the great books is largely a praiseworthy endeavor, and I think it's motivated by the same concerns about the pervasive popular culture which prompted Fr. Seraphim to give his novices lessons in poetics and Shakespeare. Towards your concern about indiscriminate love for 'high culture', however, I think that's why it's important to combine such studies with socratic-style discussion. Having been at St. John's College, I can vouch that it certainly does not result in uncritical appreciation of the 'high art' canon! I know that Bryan Smith uses the same approach at St. Peter's Classical Academy, an Orthodox secondary school in Dallas.

Despite our disagreement, I have enjoyed our all-to-brief exchange, though I must end my part of it here. I think the larger question at hand, of Orthodoxy and culture (or perhaps 'secular studies'), is of great interest and importance. Maybe Aaron can host a web-symposium on this at some point on Logismoi!

The Ochlophobist said...


Yes, I had never thought to question the reasons for the condemnations of theatre which I refer to. Nor had I ever wondered whether or not those condemnations were meant to be taken as universal condemnations. I have only read the copyright page of Adler's How to Read a Book and have never studied rhetoric or the trivium as a whole. I only collect Eva Brann books for their pretty covers, I never read them.

the likelihood of a modern American young man becoming enamored with Hans Holbien instead of Snoop Dogg is so small that I'm not sure it's something we ought to be worried about.

But I did not worry about it, nor did I infer such a worry. I simply stated that an attempt to trade Snoop Dogg for certain instances of 'high art' would be a waste of time with regard the stated project at hand. The likelihood of success was not a part of the discussion. I have no care for such utilities. Shakespeare will be as unpopular as Holbien to the general Snoop Dogg lover, I suspect, unless dumbed down into some popular form.

River Cocytus said...

It's just poetry folks. Maybe Shakespeare's genius simply was that he realized if he just told stories people would read all kinds of stuff into them... my impression from Dickens is the same. I don't like his sonnets, simply because for at least the first mass of them I don't share the disposition to understand the images.

All of this reading Christendom or Pansexualism into this or that business is distraction. Shakespeare can become distraction, too - the more bawdy parts could inspire a man in the wrong direction certainly - but doesn't the lack of 'explicit' religion reflect more, as Tolstoy noted, the common lack of genuine piety? But the plays are really good, and I admire most that he wrote things that were both popular and contained genuine substance. That is difficult; most producers of 'substance' cannot be bothered to make any of it - small or great - comprehensible to the poor fool with a soul that's thin along the middle.

And if Dickens is superficial - which some of it is no doubt - I think that it is because many of us live extremely superficial lives. But I think we judge 'superficial' and 'deep' by the insane utopian moral passions of the 20th century; that is, something is only 'deep' if it is a mind blowing indictment of 'the world' or 'the establishment'. (Christian/Secular)

In any case can't it be agreed that there is no 'art' which can be taken 'uncritically', by which I mean, without paying attention to one's own soul and the effect the work has on it, and a contemplation of the larger themes going on in the work (if any?)

I have heard from the tiresome Berry and even from Chesterton that to be a good critic means to be a good friend, but as it seems Owen does not much like the bourgeois how can he be a critic? We already know, man, that you disdain all that is bourgeois (or is similar to it) - what more needs be said? All that remains is more complex explanations of why something is bourgeois or why bourgeois things are soul-corrupting.

And the explanations get complicated.

But can we get critiques on something you like, Owen, or is it all about ideological polemic? How about telling us what's wrong with Berry? Or is each word a shot and each essay a battle in a war that the right side must win?

I write this because a good solid critique of the Porcher and localist worldviews would be most helpful.

Misreadings of fathers on acting aside, surely. (What would they say of 'exotic dancing' in the mid to late 20th or 'modeling' now?)

Sorry if this post appears to be in spite - I am mostly tired of bridge burning Orthodoxy - in which ideally the bridge leads to a monastery which the man only leaves due to invasion or for more desolate places.

The Ochlophobist said...


If you bother to peruse the archives of my site, you will find a plenty of criticisms of Berry, and plenty concerning the limitations of any application of Berry's vision for most of us. I have also expressed plenty of friendliness toward ChesterBelloc on my blog, but I have at the same time noted their pollyanna and sometimes rabidly naïve approach to history, literature, and economics.

I have written "positive," friendly critiques of a number of works.

Though I could, I have not here argued that Shakespeare has here been appreciated in bourgeois manner, or that an appreciation of Shakespeare is intrinsically bourgeois. That tactic is a straw man.

