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The Bard for Preachers

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: April 2016

Why Shakespeare Matters

Also in this issue

Why Shakespeare Matters

Faith, Politics, and the Fall in Thatcher’s Britain: A Review Article

A Helpful Little Primer on Eschatology? A Review Article

The Triumph of Faith by Rodney Stark

Sonnet 73

It has been my habit over the last decade to memorize the Bard’s Sonnets, among other poems, on my daily walks—no sense wasting time just exercising. In honor of the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death I want to briefly analyze Sonnet 29 in order to demonstrate the benefit of the Sonnets for preachers.

The main strands of a Christian account of the world are woven throughout the fabric of all of Shakespeare’s works. That is the thrust of Leland Ryken’s persuasive essay, “Why Shakespeare Matters,” in which he claims Shakespeare as an implicitly, rather than explicitly, Christian writer:

Over the course of my career as a literary scholar, Shakespeare’s works came to seem more and more Christian until I reached the point of not hesitating to claim him as a Christian writer. The rewards of reading his best works are the same as those of reading Donne, Herbert, and Milton: we view human experience from a Christian perspective. This is not to say that Shakespeare’s works are as overtly Christian as those of Milton, but sometimes a work in which Christian patterns are latent can be all the more powerful for that understated quality. There is a place for implicitly Christian literature as well as explicitly Christian literature… .

Ryken sees Shakespeare’s implicit Christianity in numerous biblical “references and echoes,” a perspective on human experience consonant with Christianity, and the world Shakespeare creates is based on Christian premises such as the reality of God, the supernatural, and the existence of heaven and hell.

An earlier author, George Morrison, in Christ in Shakespeare (1928), agrees entirely with Ryken. His ten addresses to the Wellington Literary Club in Wellington Church, Glasgow, explore the following themes in “some of Shakespeare’s greater plays”: the reality of providence, the concern of God, the nature of man, the worth of woman, the fact of temptation, the peril of delay, the power of choice, the passion of jealousy, the tragedy of egoism, and the sovereignty of love.[1]

The Bard’s exploration and articulation of the human is without parallel in English literature, and he was the first to do it with the range and genius he exhibited in his best works. This I think is the gist of the subtitle of the indomitable Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.[2] “The Shakespearean difference” is Bloom’s summation of the Bard’s greatness as a writer.

I designate three primary aspects of his power: cognitive originality, totally answerable style, and—the miracle—creation of utterly persuasive human personalities, here Hamlet and Lear are particular… . Shakespeare endows his people with the capacity to change, either through the will or with involuntary force… . To have thought his way into their [Hamlet and Falstaff] inwardness is Shakespeare’s most startling originality… . The rich strangeness of Shakespeare gave us hundreds of personalities, each with his or her highly distinctive voice. So many separate selves seem scarcely possible as emanations from a single consciousness, itself a permanent enigma to us.[3]

Bloom, however, minimizes the influence of Christianity on Shakespeare, and, as Ryken notes, Bloom wrongly insists that “Shakespeare invented us (whoever we are),” echoing the anthropological and cultural relativism of modernity.[4] Bloom declares that Shakespeare’s “sensibility is secular, not religious.”[5] This is where Ryken’s insight is so important to the preacher. As I have memorized a number of the Sonnets, the implicit Christian assumptions of Shakespeare have had an indefinable but real impact on my thinking and preaching. Bloom observes that Wittgenstein “objected to the wide opinion that Shakespeare is lifelike, but then the great philosopher very fiercely insisted that Shakespeare was primarily ‘a creator of language.’ ”[6] But, it seems to me that the medium of language is inextricably connected with the meaning of the human so adroitly and masterfully communicated by Shakespeare. The universalism of Shakespeare’s depiction of the human, which Bloom so values, can only be accounted for through the biblical revelation of human nature as it impinged on the literary consciousness of the Bard. For the preacher, words incarnate biblical truth. Hence the value of the Sonnets.

A Brief Look at Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
    For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I offer here a natural, rather than a technical, reading of the poem. The latter may enhance one’s understanding, but this poem is one of the Bard’s clearer offerings and an excellent way to enter the rarified world of his genius.

