From the Nov/Dec, 2014 issue of Touchstone


Shakespeare, Humble & Ardent by Michael Platt

Shakespeare, Humble & Ardent

Any Quest to Understand the Bard Requires Humility & Ardor by Michael Platt

If we knew who Shakespeare was, might it help us read his works? In "Shakespeare's Religion" (First Things, May 2008), Professor Robert Miola summed up the little that is known about Shakespeare's personal worship and reviewed the interesting, but mixed and inconclusive, inferences from the plays.

Shakespeare the man may have been a Catholic, but the record does not show it. The spaces between the dots in the life are, as Miola maintains, much wider than the dots, and some of the dots are not dots at all, but crumbs that scrupulous scholarly birds have eaten up before bold enthusiasts could trace their way back to safety, and so an impartial observer must, like a Scottish judge, declare, "not proven." It is a lonely stance.

Such a judge must stand on the defensive. Ordinarily in discussion, it is proper to ask: What evidence, if found, would change your view? (And if the man won't answer, there is no point in continuing discussion.) But in this case, such clinching evidence, a profession of lack of faith in Shakespeare's hand declaring, "I am not now, nor have I ever been a Catholic," is in the nature of the thing exceedingly unlikely. Listening to someone who believes that the silence of the record only means that Shakespeare's worship was secret, such a judge might think, "Improbable, but not impossible, also impossible to refute, and yet, as I said, 'not proven.'" However, if he notices that the more convinced the believer, the more wrought up in the case, and the more published, the less he will have considered opposing evidence, let alone looked for it—what believer cares to find out which whole play the Jesuits teaching English novices in Spain cut from the Second Folio?what can he conclude but that "unexamined opinion rules the world." And to such a passionate believer, who "knows" who Shakespeare was and thus already knows what Shakespeare says, it will be in vain to point out that Shakespeare himself never says anything in all his works.

To be sure, this belief is not the only one based on this powerful presumption. Many a historian and literary critic used to assume that "Shakespeare was an Elizabethan, so he must have only Elizabethan thoughts," forgetting that he is the one "Elizabethan" who towers above all others by writing works none of them did. Thus E. M. W. Tillyard read Ulysses' grandiloquent speech on order and degree (based on Hooker) in Troilus and Cressida and assumed that Shakespeare agreed, even though Ulysses, through this very speech, rules—that is, usurps—his own superior by order and degree, King Agamemnon.

These days the arguments run lower: Shakespeare was male with only male thoughts, white with only white thoughts, and, of course, dead with only dead thoughts. Some today seem more respectful, but only by imagining Shakespeare a victim of pervasive Elizabethan repression. All this is worse, to be sure, than the claim we know him a Catholic, but it is based on the same presumption: I know who he is, so I know what he thinks; and with the same result: no need to study.

Shakespeare Hidden

Yet the instance of Shakespeare seems singularly unfitted to this presumption, for two reasons: the character of the life and the character of the works. No life would seem to invite less speculation. The records concern marriages, births and deaths, property, and one trial. The few reports and testimonies that reach us speak of no duels, no quarrels, no scandals; his company was a wonder of amity; and in that one trial he testified at, he shows up as a maker of a good match, such as he arranges in his comedies. There are only six signed papers, and no letters. In all these, there is no thought. The Sonnets are, it is true, intimate, but shadowy; they will forever frustrate the itch to get "the real story." Shakespeare's narrative poems do tell stories, but none is the story of Shakespeare.

Moreover, there are none but poetic works; the thoughts such as Milton, Shelley, and Yeats left us outside their poetic works is not there. Shakespeare wrote no Of Christian Doctrine, no Necessity of Atheism, and no A Vision. (And even if he had written all three, the warning of D. H. Lawrence, "Trust the tale, not the teller," would need to be heeded.) In no work does Shakespeare tell us what he thinks.

Though it would be hard to find a greater contrast between the life and the works, the one dull as a puddle and the other grand and multitudinous as the ocean, yet, in both life and works, Shakespeare seems hidden—and more even in the works, for they are so perfectly dramatic, with the speeches so marvelously fitted to each character, that their author is as invisible as water in water.

The Need to Come as Students

Something deeper than the over-reaching endeavor to prove Shakespeare the man a Catholic calls for examination, and it is the assumption underlying it. Even if we became convinced Shakespeare was a Catholic, where would we be? If you know of some sincere pronouncement of belief by an author (or an artist, scientist, or philosopher), or some record of long practice in accord with his belief, how much do you know about the vast works, the wondrous discoveries in them, some contradictory perhaps, and some perhaps beyond his planning? Not enough, I submit. Certainly not enough to substitute for getting to know those works, which, to be known, require the labor of inquiry.

Just imagine something. What if all the works of Rembrandt were in one museum, and gathered there were the likes of Kenneth Clark, Julius Held, Leo Steinberg, Benesch, Rosenburg, Hanselman, Goodlatte, Slive, and, since we are imagining, let's add Van Gogh, who loved Rembrandt, and why not Rembrandt himself, overjoyed to see all his works in one place (as they never were in his life)? Then, let us say, into their company comes an ambitious scholar of current historicist opinions, muttering, "I've got it, it's the key, yes, Rembrandt was Dutch; it accounts for everything; he loved comfort, money, and the ultimate comfort, God; typical Dutch!" If any in the group deigned to shoot him a whisper, it would be, "Have you no eyes?"

Since Shakespeare was all words, perhaps a better comparison would be this: What if there were a gathering of Thomists in heaven, of Sertillanges, Garrigou-Lagrange, Gilson, Maritain, Lonergan, Pieper, and others; and some young scholar burst into the room, wild-eyed with joy, announcing, "I've proved it, yes I have, I have the evidence. Thomas Aquinas was a Catholic. And now I see, as never before, his works through his own eyes." How would such Thomists respond except, being charitable, with a smile, and, "Well, what have you discovered?" And when he answered, "I haven't read him yet, I hardly need to; I know what he says already," then the Thomists would smile again, but to each other. And if Thomas were present, perhaps he would think, "stupider than David of Dinant."

So should we if anyone burst into the room with a copy of the Carlo Borromeo testament signed by William Shakespeare (the same testament attributed to his father, but soon lost right after it was found, if it really was found). Yes, we too might feel pretty sure that Shakespeare was a serious professing Catholic, at least at some point in his life, perhaps towards the end, but such a profile would not really help us discover the vivacious, lofty, joyous, splendid, sage insights God vouchsafed to him, and through him to us, but only if we read his works, without the self-assurance we already know what God gave him. When we turn to Augustine, to Thomas, to Pascal, and to Newman, and likewise to Shakespeare, unless we are on their level, we had better come as students, humble and ardent.

Good students dream of discovering things they did not know before—lovely, high, happy things—and even if they include hard nuts, dark sayings, and painful mysteries, good students welcome them the better for having such, if you can bear them. Even if we had proof that young Shakespeare was Edmund Campion's best student, the one he had the greatest hopes for, for following him into martyrdom, still, what we'd like to know, what we'd hope to overhear in heaven, would be the conversation between the old teacher and his favorite student, who did not take the path his master marked out for him. Yes, what would Campion and Shakespeare think of each other?
Ah, but to think about that now, before we ever overhear it, we have to read the plays, and to do so carefully, even skeptically, and for sure zeteticly, but above all, ardently—not to confirm what we already know, but to discover something we do not know, that Shakespeare does, and that we would be ever so happy to learn, even if it turns to smoke what used to make us happy. Will we ever enjoy that? It is not for a student to expect soon, or even ever, or for a teacher to share (if he's found it) before the student has studied a long while. Only after reading the Metaphysics forty times did Avicenna venture to say he understood Plato. Surely Shakespeare deserves as much study.

The Best Listener

Of course, as a consequence of spending time with Shakespeare's works, enjoying them, and trying to think with them, it is quite natural to wonder what time spent with the man, talking with him over a cup of sack at the Mermaid, or walking with him back to Silver Street, or apprenticing with his company, would be like. What could be more natural than to think that the man who wrote so many good conversations, so many wit-combats, who was the cause of wit even in his simpletons, and crowned all with the conversation of Falstaff, was not even more capable than all his speakers. And a lot of authors—from Ben Jonson recalling, Thomas Fuller reporting, and Joyce, Borges, Burgess, Chute, and Cooper imagining—have given us the pleasure of Shakespeare himself speaking.

But what if Shakespeare outside his writing was a dullard, as Chaucer pretends to be in the Canterbury Tales, or quiet unto speechlessness like his Justice Silence in 2 Henry IV (or the near-mime Mr. Bean), or dry like Calvin Coolidge? We don't want to think Shakespeare was no fun to talk to, but what if it were true?

After all, the paucity of remarks those who knew him treasured enough to pass on, compared to the immensity of remarks he gave his characters, suggests that he himself in life was seldom the best speaker and always the best listener there has ever been. To become the man who might justly claim of all humanity, "I know you all," perhaps he played the wallflower. Surely when any meeting broke up, he walked away having learned more than anyone else. To be sure, the pleasure of imagining what he would say to us remains innocent; I sometimes both gratify and direct it when I tell students beginning an examination that Shakespeare will interview you for ten minutes and then in his blue book write you into a new scene.

"He's One with Mad Me"

However, this pleasure has drawn nigh to madness ever since Delia Bacon was gripped with the fancy that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare. (Someday, I mean to write an essay in which I show that Shakespeare wrote Bacon—after all, Bacon's History of Henry VII would fill a gap in the Histories.) Since Delia, other fanatics have succumbed to rival fantasies. It is a cave where all the footprints face in, none out; all these cavemen are sure that Shakespeare was an X like themselves, and that means no light can ever reach their dark minds. As Alfred Harbage observed, they never have anything interesting to say about the works. It is all code, whether the code yields up the Earl of Oxford or the shared faith of Campion, and they alone have been cracked by it. "Light is Catholic," and thus it follows that "Dark is Protestant." (Or the reverse if the code-cracker is Protestant.) To attend a meeting where all the code-breakers gather, united in certainty that there is a code and set to quarrelling over their differing certainties, would be a hilarious experience for a free mind. "Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame" as Shakespeare might mutter (As You Like It, II, 5). How this perversity, which clouds no other author, arises from a distinguishing feature of his work, I will suggest further on.

It is not just some Catholics who claim Shakespeare is one with them. Over time, a lot of Protestants have, too—some Anglican, some Evangelical, maybe even a Puritan—being as sure that Malvolio is the hero of Twelfth Night as he was sure that yellow stockings would be endearing. But plenty of atheists, materialists, and assorted others have also asserted, "He's one with me." There is, after all, the sentence, "There is no darkness but ignorance," and the remark, "A dog's obeyed in heaven," and Santayana doubted there were any good prayers in Shakespeare. I doubt there is any other great author whom so many—each differing so much from all the others—feel assured by.

In a politician, this effect would prove Shakespeare a surpassingly suave hypocrite. Someone should write a "comedy of errors" in which Shakespeare is seen whispering agreement to each mutually warring interpreter of Hamlet—to Fielding, Goethe, Coleridge, Bernhardt, Freud, Joyce, Eliot, Lewis, and Empson—until they all stab and poison each other, and he, the Epilogue, smiles, "The rest is silence." Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe—none of these has occasioned such diversity. And yet all the diverse, nay contradictory, groups who read Shakespeare are sure he's with them; all have at least one wise passage expressing their view, or one winsome character who exemplifies it.

Perfectly Attuned Speeches

There is something about Shakespeare that lends his work to such diverse comfort. Here it is: Shakespeare so perfectly fits the speeches of each character to that character, makes each character so perfectly his singular self that you can identify even one line from a character as his alone, that Shakespeare himself is perfectly invisible. Cordelia, whom we love and whose death breaks our heart, is the sum of only 140 lines, all hers and no one else's. More so than most human beings. She is herself alone.

And so are nearly all the nine hundred persons in Shakespeare's works. No character is distorted by lines the author insists he speak (as Hamlet insists the Player add to catch the King). Even the villains speak only what they really would. Thus, Richard III would not only acknowledge that Shakespeare never misquoted him, but would also thank him for understanding him through and through as no one else ever did. Behind all his characters Shakespeare is more hidden than the great-creating God seems to be hidden from us, his creatures.

Abundance of Wisdom

Moreover, Shakespeare makes each character's speeches so sagacious, fills them with such insight, that while you are listening you are sure "there's wisdom here." If you in addition perceive that to be true of many speeches, you might well hope these wisdoms belong to one wisdom, one wisdom to bind them all, and that that wisdom must ultimately belong to the author, Lord Shakespeare.

However, reading any single play gives a different experience. Each abounds with remarks that bid fair to take one to the heart of the mystery, be it painful or elating, but it is not just one speech that might turn the whole play around it, but several, so that on first reading the play, impressed with its splendor, one is in a whirl of wisdoms, exhilarated but bewildered. At a minimum, you may be greeted with three wonderful statements, each a prime contender for "best maxim" to interpret all the others by. Are they a conversation on the way to agreement? A wit-combat that will turn into a marriage? A parliament headed to a grand bargain? Of these five, which one embraces all the others? Or are they irreconcilable? Will these seven make a symphony or remain a cacophony? That six of these nine are said by heroes and heroines, but four by villains and two by fools is really perplexing. So do these fifteen make only a war of words? To find out, you have to study all seventeen.

