Saturday, May 28, 2011

To Thine Own World Be True

Reading George H. Morrison's Christ in Shakespeare felt like breathing the fresh aromas of a bygone era. I read about this book many years ago in Books and Culture (something like the Times Sunday Book Review but aimed at Christians) but couldn't find it until just a few years ago when the internet made shopping for rare books so much easier. (I think it finally turned up at alibris, and I found it using My copy is a new reprint from Kessinger Publishing, so it doesn't literally have the aroma of antique books. But its crisp photocopies of the original edition reproduce all the beautiful imperfections of the moveable type of James Clarke & Co. Limited, 9 Essex Street, Strand, W.C.2, and make it easy to imagine the calendar having been turned back eighty years.

The book consists of ten addresses delivered by the Rev. Dr. Morrison at Wellington Church, Glasgow in 1928. The "very large" audience he mentions in his preface must have enjoyed and benefited from the lectures, but I wonder if they could have appreciated them as much as I did, since this brand of intellectual criticism of literature, even from a pastor, was surely more common in their time, whereas for me it is a rare treat. For Morrison, Shakespeare is not the unwitting tool of an oppressive culture whose power structures lie encoded in the language the poet uses. No, it is Shakespeare who uses the language and not the other way around. But then neither, according to Morrison, is he a theologian or an overtly Christian writer who manipulates his characters and scenes so as to deliver a sermon in the form of a drama. "He does not set himself to prove anything, or to justify the ways of God to man. Shakespeare, for all the glory of his imagination, has the truly scientific temper in his perfect fidelity to fact." He observes the world, and he transmits his findings.

That foundation laid, Morrison proceeds to build a theology from the world Shakespeare depicts. Its ghosts, witches, and fairies tell us it is a world surrounded by a mysterious greater power. And yet no power, no fate, other than a man's own character determines his life. This combination indicates a world ruled by a God. External circumstances don't always bring about justice or happy endings, but evil consistently destroys, and judgment comforts or plagues the human soul internally according to its deserts. This dynamic indicates an absolute standard of goodness and a God who cares most of all about people.

I highly recommend the book, so I shouldn't give too much away, but it ends with a finger pointed to the Cross. This isn't the kind of analysis that attempts to prove anything -- either that Christianity is right or that Shakespeare was personally orthodox in his beliefs. It simply shows that Shakespeare and Christianity fit together like hand and glove. "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," but if it does fit you need not do anything more than admit a correspondence and a possibility.

While the main points depend on a broad view of several plays at once and their general atmosphere and conditions, Morrison fills many of the addresses with detailed character analysis, as well. Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Iago, Macbeth and his Lady, Lear, Cleopatra, Portia, and Hamlet all get some close attention, and I'll want to reread these passages when I get to the corresponding plays. I'll reread the Macbeth chapter, for instance, in just a few day before I go through the Scottish play again.

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