A FEW WORDS ON A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM
In 1970, at the age of 18, I was poised for my fifteen minutes of literary fame, if only my English professor had listened to me. We were reading Hamlet, and I rather innocently offered the observation that the play makes no sense at all unless we suppose a Catholic sensibility.
Mr. Berry, normally a very congenial man, fixed me with one of those stares that says “I’m only going to say this once.” And he pronounced, “Shakespeare was Anglican. He was baptized as an Anglican, and he died an Anglican.” End of story.
Well, sure, that’s the official story. Under Queen Elizabeth, we weren’t allowed to be Catholic. Her favorite sport was drawing and quartering Jesuits, a new order created by the Counter Reformation. Most of her victims were native-born Englishmen who went to the continent to be educated and ordained and then came back to England, facing death, to tend to the still large Catholic population. Elizabeth has the distinction of having created a police state at a time when England had no standing police force.
To be fair to Mr. Berry, no one was talking about Shakespeare’s Catholicism in 1970. Now, with Stephen Greenblatt and others, we seldom hear about anything else. We now know that Shakespeare’s father, long thought an alcoholic, was really a die-hard Catholic (being Catholic and alcoholic are not mutually exclusive); Shakespeare’s daughter was a recusant, fined for her refusal to attend mandatory Anglican services; and Shakespeare himself attended a basically Catholic school (where he learned poor Latin and less Greek), a school that produced Jesuit martyrs.
In short, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s probably Catholic.
Now, I didn’t know any of those biographical facts when I raised my point about Hamlet. Again, we didn’t talk about those things in 1970.
But I had the play itself, and the ghost. The whole play turns on the ghost and whether or not it can be trusted. By the time Hamlet was written, the lines on Purgatory were firmly drawn. For Elizabeth and the Protestants, purgatory did not exist. Taking matters to the extreme, Elizabeth outlawed praying for the dead. The dead were either in hell, where no prayer could benefit them, or they were in heaven and did not need out prayers. Personally, I find that uncivilized: reverence for and praying for the dead is an initial mark of civilization. For Catholics, Purgatory was real, and so a return from the dead was at least theoretically possible.
So, Hamlet’s ghost could be real, at least in the Catholic world.
And then all the personal, family baggage piles on: Hamlet was the name of Shakespeare’s son who died young; Shakespeare’s father possibly argued for an impossible Catholic funeral; and Shakespeare, the actor, played his last role, as Hamlet’s ghost.
So now, 50 years later, I can claim some justification. If Shakespeare was not a practicing Catholic, he inherited a Catholic sensibility.
But what happens to a Catholic sensibility when it is cut off from the sacraments and a sense of Catholic community?
Well, it keeps its love of nature and of ceremony and an insistence on both. In A Midsummer’s Night Dream, two couples lose themselves in the woods, and finally are married in a ceremony, along with a royal couple. Something similar happens in the Tempest, where characters are lost in nature, but in the end Prospero conjures the Goddess of marriage for his daughter’s nuptials.
And in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a fourth couple is reunited: Titania, the Elven Queen, and Oberon, King of the fairy folk.
Perhaps when a Catholic sensibility is cut off, it half seriously returns to the old religion, the magic of the Elves and their ceremonies.
It’s fantasy, true, but it’s better than living in Elizabeth’s all too real police state.