Sermon preached on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (21 September 2014) by Professor Alison Shell, Reader in English Literature, University College London

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Sermon preached on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (21 September 2014) by Professor Alison Shell, Reader in English Literature, University College London

In the third of a series looking focusing on William Shakespeare's 450th birthday, Professor Alison Shell discusses 'Shakespeare and the Church of England'

'I am not what I am.' I wonder if anyone has ever preached a sermon that takes its text from these words of Iago in Shakespeare's tragedy Othello, as mine will today? Since Iago is a hypocrite of the first order and arguably Shakespeare's most evil character, I wouldn't be surprised if I were setting a precedent. But it seems to me an apt beginning to an address on the subject of Shakespeare and the Church of England. Precisely because Iago exploits the gap between what one seems and what one is, his words would have carried considerable religious resonance in the Church of England's troubled early decades. His use and abuse of Scripture also shows how church attendance trained the listening skills of Shakespeare's original audience.

The play Othello revolves around the soldier Iago's hatred for his captain Othello, the Moor of Venice. Iago makes Othello believe that his recently wedded wife Desdemona is being unfaithful to him with his own lieutenant Michael Cassio. Othello strangles her in a fit of jealous rage and then commits suicide when he realises how Iago has duped him. My quotation comes from the first scene of the play, where Iago has just found out that he's been disappointed in his hope of promotion -- Othello has appointed Cassio to the post of lieutenant which Iago had been hoping for. In this speech he's explaining to his companion Roderigo that he's angry at Othello's decision, and plans to get his own back. 'Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, / But seeming so for my peculiar end. / For when my outward action doth demonstrate / The native act and figure of my heart / In compliment extern, 'tis not long after / But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.'

This passage shows Shakespeare's intense interest in Scriptural and religious reference. References to the Bible and Prayer Book were everywhere in the written and oral culture of Shakespeare's time, because everyone could recognise them -- men and women, boys and girls, Oxbridge graduates, tradesmen and the illiterate. During Shakespeare's lifetime the Scriptures were better known than ever before in England. This was thanks in large part to the Church of England's sponsorship of a series of English translations of the Bible, and promotion of private Bible-reading. But in an age marked by the religious divisions of the English Reformation, scriptural references could also potentially be dangerous. Unorthodox interpretations of the Bible, or blasphemous deployment of it, could put you in trouble with the authorities -- and risk your immortal soul. That was an illicit thrill that playwrights could and did exploit. Religious anxieties were a fiercely effective way to keep your audience listening.

In this context, let's look at how Iago begins his speech. 'Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, / But seeming so for my peculiar end'. 'Heaven is my judge' is a kind of oath, and like most oaths, sounds more pious than it is. You could rewrite what he's saying like this: 'As Heaven is my judge, I care nothing about genuine love or duty; but for my own personal reasons, I want to be seen as loving and dutiful.' He's that paradoxical thing, an honest hypocrite. As such, he's a toxic mix of good and bad. He's being honest about his own wickedness -- but within the orthodox Christian framework, that honesty was worthless unless it was accompanied by repentance. We certainly see no sign of that. If anything, this speech parodies confession. It's worth remembering here how important the sacrament of confession was in the medieval Catholic church, how some aspects of it were attacked by the first Protestants, and how it was downgraded in the late Tudor and early Stuart churches.

It's a sign of Iago's arrogance that he invokes heaven without thinking through the implications of what he's doing. Ultimately, of course, he gets more than he's bargained for. Othello doesn't exactly have a feelgood ending, with all the sympathetic characters lying in heaps on the stage. But at least the audience can give two cheers for divine justice when Iago gets his well-deserved come-uppance. At that point they can reflect on the irony of this earlier exclamation, 'Heaven is my judge'. And in so doing, they're judges too. Only God is all-knowing, only God can judge with inerrant justice -- but the fact that the audience knows more about Iago's duplicity than any of the on-stage characters puts them in a semi-divine position. Shakespeare loved flattering his audience like that.

A biblically literate contemporary of Shakespeare's would have filed 'Heaven is my judge' very close to the well-known text from St Matthew's Gospel: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.' (7:1-2) Shakespeare was obsessed enough with this bible verse to use it as the title and theme for an entire play, Measure for Measure, dating from much the same time that he was writing Othello. It's very appropriate that we should be remembering St Matthew today, since his gospel has long been recognised as Shakespeare's favourite.

