April 2012

An Ocean Full of Angels.  By Peter Kreeft. St. Augustine’s Press. 416 pages. $37.50.

I am a big reader of novels, but I admit that my tastes run to nitty-gritty crime fiction and Trollope. Generally, anything fantastical does not appeal to me. What I really like, though, is a good clear style; often I will finish a book just because it is well written. Such was the case with An Ocean Full of Angels, Peter Kreeft’s first novel. Of course, it isn’t really a novel in the conventional sense; in fact, he calls it an “autobiographical fiction.”

Fine. So we start with the central character, ‘Isa Ben Adam, an idealistic Palestinian Muslim who is supposedly a former student of Kreeft’s. ‘Isa’s prose is so beyond that of the average undergraduate that Kreeft feels that ‘Isa’s diary must be published.

Quite naturally, ‘Isa has a friend, Mara, a lovely Jewish girl, also a student. They fall in love and this is where the trouble starts. Both come from orthodox backgrounds that demand chaperones for courting couples. But Kreeft’s young couple are so innocent, so pure (except for their pride and arrogance), that they don’t need supervision. If you share ideas and spend most of your time in a dreamy contemplation of nature, you don’t sin, right? Sounds too good to be true.

As the romance develops, ‘Isa takes in the musings of members of his university household, an ensemble cast of characters apparently on the lam from the Catholic Worker: an overly wise earth mother who bakes bread all day long; two vaudeville performers who follow the Discipline of Interruption; Lazarus, the house cynic; and the wisecracking Libby, who is, of course, suspicious of men. ‘Isa speaks of his housemates as “housebugs.”

Alas, tragedy is not far off for our young and foolish heroes. But before they meet reality — and it socks them in the face — we are treated to interesting dialogues on the nature of God, the beauty of the sea, the ferocity of hurricanes and blizzards, and the disguises of angels. And it is in these dialogues that Kreeft’s true strength lies. No one else today writes with such clarity about philosophical issues for the nonacademic, and Kreeft’s books are justifiably popular. By placing the heavy questions that many are reluctant to think about into fictional dialogues, Kreeft is able to make readers pay attention.

It doesn’t always work, of course. While his style is readable and at times lyrical (the description of the blizzard is wonderful), there are some oddities that can’t be overcome even by indulgent readers. One is the juxtaposition of a riff on the Boston Red Sox that comes almost immediately after the saddest section of the story. In itself the digression is funny and enlightening. But why place it here? Likewise the explanation of the Vikings’ possible venture into Massachusetts. James Michener could pull off these side stories, but a little goes a long way. Perhaps Kreeft just needed to get some things off his chest. That is the sense one gets from much of the book — he just needed to explain this one thought or that one marvel, and so in it went. To the reader it is almost as though everything he could not fit into one of his many other books landed here.

This novel will appeal to Peter Kreeft diehards. It explores many important issues. More believable characters and a more sparing use of symbolism would have helped greatly, and perhaps a more restrained hand with the message would have broadened this novel’s audience.

- Elizabeth Hanink



The Artistic Links Between William Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More: Radically Different Rich­ards.  By Charles and Elaine Hal­lett. Palgrave Macmillan. 293 pages. $85.

Richard III was a milestone for Shakespeare. His earlier plays, as Charles and Elaine Hallett explain, consisted of historical events unfolding under the aegis of Fate; but now, for the first time, he took up the subject of evil and crafted scenes as units of action controlled by a fiendish will. The Halletts don’t explain why Shakes­­peare was suddenly fascinated by the workings of an evil will, but in light of recent books about Shakes­peare’s Catholicism, it is telling that this new phase was inspired by the martyrdom of St. Thomas More and arose in the midst of the Elizabethan regime’s bloody persecution of Catholics.

Shakespeare took as his model St. Thomas More’s History of Richard III, a work not published in the mar­tyr’s lifetime. Literary critics have long recognized the link between the Richard in More’s History and the Richard in Shakespeare’s play, but they’ve ignored the fact that these are “radically different Richards.” For one thing, More undercuts Richard, reducing him to a petty tyrant, while Shakespeare elevates Richard into his collaborator, turning his play into the “autobiography” of a man with a “measureless contempt of human nature.”

