God's Spy: Shakespeare & Religious Vision
Paul Murray, OP

"[D]o [Lear's] words indicate . . . Shakespeare's own sense of his task, as artist and poet, called first and last to be contemplative of this world, and yet somehow finding himself gazing at things as if he were God's spy?"

Why Shakespeare? Why, in a paper that honours Aquinas,(1) have I chosen to reflect on the work of a man--a poet and dramatist--whose work lies outside, apparently, the ecclesial and theological sphere? It is, of course, precisely because this lecture honours St. Thomas that I have felt free to approach such a subject. Several years ago, in a radio-broadcast delivered in honour of St. Thomas, Cornelius Ernst, O.P., asked the question: "What is a Christian thinker supposed to think about?" And "the answer," at least the answer for Aquinas, according to Ernst, "was simple enough: it was the job of Christian thinkers, of doctors of theology, to think about everything."(2) At the conclusion of his talk, in order to emphasize the point about Thomas' "intuition of claritas," or what he characterized as that "view of the world in which the world effortlessly shows itself for what it is,"(3) Ernst quoted the following lines from a poem by Wallace Stevens:

In the end, however naked, tall, there is still

The impossible possible philosophers' man,

The man who has had the time to think enough,

The central man, the human globe, responsive

As a mirror with a voice, the man of glass,

Who in a million diamonds sums us up.

He is the transparence of the place in which He is

and in his poems we find peace.(4)

The bold application by Fr. Cornelius of these lines to Aquinas was unexpected, revelatory. But, for me, the lines are eloquent also of another "central man," "the human globe," "the man of glass,/Who in a million diamonds sums us up"--the poet and dramatist, William Shakespeare.

A Question about Shakespeare

Who . . . sums us up! If we ask ourselves what is it exactly that distinguishes the truly great artist or poet, there is one characteristic that immediately suggests itself: comprehensiveness of vision, or what T.S. Eliot calls "width of emotional range," the ability, that is, to express "everything in the way of emotion between depravity's despair and the beatific vision."(5) But does Shakespeare, in fact, possess such a comprehensive vision? Does he follow Dante, for example, in an exploration of the higher states and stages of religious feeling--the experience of spiritual conversion, for example, or of the night of faith, or of mystical communion? Can we locate anywhere in his writing that form of religious expression which was described once by Eliot as "man in search of God, and trying to explain to himself his intenser human feelings in terms of the divine goal"?(6) Is it possible that Shakespeare, the man who is arguably the greatest poet of all time, "the man of glass who in a million diamonds sums us up," has failed, in fact, to explore that one fundamental dimension of human life which we call religion or the religious experience?

In the opinion of the philosopher, George Santayana, "the choice," for Shakespeare, "lay between Christianity and nothing." And, according to Santayana, "He chose nothing"--chose, that is, "to leave his heroes and himself in the presence of life and of death with no other philosophy than that which the profane world can suggest and understand."(7) Santayana's judgment here has bearing not only on Shakespeare the author but also on Shakespeare the man. Views about Shakespeare the man have, of course, changed over the centuries. As the wheel has turned, the Stratford dramatist has been made to assume many different forms. At one end of the spectrum, for example, he appears as a Renaissance skeptic or pessimist and, at the other, as a benign establishment figure, a sort of Anglican icon. His most recent appearance as a devout Papist has, of course, sent more than a few shock waves across the literary establishment.

The poet, Ted Hughes, for example, after having read Fr. Peter Milward's book, Shakespeare's Religious Background, became convinced that Shakespeare, from a young age, had instinctively identified with the Roman Catholic tribe.(8) Shakespeare was, in a sense, even "the shaman of old Catholicism," a man profoundly disturbed by the relentless, savage persecution and even near extermination of the faith in which, it is suggested, his own father had probably lived and died. Shakespeare's mother, we are informed by Hughes, was "an Arden--a family known to have been strongly Catholic." But Hughes also notes:

The recusancy (permanent failure to attend church) of John Shakespeare, the poet's father, has been attributed to a stubborn Catholicism (as has his financial ruin). One of the "Spiritual Testaments" (declaration of loyalty to the Catholic faith) distributed in the region in 1580 by the the Jesuit priests Edmund Campion and Robert Persons (both executed later) and drawn up in John Shakespeare's name, was found by a bricklayer in 1784 stuffed under the roof of the Shakespeare birthplace in Henley Street. First doubted as a forgery, it has since been accepted as genuine.(9)

To pursue this question further--the question, that is, of the religious identity of Shakespeare the man--would require much more research and much more careful sifting of the information available than the limits a short paper of this kind will allow. What can be said at once, however, is that, in coming to a decision about Shakespeare's personal religion, one must be wary not only of possible brainwashing from the secular and literary establishment, but wary also of one's own dominant bias and/or religious enthusiasm. And this advice holds true, of course, as much for the skeptic as for the believer. One notable skeptic, George Bernard Shaw, being convinced that he could find, in Shakespeare's work, evidence of an all-pervading pessimism, produced, as a kind of proof, the "out brief candle" soliloquy from Macbeth:

