Sunday, July 28, 2013

Shakespeare on the Traditional Mass


I have mentioned before Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay and her argument about the coded messages in Shakespeare relating to religious matters. It can easily sound a bit Dan Brown-ish but actually a lot of it is common sense. If a playwright today wrote a play about a Prime Minister who involved his country in a distant war on the basis of false information, anyone who doubted that this gave the playwright an opportunity to pass some kind of comment on Tony Blair and the Iraq war would be regarded as very dull. When Shakespeare writes - as in A Winter's Tale - about a king who seeks to rid himself of a virtuous wife, and is enraged when the world-centre of religious authority, to which he appeals, sides with her, and you connect this with events of Henry VIII's reign, everyone thinks you are a conspiracy theorist.

The easy explanation for the double standards is simple enough. Shakespeare's comment on those events, if that is what it is, is that things can only be put right by a painful repentance and a seemingly impossible restoration. That is not the attitude to Catholicism which modern literary critics want to attribute to Shakespeare.

But taking a common sense approach to interpretation, Shakespeare has an opportunity to make a little comment on the centre of religious authority, 'Delphi': that is, Rome. He doesn't ham it up, it is just a tiny scene (Act III scene I) in which the ambassadors are returning and talking about their experiences. What did they find in Delphi, apart from the oracle itself? They found liturgy.

The ambassador Dion speaks.

I shall report,
For most it caught me, the celestial habits,
Methinks I so should term them, and the reverence
Of the grave wearers. O, the sacrifice!
How ceremonious, solemn and unearthly
It was i' the offering!

He is talking, of course, about the Traditional Mass, and its power to communicate divine realities to the onlooker.


Photos: Pontifical High Mass, celebrated in Ratcliffe by Bishop Malcolm McMahon for the LMS Priest Training Conference, and in Westminster Cathedral by Bishop John Arnold, for the LMS Annual Requiem.

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