Guest editorial by Alison Milbank
from Modern Believing Vol 58:2 - April 2017

William Shakespeare died on 3rd May 1616, and this centenary celebration prompted a Modern Church conference, ‘Performing the Faith: Shakespeare, the Theatre and Theology Today’ in July 2016, a flavour of which can be gained from the variety of articles in this volume.

In this introduction, I also want to offer the reader some sense of the other addresses also, which you can find in oral or written form on the Modern Church website.

Shakespeare’s contemporary relevance was evident from the very first paper, Beatrice Groves’ ‘Measure for Measure and the Mystery Plays’, based on her Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare 1592-1604, which, as well as situating the playwright in his Reformation context, and discerning the influence of the Catholic theatrical imaginary, if not belief, in his work, showed how he uses references to the raising of Lazarus as a highly theatrical event, to question the usurpation of godlike powers by an earthly ruler, who can effect only a failed and parodic ‘resurrection’ of the condemned Claudio. Measure for Measure ‘explores the fissures that result when the gospel’s radical message of mercy is negotiated in the fallen world of human law and order’, and at a time when new modes of government seemed to be available – as now in this post-Brexit world.

The first essay in this volume by Ronnie Mulryne uses King Lear similarly to think through recent political events in Britain – and now America – in the light of the play’s portrayal of the loosing of social bonds and collapse of authority. Lear offers no easy response but only silence, or the word ‘nothing’ and Mulryne offers no redemptive reading even of the imitation of the pietà as Lear holds the dead Cordelia in his arms. He resists equally, however, a purely nihilist account, offering hope in the evident yearning for goodness and moments of love and loyalty, asking us to reflect through these on the fragility of our own social fabric and public discourse.

Vittorio Montemaggi also meditated on King Lear in ‘”Speak Again”: Life, Love and Language in King Lear’ and he too took seriously the lack of redemption in Cordelia’s tragic death. He asserted, however, that there was a redemptive character to her love, if not her death. The theatrical reality is that the actor playing the dead Cordelia really does breathe, and in performance the ‘theological horizon’ of resurrection becomes the context in which characters do ‘speak again’. Language in this play makes reality and it is noticeable that the characters who most perform love – Cordelia, Edgar, Kent – are all ‘performers’, who act more than themselves.

The theology implicit in theatrical performance is a strong unifying theme throughout the conference addresses. Alycia Smith-Howard Timmis in our second article here offers a dramatic theology in which Shakespeare gives us a vision of God the creative poet, and Christ the ‘imagination of God bodied forth’. Hers is a wholly positive recuperation of The Tempest as a re-writing of the Joseph story from Genesis in which Prospero, the Joseph figure, eschews revenge and forgives his brother. This emphasis on the human as made in the image of God as a maker undergirds also the poetry mass held by Paul Edmondson at the conference, and described here by Anthony Woollard. The employment of Shakespeare’s verse in the place of the usual text not only refreshed our apprehension, as we recalled the original words through the poetry, but also allowed us to imagine vividly those for whom we prayed in the intercession section. Poetry is allied to liturgy in that both are performative utterances which shape a world into being.

Our keynote speaker, Rowan Williams, made prayer the centre of his address, choosing three examples: the failed prayer of Henry V before Agincourt and Hamlet’s Claudius admitting his crime of fratricide, and the ‘prayer’ of Prospero to the audience at the end of The Tempest. Rowan showed how Shakespeare uses prayer as a moment of discovered inwardness, but how this could trap Henry and Claudius in their own self reflections, despair and reliance on ‘works’. Paradoxically, Prospero who speaks in the Epilogue in his ‘character’ as a fictional performer does manage a truthful prayer. He has abandoned his magic to abandon himself to the vulnerability of prayer, as he asks the audience to give him the love and compassion they should give to actual persons, ‘with the help of your two hands’. Hands here are both closed in prayer and in the response of applause for a performance, showing the inherently communal and ecclesial reality of prayer as a form of solidarity.

This idea that the fictions of theatre offer us truth in their very made-up-ness was also at the heart of Graham Ward’s ‘Sleep and Imagination in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’. Self-awareness here for both actors and audience was recuperated more positively in the analysis of this comedy as a mode of ‘lucid dreaming’. Graham Ward resists drawing a theology out of the play but does argue in a manner akin to Vittorio Montemaggi that Theseus’s famous speech about imagination offers it as a creative force that makes or mends the world and offers a transport of experience that we might call an opening to transcendence.

Christian Coppa’s essay, ‘Mannerly Devotion: Touches of Grace in Romeo and Juliet’, presents these tragic lovers as transformed by the dream of their love into an open-endedness that leads to sacrificial love and even sanctity. Christian returns us to the body as the site for theatrical transformation, and to touch as both bodily but also ethical, as the caress inaugurates a desire that involves an awareness of the excess of the beloved – their body’s grace – meaning ‘both divine fullness and bodily finesse’.

In all these essays, which find in theatrical transformation and fictive performance an opening to a theological horizon, it is as if the very createdness and fictional status of the performance makes us aware of something beyond, as it moves us to participate consciously in its imagined reality – just as we dream and sometimes know we are dreaming, to quote Graham Ward. We are also, I believe, being faithful to Shakespeare who, whether Protestant or Catholic, certainly saw in dramatic presentation a kind of quasi-religious practice. There is no other dramatist of this period who is quite so interested in self-referential play upon the nature of theatre itself, in ways that are regenerative and transformatory, as in the bringing back to life of Hermione staged as the revivifying of a statue in The Winter’s Tale.

For readers who find all this too bardolotrous, critique also found a place too at the conference in Jem Bloomfield’s presentation, in which he shared some of the argument of his recent book, Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible (Lutterworth, 2016). It is astonishing how frequently biblical critics use Shakespeare to add weight and authority to arguments about biblical canonicity and of exegesis, while there is a corresponding employment of the modes of source, textual and redaction criticism in Shakespeare scholarship.

You can see from these brief descriptions that we had a lively conference. What is impossible to convey is the register and temper of the event. There was a wonderful attentiveness in the audience, with well-worn copies of Shakespeare ubiquitous, and a thoughtful, engaged response, which challenged the speakers. It was a unique occasion in which we all, speakers and audience worked intensively, as we used Shakespeare to think with and to pray through. And still, four hundred years on, he challenges us, questions our assumptions about God and the world we inhabit, and what it means to be human.

Whatever Shakespeare’s own faith may have been, there is no doubt that, as Alycia puts it, ‘his words are in God’s heart’ for there is no question of the centrality of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation in his work, which take us into the heart of God himself.

Alison Milbank is Associate Professor of Theology and Literature at the University of Nottingham.