A "Bard's-eye" View | The Preface and Prologue to "Through Shakespeare's Eyes: Seeing the
Catholic Presence in the Plays" | Joseph Pearce | Ignatius Insight
A "Bard's-eye" View | The Preface and Prologue to Through Shakespeare's Eyes: Seeing the
Catholic Presence in the Plays | Joseph Pearce
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,  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,  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.
 Cf. Matthew 25:14-30.
 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
of Literary Giants | An interview with Joseph Pearce
and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
Love, Beauty and Reason | An interview with Joseph Pearce
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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