One of the dangers in interpreting poetry is to attempt to read the biography of the author into his poems. We confront this danger in the first line of Sonnet 29. “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” What disgrace, we may ask? It is difficult to identify it in Shakespeare’s life. And we need not be concerned to since the poet’s imagination ranges far beyond himself. He is an astute observer of humanity and reader of other observers who have gone before him. Here we see the poet as Job or David, whose fortunes and reputations fell to a great depth at once.

Shakespeare’s world is both visible and invisible, “And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.” The poet has no ground upon which to stand before God and thus feels utterly abandoned, like the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Ps. 22:1).

Every pilgrim from Abraham to Paul can identify with being in an “outcast state.” And with the emotion that often accompanies that state, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1); “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Ps. 6:6). This emotion that flirts with complete despair, “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth” (Job 3:1), as we see in line 4 of Sonnet 29, which completes the first quatrain, stating the problem, “And look upon myself and curse my fate.”

The second quatrain explores the poet’s reason for discontent, rooted as it is in envy of those around him. He seems to have no future, “Wishing me like to one more rich in hope.” Those who do have hope are surrounded with good friends “Featured like him, like him with friends possessed.” They have wonderful skills and a great range of sensibilities like the polymath, “Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,” which the poet wishes for himself. All of what he lacks and envies in others makes it impossible for him to be content with what he has and once appreciated, “With what I most enjoy contented least.” What a litany of complaints. What insight into the temptations and sins of the outcast or pilgrim in this fallen world.

The final quatrain signals a turn of fortune reminding us of the Psalmist’s turn, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Ps. 42:11). Shakespeare looks up and beyond to a transcendent solution. He comes close to completely hating himself but remembers a wonderful resource beyond himself, that raises him above his outcast state and discontent, reminding of similar sentiments in the Psalms like “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5 KJV).

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

We do not know the “thee” toward whom the poet turns his thoughts, but whoever it is the memory of his or her love enables the despairing poet to turn a corner.

Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

Again Shakespeare envisions a heavenly reality in the image of the lark’s early morning singing. There is hope beyond this world where the earthly drags us down but heaven’s gate becomes the object of the outcast’s gaze. The lark must rise from his nest on the ground to greet the dawn with song. The idea of Christian worship is prominent here as Shakespeare uses the image of Anglican church “hymns.” How far this is from the secularism of Bloom’s blind assertion about the place of religion in Shakespeare. The once brass heaven now offers an entrance.

The concluding couplet brings powerful and moving resolution to the sonnet.

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Here love reminds us of George Morrison’s final address in the book mentioned above, “On the Sovereignty of Love.” When James (2:8–13) speaks of the sum of the law as the love of neighbor, he assumes that the love of God is the original love of which all human love is the imitation. So in this couplet the origin of “sweet love” is ambiguous, perhaps purposely, so we can insert God’s love in Christ. And “sweet love” reminds us, as perhaps Shakespeare intended of Psalm 34:8, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” Sonnet 30 has a similar ending. After rehearsing the regrets of old age, the poet concludes,

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

What a friend we have in Jesus.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16–18)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3:1–4)

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28–30)

Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven … (Matt. 6:20)

It is no accident that what is implicit in Shakespeare suggests revealed truth for the reader alert to the biblical atmosphere in which the Bard was nurtured as a writer of the spoken word. We speakers of the Word of God do well to drink from this rich fountain.

Endnotes

[1] George H. Morrison, Christ in Shakespeare: Ten Addresses on Moral and Spiritual Elements in Some of the Greater Plays (London: James Clarke, 1928), 9.

[2] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead, 1998).

[3] Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Frost (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 111–12.

[4] Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 721–22, 725. Bloom declares, “For us, now, the Bible is the most difficult of books. Shakespeare is not…” 729.

[5] Ibid., 731.

[6] Bloom, The Best Poems, 113.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, April 2016.

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Ordained Servant: April 2016

Why Shakespeare Matters

Also in this issue

Why Shakespeare Matters

Faith, Politics, and the Fall in Thatcher’s Britain: A Review Article

A Helpful Little Primer on Eschatology? A Review Article

The Triumph of Faith by Rodney Stark

Sonnet 73

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