Shakespeare's Catholic Stamp

Thank you for publishing the article by Father Kramarz on a new book that makes the case for a Catholic Shakespeare (“The Historical Shakespeare,” June 22). Recent biographical scholarship has strengthened the claim that Shakespeare “was an underground Catholic” in Elizabethan England, where Catholics were harshly persecuted.

If Shakespeare’s personal religious preference were all that was at stake in the current scholarly work, the question would remain just an antiquarian interest for biography and history buffs.

But Shakespeare’s religious views are of far greater significance. For 400 years he has been the English poet par excellence, the peer of Greece’s Homer, Rome’s Virgil and Italy’s Dante. Poets of first rank not only shape their nation’s language; they become the founders of cultures. Goethe, Germany’s greatest poet, once said that “a great dramatic poet, if he is at the same time productive and is actuated by a strong noble purpose which pervades all his works, may succeed in making the soul of his plays become the soul of the people.”

Shakespeare, the noblest of poets, had that impact on British culture across the far-flung empire, including the United States. Alexis De Tocqueville, traveling through America in the 1830s, was astonished to find in almost every “pioneer’s cabin” in the American forests some copies of Shakespeare’s plays: “I recall having read the feudal drama of ‘Henry V’ for the first time in a log-house,” as he called it. The plays were performed all over America as part of what we would call popular culture. According to Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, frontier audiences loved to recite the famous speeches along with the stage actors. Until almost yesterday, every American high school required the study of Shakespeare’s plays, usually “Julius Caesar” or “Macbeth.” Despite the difficulty of the language, countless performances of all types and quality continue to be mounted in villages and cities, along with a constant stream of films and TV versions.

If Goethe is right, Shakespeare’s plays have defined the American soul, whether we recognize it or not. For this reason the “Catholic Shakespeare” scholarship must expand beyond the merely biographical to the interpretation of his works. What is most important for us, after all, are not his personal beliefs, but the lessons he intended his audience — whose souls he knew he was founding in a sense — to take away from his plays. How are the Bard’s readers and hearers different after encountering his poetry?

Some recent scholarship has helped to bring to light Scriptural texts and religious symbols embedded in the texts. But what is critically needed is an interpretation of the meaning of each play, so far as possible, in light of the new Catholic Shakespeare scholarship.

I have attempted to do precisely this regarding “The Merchant of Venice” (See “The Unbloody Sacrifice,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 33:1). Not only is Shakespeare’s teaching in that play Christian in some general way, but it emphatically defends Catholic (as against Reformed) doctrine respecting the sacraments of confession, Eucharist and holy orders. As soon as the centrality of the sacrifice of the Mass, however concealed under the “caskets” and the “pound of flesh,” emerges from the text of the play, I believe its Catholic meaning must be admitted.

There are commentators such as Alan Jacobs, as quoted in Father Kramarz’ article, who object to the very idea of “encoded” or secret messages in Shakespeare’s work. Granted, learning how to access esoteric writing is difficult, and granted, also, it is easy to misunderstand such writing, but that is no proof that poets and philosophers did not subscribe to a long tradition of concealed writing. A thoughtful reader really has no choice if he or she wants to make sense of Shakespeare or the other poets I mentioned, who intended their works to endure for ages. Even sacred Scripture, after thousands of years of study, continues to yield undiscovered meaning for new generations of patient expositors such as Pope Benedict XVI.

If the Bard’s teaching in his enduring plays is decisively Catholic, as many believe, we should thank him profusely. He stamped Catholic culture on the American soul, helping us to resist the efforts of secularists to efface the faith of Jesus Christ from our lives as — in Abraham Lincoln’s memorable phrase — the “almost chosen people.”

Dennis Teti

Hyattsville, Maryland

Forgiveness Amid Hate

PZ Meyers’ gesture to pierce the Eucharist with a rusty nail is a shameful desecration of a sacrament. It is the same as painting a swastika on the tabernacle of the Torah, graffiti in a Buddhist temple or ransacking a Muslim mosque. He aspires to reflect a “Face of the New Atheism” (Aug. 10) but is devolving. 

