The Many Homilies of Shakespeare

Author: Sylvia Guida

The Many Homilies of Shakespeare

Silvia Guidi

The Bard and Mercy

“There is order and there is chaos”, writes director Peter Brook in a beautiful book entitled The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare. “There is power and the abandoning of power. There is pride, and there is humility. And yet in all these oppositions something is unspoken; something is deeply lacking. What can encompass and bind them together? Out of the opposition, which in itself can go on forever (because an opposition is dynamic and cannot graduate beyond its own level), what is lacking so that this constant dynamic opposition, on which all life as we know it is based, can be transformed?”.

We need something capable of unraveling every human conflict from within and break the chain of endless juxtaposition. And that something is expressed by a word that has no right to exist in any human lexicon — “mercy”, misericordia — concrete, capable of changing history, but also mysterious, divine and human because it is composed of two different natures. Pardon is rarely the fruit of any human ethical effort, but it can be given by God as a free gift in response to prayer. And for that to happen it needs a “yes” from a human person. It needs to become incarnate in real life experience.

The Jesuit Peter Milward addresses this theme in an article appearing in the latest issue of La Civiltà Cattolica entitled “La qualità della misericordia in Shakespeare (The Quality of Mercy in Shakespeare)”. He writes that Pope Francis, shortly after proclaiming the Extraordinary Jubilee of 2016, cited the words that Portia, the heroine in The Merchant of Venice, addresses to Shylock during the dramatic trial scene. Mercy can be forced from no one: it must come directly from the heart, says Portia, disguised as a young lawyer. It must drop “as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”. These words throw us immediately into a biblical context: to the sapiential book of Sirach, which directly refers to mercy (35:25); to the song of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, which also refers to Wisdom (32:2; see also Isaiah 4:6); and to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which refer to God’s love (Mt 5:45). “It is twice blest,” Portia continues, “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”. “In this way,” Milward remarks, “the author prepares the stage for a kind of homily on mercy. But how can he do this? Shouldn’t a playwright just present the comedy at hand, critics would say, rather than climb into the pulpit? Certainly. But when a playwright wants to insert a homily into his drama, who is going to stop, him? In any case, Shakespeare invites us not only to listen to the homily, but to meditate on its meaning”.

Actually, the more we analyze the details of the Bard’s masterpieces, the stranger they become. Many monologues are in fact written in a homiletic style, and conversions and sudden turnarounds fly in the face of Aristotelian logic. We find this even in his most famous works, those we seem to know so well, like Hamlet. Deep down, the Prince of Denmark’s behaviour is often inconsistent with the internal economy of the play, as Piero Boitani writes in a wonderful study entitled The Gospel according to Shakespeare (University of Notre Dame Press, 2014). In fact, if we judge the play according to rigid rationalist categories, it seems entirely incoherent, as Boitani stresses in an interview with Alessandro Zaccuri published in the July 6th edition of the newspaper Avvenire. For example, in the first part of the plot, the prince is prey to a melancholy that borders on insanity, be it feigned or real. Whatever the case may be, there is a brusque interruption between this and what follows. As soon as Hamlet returns from a mysterious journey in which he claims to have been abducted by pirates, everything changes. He recognizes the divine order in all things, he is emotionally moved by the divine providence manifested in the death of a single sparrow. There is not much in the play to help us understand this transformation. Hamlet’s life was certainly in danger, and this may have contributed to his change in perspective. But the change is no less jarring for this.

There are other U-turns in the drama. Hamlet abuses Ophelia in a manifestly unjust way, giving reason to suspect that the young lady’s madness is, at least in part, due to the pain her fiance has caused her. But in the second part of the play, in the scene at the cemetery, an unrecognizable Hamlet jumps into her grave and finally declares his love for her. It is a sign of repentance or at least, as Boitani points out, the beginning of something new. In a religious vein, we see here a glimmer of the hope Shakespeare will allow to shine fully in his mature fantasy plays The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Next to the theme of divine providence is that of the human desire for redemption, which comes into full bloom at the end of Hamlet, where irrationality is given full reign.

Here we must keep in mind Hamlet’s relation to his friend Horatio. The two studied together at the University of Wittenberg and their conversations reveal their familiarity with philosophical and theological categories. When everything comes to light at the end of the play, Horatio is entirely aware that Hamlet is guilty of causing more than one death. The old Polonius, King Claudius, and Laertes: all have died in some way at the hand of Hamlet. And yet Horatio expresses. his wish to the “sweet Prince” that “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”. Boitani concludes that Shakespeare, at least in this instance, does not seem inclined to unveil the enigma. Hamlet’s last words “the rest is silence” should be taken literally. Amidst everything that has happened in his life, as in any human life, there is always an impenetrable nucleus that eludes all explanation.

The appeal for mercy in Measure for Measure is even more overtly homiletic. The novice Isabella implores mercy not only for her brother Claudio but also for Angelo, a judge who is harsh with others but indulgent with himself, a symbol of the despicable sin of hypocrisy. Isabella speaks of mercy as a powerful, regenerative force — “O, think on that; / and mercy then will breathe within your lips, / like man new made” — capable of giving rebirth (as in 1 Cor 15). King Lear, in the play of the same name, openly declares his intention to preach using words strangely similar to those Isabella directs at Angelo and foreshadowing those of another British king, Cymbeline (“Pardon’s the word to all”).

Particularly moving is the epilogue Shakespeare places in the mouth of Prospero, the protagonist of The Tempest: “And my ending is despair, / unless I be relieved by prayer, / which pierces so that it assaults / mercy itself and frees all faults”. These words, Milward notes, turn our thoughts to the humility of the greatest playwright of all time as he comes to the end of his theatrical career. Was that humility the reason Shakespeare left more than half his work unedited? It was up to two fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, to collect his works almost seven years after his death and publish them as the First Folio. Rather, what Shakespeare needed at the time was not a simple solution to the human condition, but his prayers and his audience, whom he asked explicitly to pray for him. And so, Milward concludes, despite the encomiums Shakespeare continually receives from every corner of the world as the epicentre of Western literature and the man of the millennium, we should heed his request and pray for his eternal rest as Horatio does for Hamlet.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12-19 August 2016, page 15

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