Iago's 'I am not what I am' is also from the bible, in a way. It inverts one of the best-known texts from the Old Testament's Book of Exodus, God's riddling self-characterisation to the prophet Moses. When Moses is receiving instructions from God to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, he asks God for validation: 'Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM.' This sums up God's integrity; Iago's duplicity is never more evident than in his travesty of God's word.

But 'I am not what I am' would have had wider implications too for a reader or hearer in Shakespeare's England, given the widespread sensitivity to the dangers of hypocrisy in this period. Bad Christians pretending to be good have, of course, been regarded as a social and spiritual danger since the early church. St Matthew -- again -- reminds us of this: 'Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.' The Reformation added a new dimension to that. At a time when religious denominations came into being, and no love was lost between them, the simple fact of being a Catholic or a Protestant meant that you were by definition a bad Christian to many. In an age where the state governed religious practice and penalised dissent, there was a strong incentive for religious minorities to conceal their true beliefs -- or, as Iago put it, not to wear their hearts upon their sleeve for daws (jackdaws) to peck at.

At the time Othello was written, membership of the established church was compulsory. That membership was largely measured not by what you thought, but by what you did. You turned up to church regularly, you listened to sermons -- not least at the Paul's Cross pulpit that used to stand a few yards away from where we are now. Most importantly, you received communion at set times. Failure to do so was punished by fines or even imprisonment. Even so, many refused to conform. England still had a substantial Catholic minority; many puritans stayed away from their parish church because they felt it wasn't reformed enough; a few free-thinkers had even more radical questions about religion.

Even among those who did toe the line, not everyone who disagreed with the Elizabethan settlement in religion actually came out and said so. This made for extreme social unease. Imagine sitting in church as you're sitting now, looking at your next-door neighbour, thinking: 'They're doing the right thing, yes -- but what's going on inside their head?' Or, to put it like Iago, ' Are they what they are?' Iago's awareness of how outward action could be divorced from one's inward conviction, 'the native act and figure of [one's] heart', would have hit a very raw nerve -- especially given that any person taking public or church office had to swear allegiance to the monarch as supreme governor of the Church of England. Did those in authority really mean what they said -- or were they potential traitors? Here as so often elsewhere, the professional theatre of Shakespeare's time was an arena for thought-experiments that took much of their force from the contemporary religious and political scene.

But in this context, what of Shakespeare's own belief and practice? I think Shakespeare was most likely a conforming member of the Church of England; biographers would know so much more about his religious beliefs if he'd got into trouble for them. I would love to go further and think of him as a pious Anglican - but I can't. One only has to compare him with one of St Paul's Cathedral's most famous alumni -- John Donne, Dean of St Paul's from 1621 to 1631 -- to see how the idea doesn't fit. Donne and Shakespeare may have been the two cleverest, most intellectually reflexive writers of verse in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, but they don't have much in common apart from that, and I can imagine them simply talking past each other on the topic of religion if they'd ever met. You can't get away from God in Donne's writing; but Shakespeare's written legacy has never given me the sense that he had a deep personal faith.

So why is it that, over the four centuries since Shakespeare's death, millions of those who are pious Anglicans have found his writing uniquely important, uniquely edifying and uniquely spiritual? Well -- nothing dates more quickly than controversy; Shakespeare's very disengagement from the religious conflicts of his time has maximised his appeal to subsequent generations. But, of course, he's been valued for more positive qualities too. One passage, my last from St Matthew's Gospel, sums up for me the limitations and strengths of Shakespeare's outlook when viewed against the imperatives of Christianity. It's the episode where a lawyer asks Jesus, 'Master, which is the great commandment in the law?' and Jesus replies: 'Thou shalt love the Lord God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. ... And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.' (Matthew 22: 36-40) I suspect that Shakespeare didn't quite love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength -- but his psychological penetration and sympathetic rendition of human complexity has never been surpassed. He couldn't have written that way about his own species without having loved them most tenderly. So he more than earns his place in the Anglican lectionary for teaching us all, believers, sceptics and non-believers, to improve our compassion, to love our neighbour as ourself -- and even to develop some understanding of where Iago's coming from.