Shakespearean Ecclesiology image

Shakespearean Ecclesiology

Everybody knows that Shakespeare wrote plays about ecclesiology. I mean, they look like they’re plays about kings, lovers, quasi-suicidal students, assassinations and cross-dressing, but the Bard’s plays, and his tragedies in particular, are actually about disputes and factions within the church.

Romeo and Juliet is the clearest example: the split between the Montagues and the Capulets represents that between Protestants and Roman Catholics in sixteenth century England. That’s why so much religious imagery is used in the speeches given to the star-crossed lovers; it’s why Romeo and Juliet talk about dying to their old names and being “new baptised”; it’s why Baz Luhrmann filled the death scene of his movie with ecclesiological symbolism. No problems there.
Othello is about evidentialists and presuppositionalists, clearly. Why else would the plot turn on falsifiability, with the van Tillian Othello corrupted, and urged to test the object of his love, by the weaselly evidentialist Iago?
Julius Caesar is enjoyably flexible, and could be about almost any ecclesial coup or seizure of power in church history. Et tu, Zwingle? Et tu, Wesle? Luther and Calvin, they too were honourable men. Et tu, Athanasie? Depends on your perspective, of course.
Hamlet takes some more thought, but it’s probably about the Reformation again. (Most things back then were, you know). The Ghost is the Roman Catholic morbid fear of the afterlife in a nutshell, encapsulated in the preaching of John Tetzel: purgatorial, tortured, anguished, restless. Put your coin in the coffer, my son, and get me out of here! Polonius, I can only assume, is intentionally Erasmian, with his pompous claptrap about being true to yourself and therefore not being false to anybody. But Hamlet, standing bravely against both, is of course Luther: educated at Wittenberg, of wooden door fame; accompanied by two bumbling sidekicks who eventually get bumped off and become the subject of a play by Tom Stoppard (“Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon are dead”); the greatest threat to the current king, knowing what he does about corruption and feigned piety; deeply concerned with whether to get married or not; and even capable of eulogising about figures of jest and mockery (“Alas, poor Karlstadt, I knew him, Horatio.”) It’s easy when you know how.
Of the five great tragedies, King Lear is the most difficult to unravel, but it turns out to be about Newfrontiers in the UK. To wit: an aging English king, dividing his kingdom between his loyal subjects, and deliberating over which of his children to live with. Two loyal nobles, one based in Kent (Sidcup) and the other somewhere in the Midlands (Gloucester and Bedford aren’t that far apart, are they?) Three younger heirs, each of whom can lay claim to a section of Lear’s kingdom, but none of whom can rule all of it. One of them is connected to Cornwall. Another is attempting a relational mission and is involved with France. Behind the scenes, an Alliance is formed, and one of the nobles acts as a Catalyst of what is to come. And all the while, a young Fool looks on and makes jokes about it.
Why has nobody noticed it before?


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