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow . . . it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. A poor player

That struts his hour upon the stage, and then

Is heard no more. (Act V, Scene 3)

G.K. Chesterton objected to Shaw's "pessimistic" reading, and took him to task with characteristic wit and wisdom. "The speech," Chesterton observed, "is not a metaphysical statement at all; it is an emotional exclamation. Mr. Shaw has no right to call Shakespeare a pessimist for having written the words 'out, out, brief candle'; he might as well call Shakespeare a champion of the ideal of celibacy for having written the words, 'Get thee to a nunnery'!"(10) Chesterton's writings on Shakespeare are nowadays all but forgotten, and that's a pity. For, like his writings on Aquinas, they are, at times, quite extraordinarily intuitive. When Chesterton discusses the question of Shakespeare and religion, he doesn't insist, unlike some more recent commentators, that the bard was all his life a secret, committed Catholic. Instead, he is inclined to the view, and I think here he is correct, that "Shakespeare was not . . . a man with a very definite doctrinal point of view."(11) He writes: "To live in the thick of the Renaissance and the Reformation was to live in the thick of a skepticism and philosophical confusion as great, if not greater than our own." But then adds at once: "[Shakespeare] had a great deal of traditional and inherent religious emotion, and what there was of it was mainly Catholic."(12)

In this paper attention will be focused on three themes or patterns in Shakespeare's work: first, and in relation principally to "Sonnet 27," the theme of love and vision; second, and in relation to some of the late visionary plays and also to "Sonnet 146," the theme of death and immortality; and third, in the final section, the theme or the pattern of contemplative vision with respect to this world. These three different sections represent three rather different methods of approach to Shakespeare's work, or three different ways in which Shakespeare's work can be said to stand in relation to the literature of religious vision and to theology. The first section explores the contrast, in terms of theme and imagery, between a representative love-poem by Shakespeare and a poem chosen from the spiritual tradition. The interest here, I should point out at once, is not in Shakespeare's religious vision as such, but simply in the richness of exchange--particularly in terms of language--between two very different worlds of experience. In the second section, however, where the theme is death and immortality, attention will be focused on the evidence to be found of Shakespeare himself--as poet and as author--entering into the field of religion and into the realm of interiority. Finally, in the last section, taking my cue from a single line out of one of the plays, I will try to reflect on the meaning of Shakespeare's contemplation of things, and try also to bring to light, and even to develop, however briefly, the idea of religious vision hinted at here by Shakespeare himself.


1. Passion and Prayer: Shakespeare's "Black Night"

In the winter of 1582, Shakespeare, at the age of eighteen, married Anne Hathaway whom he had got pregnant three months earlier. And in that same winter, towards the end of January, a contemporary of Shakespeare, a poet in his fortieth year, arrived at Granada in Spain, and there began to write a commentary on what is, perhaps, his most finished and perfect poem, "The Dark Night" or "La Noche Oscura." The poet in question is, of course, none other than the Carmelite friar and mystic, St. John of the Cross. John's poem is a work of profound religious vision. And my intention now is to make a brief comparison between it and Shakespeare's "Sonnet 27." Inevitably, since I will not be quoting "La Noche Oscura" in the original Spanish, much will be lost in translation, both in terms of meaning and of music. However, there is available to us, I am glad to say, an English version of "The Dark Night," translated by Roy Campbell, a version which is not only faithful to the spirit of the original, but is also a remarkable poem in its own right.(13)

Both St. John's poem and Shakespeare's sonnet are poems of passionate love, and both describe a journey by night. For John the journey takes place within the night of faith. The awakened soul of the contemplative, "attracted by God and enkindled with love for Him alone,"(14) dares to leave everything else behind, and go out into the night, alone and in secret, in order to meet with her Beloved.

Upon a gloomy night,

With all my cares to loving ardours flushed,

(O venture of delight!)

With nobody in sight

I went abroad when all my house was hushed.


In safety, in disguise,

In darkness up the secret stair I crept,

(O happy enterprise!)

Concealed from other eyes

When all my house at length in silence slept.


Upon that lucky night

In secrecy, inscrutable to sight,

I went without discerning

And with no other light

Except for that which in my heart was burning.


It lit and led me through

More certain than the light of noonday clear

To where One waited near

Whose presence well I knew,

There where no other presence might appear.

St. John's lyric continues for three more stanzas. The final one reads:

Lost to myself I stayed,

My face upon my lover having laid

From all endeavour ceasing:

And all my cares releasing

Threw them amongst the lilies there to fade.