More’s Richard is not adept at deception, but Shakespeare’s Richard is a consummate deceiver who struts in triumph before the theater audience, treating them as co-conspirators against those he has just duped. As the Halletts demonstrate, Richard III consists of a series of scenes, each of which culminates in a shocking 180-degree reversal. One victim after another falls prey to Richard’s stratagems. At first, they are too fatuous or deeply engaged in Richard’s plots for their downfall to matter much. For instance, Hastings and Buckingham deceive themselves into thinking they are Richard’s friends, but he destroys them as soon as they are no longer useful.

In the dazzling play-within-a-play at Bayard Castle, Shakespeare shows Richard as a master of seduction. There Buckingham offers him the crown, which Richard keeps refusing, on the pretense that he’s interested only in the pursuit of holiness. In his History, More mentions this episode and says it didn’t fool the citizens, but Shakespeare dramatizes the charade and depicts the citizens as deceived. Although they rejected the same arguments when Bucking­ham proposed them in a speech on Richard’s behalf, they now accept them from Richard himself and cheer him when he finally accepts the crown with a look of “tragic resignation.”

Once crowned, Richard orders the murder of his nephews. In the view of St. Thomas More, this deed put Richard in a “different category of villain,” since these children were innocent, and one of them the lawful king. Likewise, Shakespeare is so appalled by this deed that he doesn’t stage it but simply has the murderer report it. The Halletts point out that the conspiratorial bond between Richard and the audience is broken when the king, with a “voyeur’s appetite,” wants to hear all about his nephews’ murder and takes “inhuman delight” in the news.

The Halletts are at their best when analyzing the two wooing scenes in Richard III. In the one involving Lady Anne, whose husband Richard had murdered, the lady’s antagonism has to be overcome. She lashes out for three-fourths of the scene but finally surrenders to his histrionic assaults. Why the 180-degree turn? The main reason is very modern: Richard accuses her of lacking in the “divine perfection” of the “virtue of charity”! Then he flatters her by playing the part of a despairing lover, begging her to take up his sword and kill him, or “take up me.” Kneeling in tears, he asks her to share the guilt for her husband’s murder because her beauty made him do it, assuring her that “if I am false, then never was man true.”

After his wife, Anne, has been put to death, Richard now wants to marry his niece, Princess Elizabeth. To accomplish this, he must woo her mother to assent, though he murdered her two sons in the Tower. In this scene, the Queen Mother keeps reminding him of his crimes, but he shrugs her off, “What is done cannot be undone…. Harp not on that string.” He tells her to forget the past and look to the future, when he will sire grandsons to replace her dead sons. Here, say the Halletts, Shakespeare reveals “the false and fan­tastical realm of illusion that evil is in its essence.” Most of the critics argue that the Queen Mother at the end only appears to cave in, but the Hal­letts contend that she really is overcome by a sense of futility. Instead of using finesse and duplicity as before, in this scene Richard shows coarseness and brutality, threatens lethal force, and compels her acquiescence. In the final act of the play, More’s Richard and Shakespeare’s Richard converge, as the monster dwindles into a cardboard tyrant.

The Halletts do not offer a reason why in 1593 Shakespeare was suddenly interested in the sort of evil that wreaks havoc through deceit, entrapment, and royally sanctioned murder. Yet this was the havoc being wreaked upon English Catholics from 1577 onward. It is noteworthy that his new “mentor” for understanding the evil will was St. Thomas More, who was martyred in 1535 by the tyrant Henry VIII. More never published his History of Richard III — very likely because the application to Henry’s reign was obvious.

Shakespeare adapted More’s study of an evil will to his own era. Doubtless he could see that Eliza­beth’s judicial murder of her Catholic cousin, the imprisoned Queen Mary Stuart, heir to the crown of England, paralleled Richard’s murder of his nephew, the imprisoned Edward V, the rightful king of England. An excellent source for understanding the history behind all the evil machinations in Shakespeare’s plays is Bishop Rich­ard Challoner’s Memoirs of the Mis­sion­ary Priests, first published in 1741-1742 and now available online. This great work is based on shocking eyewitness accounts collected from archives by Alban Butler, famous for his lives of the saints. What a different picture of the Elizabethan age emerges from these pages!

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner





Back to April 2012 Issue