My addition is faulty, you say; tell that to Falstaff recounting how he was robbed at Gad's Hill. When wisdoms come in Shakespeare, they come not as single angels, but in battalions. Overwhelming good is . . . overwhelming. And so, studying a Shakespeare play, you have to think, think, think. No wonder then that, on the one hand, given the thought in a single passage, so many simple readers come away feeling "he's with me" (yet unaware of all the others who are just like them in feeling "he's with me"), and no wonder on the other hand, perceiving the thought in all the single passages, that intelligent readers want to find what might unite them. The way for the simple to shed their solitary certitude is to share a good class with seekers—students and teacher alike—keen to find the unified wisdom of Shakespeare, whose parts and bits and slivers he scattered so wisely, knowing wisdom comes alone through
ardent study.

The Rare Man Examining

Shakespeare's characters have their own opinions and Shakespeare lets them speak, while he says nothing. His plays are filled with characters who know what "must be true" and little else. What else is there? Those who examine things, such as he did, are exceedingly rare. (Only in Hamlet and from time to time in others soliloquizing does he portray man examining.) So in the Histories his opinionated ones make war, in the Comedies they make love, and in his Tragedies they

That is life. Most lives are unexamined lives and nevertheless, in Shakespeare's view, much worth living. All the while they go on, Shakespeare examines them; all the while they live, he lives the greatest life, of the thinker. And to find out what a thinker thinks, you have to "reade him . . . and againe and againe" as Heminges and Condell, his life-long friends, tell us in the Preface to the First Folio. They did not say, "You who already know him, for sure he 'friends' you."

Given Shakespeare's superior gifts, which everybody grants when they acknowledge, "I sure couldn't write that," but whose elevation of soul our self-love is reluctant
to grant, it is no wonder he is seldom studied. Everything great is truly unbearable to those of us who are not great; so it is either belittle and envy, or love and study. No professor of Shakespeare who is not a student of Shakespeare can help any youth who is. Truly, Shakespeare belongs only to those who lift their eyes to the stars.

Minding True Things

Nietzsche says Europe grew great by reading the Bible, and surely this included having to stretch our souls around so many divers, seemingly heterogeneous texts—maxims, poems, songs, prophesies, histories, laws—in so many times and through so many human vessels. It seems heterogeneous, except for the assurance that in everything included in the Bible, the Holy Spirit is at work; God is vouchsafing these, each is a divine gift, and the whole a gift of gifts, like the gift of His only-begotten Son.

In the Gospels, Jesus says, "I am the Truth." In other words, wherever we meet truth, He must be near. No truth is far from Him. No truth can differ from Him. In truth, no truth is not Him. So whenever you seek truth, you seek Him, and wherever you meet truth, it is Him. And if so, then are we not invited, nay, enjoined, to read everything splendid and true as if it were written by the same author, namely Truth Himself? If we were to read that way, inquire that way, then a lot of matters, orders, things, and activities might fall into their proper places. When reading Shakespeare—or any of the great authors, artists, statesmen, historians, scientists, philosophers, or theologians—or when just inquiring about something, as they do, or in the midst of living our thick and hurried lives, we would be trying to see it all as Truth sees it.

Unique as he undoubtedly was, and capable of giving the signs of uniqueness to so many of his characters, Shakespeare puts no emphasis upon himself whatsoever. His works matter more to him, who lives invisible in them, like sugar in water. But more important to him even than his works, are what they are about, what, through them, he sought to know and came to know so plenteously. "Mind true things, by what their mockeries be," he has the Fourth Chorus in Henry V advise us. Surely that order of rank, putting true things highest, is as structural to his work, and as instructive to us its readers, as it must be pleasing to Truth Himself. 

More Shakespeare Readings

• Marchette Chute, in A Wonderful Winter, and Susan Cooper, in King of Shadows, imagine a youth apprenticing with Shakespeare's company, risk the supreme test of imagining their youths getting a day out with Shakespeare, and pass.
• Robert G. Hunter's Comedy of Forgiveness (1966) is welcome to those who share Christian morals. His Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments (1976) is welcome to those who also wonder about God's judgments.
• Martin Yaffe's Shylock and the Jewish Question (1997) is truly philosophic in addressing questions to Shakespeare.
• Also worth finding: Goethe, "Shakespeare without End" (; Hofmannsthal, "Shakespeare's Kings and Noblemen" (; and the Robert Ingersoll lecture, "Shakespeare" (

—Michael Platt

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“Shakespeare, Humble & Ardent” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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