This remarkable poem, "La Noche Oscura," begins and ends with a kind of spiritual rapture: the spouse, the bride-soul, totally absorbed in the love of her divine Lord. But, in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 27," what we find described is a love-obsession or a thraldom of a different kind altogether. The journey the poet finds himself making by night is a journey which takes place entirely inside his own mind, and the vision which he attains in the end, and which hovers before him like a dark "jewel," is the imagined presence of the one he loves obsessively. But that presence, though it is real only in his imagination, and therefore in a sense illusory, is to the fevered brain of the poet-lover something wondrous and vivid. Thus, in spite of great tiredness, his "drooping eyelids" are kept "open wide." Even the "black night" itself which surrounds him, is made "beauteous."


Sonnet 27

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,

The dear repose for limbs with travel tired

But then begins a journey in my head

To work my mind when body's work's expired;

For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,

Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,

And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,

Looking on darkness which the blind do see;

Save that my soul's imaginary sight

Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,

Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,

Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.

Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind

For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

The "black night" in Shakespeare and the "dark night" in St. John of the Cross, describe two very different states of mind and soul. But, common to both "nights" is the paradox of a total darkness somehow mysteriously lit from within, a "night" transformed, in one case, by a depth of human passion, and in the other, by an intensity of mystical love. It is this paradox, the wonder of an illuminating darkness, which St. John praises and celebrates in stanza five:

Oh night that was my guide!

Oh darkness dearer than the morning's pride,

Oh night that joined the lover

To the beloved bride

Transfiguring them each into the other.

In or around the time Shakespeare wrote "Sonnet 27," he also composed a long poem on the subject of the two lovers, Venus and Adonis. At one point in the poem, Venus refers to what she calls "this dark night." And, by way of reply to Adonis's statement, "And now t'is dark, and going I shall fall," Venus, in full and calm possession of a lover's knowledge and intuition, declares, "In night . . . desire sees best of all." And, then, a few lines later: "Now of this dark night I perceive the reason." Clearly, the "dark night" of St. John of the Cross is not to be confused with "the dark night" of Venus! I say this, because in today's world, a poem like that of St. John, may well be subjected to what T.S. Eliot calls "the indignities of Freudian analysis,"(15) and may even be characterized as a form of displaced or repressed sexuality. St. John, in "La Noche Oscura," dares, it is true, to use the imagery of human passion and, at times, even of erotic love, in order to describe the soul's communion with God. But the overwhelming, divine love of which he is speaking is, at root, something utterly different from the force and mystery of an absorbing sensual and romantic passion. All the same, so daring is John as a poet, that the voice we hear, for example, in stanzas six and seven, might almost be that of Venus herself or, more likely, perhaps, that of young Juliet:

Within my flowering breast

Which only for himself entire I save

He sank into his rest

And all my gifts I gave

Lulled by the airs with which the cedars wave.


Over the ramparts fanned

While the fresh wind was fluttering his tresses,

With his serenest hand

My neck he wounded, and

Suspended every sense with its caresses.

What, in John's poem, are simply vivid metaphors--the obsessive need to meet with the beloved, and the complete surrender to a sensual, absorbing love--are for Shakespeare (I think it can be assumed) the form of an experience he knew very well as a young Stratford male. And when, in his work, he writes about the adventure of human love, Shakespeare--almost as if to match the imaginative daring of the Carmelite mystic--is not shy to steal, as it were, metaphors from the world of religion and religious experience. Thus Romeo, for example, is described by Juliet as "the god of my idolatry." And Romeo himself, with a lover's playfulness and passion, refers to Juliet as a "holy shrine," and speaks of his own lips as "two blushing pilgrims":

Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.

Likewise, in "Sonnet 27," in order to evoke the intensity of human passion, Shakespeare does not hesitate to employ explicit religious imagery. He speaks of his "soul's imaginary sight," and of how, in the "black night," his "thoughts" are so focused on his beloved, they "intend" what he calls "a zealous pilgrimage." An equally obsessed lover, the protagonist in Graham Greene's novel, The End of the Affair, speaks of this kind of imaginative crisscrossing from one world of experience to another, from sacred to profane and from profane to sacred. I can think of no better way of ending this short reflection on the two nights--the "noche oscura" of St. John of the Cross and the "black night" of Shakespeare--than by quoting a few lines from Greene's remarkable novel:

The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God, and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation, contemplation to explain the intensity we feel for a woman. We too surrender memory, intellect, intelligence, and we too experience the deprivation, the noche oscura, and sometimes, as a reward, a kind of peace.(16)

Just after that reflection, the tone changes. Greene's protagonist speaks in a more urgent, more personal vein: "It is odd to find myself writing these phrases. . . . Sometimes I don't recognize my own thoughts. What do I know of phrases like 'the dark night' or of prayer, who have only one prayer?"(17) The note of exasperated passion there is pure Shakespeare. And the statement or the question of Greene's obsessed lover might almost serve as a gloss, hurriedly dashed off, in the margin alongside Shakespeare's poem.


