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Shakespeare’s Poetic Theology

  • James P. Bednarz
Chapter
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Part of the Palgrave Shakespeare Studies book series (PASHST)

Abstract

Although theological paradox is vital to the meaning of ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’, it is not a devotional poem, even if to call it ‘secular’ would be almost as misleading. George Santayana in ‘The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare’ concludes that one would hardly believe that he had a religion, because although religious sentiments are uttered in his work, they are not given ‘their original meaning’.1 The poet, with a few notable exceptions, gazes on the here rather than the hereafter. The recent ‘turn to religion’ in Shakespeare studies has in multiple and often contradictory ways addressed Santayana’s challenge. In light of this ongoing reassessment, one might still say that ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ is not ‘Christian’, because even though in it Shakespeare evokes one of Christianity’s foundational beliefs, and even though some of its prominent liturgical elements are decidedly Christian, it does not constitute a testament of faith.

Keywords

Dead Bird Catholic Priest Secret Code Classical Deity Religious Sentiment 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    George Santayana, Selected Critical Writings, ed. Norman Henfrey, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 1: 60.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Arthur E Marotti, John Donne: Coterie Poet (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 164.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Donne had himself represented both dressed in a winding sheet for burial and standing on an urn. John Lepage, ‘Kindled Spirits: Cremation and Urn Burial in Renaissance Literature’, English Renaissance Literature 28 (1998): 3–17, considers how the commemorative urn flourished as a poetic trope, linked to a revival of classicism, despite the fact that cremation was not a feature of early modern practice. Interest in the subject peaks with Sir Thomas Browne’s archaeological study Hydriotaphia, Urne-Burial, in 1658.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    J. Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 298. Wilson observes that the Liber Precum Publicarum (1560) provides the text for one of those exceptions. Roland Mushat Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 307, agrees that, ‘It is possible to think of a Latin requiem either in terms of Roman Catholic or of Protestant services, or of a sung English service’. Nevertheless, Frye concludes that Shakespeare ‘used requiem in an Anglican sense with Anglican liturgical vestments’. For a more traumatic sense of the abolition of prayers for the dead as a consequence of the Protestant rejection of Purgatory,Google Scholar
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  6. 6.
    On the use of the surplice, see Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Don Cameron Allen, Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism and Allegorical Interpretation in the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962);Google Scholar
  8. Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1968);Google Scholar
  9. and Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Steele Commager, The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 14. It was also Juvenal’s word for the true poet.Google Scholar
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  12. Randall L. B. McNeill, Horace, Image, Identity, and Audience (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 84–6, for its use as a public role;Google Scholar
  13. and Alessandro Barchiesi, The Poet and the Prince: Ovid and Augustan Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 48, for Ovid’s strategic irony in its deployment.Google Scholar
  14. Its Renaissance adaptation is outlined by Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle’s Petrarch’s Genius: Pentimiento and Prophecy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 44–73. The term usually emphasized the inspirational rather than the prognostic element of foresight.Google Scholar
  15. 10.
    Skelton in ‘Phyllyp Sparowe’, one of Shakespeare’s sources, writes that the poem was composed, ‘Per me laurigerum Britanum Skeltonida vatem’ (line 1261) (‘Through me, Skelton, the laureate poet of Britain’). Quoted from John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, ed. John Scattergood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 103. For Skelton’s notion of what this role entailed, see Jane Griffiths, John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Defining the Liberty to Speak (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 18–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Forrest G. Robinson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), 10.Google Scholar
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    George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesy, ed. Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 93.Google Scholar
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    Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971), xxiii.Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    William Webbe, in his Discourse of Poetry, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. George Gregory Smith, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), 1: 231, states that poetry was so esteemed by the ancients that ‘they supposed all wisedome and knowledge to be included mystically in that divine instinc-tion, whereby they thought their Votes to bee inspired’. But, unlike Sidney, he considers any poet concerned with ‘grave and necessary matters’ to be entitled to be called a ‘Votes’, while the rest should be known as ‘Poetae’. Google Scholar
  20. 17.
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    John Klause, ‘The Phoenix and Turtle in Its Time’, in In The Company of Shakespeare: Essays on English Renaissance Literature in Honor of G. Blakemore Evans, ed. Thomas Moisan and Douglas Bruster (Cranbury: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), 215, assumes that Shakespeare’s purpose is to prove that ‘Love and Constancy and Death were themes too exalted for the fatuous treatment they had been given in Love’s Martyr’ (215). Klause’s argument, expanded in Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit (Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 2008), overemphasizes the Catholic element in the poem in the same way Asquith does, especially in reading the miraculous union of the Phoenix and Turtle as a type of the Transubstantiation, the belief, rejected by the Church of England, that the body of God was physically present in the wine and bread consecrated during the Catholic mass. Yet only the paradoxical definition of the Persons of the Trinity, who are and are not the same, adequately describes the mysterious ontological status of the Phoenix and Turtle. Shakespeare mentions neither bread nor wine, which are, according to Catholic doctrine, only superficially different when consecrated: two become one. So that even though the Christian belief in the Trinity imagines a state of three-in-one, the dialectic of independence and interdependence it enunciates perfectly fits Shakespeare’s paradigm. However, that does not make ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ a religious poem, since none of Love’s Martyr is a primary expression of belief in anything other than the power of profane love to infuse life with a kind of natural sanctity that can best be explained in terms of a sacred mythopoesis. Literature was a game in which such ideas could be explored outside the limits of belief. Shakespeare’s poem is a form of metaphysical feigning that derived its liberty from the freedom of poetry to imagine the world in startling new ways that were only tangentially related to religious doctrine.Google Scholar
