Shakespeare Anniversary Meditation

The Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare
The Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare

Choral Evensong ~ Shakespeare Anniversary Meditation

Yesterday was the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. It is also possible that he was born on the same date 52 years earlier, as we know he was baptised on April 26th and it was usual to baptise a baby on the third day after birth. So this weekend the world is celebrating a man about whom we do not know as much as we would like to - but nevertheless someone who introduced over 300 words into the English language, and whose complete works are often cited alongside the King James Version of the Bible as the very foundation of English language and culture. Many people quote Shakespeare – sometimes without realizing it – and whether or not he has woven his way into the fabric of our spirituality, his works are certainly part of our psyche. His characters: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet have become archetypal and his language seminal. Which means, ‘As you like it’ or not, Shakespeare’s influence is huge.

But is he worthy of it? What can we as Christians identify, draw upon, learn from or be inspired by from this mysterious yet ever present bard, so widely celebrated this weekend?

Shakespeare’s spirituality and faith are largely opaque to us. Some – the American writer Bill Bryson among them - suspect he was a Roman Catholic recusant, who kept whatever faith he may have had, to himself, mostly in order to keep his head on his shoulders. There is little religion to read into or out of his famous plays except perhaps a certain enthusiasm for ghosts and the supernatural in Macbeth and Hamlet for example. Which means we might instead turn to his poetry, most notably his sonnets. After 1592, Shakespeare published 154 sonnets which explored themes of love and beauty. He probably turned to poetry around this time because outbreaks of plague had closed the theatres.

Even so, only one of the 154 really speaks to us of any deep spirituality or faith, and that is no 146. Written around 1594, it is sometimes subtitled, ‘Body and Soul’.

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Why feed'st 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.

This text, incidentally, is to be found in the hymn book Songs of Praise edited by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and others, in which it appears as a hymn, set to a tune called CONGLETON, which is attributed to one Michael Wise, who died in 1687. He was quite a character apparently, a fine musician who liked a few drinks, which caused his death as he got into an altercation with a night-watchman who hit him on the head. Mind you, Shakespeare was no better, for 50 years after his death the then vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote that he had died of a fever contracted after a ‘merry meeting’ where he ‘drank too hard’.

Drunken antics and lively tempers aside, this spiritually-charged sonnet does make the unique claim to be the only hymn written by Shakespeare, and is worth noticing for that. Furthermore, it has some interesting and profound truths buried within it, which are not immediately obvious.

Shakespeare believed that the soul is trapped within the body, only to be released – and judged - when the body dies. So he places the soul at the centre of our bodies – our personal, sinful earth, as he calls it. Our sins are committed by our bodies, which we adorn and fuss over, while neglecting the inner soul – the spiritual life. A glance at the modern cosmetics counter – for men and women – could lead us to the same conclusion today. Many people worry far too much about what they look like, spending time, energy and money on the outward appearance of something so temporal as our own bodies, which ultimately end up eaten up by worms in the grave.

And then, at the heart of the poem, Shakespeare asks the question: ‘is this thy body’s end?’ – is that it? For sure it is not: he goes on to encourage the reader – you, me, himself - to feed our souls – to ‘buy terms divine’, to be fed within, rather than worry about the outer case that is the body. For when the body is gone, the soul lives on, he says. Perhaps he had Christ’s wonderful words of spiritual wisdom in mind:

“… why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat? ’ or ‘What will we drink? ’ or ‘What will we wear? ’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Mt 6:28-33

And then, so appropriate for our continued reflections in these fifty days between Easter and Pentecost, Shakespeare’s final couplet resonates with 1 Corinthians:

“When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

1 Cor 15:54-55

So as Shakespeare says to his own inner spiritual being, his soul:

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there's no more dying then.

Or as 1 Peter puts it:

“because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, there is no more death and we are born anew into a living hope, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

1 Peter 1:4-5

And that really is something to meditate upon, and celebrate, this weekend, and every day.

The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield 24/04/2016