Portsmouth Institute, “The Catholic Shakespeare?,” Friday, June 10
As always, the Portsmouth Institute‘s annual conference was an edifying and relaxing taste of high intellectual pursuit, and one can only wish such events were more regularly available… and more broadly pursued by the general public.
Rt. Rev. Dom Aidan Bellenger, the Abbot of Downside, set the scene with the opening lecture on Friday afternoon. He described the religious upheaval during Shakespeare’s time, during which “targeted attacks on tradition [cut] the culture adrift from its ancient moorings.” Thus Shakespeare worked in an atmosphere of “creative tension of religious uncertainties.”
Following Fr. Bellenger, Dr. John Cox, an English professor at Hope College, surveyed the use of prayer in Shakespeare. Specifically, Cox addressed the question of whether the prayers in Shakespeare’s plays are notably Catholic, coming to the conclusion that they certainly show him to be knowledgeable of Christian practice and not unsympathetic, but that there was nothing strikingly Catholic about them. Overall, Shakespeare appears to have taken prayer seriously, and presented it as a sort of functional activity within a comprehensible moral framework, but he’s dealing with characters (many unseemly), not with exegesis.
Later in the conference, I had occasion to mention to Dr. Cox my observation that prayer is very much like play writing in that the author is composing words to be spoken to convey some idea to an audience. He offered St. Augustine’s Confessions as essentially a very long prayer, and I noted somebody’s comments during Cox’s Q&A session citing a character’s use of the word “indulgence” when petitioning the audience for applause, as if the audience were a collection of saints available for appeal.
His reply was that some critics conclude that Shakespeare began to empty the language of profundity by using such words in light theatrical context and thus diminishing their utility for describing religious concepts. I wondered if that’s led to a modern period in which the language provides the author no inherent profundity at all. But it also occurs to me that the double meaning of words is a very Catholic idea — not to say that Catholics invented the device, but that (as with Transubstantiation) the religious significance of words exists as a real, almost tangible thing however used.
After Dr. Cox’s talk, however, deep thoughts were swept away for the time being with a specially collected orchestra’s fantastic performances of Sir William Walton’s Henry V Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, under the conducting of Troy Quinn:
Then, after a typically excellent Portsmouth Abbey meal, three students from the school offered the nightcap of some scenes from Romeo and Juliet: