Melbourne Catholic - April 2016 - page 19

William Shakespeare. Few names in the
English-speaking world have such evocative
power.Whether it stirs up in us the rallying cry
of ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends’,
romances us with the honeyed tones of
Juliet’s balcony call to her Romeo, or brings
us back toYear 9 English in which we didn’t
understand one word of Hamlet and had to look
up ‘yond’ in the dictionary, it is undeniable that
Shakespeare’s quill has left its inky mark on
each of us.
This man gave conscience a colour and
a texture in the sticky, red blood on Lady
Macbeth’s hands. He asked us the haunting,
irritating question, ‘To be or not to be?’ He
reminded us that love is an ever-fixed mark.
Shakespeare has plumbed the depths of
the human experience and shown us what it
means to be alive. He also invented the word
‘swagger’. It is clear that our Western culture
owes him an incalculable debt.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
It is marvellous to think of how Shakespeare’s art, born in Queen
Elizabeth’s smoggy, doublet-wearing, Reformation London, is
capable of transcending four centuries to pierce our postmodern,
latte-sipping, iPhone-using souls, scathing, challenging and
consoling us with characters who resemble us a little too closely
for comfort. How does he do that? Shakespeare has woven his
characters with elements of human nature common to us all:
guilt, greed, ambition, doubt, love, courage, redemption. In fact,
these are the very things that make us human.
Shakespeare’s characters are so relatable because they are
complex. They are not simply goodies and baddies. Shakespeare
understands that man is a creature ‘like a god’, yet with some
serious issues. He is faulty, broken, has had a fall.Yet, it is
possible for him to get back up. We see this complexity in King
Lear’s Edmund, the treacherous schemer, who suddenly tries
to do ‘some good’ before he dies. We see it in the murderous
Macbeths—the ‘butcher and his fiend-like queen’, who have
a better marriage than most couples we know. Each major
character is a mixture of both good and evil, and nobody is
beyond redemption. Incidentally, this is the Catholic view of
man. Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature has many
parallels with the Catholic Church.
While various schools of thought ripple throughout Shakespeare’s
plays and poems, including Protestantism, Paganism, Marxism,
atheism and nihilism to name a few, his understanding of
psychology (i.e. the way he has made his characters all
complicated and life-like), reflects the Catholic tradition. Catholic
doctrine teaches there are three places we can go to when we
die: heaven, hell and purgatory (the temporary middle-place of
cleansing for the people who are good but not yet quite ready
for heaven). This structure shows that Catholicism understands
that most people are not simply good or evil, but somewhere
in between. The Church recognises that even the noblest hero
has his flaws and the dastardliest knave has his good points.
The Reformation got rid of purgatory: Protestantism taught that
people died and went instantly to heaven or hell. This creates a
more simplistic understanding of human nature in which people
are either good or evil. The middle ground has been taken away.
Angela Schumann
Shakespeare and
the Catholic mind
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