Apr 202012


Paulina Reveals the Statue of Hermonie in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale; photo courtesy Mustard Seed Theater, 2012

Following the Sunday Matinee performance of The Winter’s Tale at Mustard Seed Theater, Dr. Randy Rosenberg, who now holds the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought at Fontbonne, led a discussion of Shakespeare’s Catholicism and The Winter’s Tale.

In Shakespeare’s original, the play was set in pre-Christian Sicilia and Bohemia. In this production, the play is set in modern times, and appropriately-enough in the Pacific Northwest. In the original, Shakespeare had contrasted the kings of “urban” Sicilia and “pastoral” Bohemia. This is translated by the director as a contrast between the CEO of an an unnamed Seattle technology company and the Chief of an Alaskan Indian tribe. If Shakespeare for you always means 16th century costumes and settings, you might be put off. But it does work and is a reasonable take on the original. I’m sure there will be more on this in the comments though.

The show runs through Sunday, April 29th , so you have plenty of time to see it. Teens on up should appreciate it. Dr. Rosenberg has very kindly provided his introductory remarks for us, which are below. If you have not seen the play, this doesn’t give too much away so no worries about spoilers. Some of the comments on this post might give a lot away, so if you’re planning to see the show you might want to skip the comments until after. Then come back here and share your thoughts!

The Winter’s Tale: Post-Performance Discussion
Mustard Seed Theater, Fontbonne University
April 15, 2012
Discussion Leader: Dr. Randy Rosenberg

 Thank you to Deanna Jent, Cast, and Staff!

My charge from Deanna is to lead a post-show discussion on “Shakespeare and Catholicism” and more specifically to point out some of the Catholic elements in the play.

As many of you know, scholars have re-visited the question of the religious belief of Shakespeare, and more specifically the Bard’s Catholicism. The claim rests on two kinds of evidence: (1) historical and (2) textual – that is evidence from the plays themselves.

For examples of these two kinds of evidence, see Joseph Pearce’s books, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome and Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in The Plays (the latter book focuses on The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and King Lear. See also Clare Asquith’s Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.

As we know, Shakespeare was living and writing in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, that is an England under the rule of Elizabeth I and James I. Catholics in England were often forced to conform to the wishes of the sovereign or to conscience. In this period, England witnessed “the stripping of the altars,” to use words from the title of Eamon Duffy’s book: the charge “to destroy all shrines, pictures, paintings, monuments, pilgrimages, idolatry and superstition, so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glasses, windows or elsewhere within their churches or houses.”

First, in terms of Catholicism being coded in Shakespeare’s play – and this can certainly be scrutinized – one scholar argues that in the character of Paulina (played convincingly by Kelley Ryan this afternoon) that Shakespeare offers a tribute to Magdalen Browne, an English noblewoman. Paulina embodies the complex qualities of Magdalen: “’red-looked anger’ (2.2.34), upright, rigorous principles, a strong sense of her own status, grandmotherly tenderness, awesome spiritual authority, brisk and fearless common sense.” Having the affection and respect of Elizabeth I, Magdalen was practically “alone among prominent Catholics” by being permitted to practice and even flaunt her religious devotion. The queen overlooked “the fact that her houses (referred to as “Little Rome”) were storehouses for statues, chalices, relics and altar stones awaited the restoration to England of the old religion.” Recall that Paulina’s Chapel – (as we have just seen) was the context of the dramatic and mystical episode at the end of the play.[1]

Which brings me to my second point: Even if the case for a secret-code politically resistant Shakespeare fails, the case for patterns of Catholicity in the bard’s work seems strong.[2] Shakespeare had, for instance, a reverence for (to quote Sonnet 73), the “bare-ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” that is, for the Catholic past of ruined monasteries, discredited figures, and lost traditions. This seems evident with Shakespeare’s inclusion of the centrality the pilgrimage to the living statue of Hermione (played beautifully by Wendy Greenwood) at the end of the play. Did you notice Perdita’s (played by Laurel Elliot) plea “And do not say ‘tis superstition, that I kneel and then implore her blessing”: a clear allusion I think to Protestant objections of idolatry, especially the kneeling before images of the Virgin Mary. Or Paulina who says this mystical encounter required the “awakening of faith” and “those that think it is unlawful business I am about, let them depart.”

Perhaps it is most important to point out that Sin, Repentance, Forgiveness, and Redemption figure centrally in The Winter’s Tale (and are imagined in Catholic ways).

The Blindness and Rage of Leonte’s (dramatically performed by Chauncy Thomas) illustrates what we know: that our lives, that human history is not simply one march of progress: rather our relationships, our families and our communities are disrupted and disordered by the blind spots, blind alleys, sins, false illusions, refusals to see the truth that are part of the alienated human condition. Here, a jealous king with unbridled power ignored the evidence and the wise oracle – a disposition and action that led to the death of his wife and son, and the banishment of his daughter. Envy (as Dante has shown us) looks at the world not through wonder but through anxiety and resentment. The envious are punished in Dante’s purgatorio (Canto XIII) by their “eyelids…sewn shut with iron threads…to tame their restlessness” – eyes that cast “envious looks on other folk.”[3] (the jealous and enraged looks of Chauncy Thomas in the character of Leontes stick out to me)

Of course, we know that tragedy does not have the final say in The Winter’s Tale: Leontes admits his guilt and spends years as a penitent – visiting the grave, we are told, as his recreation. (speaking of penitent, did you notice the allusion to the Catholic sacrament of penance in Act 1, where Leontes praises Camillo:

I have trusted thee, Camillo,
With all the nearest things to my heart, as well
My chamber councils, wherein, priestlike, thou
Hast cleansed my bosom. I from thee departed
Thy penitent reformed.

Shakespeare’s plays often contain moments where the dead enter into the borderline between death and life:[4] Here characters are open to an invisible, transcendent, supernatural reality and “the dramatic plot arises from the fact” that the character “is explicitly addressed by that reality.” As human beings, we are haunted by the ghosts of our past, by history, by those who are no longer with us. Take Hamlet, for example. Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father’s spirit, who is suffering in purgatory (a Catholic doctrine forbidden in England) – “doomed for a certain term to walk the night.” The later Shakespeare of The Winter’s Tale, however, “takes the risk of portraying the return from the realm of the dead as a pure gift to those in mourning.” (Notice how often the term “grace” was used in the play.) Here the “Christian resurrection from the dead becomes the appearance of those believed dead.” We as the “audience too had thought Hermione” was “dead” and we too “experience her ‘resurrection’ as profoundly as Leontes” (385).

Perhaps I will end with a comment – a comment that seem to fit The Winter’s Tale – from the 2oth century Swiss theologian – Hans Urs von Balthasar (a thinker on whom I work) – wrote that Shakespeare “takes up a position beyond tragedy and comedy, because the world he portrays is a mixture of both elements, so he also rises above justice and mercy by allowing both of them to persist…But all the time he is utterly certain that the highest good is to be found in forgiveness” (TD 1, 478).

The floor is now open for discussion: I have of course left out many details of the forgiveness and reconciliation scenes. Perhaps as a discussion prompter, I will reiterate Balthasar’s remark in a question, because he was not referring specifically to The Winter’s Tale: Is it true that Shakespeare allows justice and mercy to persist in this play and is it true that this play suggests that the highest good is to be found in forgiveness?

And of course please feel free to remark on other elements of the play.   The beauty of theatrical drama is the active role that the audience takes.  We do not watch the performance from “an uninvolved vantage point” but we enter the drama.”  The performance presupposes that “we are unreservedly ready to be carried wherever it takes us, even ‘where you do not wish to go’, into areas that are painful, disturbing, but also hopeful and redemptive.


[4] I draw here from Balthasar, Theo-Drama I: Prologomena. See also John Milbank’s intriguing discussion of The Winter’s Tale and theology in Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon, chapter 8, “Grace: The Midwinter Sacrifice.”

 Posted by at 8:57 pm

  2 Responses to “Shakespeare’s Catholicism”

  1. THE WINTER’S TALE reviewed from afar, and how we don’t get Shakespeare because we don’t get the Catholic Faith.

  2. […] the Chair at Fontbonne, and led a terrific discussion of the Catholic themes in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale this past Spring. This particular forum will take a sort of “academic” approach, where […]

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