  23. 22.
    John Finnis and Patrick Martin, ‘Another Turn for the Turtle: Shakespeare’s Intercession for Love’s Martyr’, TLS, 18 April 2003: 12–14. See also Clara Longworth de Chambrun, Shakespeare Rediscovered By Means of Public Records (New York: Scribners, 1938), 211–35, and Shakespeare: A Portrait Restored (London: Hollis & Carter, 1957), 237–9.Google Scholar
  24. Richard Wilson, Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theatre, Religion and Resistance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 241, who similarly argues for a Catholic Shakespeare, credits her theory.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Thomas P. Harrison, ‘Love’s Martyr by Robert Chester: A New Interpretation’, University of Texas Studies in Literature 30 (1951): 78, attempts unsuccessfully to turn this evidence on its head by claiming that ‘the violence of Sir John’s accusation, unsupported as it seems to be by other evidence, suggests that the accuser might well have been under suspicion as a papist, rather than Lloyd, Sir John’s enemy on other grounds’. Harrison also cites Justice Lewknor’s letter to Cecil on 31 October 1601 about ‘backsliding in religion’ in North Wales, but Sir John is not cited. One fact is irrefutable: Salusbury wanted to be seen as a Protestant.Google Scholar
  26. 28.
    H. Neville Davies, ‘The Phoenix and Turtle: Requiem and Rite’, The Review of English Studies 46 (1995): 526, argues that the crow’s production of its offspring, With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st’, recalls one of the opening sentences, quoted from Job, of the Anglican Burial Service: ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away’. The phrase consequently describes not only what Davies calls ‘the obscure pneumatics of exhalation and inhalation involving this corvine coupling’, but also echoes contemporary Protestant ritual.Google Scholar
  27. 29.
    Richard C. McCoy, ‘“Love’s Martyrs”: Shakespeare’s “Phoenix and Turtle” and the Sacrificial Sonnets’, in Religion and Culture in Renaissance England, ed. Claire McEachern and Debora Shuger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 195.Google Scholar
  28. 31.
    Lynn Enterline, ‘“The Phoenix and the Turtle”, Renaissance Elegies, and the Language of Grief’, in Early Modern English Poetry: A Critical Companion, ed. Patrick Cheney, Andrew Hadfield and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 154.Google Scholar
  29. 32.
    See Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480–1750 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 151, and Michael Neill on the rise of secular displays on funeral monuments in Issues of Death: Mortality in English Renaissance Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 38–42. Enterline, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, 155.Google Scholar
  30. 33.
    Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (New York: Macmillan, 1942), 3–21.Google Scholar
  31. 34.
    Enterline, ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’, 153. See also Patrick Cheney, ‘The Voice of the Author in “The Phoenix and Turtle”: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser’, in Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, ed. Curtis Perry and John Watkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009), 103–25.Google Scholar
  32. Russell A. Fraser, Shakespeare: The Later Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 104–6, had previously produced an aesthetic interpretation by evoking Christian theology when he speculated that the poem was a secular model of the rite of ‘transubstantiation’ through which the death of the Phoenix and Turtle, a fact of experience, is transformed into the new Phoenix of the first line as ‘the symbol of his tragic art’.Google Scholar
  33. 37.
    Patrick Cheney, Shakespeare: National Poet-Playwright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 197.Google Scholar
  34. 38.
    I. A. Richards, ‘The Sense of Poetry: Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle”’, Daedalus 87 (1958): 93.Google Scholar
  35. 39.
    Marjorie Garber, ‘Two Birds With One Stone: Lapidary Re-Inscription in The Phoenix and Turtle’, Upstart Crow 5 (1984): 5–19.Google Scholar
  36. 42.
    Ann Thompson, Shakespeare’s Chaucer: A Study in Literary Origins (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1978), 85, 218,Google Scholar
  37. Ever since Arthur H. R. Fairchild, ‘The Phoenix and Turtle: A Critical Interpretation’, Englische Studien 33 (1904): 337–84, asserted that The Parliament of Fowls was a major influence on Shakespeare’s poem, its direct importance, as opposed to its interest as a generic precedent, has been exaggerated.Google Scholar
  38. 44.
    See I. A. Gordon, ‘Skelton’s “Philip Sparrow” and the Roman Service Book’, MLR 29 (1934): 389–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 51.
    Sidney elsewhere, in a less complex manner, describes his bond to Fulke Greville and Edward Dyer as a ‘happy blessed trinity’ of poets, stating that they have ‘one mind in bodies three’. See Blair Worden, The Sound of Virtue: Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 13.Google Scholar
  40. 52.
    Hamlet’s short lines of poetry, blending iambic and trochaic rhythms, have been cited as an early example of metaphysical verse: Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love. (2.2.116–19) Here, Hamlet, making use of Copernican theory, seems to imply that the traditional belief in human centrality in the universe might be a lie, anticipating Donne’s perception that ‘new philosophy’ calls ‘all in doubt’. Patrick Cheney, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 233–7, reminds us that ‘never doubt I love’ can mean either ‘never question’ or ‘never suspect’ that ‘I love’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© James P. Bednarz 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • James P. Bednarz
    • 1
  1. 1.Long Island UniversityUSA

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