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Friday, January 4, 2013

Shakespeare and Martin Luther's Excommunication

Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X on 3 January 1521.



It was the direct result of Luther's having written his Ninety-Five Theses, just over 3 years before -- an event which marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Raphael's Portrait of Leo X

Shakespeare would not be born until 1564. His father was born around the time of the beginning of the English Reformation.

But events like the excommunication of Martin Luther would have been well known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

I often wonder to what degree Shakespeare thought on these events, and how well he understood his place in the greater historical events of his time.

For without Martin Luther, his Theses and his excommunication, there would have been no English Reformation. And without the English Reformation there would have been no William Shakespeare.

I think Shakespeare was conscious of the opportunity the Reformation afforded him. Before the Reformation, there were no playing houses, no playing companies, no playwrights.

Before the Reformation there were mystery plays and ecclesiastical entertainment through Church.

It is interesting to think how Shakespeare would have expressed himself as an artist in an England without a Reformation. It is doubtful that he could have, without perhaps having to join the Church.

I don't think that Shakespeare was a hidden Catholic. I don't think he wished for a return to an England before Reformation. I don't think he liked the indulgences against which Martin Luther fought, and I seriously doubt that Shakespeare liked the idea of being excommunicated.

I think he had a general Elizabethan-era disdain for the Pope and for Rome, and he would have been angered by the fact that Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth in 1571 -- when Shakespeare was about 7 years old.

I also don't think he fully embraced the Protestant Reformation. Yes, he is thought to have been well versed in the Bible -- specifically the Geneva Bible (one of the first Bibles translated into English, which was unthinkable before the Reformation) -- but he is widely regarded as having more of a secular philosophy than anything else.

I think he was a voracious reader, and the excitement he had for this era of learning and enlightenment -- it was the Renaissance after all -- only accelerated his ambition as a writer. He wrote so much and so well by virtue of the fact that the freedom he had as a writer was all but unthinkable even a generation before he was born.

It may be that he was conflicted on matters of religion personally. Or it may be a simple matter of the fact that his job was to write plays which would, if the plays were good enough, eventually make their way to being performed for the Queen herself.

It is doubtful that the Queen wanted any religious topics or themes in her plays. As such, Shakespeare would have written what she wanted to see, and while there are certainly references to religion, and pleas for religious toleration in his plays, his primary duty was to entertain.

As I wrote my version of The Merchant of Venice for example, I think Shakespeare was comedically brutal in his depiction of Venetian Catholics who preach mercy but offer none. When Queen Elizabeth saw this play, I am certain that she laughed herself silly at the depiction of these two-faced Venetians who are lascivious and pious in equal measure.

I don't think Shakespeare had any illusions about Catholicism or Protestantism. I think he saw them for what they were. But as far as what he could write and what he had to write, he had to tread very cautiously.

We may never know who Shakespeare was in a religious or spiritual sense, and I certainly cannot provide definite answers. But I like to consider the questions, because I think we will definitely never get close to the real man if we don't discuss his faith at all.

Cheers,

David


Related Article:


Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses