Through Shakespeare's Eyes
By Joseph Pearce
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Mitchell Kalpakgian
This edifying work develops further the theme of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, which Joseph Pearce exhaustively explored in The Quest for Shakespeare (reviewed in the Mar. 2009 NOR — Ed.), a work that concluded, “It is as certain that William Shakespeare is a Catholic as it is that Abraham Isaac Jacob Solomon is a Jew.” The evidence includes such salient facts as Shakespeare’s relationship with the Catholic recusant subculture of Elizabethan England and his close friendships with Catholics imprisoned for their faith. No records verify that Shakespeare attended the Church of England or mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth. In his later life he purchased a home in London, Blackfriars Gatehouse, notorious as a Catholic cultural center. His father John was recorded as a recusant, and his mother Mary belonged to a distinguished Catholic family.
In Through Shakespeare’s Eyes, Pearce examines The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and King Lear as further testimony of Shakespeare’s covert, implicit Catholicism, which is revealed in coded language and techniques known as “shadowplay” and “metadrama” — that is, hidden meanings and indirection that camouflage deeper truths not instantly accessible to the casual observer or reader. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia embody the Catholic moral teachings that condemn usury, avarice, and vengeance. Both Antonio and Bassanio “venture” or “hazard” all — Antonio in lending his friend Bassanio a fortune to woo Portia, and Bassanio in selecting the leaden casket that reads, “Who chooseth me must hazard all he hath.” However, when Bassanio utters, “I live upon the rack,” and uses the word “hazard,” these terms evoke not only the risk of money but also the memory of martyred Jesuits like Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, who suffered torture to defend the Catholic faith. “The parallels with Robert Southwell’s willingness to die for his faith, hazarding all he has in his willingness to lay down his life for his friends, is obvious,” writes Pearce.
Pearce’s probing interpretation of Hamlet concentrates on the spy network established by King Claudius to observe Hamlet’s every action, ostensibly to discover the cause of his “madness.” Thus the king manipulates Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his agents of espionage in his plot to send Hamlet to his death. Queen Elizabeth of course was notorious for her system of spies designed to hunt every Catholic priest in the country. Pearce comments: “It is, in fact, almost inescapable that we should see Hamlet…as a Catholic recusant, surrounded by spies on every side, and that we should see Polonius as William Cecil, Elizabeth’s spymaster, who employed an army of spies to infiltrate England’s persecuted Catholic community, intent on betraying priests to their death.” Just as Hamlet feels betrayed by all except a few friends — “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man pick’d out of ten thousand” — the Catholics in Elizabeth’s England suffered the same persecution and isolation that Hamlet undergoes when he returns to England to find his father murdered, his mother remarried, and his lover aloof. According to Pearce: “We can also say that there is much of the plight of the Catholic recusant in Hamlet’s sense of alienation and in his anger at the injustices of the powers that be.” Thus Hamlet’s cause of justice as the rightful heir of his father becomes the Catholic cry for the rightful inheritance of their ancient faith.
Pearce’s sensitive reading of King Lear highlights the martyrdom of those who uphold the truth and refuse to compromise their noble moral ideals to appease corrupt rulers. When commanded to express her love before receiving her inheritance, Lear’s most loving daughter Cordelia refuses to flatter, “to heave/ My heart into my mouth,” or boast, like Goneril and Regan, that she loves her father “dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty.” The price she pays for speaking the simple truth — “You have begot me, bred me, loved me./ I return those duties back as are right fit,/ Obey you, love you, and most honor you” — is disinheritance. King Lear, who has bequeathed his fortune to his ungrateful daughters, is dishonored when they refuse their venerable father the privilege of servants that attend a monarch. Rather than visiting them like a divested king or a beggar, Lear suffers the raging storm on the heath rather than seek shelter at the cost of human dignity. Gloucester, who disobeys the cruel orders of Cornwall to let Lear perish in the storm and gives succor, is brutally blinded for saving an old man from an ignoble death. The deaths and martyrdom of these heroes who love the truth and defend their integrity at all costs “seems to evoke the martyrdom of Catholics in Shakespeare’s own time at the hands of the Giant power of the state,” writes Pearce, “and conjures the shadow of the looming presence of the play’s own malicious giants, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund.”
In short, this exceptional book offers a fresh, engaging interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays, and captures not only the universality of Shakespeare’s great art in portraying the human condition and human nature but also reveals Shakespeare’s uncompromised Catholic faith and the struggle of English Catholics during the draconian reign of Queen Elizabeth.
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