Dickens is not simply superficial (and he usually is) he is journalistic. He has been read that way by not a few, including critics writing prior to the 20th century, and the Trollope/Dickens tension I mention has been noted by many. Their writings play off of each other, as they both looked at similar human phenomenon from a decidedly different posture. In my opinion, and this is not an original opinion, neither the Dickensonian nor Trollopian posture is a complete one, which is why it is best to read them together.

Chesterton agreed with Belloc's curt dismissal of Hardy. One should usually not take their more sentimental quotables literally. A good critic need not always have affection for a work being criticized, though it obviously helps. Chesterton spends pages here and there describing his impressions of Eastern Orthodoxy. They are based, essentially, upon his own religious principles. The fact is, if Chesterton’s religion is the right one, then I think that Chesterton’s take on Orthodoxy is accurate (and not simply because it must be right because a Roman Catholic critic is making it, but because the observations ring true, and if the theological and aesthetic basis behind them are true, I would hold them to be true – as it is, I do not hold Chesterton’s theology or theological aesthetic to be true). But it is clear that Chesterton is not a friend to Orthodoxy, he has no real affection for it (that which is expressed in the book on Jerusalem is obviously sarcastic). I consider my views on Shakespeare in the same light. If my argument regarding theatre is true, then my arguments regarding the artistic weight of Shakespeare’s dramas may be true, regardless of the fact that I have little affection for the plays themselves.

aaronandbrighid said...


But does your argument about theatre still apply to Shakespeare's dramas if we consider them solely as written texts to be read rather than performed or watched? This is sort of like what Mark Van Doren was doing.

The Ochlophobist said...


It is then less applicable. As I state somewhere in my long series on catharsis and drama, Shakespeare is better read as epic (and obviously some plays and some portions of plays tend toward this) and best read as lyric (and as was noted by the commenter on my blog, there is some brilliant lyric within certain plays, and certain plays have a more lyrical quality to them than others). The further Shakespeare lends itself to a reading away from drama, and toward epic and lyric, the better the Shakespeare we are dealing with. And there is good in Shakespeare, and occasional brilliance in Shakespeare. But there is good and occasional brilliance in a Legion of writers. Shakespeare's top place in the canon is an accident of history, in my opinion, and not based on literary merit. Something like the Ecumenical Patriarch being first among equals in the Orthodox Church.

River Cocytus said...


Understood. Apologies if I came across angrily. I have never understood the exercise of intellectuals myself; so consider it the ravings of a rustic.

I'm aware of the limits of Chesterton, as well as Lewis, and so on. I cannot help but wonder if the wholesale dismissal of drama, though, and its assistance in the development of the souls of some at some times is somewhat of a stretch. I have explored the rubric myself and I continually find it wanting, in that it renders many works I have read that have been considered great utterly limbless.

I can say that I think drama is overread, as in for instance within the Gospels, but I think it can be underread (as for instance rendering a Godman who is not angry when he drives out the moneychangers from the Temple.)

That being the case it may be helpful to underread Drama for awhile, but in its entire absence things make no sense to me.

On the Shakespeare, it might be said that most greats are accidents of history; I recall reading some Aristotle, and while he is supposed to be great, sometimes he is just obtuse. I assumed it was my own limitation (a useful assumption) but that may not be altogether correct.

Moreover, sometimes we judge excellence by a particular standard which in no way applies; If I say it's only poetry, I mean that in it there is no particular theological or overarching vision of plan, which is simply to say (in my opinion) it is very concrete and particular and is in that way the best of one sort of poetry. That is, it is much like journalism or photography. It is not marked by what we typically call genius (a tremendous universal mind) but rather by a kind of stupid, wandering luck. But one other great poet, Basho, at least gives the pretense that this is the case for him. And if asked he would probably have admitted that it was no more than a historical accident that his work became so valued.

Now, from what I gather what you have argued is that Shakespeare is greatly overvalued, but it also may be a difference in questions of 'value': For many it may add up to no more than their experience of Shakespeare is always excellent (which may have as much to do with people thinking he is great and thus making a great effort to make performances and presentations of his works great.)

At any rate, is there in your view anything such as 'great journalism'? And do you think perhaps STC and his contemporaries shared a different metaphysics than you or I, so thus in that realm of ideas Shakespeare is much greater? And lastly, is it possible that since much of Shakespeare's talent may be in the construction of dramas, the dismissal of drama as trivial renders his work no longer so exceptional?

As I am uneducated in all such things, this all may be taken with a grain of salt.

Then again, I may read you wrong.