Foremost, we must resist the temptation to hate Meyers just because he hates us. He is treading in dark stagnant waters where he has opted to disconnect himself from God. The way to react and defend when confronted with a temptation to hate is to forgive Meyers’ transgression by tacitly imploring God’s intercession to help let go of the cross of anger and hurt, and in earnest pray he have mercy on Meyers’ darkening soul. God will give strength, with the result always a solidarity borne out of faith that can conquer the ignorance, hate and evil of desecration.

This spectacle of a well-educated professor at a fine university piercing the Eucharist and posting it on the Internet marks just the beginning of a new, ugly face of atheism. Growing numbers of academic, media and legal elitists are sneering and jeering along with Meyers, and they will try to convince the decent majority that people of faith are hypocrites who rant on soap boxes.

It is vitally important to be a participatory observer because as Mahatma Gandhi reminds us, “The world is not the way it is because of people who do evil, but also because of people who allow them to do evil.”

Dr. Michael Freeman

Walton, New York

Attacks on the Church

In his recent column (“Remember the Real Enemy,” August 17), Mark Shea preached to us about “forgiveness.” It appears that Mr. Shea requires of us a greater gift of forgiveness than does the Church, which requires a desire for the sacrament, acknowledgment and declaration that what we have done is wrong and sinful, the request for forgiveness and some temporal punishment (now generally reduced to a few prayers). Has the Church erred in this setting of standards? I think not!

The Muslim who takes pride in following the teachings of Mohammed to use murder, rape, genocide, robbery, etc. to advance Islam (and his own desires for sex and power) is far from meeting the noted preconditions for forgiveness. The atheist academic who takes an infantile and anal-retentive pride in desecrating the Eucharist has likewise excluded himself from the possibility of forgiveness, baring some future conversion and redemption.

If Christ chased the money changers out of the Temple grounds to defend the honor of his Father, as Mr. Shea claims, then why should we restrain ourselves from inflicting temporal punishment on those who would destroy the Church and subject Christians to slavery, or, as the noted professor, attack the honor of the Son?

If Mr. Shea wishes to follow St. Paul, then let me and others follow St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who pointed out the need to sometimes use “the edge of the sword” to defend Christ and his Church. Mr. Shea’s prideful preaching does, as he notes, remind me that Satan is the real enemy. But also that pride was his major offense.

James Pawlak

West Allis, Wisconsin

Response from Mark Shea:

You are arguing apples and oranges. You are talking about the Church’s criteria for reception of the sacrament of reconciliation. I’m talking about our responsibility as individuals to forgive. The fact that the Church can't hand out absolution willy-nilly regardless of repentance does not excuse us as individuals from obedience to Christ’s command in Mark 11:25: “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions.”

“Anyone” means anyone, including those who won’t say they are sorry. Failure to repent on your enemy’s part does not constitute a license to cherish bitterness on your part.

So, James: I forgive you for accusing me of pride when I’m simply trying to state what Christ, in fact, teaches. I extend you that forgiveness whether you repent it or not. It’s not my job to make sure you receive the forgiveness I extend. That’s between you and God.  But it is my responsibility to extend the forgiveness. If you recognize the sin you have committed against me with that accusation and refuse to repent, then as you note, the sin will not be forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation (which will also be between you and God). However, it’s not my job to demand that you be condemned for your sin against me.

Finally, I do not say that we are not to oppose evildoers in the interest of the common good. If you’d paid attention to what I wrote, you would know this.

The Moment to Choose

Regarding “Denver Diversion?” (Aug. 24), it is understandable why those who are pro-abortion would want to cloak their identity by calling themselves pro-choice. But it is difficult to understand why those who are anti-abortion would want to call themselves pro-life. Everyone is pro-life. And everyone is pro-choice. We relish being free Americans and cherish our honored tradition to choose.

But the moment to choose to create a life does not come when the child is about to be born or after its conception. The time to choose is long before that.

Ed Lynch

West Nyack, New York