Through Shakespeare's Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays Hardcover – 1 Jun 2010
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What more is there to be said about William Shakespeare? Yet the supply of books on the great dramatist is never ending. Now, however, there is a new reason for this supply. The religion of Shakespeare, and specifically his Catholicism, is now recognized as a hot topic . --Peter Milward, S.J., Shakespeare scholar and author, Shakespeare the Papist.
About the Author
Joseph Pearce is the author of numerous acclaimed biographies of major Catholic literary figures. He is a Writer in Residence at Ave Maria University in Florida and Editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series, a collection of classic literature accompanied by literary analysis from a variety of notable scholars. Among his other titles are and, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church.
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Indeed, it was the very atmosphere of Elizabethan England that necessitated Shakespeare's obliqueness. To be openly Catholic at that time was to incur the wrath of the Crown...with the likely consequence of fines, imprisonment, or even a horrible death. Pearce shows how Shakespeare was intimately aware of this through his knowledge of, and possible association with, the martyred Jesuit priests: Fr. Robert Southwell and Fr. Edmund Campion. He even draws parallels between Shakespeare's dramas and the life and writings of these two men.
What is most striking, however, is how Pearce presents the morality, philosophy, and theology of Shakespeare in these plays as being distinctly Catholic...and in direct conflict with the prevailing Machiavelian politics and Relativist philosophies of the day. Overall, it was a most intriguing work that should be read--not just by Catholics--but by every lover of Shakespeare.
But here, where he wanders into the crowded waters off Shakespeare scholarship, it's a serious defect.
He is far too quick is dismiss out of hand scholars who have interpretations of Shakespeare he doesn't like. But does he tell us who, why, or even what they say? No!
He doesn't quote them, he seems only to quote people who wrote quite awhile ago (Samuel Johnson is someone he cites and criticizes most) and only quotes current scholars (meaning in the last decade or so) when they agree with him.
I'm just supposed to take his word on what those scholars say. That's not scholarship -- that's polemic.
That's bad enough, but putting that aside there are real flaws his argument. He only looks at three plays: The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and King Lear. He spends more than half the book on the first, less than 100 pages on the second, and 3 or 4 chapters (under 50 pages) on the third. He says Lear is the most complex and difficult of Shakespeare's plays and then gives you something that is so short and superficial that it belies his initial thoughts about the play.
For Merchant we are given a scene by scene, almost line by line, interpretation of the play. The things he says, especially about Shylock, fly in the face of every interpretation of the play I've seen. But many of his thoughts are worth exploring and he does have a unified vision of the play.
Not so with Hamlet. He sees the play as being a struggle between absolute and relative morality and sees Hamlet as always being good. I have serious problems with this because he ignores the many morally ambiguous, or even wrong, things Hamlet does in the course of the play. Nor does he ever give us even the slightest hint as to what might make it a tragedy. Does Hamlet have a tragic flaw? He never discusses it. He is more than happy to tell us Merchant is a comedy because there are marriages at the end, but the fact that the chaos of Hamlet is so complete that not only is everyone dead, but even the state is so destroyed that it is conquered by Norway without a fight is ignored. Completely.
His chapters on Lear are even worse. Again there is no mention of a flaw in Lear. Several important characters are given short shrift, including Kent, Cordelia, and Reagan. I get the juxtaposition of themes from the gospel he sees in the play. But in limiting his interpretation to just what suits his theory, he turns what is a complex, difficult play that has inspired many into a trifle.
And at the end of these chapters on Lear he questions whether the play is really a tragedy -- completely out of the blue. He has never bothered to tell us what makes a tragedy in general or why Lear doesn't qualify.
This could have been better. He could have written a book that gave more time to more difficult plays. He could have shored up his sweeping dismissals of much mainstream Shakespeare scholarship with specific discussion. If he wants his ideas to be taken seriously he needs to do that.
But then it wouldn't be polemic, would it?