2. "Be absolute for death": The Theme of Immortality

Of the hundred and fifty-four sonnets of Shakespeare, only "Sonnet 146 " is straightforwardly spiritual and religious. One thing, however, which it does have in common with many of the other sonnets, is an intense preoccupation with the question of death and immortality. Being confronted again and again by this question, and by the challenge of somehow overcoming the ravages of Time, the answer Shakespeare's sonnets give is not religion but art, and not art in general, but the art of William Shakespeare himself.

Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,

My love shall in my verse ever live long. (No. XIX)

But "Sonnet 146" breathes a different atmosphere altogether. It opens with the poet upbraiding himself for spending so much time and energy on mere outward show.

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,

Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

A sense of guilt, and a stark awareness of the inevitable decay and death of the body's "outward walls," spur the poet on "to buy terms divine," to discover or to recover within himself a spiritual life, an interior reality, a world that will not pass away.

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth

Press'd by these rebel powers that thee array,

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.

The strange exaltation in these lines, the statement concerning the paradox of life-in-death, and the claim that, while being poor "without" one can be rich "within," are all commonplaces in the literature of Christian spirituality and mysticism. St. John of the Cross, for example, speaks, on one occasion, concerning the person who is genuinely spiritual and detached as "one who though having nothing yet possesses all things."(18) Shakespeare, in his play, Timon of Athens, allows Timon himself, at the end of his life, to repeat this idea, but to repeat it, with at least as much desperation and bravado as mystic rapture. Thus: "My long sickness of health and living now begins to mend / And nothing brings me all things" (Act V, Scene I). Likewise, in Measure for Measure, Claudio, encouraged by the Duke to resign himself to what seems an inevitable death, turns to the Duke, and says:

I humbly thank you.

To sue to live, I find I seek to die,

And, seeking death, find life: let it come on.

In his heart, of course, Claudio simply wants to live. He is no more convinced by his own brave rhetoric than the Duke (who has disguised himself as a friar) is convinced by the pseudo-spiritual homily which he delivers to Claudio, and in which he paints such a grim and negative picture of our earthly life.

Be absolute for death; either death or life

Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life;

If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing

That none but fools would keep.

Some lines further on, still addressing Life itself, the Duke declares:

If thou art rich, thou'art poor;

For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows

Thou bearest thy heavy riches but a journey,

And death unloads thee. (Act III, Scene 1)

At first hearing, the "friar's" words, might seem to echo the traditional, ascetical counsel of that real friar, the austere poet and contemplative, St. John of the Cross. But John's ascetical path, his own version of being "absolute for death," is not based on any kind of recoil from life, but springs rather from a deep, personal desire for communion with God.

That desire, that urgent thirst for contact with the Author of life itself, is nowhere expressed in the Duke's words to Claudio, and indeed it is questionable if it finds expression anywhere in Shakespeare's work. Are we to conclude, then, that Shakespeare was, quite simply, not the mystical type? Was it enough for him, as a dramatist, to contemplate the wonderful spectacle of human existence without ever registering, in his poems and plays, a thirst like that of Dante, an urge to range beyond the limits of this mortal life? Whatever we decide about this question, one thing is clear: no poet or dramatist ever succeeded better than Shakespeare in presenting what Anthony Burgess has described as "man" or the human being, "lost, bewildered, baffled, looking for meaning, hungering and thirsting after justice." And might it not, therefore, be the case, as Burgess contends, that "what Shakespeare's work implies is less the existence of God than the need for God to exist"?(19)

In Shakespeare, there can be found many more references to religion than the few noted by George Santayana. And a number of these are by no means "fossils of piety." In relation, for example, to the great themes of dedicated, faithful love and compassion, many texts could be quoted from the plays, and the superb "Sonnet 116" ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments") could be cited, and compared with St. Paul's hymn to love or charity. But it would not, I think, be helpful to characterize Shakespeare formally as a religious dramatist. The fact is that he chose, by and large, to leave religion alone. Unlike Dante, he was writing plays most of the time, not poems. And it is hard to imagine how the interior life of faith, or the world of the after-life, could be depicted convincingly on a public stage. What is more, with respect to religion, Shakespeare may well have felt constrained, due to the manifest danger of the times, and the strength of the religious ferment in Elizabethan England, to remain silent on the subject of his own personal faith and/or his tribal loyalty. "But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue!"

"Sonnet 146," the poem we have been considering is, of course, nothing if not an open, personal meditation of a religious kind. But the man we are overhearing in meditation, is not actually talking to God, as it happens, but to himself. ("Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth . . . .") God--apart from the one reference to "terms divine"--is never mentioned. Instead, the poem's spiritual interest finds expression in the themes of loss and gain, death and immortality. Needless to say, the poet is well able to ring the changes on these two great themes. But, from beginning to end, the tone of "Sonnet 146" is rather strictly homiletic and exhortatory. It is not a work of vision. Only towards the end of Shakespeare's career as a dramatist did these two themes come together with visionary force, and allow him to create what has been called a "myth of immortality."

