Sermon: 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death

On the third day of Christmas in the year 1598 with the snow falling, Shakespeare’s business partners accompanied by the most experienced theatrical carpenter in London, Peter Street, set about dismantling their Theatre in Shoreditch. Their dispute with the landlord had become increasingly acrimonious and as a result they had decided to convey the Theatre piece by piece through the City, across the frozen Thames to the new site on Bankside where it was rebuilt in six months as the Globe.

The original Globe had a capacity of 3,300. It opened on June 12 1599 at an hour deemed propitious by an astrologer and Julius Caesar was the first play performed.

We must imagine a time with no newspapers and where the pulpit was the principal source of commentary on current events. The theatre was regarded by authorities in church and state as a dangerous competitor and a threat to their attempt to monopolise the means of shaping public opinion.

When the theatrical entrepreneur and court lutenist to James I, Philip Rosseter, was reported as saying that plays were as good as sermons he was summoned before the Bishop of London and compelled to recant.

It was a tense time and the writing of history plays in particular was a delicate business. Just as in the old Soviet Union history was used as a covert commentary on contemporary events. It is well known that a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II with its incendiary deposition scene was sponsored by the Earl of Essex as a prelude to his attempted coup against Elizabeth I. Censorship in these circumstances was tight. In the same month that the Globe opened there is a reference in the register of the Stationers’ Company to subversive printed materials and that if such could be found, “let them be presently brought to the Bishop of London and burnt”.

Handling religious topics on stage was especially sensitive. Henry VIII, Mary, Elizabeth and James all issued proclamations demanding that every performance should be licensed and banning references to “matters of religion”.

England was undergoing a cultural revolution. The old world of Shakespeare’s youth in Stratford was passing away. His birth place was stigmatised by those of a puritan persuasion as “an ungodly place on the blind side of the Diocese”. Shakespeare’s family was attached to the old ways and he was steeped in the imaginative world of pre-reformation England with its fairies and enchanted forest of Arden. In Sonnet LXXIII he laments the “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. In me thou see’st the twilight of such day as after sunset fadeth in the West”.

He was expected by some to be more committed in the ideological battles which raged at a time when warring Christian absolutisms were busy over-defining mystery in the interests of polemics. Instead he drew on the resources of the old world as he held up a mirror to his own times. As the gospel says, “Every scribe which is instructed unto the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man that is a householder which bringeth forth out of his treasure things old and new.” [Matthew XIII:52] The message of the passage we have heard is that the kingdom to which Jesus Christ points is not obvious but must be searched out.

Shakespeare reflects the world described by his contemporary John Donne the Dean of St Paul’s as one in which “’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone”. The search for truth just like the search for the kingdom was not a simple matter of adopting some consistent ideological position. As Donne said “On a huge hill cragged and steep, Truth stands and he that will reach her about must and about must go”.

The elusive authorial persona of William Shakespeare exhibits scepticism about conventional pieties and official propaganda. As beloved Falstaff says “What is honour? A word. Honour is a mere scutcheon” The sentiment is echoed in Henry V where alongside the stirring patriotic speeches there is a vivid evocation of the horrors of a war which begins with bishops plotting how to distract the king from an imminent raid on church coffers by inciting him to invade France.

Shakespeare gives us multiple viewpoints but in particular he gives us the “stranger’s case”, the view of the outsider. He collaborated in a play on Thomas More in which More confronts a xenophobic crowd bent on mischief against the economic migrants in their midst. In a passionate speech More appeals to their common humanity and concludes “this is the stranger’s case and this your mountanish inhumanity”. Othello is another play in which he puts the “stranger’s case” and defies contemporary racial prejudices.

Shakespeare shows us the face of compassion in an age of ideological passion when human beings did atrocious things to one another on principle – it sounds very contemporary.

“Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel” Lear says in words we shall use for our prayers. Shakespeare is not didactic but he holds up a mirror to nature and invites us to feel and see. Lear was written in the autumn of 1605 and played before the King after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. The plotters were Warwickshire men some of them known personally to Shakespeare. As Lear says, “when we step on to this stage of fools we wawl and cry” … then “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!”

The theme of his last plays, however, is the possibility redemption through the divine, through nature and children. Always topical, in the very last play of which Shakespeare was the sole author, “The Tempest” the principal character was a Duke.

The play was perhaps influenced by the overthrow of the scholarly Rudolf of Prague in 1611 and it is sometimes suggested that Prospero’s elegiac final speech represents Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. It may be however that the speech given to Theseus in the play on which he collaborated “The Two Noble Kinsmen” was actually the last thing he wrote for the stage. It is an address to the inscrutable gods.

“Oh you heavenly charmers,

What things you make of us! For what we lack

We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still

Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful

For that which is, and with you leave disputes

That are above our question. Let’s go off

And bear us like the time.”

Ours is an age where all over the world in the many places where the Globe Company has played Hamlet, traditional cultures are eroding under the pressure of our new digital age just as they were in England in Shakespeare’s time. It is not clear what future is coming to meet us but Shakespeare’s language, humanity and humour constitute a treasury which shows no signs of being exhausted for reflection, wisdom and endurance in our times.

His friend and rival the irascible Ben Jonson said “He was not of an age but for all time”. And in a final tribute Jonson declared,  “I love the man and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any.” And so say all of us.