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Sermon Preached on Holy Cross Day (14 September 2014) by The Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor
In the second of a series looking focusing on William Shakespeare's 450th birthday, Canon Mark Oakley, discusses 'Shakespeare, Tragedy and the Christian: Not in our Stars, but in Ourselves'.
Some of you may know Stephen Sondheim’s comic musical ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ about the Roman slave Pseudolus. The show opens with the Roman actors gathering on stage and singing a big catchy number to let us know what’s coming: ‘nothing with gods, nothing with fate, weighty affairs will just have to wait.Something that’s bawdy, something that’s gaudy, something for everybawdy…its comedy tonight! Well, sadly, that’s not the case for you. You’ve got tragedy.
What do we mean by tragedy? We tend to know what it means in a life or watching the news. But what does it mean on a stage? It’s a question that many minds have pondered from Aristotle through to Nietzsche but maybe Shakespeare’s contemporary John Florio puts his finger on it when he said that ‘a tragedy or mournful play is a lofty kind of poetry representing personages of great state and matters of much trouble, a great broil or stir; it beginneth properly and endeth unfortunately or sometimes doubtfully’. It is certainly true that in many of Shakespeare’s plays tragedy equals comedy plus time. Scenes, motives, futures all darken and at a deep and searing cost.
Some Christian people have been troubled by the tragedies of Shakespeare because they seem without hope or redemption. The most famous example of this is by the man over there in the corner, Samuel Johnson, who was so shocked and appalled by the end of King Lear and the death of Cordelia, evil seeming to triumph over goodness, that he made revisions, with Nahum Tate, that gave the play a happy ending and this revised ending held the stage until 1838. Debate about the tragedies and the world-view contained in them has been an inevitable part of the conversations as to Shakespeare’s own beliefs. Was he Protestant or Catholic? Was he Christian or humanist or indifferent? Do his plays give a consistent glimpse into his outlook on the world and beyond or not? All very interesting questions but somewhat secondary for me, because whether Shakespeare was religious or not does not affect the fact that his tragedies have religious significance and take us into the heartland of what it means to be human which is a Christian exploration - for that is incarnation, an immersion into human reality, all of it, including shadows, pain, loss, the death of our illusions, to see whether these things might still be rumoured with God – to see whether they might speak of, even enable, some sort of readjusted life, distilled, better sighted, stripped of its lies and what Shakespeare called ‘the bubble reputation’. For some, such as Ulrich Simon, Christianity is tragic because of the Cross, and tragedy becomes Christian through the Resurrection’. For the new to emerge, something must always die. For others, life remains tragic if God appears absent or unwilling to tilt the balance of those suffering too much.
It is impossible of course to look at all of Shakespeare’s tragedies in an Evensong sermon and the danger is to get too generalized. So maybe it’s worth just a quick look at one? But which? Well, what better than in this momentous week than the Scottish play, Macbeth (yes, I said it), the shortest of his tragedies about a general with ambitions to be King of Scotland? We also heard about garments stained crimson in our first lesson, and there are plenty of those in Macbeth.
Macbeth is a play about a man and his wife’s ambition for power, about the savage murders they perform to secure it, and the steady erosion into nothingness of everything they hold dear. When Macbeth enters the Court immediately after murdering Duncan he speaks to his wife:
M I have done the deed – Didst thou not hear a noise?
LM I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did not you speak?
M As I descended?
‘As I descended’. The play follows Macbeth’s descent into a hell. Even though he is noble and knows about justice he pursues a blood smeared path to gain his desire for control and prestige. As Banquo warns:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
Lady Macbeth sees her husband poised between good and ill and urges him to man up, fearing his nature is too full of the milk of human kindness.
Art thou afeared
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire?
She urges him on into his immoral descent, an Eve to his Adam. It is Duncan who observes:
The love that follows us sometimes is our trouble,
Which we still thank as love.
The first act, with its supernatural witches and brooding doom, lays open to us this mind that is being drawn to do evil. The man who is divided in himself will have a kingdom that cannot stand. In the second act we get a glimpse of what this is doing to him: the imagined dagger before he commits the murder and the inability to speak afterwards. There are imagined voices and a perpetual knocking in the castle. Shakespeare even compares the murderous deed to what was done to Christ. The Sergeant had first made comparison:
They meant to bathe in reeking wounds,
Or memorize another Golgotha.