The form which this myth takes is that of a young girl or a woman thought dead or lost being miraculously restored. Wherever this image is found, and it occurs in a number of the Late Romances, the aim of Shakespeare is not to assert a temporal survival after death. His mysterious task, rather, is to reveal that a love which was real once but now seems lost or dead, cannot in fact be dead. Somehow, even in the face of death and failure, love survives. But that is not all. In these late plays, the world of vision being enacted or being created before our eyes, draws our attention to what was referred to once by T.S. Eliot as Shakespeare's "deeper religious sensibility."(20) Eliot, in an unpublished lecture on Shakespeare, goes so far as to say: "The personages in Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest and Pericles are the work of a writer who has finally seen through the dramatic action of men into a spiritual action which transcends it . . . They [e.g., Perdita, Miranda and Marina] belong to a world from which some emotions have been purified away, so that others, ordinarily invisible, may be made apparent."(21)

Eliot's poem, "Marina," was directly inspired by the "recognition scene" in Pericles, and this scene he regarded, in fact, as "the finest of all the recognition scenes." In it, he says, "Shakespeare's consummate dramatic skill is as bright as ever; his verse is as much speech as ever: only, it is the speech of creatures who are more than human, or rather, seen in a light more than that of day."(22) The restoration of Marina, the lost daughter, is mysteriously accompanied by music. Pericles, her father, exclaims: "Now, blessing on thee! rise, thou art my child./Give me fresh garments" (Act V, Scene 1). And again:

Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding.

O heavens! bless my girl. But hark! what music?

Tell Helicanus, my Marina, tell him

O'er point by point, for yet he seems to doubt,

How sure you are my daughter. But, what music?

Commenting on this remarkable passage, T.S. Eliot writes: "The 'Give me fresh garments' emphasized presently by 'Give me my robes' has great significance. The scene becomes a ritual; the poetic drama developed to its highest point turns back towards liturgy: and the scene could end in no other way than by the vision of Diana."(23) Just moments earlier, when Pericles first began to realize that his "dead" child was alive, and was there standing in front of him, he was overcome by an almost unbearable flood of joy. Turning around in his bewilderment to Helicanus, he exclaimed,

O Helicanus! strike me, honoured sir;

Give me a gash, put me to present pain,

Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me

O'erbear the shores of my mortality.

Here the ecstasy is so great, and the expression of it so powerful, one is reminded at once of certain passages from the mystical tradition. There is, for example, one particular passage in St. John of the Cross in which the saint notes how, on occasion, God's "visit" to his bride, the soul, is so overwhelming that the soul is unable in her weakness to endure such excess. John writes: "The torment experienced in these rapturous visits" is such that were God not to intervene to help the soul "she would die." In fact, to the soul, "it seems that she is being set free from the flesh and is abandoning the body."(24) This contemplative rapture, although it bears a striking resemblance to the ecstasy of Pericles is not, of course, the same thing. John himself remarks: "This rapture is not like other natural transports and swoons in which one returns to self when pain is inflicted."(25) Nevertheless, when "the recognition scene," in Pericles, is read in context, or watched live on the stage, it makes, I believe, an impression on the reader or on the listener that one can only call "spiritual."

If, at this point, someone were to ask me: What, then, is the philosophy or the theology that lies behind "the recognition scene" in Pericles?, I am not sure what I would say. Of course, on one level, considering the apparition of the goddess Diana to Pericles, and the placing, in the scene which follows, of a Greek temple, the theology is Hellenistic. But, given Shakespeare's "intuition of immortality" in the later plays, and the recurrent death and rebirth symbolism which appears to "corroborate," in G. Wilson Knight's phrase, "the death-conquest announced by Christianity,"(26) there are, it would seem, at least some grounds for considering the underlying theology or philosophy of the plays to be Christian.

Earlier I remarked that Shakespeare was not a religious dramatist. In the light, however, of all that has been said, I cannot bring myself to agree with George Santayana when he says that, in the writing of his poems and plays, Shakespeare relied on "no other philosophy than that which the profane world can suggest and understand." Shakespeare, it is true, cannot be named, with any confidence, a secret, committed Catholic, nor held up even as a kind of great religious dramatist. But neither, I think, can he be dubbed, like poor drunk Barnardine in Measure for Measure,

a stubborn soul

That apprehends no farther than this world,

And squar'st [his] life according. (Act V, Scene 1)

However hard we try, we cannot, in the end, successfully "square" Shakespeare's life or his work. Shakespeare, whether we think of him as an artist or as a man will always, I suspect, be able somehow to "disappear" at the last, and elude both our sacred and our profane categories. That doesn't mean, however, we should abandon all effort at understanding. "About anyone so great as Shakespeare," Eliot once remarked, "it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong."(27)

3. Shakespeare and "the Mystery of Things"

I began the present paper by asking if Shakespeare, in spite of his manifest genius as an author, somehow failed to explore the dimension of life we call religion or the religious experience. The answer to this question will obviously depend on the meaning we give to the term "religion." If we take, for example, "religious experience" to mean the exploration of states of feeling beyond the ordinary spectrum of human emotion, then Shakespeare's Late Romances certainly qualify as being in some sense "religious." But if "religion" means for us, instead, a personal devotion to God, and a hunger to see God, and even a mystical thirst for intimate communion with God in Christ, then Shakespeare's work, although comprehensive to a degree probably unsurpassed in world literature, cannot be described or circumscribed by the word "religious."

