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A "Bard's-eye" View | The Preface and Prologue to Through Shakespeare's Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays | Joseph Pearce

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This volume is intended as a companion to The Quest for Shakespeare, in which the historical, biographical, and documentary evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism is given. It is, however, not merely an appendix to The Quest for Shakespeare but is very much its equal. Whereas the earlier volume assembled the considerable body of evidence pointing to Shakespeare's Catholicism that can be found in the facts of his life, the present volume presents a sample of the even greater body of evidence of his Catholicism to be gleaned from his works.

It is only a sampling of the evidence because it would take numerous books to present such evidence systematically. One could easily envisage one separate book for each of the plays, and two more books to present the evidence for the Catholicism in the sonnets and the longer poems. Thus, in order to discover the superabundance of textual evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism, one would have to write not merely a book but a library, or at any rate a whole shelf full of books, totaling more than three dozen volumes. This enormous undertaking, necessitating a close reading of the plays and poems in the light of Shakespeare's known Catholicism, is a challenge that I hope will be met by future generations of scholars. In this light, the present volume is little more than a gauntlet thrown down to initiate such a challenge.

The present volume examines only three of the Bard's works, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and King Lear, and does so, as its title suggests, by endeavoring to see the plays through Shakespeare's own eyes, which is to see them through the eyes of a believing Catholic living in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The endeavor may seem preposterously large or even preposterously presumptuous, but the alternative is not to see them in any meaningful sense at all. If we see them only through our own eyes, with no effort to see the text in its context, we will not see them as they are but only as we perceive them to be from the shuttered perspective of our own time and our own prejudices. We will not see them objectively but only subjectively. If we see them through the eyes of critics or "experts", we might receive greater insights into the plays' meaning than we would have if unaided by such guidance, but how do we know that such guides can be trusted? What criterion do we use to differentiate between genuine insight and mere sophistry? Who is the guide whom we can most trust?

Clearly the most reliable guide to a work is the author himself, who has the fullest grasp of all the contextual ingredients that inform and flavor the text. It is, therefore, necessary to understand as much about the author as possible, and as much as possible about the time and culture in which he lived. We need to know the author's most important beliefs, which are those beliefs that inform every aspect of his life. These are his theology and his philosophy. At this juncture we should remind ourselves that everyone works from theological and philosophical presumptions. Even atheism is theological, in the sense that the presumption that God does not exist informs the way that the atheist perceives everything else. The "Real Absence" of God is as crucial to the atheist as is his Real Presence to the believer. There is, therefore, no escaping God's primal importance, regardless of whether it springs from the primal assumption that he is or the primal assumption that he is not. It is one of the deepest paradoxes, and perhaps one of God's funniest jokes, that God is always present even when he is absent.

Returning to our quest for Shakespeare, it should now be obvious why it was necessary, in the first instance, to examine the facts of Shakespeare's life before proceeding to an examination of his work. We now know, from an examination of the biographical evidence, that Shakespeare was a Catholic at a time when Catholicism was illegal in England and at a time when Catholics were being persecuted and even put to death. In seeing the plays through Shakespeare's eyes, we will be seeing England through the eyes of one who had witnessed the persecution of family and friends and who may even have seen his friends executed by the state. In seeing the plays through Shakespeare's eyes, we will be seeing one of the darkest periods in history illuminated by one of its greatest geniuses. To reiterate the words of the preface to The Quest for Shakespeare, seeing the plays through Shakespeare's eyes is not merely enlightening but is an adventure in the presence of genius.

Prologue: Through Shakespeare's Eyes

Every work of literature is the incarnation of the fruitful relationship between the artist and his Muse. From a Christian perspective, the Muse is the gift of grace; from an atheistic perspective, it is the author's subconscious. In both cases, the work of literature remains an expression of the personhood of the author. In the former case, the Christian believes that the gift of grace is freely given, like the talents in the Gospel parable, [1] and can be used or abused by the artist according to the predilections of his will (much as the gift of life is freely given and can be used or abused). In the latter case, the atheist believes that the subconscious "Muse" finds expression in the creative process. It can be seen, therefore, that Christians and atheists share the essential belief that the work is the creative incarnation of the personhood of the author. This being so, an author's theological and philosophical beliefs will be the most important influence upon the work, simply because they are the most important influence on the way in which the author perceives reality.

Since the evidence shows that Shakespeare was a believing Catholic, [2] it is clear that seeing his plays through his Catholic eyes is the best way, indeed the only way, of understanding the deepest meanings that they convey. This book endeavors, therefore, to see the plays through Shakespeare's eyes, giving us a "Bard's-eye" view of their true meaning.


[1] Cf. Matthew 25:14-30.

[2] For a summary of the key documentary and biographical evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism, see appendix A, "Shakespeare's Shocking Catholicism". For a more extensive study of this historical evidence, see Joseph Pearce, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008).

Related Ignatius Insight Interviews, Articles, and Book Excerpts:

Ignatius Insight Author Page for Joseph Pearce
The Misunderstood Monster | From the Introduction to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Ignatius Critical Editions, 2008)
Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up? | The opening chapter of The Quest for Shakespeare
Fr. Joseph Fessio and Joseph Pearce Talk About Shakespeare | A video interview (Sept. 8, 2008)
The Quest for Shakespeare website (includes a PDF version of this excerpt from The Quest for Shakespeare)
The Attraction of Orthodoxy | Joseph Pearce
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Modern Art: Friend or Foe? | An excerpt from Literary Giants, Literary Catholics | Joseph Pearce
The Power of Poetry | Interview with Joseph Pearce about Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse
Escape From Puritania | An excerpt from C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church | Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An interview with Joseph Pearce
Chesterton and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason
| An interview with Joseph Pearce
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde | An interview with Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is the prolific author of several acclaimed biographies of major Catholic literary figures, including G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Hilaire Belloc, as well as several other works. He is a Writer in Residence and Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University in Florida, Editor-in-Chief of Ave Maria University Communications and Sapientia Press, as well as Co-Editor of the The Saint Austin Review (or StAR), an international review of Christian culture, literature, and ideas published in England (St. Austin Press) and the United States (Sapientia Press).

Pearce is also editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, a tradition-oriented alternative to popular textbook series such as the Norton Critical Editions or Oxford World Classics, designed to concentrate on traditional readings of the Classics of world literature.

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