And then when the deeds of ‘this sore night’ are told it sounds similar to Matthew’s account of the after effect of the crucifixion:
Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o’ the building!
By this time Macbeth is beginning to see what he has done:
To know my deed, twere best not know myself.
Lady Macbeth too seems to understand where this is leading:
Nought’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content;
Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.
It’s an interesting word ‘safer’ that echoes throughout the play, connected to the word ‘save’. Here she admits it is safer, more saved, to be dead then be the killer and live in ‘doubtful joy’ – a condition many of us spend too much of our life in. Then, as more murders take place, it seems Lady Macbeth’s mind is being affected, sleepwalking and washing hands. Meanwhile her husband continues his descent. Angus remarks:
Now does he feel
His secret murders sticking on his hands;
…now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.
To which Menteith replies:
Who, then, shall blame
His pestered sense to recoil and start
When all that is within him doth condemn
Itself for being there?
The end of the play sees Macbeth finally defeated, the battles he has waged nothing compared to the turmoil of his mind which is now ‘full of scorpions’, and the result for him an empty, amoral universe devoid of any security or reason:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
In his essay on Macbeth Harold Goddard wrote:
Macbeth is, at bottom, any person of noble intentions who gives way to his appetites. And who at one time or another has not been that person? Who, looking back over their life, cannot perceive some moral catastrophe that he escaped by inches? Or did not escape. Macbeth reveals how close we who thought ourselves safe may be to the precipice…we do not expect to be tempted to murder but we do know what it is to have a divided soul.
Macbeth is a terrifying exposition of the abyss we open up in ourselves and in the entire sum of things with terrifying naked acts of self will. In doing so, Macbeth, the play, like many of the tragedies exposes our masks, the poses we strike and the ruthlessness we can launch if others cross our path. ‘False face must hide what the false heart doth know’. The tragedies expose our ignorance of the things of which we are most assured, the reduced life of role-playing and they shockingly show how the consequences of decisions made by the human will begin to relentlessly ripple out over guilty, innocent, hated and loved alike: ‘blood will have blood’. Macbeth, though, maybe unlike some of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, does seem to portray a world with some transcendent stability, a moral universe which comes into view when such immorality runs riot. It is Malcolm who says:
Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,
Yet grace must still look so.
As Macbeth faces his final defeat the banging of his approaching enemies’ drums sound as an allied beat pulsing a very
different view on life than his, coming in to reign again. MacDuff’s troops are disguised in the branches of a forest. Literally, greenery,
life, approaches. Trumpets sound, almost as if judgment has come, the former age wiped away and the new age of justice established.
The tragedies like the great myths are, at the end of the day, not about what was but about what is. They are not about a world outside but the world inside. In many ways they are a dramatic exploration of Paul’s letter we read from, about the foolishness of those who are perishing, about the so called wisdom of the worldly being thrawted by eternal and just truths which cut through our falsity and hidden cruelties - for the Christian these are truths which come from the humility of heaven itself. In every tragedy, when the world is bleak and savage, there is always the hovering thought that never quite lands in the text: but what if they had acted another way? What if they acknowledged their human foolishness and took seriously the way of love as its redemption, the way that saves us from ourselves? What if? What if? This is the question that our lives often echo. For Christians that question though is not about the past, what if we had done this or what if we had said that? It is a question about the future: what if we began to live as if this were the kingdom, not of Macbeth or Lear or Caesar or Othello or Richard or Hamlet but of God, a kingdom of God, where who we become, not what we descend to, is the tale that signifies everything.
Perhaps the way to end a sermon on Macbeth is with the words of the Doctor, a healer, who having examined Lady Macbeth’s fractured mind which had so wanted to be filled ‘from crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty’, speaks to the play but speaks to, and warns, us and the world of our selfish destructive blindness and with our own impoverishment that follows it:
This disease is beyond my practice…
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.
More needs she the divine than the physician –
God, God forgive us all…