Eliot says somewhere that whereas the mystic looks at God, the poet looks at things. God is approached by the mystic, that is to say, as an object--the supreme "object" of his or her attention. This way of thinking about religious experience is, of course, entirely valid and acceptable. But there is a passage in Simone Weil, the modern French mystic and philosopher, in which, with characteristic daring, she suggests that this question can be viewed, as it were, upside-down. Instead, therefore, of thinking in terms of the individual looking at God, and perhaps, therefore, looking away from things, and away from the world, we can think of ourselves as somehow coming out from God towards things, and of being called, in some sense, to share in God's gaze--that is, with God as "Subject," looking at the world and at things with us and through us. Weil writes: "The real aim is not to see God in all things; it is that God through us should see the things that we see. God has got to be on the side of the subject." And again: "we imitate the descending movement of God . . . [when we] turn ourselves toward the world."(28)

I quote this passage from Weil because I believe that there is a hint of something like it in Shakespeare. The passage in question occurs towards the end of King Lear. It is spoken by Lear to his daughter, Cordelia. Already immense suffering has broken the king's heart. He is barely sane. And yet, paradoxically, though stripped of all his former glory, and half-crazed now with sorrow, the words he speaks are instinct with strange wisdom and compassion. "Come," he says to Cordelia, "let's away to prison":

We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:

When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down

And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,

Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;

And take upon's the mystery of things,

As if we were God's spies. (Act V, Scene 1)

Things. The poet, every poet, every sculptor, every painter, looks at things. But the truly astonishing depth and range of Shakespearian vision, the poet's wide and wise perceptiveness, might it not be explained, in part, by the proposal, which is voiced here, "to take upon's the mystery of things,/As if we were God's spies"?

The contemplation of the world has come to be regarded as a task belonging not so much to the ecclesiastical tradition, but rather to that tradition which Cornelius Ernst once referred to, in a private note, as "the tradition of the human heart": "novels, art, music, tragedy" etc.(29) But genuine religious contemplation does not, of course, automatically exclude the contemplation of things. In prayer, it is true, what matters first and last is the contemplation of God. But, as Josef Pieper reminds us, there is "a contemplative way of seeing the things of creation." Pieper writes: "I am speaking now of actual things, and of seeing with the eyes; I mean also hearing, smelling, tasting, every type of sense-perception, but primarily seeing." And he adds: "Out of this kind of contemplation of the created world arise in never ending wealth all true poetry and all real art."(30)

It is noteworthy that, in all the great religious traditions, there can be found innumerable examples, both in story and in art, of the contemplation of the world. There is, for example, a wonderful story told by Evagrius Ponticus about St. Anthony in the desert. One day Anthony was asked: "How do you ever manage to carry on, Father, deprived as you are of the consolation of books?" He replied: "My book, sir philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is always at hand when I wish to read the words of God."(31) Evagrius himself, in the very first lines of his Praktikos, lists as part of our essential task two things, "the contemplation of God" and "the contemplation of the physical world."(32) In this context, there is one other Christian contemplative who comes immediately to mind, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great Jesuit poet. Hopkins, as a man and as a poet, is aware of God, both as the transcendent object of his devotion in prayer, and also as the immanent "Subject" in his life, utterly hidden in some sense, and yet completely revealed:

. . . 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.(33)

There are many other examples in religious literature, one could cite here, which give attention to "the mystery of things." But I will read just two more short texts, one from the world of the Hasidim, the Jewish tradition, and then one from the Hindu tradition. The Jewish text first:

Rabbi-Shalom said: "The Talmud tells of a wise man versed in the lore of the stars, and relates that the paths of the firmament were as bright and clear to him as the streets in the town of Nehardea where he lived. Now if only we could say about ourselves that the streets of our city are as clear and bright to us as the paths of the firmament! For to let the hidden life of God shine out in this lowest world, the world of bodiliness, that is the greater feat of the two!"(34)

The text from the Hindu tradition, is a short poem composed by Rabrindranath Tagore. The poet, in his meditation, is beginning to sense with awe that God--God who is also a "poet"--desires somehow to contemplate his own creation in and through him. And so he exclaims:

What! Is it possible, God, that you desire to drink from the cup of my life?

