Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 79 (January 1998): 40-43.
Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays. By Peter J. Leithart. Cannon Press (Moscow, ID). 284 pp. $15.50 (+$3 s/h).
Reviewed by Margaret Boerner
Shakespeare hardly lacked esteem in his own age. His contemporaries took appraising and even jealous notice of him. Ben Jonson, nine years his younger, offered an elegy in the First Folio that declared "like Apollo he came forth to warm/Our ears, or like a Mercury to charm!" And Milton, two generations younger, offered a tribute in the Second Folio that declared the playwright to be one of the muses themselves—"Dear son of memory"—who left behind so large a monument of astonished readers that "kings for such a tomb would wish to die."
But it was in succeeding ages that Shakespeare assumed his commanding position as the premier author of English literature, the central subject of nearly every great critical work written in English—and many of those written in German or even French. Of course, Shakespeare has also been subjected to critics who twisted him into bizarre shapes merely to advance their own theses and, thereby, their own careers.
But he has also, and perhaps more distressingly, attracted the attention of those who love him but hardly know why they do—desiring to see in him a reflection of their own deepest beliefs. Indeed, Ben Jonson had already warned in his elegy against a "blind affection" for Shakespeare "which doth ne’er advance / The truth, but gropes, and urgeth all by chance." The most notorious of these are those who insist that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone else, with various conspiracy theories accounting for the fact that Jonson and other contemporaries of Shakespeare said they knew him. (The latest of such efforts is Joseph Sobran’s much-pilloried, if fascinating, attempt to identify Edward de Vere as the author of the Sonnets in Alias Shakespeare.)
Another group that "urgeth all by chance" is the enthusiastic congery of critics who insist that Shakespeare’s plays present a deliberately and explicitly Christian message. Peter Leithart, a Presbyterian minister (and frequent contributor of theological opinions to First Things)—writing his Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays for high school students and "adults who are discovering or rediscovering Shakespeare"—is only the latest in a long line of critics to seek out Shakespeare’s Christian drama.
Holding that "real life is sovereignly shaped and arranged by God into a story," Leithart argues that all stories set forth the archetypical Christian story—and Shakespeare’s stories most of all. The argument seems on its face a little muddled. If, as Christians believe, God has chosen to reveal Himself in the stories of the Old Testament and the Master Story that culminates in the New Testament, then it may be that real life is divinely arranged in the structures of a story, though that takes us into deep theological waters. But do we really want to say that it necessarily follows that all stories are divine? Are we really prepared to hold that there are no stories that do not explicitly and deliberately retell the Christ-event?
If nothing else, such a view seems to confuse the absolutely hypothetical nature of fiction—and the freedom of creation granted to human imagination—with what Leithart undoubtedly holds is the true story of God’s actions in history. As Sir Philip Sidney said in answering the Puritan charge that plays gave public scandal because they were monstrous lies, "Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth."
To Leithart, however, Shakespeare’s plays are specific instances of the "master redemption story of the Bible." He claims, for example, that "we will find it useful to compare Macbeth’s fall from power to Jesus’ triumph over Satan, ‘the ruler of this world,’ and to consider Malcolm and Macduff as something like ‘Christ figures.’" Indeed, Leithart sees Christ figures all through the plays, so eager is he to see Shakespeare as a Christian writer suitable for Christian readers: Henry V, "as an anointed king, is a Christ figure"; and Hamlet shows us a fallen world without the Redeemer and the "folly and danger of . . . redemption through violence"—so that at the end of the play, "the meek inherit the land," by which Leithart evidently means "strong-arm" Fortinbras.
In recent years the urge to find Christ figures in Shakespeare has been steamrollered by new historicism and other critical fads, but it formerly occupied some of the most learned of Shakespeare’s twentieth-century critics. G. Wilson Knight—a brilliant if shifty critic—notoriously treated Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure as a character in which "the actions of God are anthropomorphically represented," the Duke (re)appearing in the last scene "in righteousness, majesty, and judgment." Others have seen in the play: a gospel lesson told by Jesus (the Duke); St. Paul legalistically defending his position to the Romans; and King James subduing his subjects (another Christ figure, according to Leithart). Some have said that Isabella, Angelo, or Mariana is the Christ figure in Measure for Measure. Examining plot as it intersects with character, other critics have seen the Crucifixion story in the feigned (comic) death of Hero in Much Ado about Nothing and the tragic deaths of Cordelia, Desdemona, Timon of Athens, and even Hamlet (of whom, surely, there is nothing that is not ambiguous).
Many of those who see Christ figures in Shakespeare are not particularly religious, and many great Christian critics—Samuel Johnson and Northrop Frye (a Protestant minister) come to mind—do not read Shakespeare as Christian allegory, holding that a being who is both God and man, who dies and is resurrected, and whose death redeems us from sin into everlasting life cannot be represented in fiction as anything other than Himself. Indeed, it hardly occurred to anyone before the twentieth century to identify Christian allegories in Shakespeare, and despite looking, no one in this century has found much to suggest, let alone prove, that Shakespeare and his contemporaries meant their characters to represent figures of Christ or, for that matter, any biblical personage. But, as Richard Levin points out in his 1979 New Readings vs. Old Plays, "This surely is the sort of thing one would expect to be recorded somewhere—for instance, in the spirited debate that was then being waged [by the Puritans] about the morality of the drama, where it would have been especially relevant."
It may be that the desire to find another story whose ethical import has already been determined by one’s faith rather than facing a difficult, ambiguous, ambivalent, hypothetical, unsettling play by Shakespeare is characteristic of our chafing at seeing only through a glass darkly. But it seems to me that critics and readers in our secular twentieth century simply no longer recognize how questionable and even scary it once was to compare any human person to a biblical figure, especially to God. Two centuries ago, in his preface to the works of the poet Edmund Waller, Samuel Johnson reasoned that:
From poetry the reader justly expects, and from good poetry always obtains, the enlargement of his comprehension and elevation of his fancy; but this is rarely to be hoped by Christians from metrical devotion. Whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in the name of the Supreme Being. Omnipotence cannot be exalted; Infinity cannot be amplified; Perfection cannot be improved. . . . The ideas of Christian Theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestic for ornament.
Making parallels between a human story and Christ’s story can even suggest blasphemy. The Abuses of Players Act of 1606 forbade "the greate Abuse of the Holy Name of God in Stageplayes," and was taken by the players’ companies to mean that the God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament could not be mentioned at all; hence, there are only "gods" in King Lear.
Shakespeare was baptized and instructed in the faith of his country, which was Protestant and strongly predestinarian, thanks to Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer. Some historical evidence suggests that Shakespeare’s family was recusant Roman Catholic, but Shakespeare does not reveal his religion to us. In fact, he reveals nothing of himself to us. But he so thoroughly understands human beings that he even understands how we explain ourselves to ourselves—how Claudius, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, Cleopatra, and Hamlet see themselves internally. Authors are not required to do this and few authors do; in fact, few even of the great authors do. Henry James, Milton, Spenser, and Dickens mostly see their characters externally. But to Shakespeare, nothing human was alien, and it does him a real disservice to insist—especially to inexperienced readers—that he was painting Christian allegory by numbers.
Margaret Boerner teaches in the Humanities Program at Villanova University.