The Authorship Question
The Catholic Question
Cast of Characters
The Author's Mind
Edmund Campion
Edmund Campion as Shakespeare
The Works
Coincidence or Clue
The Devil's Advocate
Notes and References
Contact Me
Previous Page

Notes on the Themes

Some of the major themes of the great tragedies could be listed as the human passions, individual isolation, exile, the need for mercy, and redemption. Opinions vary greatly as to the strength and nature of the Christian convictions of the playwright, with a common view being that he grew increasingly pagan in outlook as his tragic view deepened.. As noted in Shakespeare’s Millennium, a former Jesuit, Peter Levi likens Shakespeare’s religion to neo- Platonism and says that “ he was not, thank God, a theologian, except in the more serious sense in which a poet must be”.{14}. According to the philosopher George Santayana the choice for Shakespeare lay “between Christianity and nothing” .... “and he chose nothing...to leave his heroes and himself in the presence of life and death and with no other philosophy than that which the profane world can suggest and understand.” [15].

Others, most notably Shakespeare scholar, Dr. Germaine Greer, believe that Shakespeare was a deeply Christian writer and remained so throughout his career- a viewpoint that is powerfully articulated in her interpretation of King Lear for the Oxford’s “Past Masters” series. Greer highlights the fact that the playwright remains anonymous and detached. He does not preach to us, but rather dramatizes his thoughts, so if we are to gain an understanding of his convictions, we must study the words and actions of his characters in the manner King Lear proposes to his daughter Cordelia:

And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies. (Act V, Scene 1)

In Measure for Measure the character Isabella, who seeks entrance in a nunnery ,speaks the following words that give a sense of the anguish of those in Heaven when confronted with the foibles and follies of mankind. The author repeats this theme on the nature of the human condition in many of the plays. Greer considers the author shows respect and sympathy for mankind, rather than pessimism or cynicism, in addition to a Christian acceptance of the mystery and power of an almighty God.

.......but man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured-
His glassy essence -like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep

Still more recently, researchers and scholars have explicitly called for a pro-Catholic interpretation of the plays. Peter Milward SJ argues that “if Shakespeare was other than a conforming member of the Anglican Church, and especially if he sympathized with the Catholic recusants, he was obliged to keep his religious opinions to himself; or if he expressed them, it could only be done in disguise, at a remove from his real meaning.” [16]. Could Shakespeare only express his true meaning by allegorical design as suggested by the clown Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona: “Thou shalt never get such a secret from me but by a parable.” (ii.4)

Macbeth , the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, again deals with the theme of exile. The characters Malcolm and Macduff leave Scotland for England where they lament their enforced displacement and the suffering of those at home.

Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face..
Bleed, bleed poor country!

I think our country sinks beneathe the yoke;
It weeps, it bleeds.

Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. (Ross)

Peter Milward describes this condition as “precisely in contemporary terms, the lament of Catholics in and out of contemporary England - as of no one else. They could see both the spiritual ruin inflicted on their country by the small Protestant party in power, led by Sir William Cecil and (in another way) the Earl of Leicester, and the physical and mental sufferings endured by their fellow-Catholics. Their laments are echoed and re-echoed in the “recusant literature” of the age...”. [17].

Many recent critics have discussed Macbeth in relation to events surrounding the Gunpowder plot of 1606 as a subtext to the play owing to its first recorded performance around this time. Another main reason for this perspective pertains to the subject matter of the ‘Porter Scene’ which many critics, however, including Coleridge, dismiss as written by someone else and of far inferior literary worth. I can’t imagine Shakspere or any playwright of the early 1600s would dare to write about such a controversial topic so soon after the event. Campion, witnessed the execution of one of the earliest Oxonian martyrs, Dr. John Storey, in London before he left home shores for Europe. I can well imagine him lamenting the state of his “weeping England” and thus inventing a literary conceit used by his fellow Jesuit writers in the years to come.

 Next Page