Is it your joy, my Poet, to contemplate your own creation through my eyes, and stand at the portals of my ears, silently listening to your own eternal harmony?

Your world weaves words in my mind. Your joy adds music to them. You give yourself to me in love, and then experience your own entire sweetness within me.(35)

That image of God contemplating his own creation through the eyes of the poet, immediately recalls to mind the short passage in Lear we've been considering. But, in the king's words, in marked contrast to the language of Tagore or Hopkins, there is no suggestion whatever of actual religious devotion. In fact, it is worth noting that Shakespeare, in the composition of King Lear, seems purposely to have removed from the source on which his play is based, a number of the religious and Christian references. This detail, incidentally, infuriated Tolstoy. In a blistering essay, the great Russian author complained that the original King Lear, an anonymous work entitled True Chronicle History of King Leir, had been stripped by Shakespeare of much of its spiritual depth and Christian meaning.(36) Tolstoy is, of course, an important witness here for the prosecution. But, in spite of his brilliance, he failed utterly to grasp the strange and terrible beauty of Shakespeare's play. In particular, Tolstoy failed to see how Shakespeare, by composing a play that was in no way obviously religious, could at the same time explore, and with even greater depth than ever, certain basic aspects of our human and spiritual condition. In this context, I am reminded of a comment made in a letter by Flannery O'Connor about the modern Catholic novelists, Bernanos, Mauriac and Greene. O'Connor writes: "At some point reading them reaches the place of diminishing returns." One gets "more benefit," by reading authors, not thought to be religious, but in whom "there is apparently a hunger for a Catholic completeness in life." O'Connor then adds, and the idea is wonderful: "It may be a matter of recognizing the Holy Ghost in fiction by the way He chooses to conceal himself."(37)

But does this idea apply to Shakespeare? When King Lear speaks, towards the end of his life, of taking upon himself "the mystery of things," do his words indicate, in some way, Shakespeare's own sense of his task, as artist and poet, called first and last to be contemplative of this world, and yet somehow finding himself gazing at things as if he were God's spy? The question is, of course, impossible to answer. Why I should find myself drawn to ask it, is, I suppose, because the hidden springs of Shakespeare's genius still remain such a mystery and a puzzle. But, perhaps, in the end, it would be simpler and wiser to say nothing. ("That about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.") Not once but several times, during the writing of this paper, I have felt the shadow of Ludwig Wittgenstein cross over my pages. And I have found myself remembering a gnomic remark which he made about fifty years ago: "I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him."(38)

So a presence, then, at the margins of my work, during these weeks, has been that of Wittgenstein. But there has been another, a presence as innocent and sweet of temper as Wittgenstein's is huge and formidable, a child's philosopher of fun, a seer of laughter, conjured by Shakespeare out of words in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a simple, earthy character, and the last, perhaps, we would ever think of as being religious--Bottom! Bottom, as is well known, can probably count almost everyone familiar with the Midsummer play among his admirers. But no-one can have praised him with more generous wit and insight than G. K. Chesterton. Here is Chesterton, in rare form, writing directly on A Midsummer Night's Dream:

It is difficult to approach critically so great a figure as that of Bottom the Weaver. He is greater and more mysterious than Hamlet. . . . We are the victims of a curious confusion whereby being great is supposed to have something to do with being clever. . . . Greatness is a certain indescribable but perfectly familiar and palpable quality of size in the personality, of steadfastness, of strong flavour, of easy and natural self-expression. Such a man is as firm as a tree and as unique as a rhinoceros.(39)

. . . A Midsummer Night's Dream. The sentiment of such a play, so far as it can be summed up at all, can be summed up in one sentence. It is the mysticism of happiness . . . The soul might be rapt out of the body in an agony of sorrow, or a trance of ecstasy; but it might also be rapt out of the body in a paroxysm of laughter . . . We cannot have A Midsummer Night's Dream if our one object in life is to keep ourselves awake with the black coffee of criticism.(40)

Criticism! I have been trying in this talk to reflect, with some seriousness, on the question of Shakespeare and religious vision. But, at times, I have felt a bit intimidated, and not only by the shadow of Wittgenstein looming across my pages, but also by the glad, exuberant presence of Bottom the Weaver--intimidated, most of all, I would have to say, by the memory of the words that he speaks in the Play about vision, and about those who presume to talk or to "expound" at length on the subject. Clearly, words of criticism are mere straw to a man like Bottom who has had the experience! Here is what he says, talking to himself, when, finally, he wakes up from his dream-vision (Act IV, Scene I):

God's my life! . . . I have had a most rare vision. I have

had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it

was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this

dream. Methought I was,--there is no man can tell what.

Methought I was and methought I had, but man is but

a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I

had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath

not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to

conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I

will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it

shall be called Bottom's dream, because it hath no

bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play.

