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Shakespeare at 400: How He Continues to Shape Western Culture

Eugene Ivanov/Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 04/23/16

Joseph Pearce on what treasures the Bard has in store for those who make the effort to read him

It was one of those stories that might cause some readers to think, Why couldn’t I find one of those in my attic? A rare First Folio edition of the works of William Shakespeare was discovered recently in a stately home on a small Scottish island. There are only 234 known copies of the First Folio, published in 1623, and they could fetch as much as $2 million each.

But there’s no way to put a figure on the way the world has profited from the works of Shakespeare, and this Saturday, aficionados will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard from Avon.

Among them is Joseph Pearce, himself an Englishman and an expert in Shakespeare’s possible Catholicism. Pearce is writer in residence at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he directs the Center for Faith and Culture.The center is marking the anniversary with a daylong Shakespeare celebration. Pearce is editor of the Saint Austin Review and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, including several of Shakespeare’s plays.

He spoke with Aleteia about the value Shakespeare continues to have for civilization.

April 23 is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. You obviously believe Shakespeare is of great value, even today. Do you think we as a society value his work as we ought?

Emphatically not. Shakespeare is certainly one of the greatest writers of all time. There are three writers who are head and shoulders above every other writer in the whole history of civilization — Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. Only one of those wrote in the English language, so we actually have the great blessing of having those works in the original language.

He teaches us so many valuable lessons about who we are as human beings, our relationship with each other and our relationship with God, our relationship in community, that are lessons that we need to learn today as much as much as ever — arguably, considering the way society is going, more now than ever.

You’ve done some research into the possibility that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. What are your latest findings in this area?

Basically, the biographical, documentary evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism, which I put forth, assembled if you like, from the great research done by many other scholars, is pretty comprehensive. There’s very little that we can expect that is new in terms of that biographical and documentary evidence. But there was a copy of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published only a few years after Shakespeare’s death, discovered a couple of years ago in a Jesuit seminary in France, which shows that Shakespeare’s works were being read and perhaps performed by the Jesuits within a few years of the Bard’s death.

But the new evidence we can really expect to continue to emerge is the textual evidence of his plays. Every time I read or watch or engage one of Shakespeare’s plays new evidence leaps out at me. … There are more than 30 plays, and each of them contains abundant evidence. It’s a bit like a mine that we’ve only just begun to dig and sort through for the gems to be found.

What do you think of the fact that Hamlet is being performed at the Vatican?

Also, the Vatican produced a Shakespeare stamp recently. I take it as indicative that there are folks amongst the powers that be in  the Vatican that are aware of Shakespeare’s importance to civilization as a whole, as part of our common heritage, but also perhaps and specifically that Shakespeare is indeed one of us, in terms of being a Catholic who teaches his faith in his works.

How best can devotees of Shakespeare be evangelists of the Bard?

We have to start from the grassroots up. The first thing we have to do is make sure we spend enough of our own lives reading or seeing Shakespeare plays and getting to know him better ourselves. I would advise and urge people to check out the Ignatius critical editions of Shakespeare’s plays. There are seven of the plays published in that series. They contain some wonderful critical essays by some contemporary Catholic and other Christian Shakespeare scholars. So people wishing to get some insight into the Catholic Shakespeare can begin there.

And also, of course, check out my books on the Catholic Shakespeare.

But basically, Shakespeare is read throughout the world. He’s read in middle schools and high schools and colleges, and if we can make people understand the deepest meaning of Shakespeare’s plays, which can be found in his Catholic faith, it is a good way to bring Catholicism to a much wider audience.

And yet the Elizabethan language in which he wrote can make it difficult for many people to approach his work.

Yes, but on the other hand, one of the problems that we face today is that our language is being dumbed down and contracted and constricted. We can only think, let alone speak, we can only actually make sense of the cosmos around us, to the extent to which we actually have a vocabulary that is equal to it. The Anglo-Saxons used a nice phrase for vocabulary, which they called each person’s “word hoard.” Everybody has his own word hoard, and the larger the word hoard we have the more we can make sense of ourselves, our cosmos and our thought and the more we can make that understood by others.

To put the matter simply, words are the very building blocks with which we understand the world in which we live. The more of those building blocks we have at our disposal the more clearly we understand the cosmos. So basically, learning the language of Shakespeare gives us the tools we need to understand ourselves and the cosmos of which we are a part. The vocabulary we learn from Shakespeare gives us the tools to help us understand everything else.

Do you know many people who do creative things with Shakespeare, such as private Shakespeare reading parties?

Yes, I’m seeing much more. For example, I’ll be in Macon, Georgia, soon, where a local Catholic has got together a group of people, including high school students, to work with me, and I’m going to give a dramatic presentation on Shakespeare’s greatest hits, if you like, scenes from several of his plays, and I’m going to talk about the Catholicism of them. The actual scenes from the plays that we’ll be discussing are going to be performed by these amateur high school kids and local Catholics who have been practicing their lines.

Around the country I think more and more people are realizing that, as Catholics, Shakespeare is part of our heritage.

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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