Paul Murray, O.P., an Irish Dominican, is professor of spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome. During the present academic year, however, he is in the States, occupying the Chester and Margaret Paluch Chair of Theology at The University of St Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary.

1. This paper was delivered as "The Aquinas Lecture" of 2000 at Oxford.

2. Cornelius Ernst, Multiple Echo (London, 1979), 8.

3. Ibid., 12.

4. Ibid. The passage is from Stevens's poem, "Asides on the Oboe."

5. T.S. Eliot, "What Dante Means to Me" (1950) in To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (London, 1965), 134.

6. A comment made by Eliot to William Force Stead. See Helen Gardner, The Composition of Four Quartets (London, 1965), 134.

7. George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (New York, 1967), 152.

8. Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (London, 1993), 77 and 90.

9. Ibid., 76-77.

10. "The Great Shawspear Mystery" in Chesterton on Shakespeare (London, 1971), 149.

11. Ibid., 148.

12. Ibid., 149. Elsewhere, in his essay "The Mind of the Middle Ages, V: The Renaissance," Chesterton speaks, in strong terms, of Shakespeare as Catholic, and in a sense also as "pagan." But what Chesterton has in mind here is not so much the question of Shakespeare's own private dogmatic convictions but rather "the general spirit and atmosphere" of Shakespeare's plays. "I am not talking about the various kinds of Catholic," he notes, "I am talking about the atmosphere of the sixteenth century as compared with the fourteenth century." See Chesterton on Shakespeare, 36-37.

13. See The Poems of St. John of the Cross, trans. R. Campbell (London, 1986), 10-13.

14. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1.1.4, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and E.E. Larkin (Washington, 1974), 74.

15. T.S. Eliot, "Thinking in Verse," The Listener, III, 61 (12 March 1930), 443.

16. Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (London, 1975), 47.

17. Ibid.

18. "The Ascent of Mount Carmel," 2.4.5, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 114.

19. Anthony Burgess, "Foreword" in Playing With Fire: A Natural Selection of Religious Poetry, ed. Susan Dwyer (Dublin, 1980), 21.

20. T.S. Eliot, "What is a Classic?" (1945) in On Poetry and Poets (London, 1957), 60-61.

21. Extracts from Eliot's unpublished essay, "Shakespeare as Poet and Dramatist," are quoted in the Appendix to G. Wilson Knight's Neglected Powers (London, 1971), 490; and in Appendix I, in John E. Freeh's unpublished doctorate thesis, Eliot, Shakespeare and the "Ultra-dramatic," Oxford 1999, 255-61. See also Paul Murray, T.S. Eliot and Mysticism (London, 1991) 209.

22. Ibid., 490.

23. Ibid.

24. "The Spiritual Canticle," 13.4 in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 459.

25. Ibid., 13.6, 460.

26. G. Wilson Knight, "Myth and Miracle" in The Crown of Life (London, 1965), 31.

27. T.S. Eliot, "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca" (1927) in T.S. Eliot: Selected Essays (London, 1951), 126.

28. Simone Weil, The Notebooks, Vol. 2, trans. A. Wills (New York, 1956), 358.

29. See Cornelius Ernst, Multiple Echo, 1.

30. Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation (London, 1958), 88-89. Worth recalling to mind, in this context, are the poet Rilke's statements on the necessity, for the poet, of giving close attention to things, "their patient bearing and enduring." Rilke's insistence on this point, however, has an urgency about it--almost a willfulness--that is distinctly modern. See Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910, trans. J.B. Greene and M.D.H. Norton (New York, 1945), 82-83 and 102-03.

31. See Evagrius Ponticus, "Sayings of the Holy Monks," no. 92 in The Praktikos: Chapters on Prayer, trans. J.E. Bambinger (Spencer, 1970), 39.

32. "The Hundred Chapters," no. 1 in The Praktikos, 15.

33. "As kingfishers catch fire . . . " See Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Selection of His Poems and Prose, ed. W.H. Gardner (Harmondsworth, 1963), 51.

34. See Martin Buber (ed.), Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters, trans. O. Marx (New York, 1948), 50-51.

35. An adaptation by the present writer of no. LXV of "Gitanjali" in Collected Poems and Plays of Rabrindranath Tagore (London, 1977), 31.

36. In what he calls "the older drama," Tolstoy notes that Lear's abdication had a profound spiritual basis: "[L]ear thinks only of saving his soul." See L.N. Tolstoy, "Shakespeare and the Drama," trans. V. Tcherkoff, in Shakespeare in Europe, ed. Oswald LeWinter (London, 1963), 242.

37. Letter of 16 January 1936, in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, ed. S. Fitzgerald (New York, 1979), 130.

38. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value: A Selection from the Posthumous Remains, ed. G. H. von Wright (Oxford, 1998), 95e.

39. G.K. Chesterton, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Chesterton on Shakespeare, 107.

40. Ibid., 104.

This article first appeared in Communio