A month before the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’m walking along the banks of the Avon, the river running softly by my side. Behind me is the RSC playhouse, ahead – not wholly visible yet – is Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare lies buried. A thought occurs to me. Are Rudrum and Stavris, I wonder, right: Is postmodernism really waning? for, to my surprise, I haven’t so far passed a huge breeched-and-doubleted cut-out Bard, arm outstretched, with the bubble-caption ‘This way to my grave’. There is a mood too in scholarship which mirrors this ‘supplanting’ of the postmodern: I would cite, for example, Daniel Swift’s Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age (2012) and, even more persuasively, Alison Shell’s Shakespeare and Religion (2010). These works give us clues towards our continuities with the past and a more real view of the times and the man.
So much in our 300-page biographies of Shakespeare is implication, or guesswork, or added material from surrounding context, or just the matter of lands bought or properties acquired, that we might expect the church I am walking towards to be treated more significantly. On this point even Alison Shell’s scholarly tact is exaggerated: ‘During his working life, the demands of rehearsing and performing plays would have made it difficult to attend morning and evening prayer on weekdays. But the majority of English people submitted to the legal requirement to go to church on Sundays and holy days, and given the lack of evidence to the contrary, it seems likely that Shakespeare was among them.’ This is as much as to say, ‘Even though I know – tender reader – that Shakespeare’s culture was a religion-saturated culture, I want to assure you that the Bard was no fanatic’. Was Shakespeare really always so professionally busy that he never went to church on a weekday . . . even when he heard news of his only son’s death, or of the passing of his three brothers? We need to emphasize the main fact: religious practice was legally obliged at this time and there were fines for non-attendance at services. Holy Trinity was not Shakespeare’s only church: in London he would have worshipped at various churches, including St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, St Olave’s in Silver Street, and St Saviour’s, Southwark, at the times when he lived in those different parishes. (In 1607, at St Saviour’s, he buried his brother Edmund, the actor, inside the church.) The Book of Common Prayer, in its 1559 edition, and then in its slightly revised 1604 version, was the background text of his life.
How much did Shakespeare love the church in which he lies buried? We know that he would have attended here as a child and young adult, and later through his life in all those periods when he returned to Stratford. During his lifetime, his son Hamnet, his father and his mother, and his brothers Gilbert and Richard, were all buried in the churchyard, though their graves are now lost. In 1605, he acquired a significant investment share in the tithe lands round Stratford, for £440, and so as a tithe-holder became a ‘lay rector’ of the church, hence gaining the right to be buried within it. You can immediately see how one version of this might go: ‘Shakespeare bought the tithe-share as an excellent investment, with a good yearly income’; or another scenario: ‘Shakespeare only bought the tithe-share so as to allow himself to be buried within the church’. The either/or is typical of our secularity, for the natural assumption is that he was pleased with the tithe income from the land and pleased at the prospect of being buried in the chancel.
So, Sunday by Sunday, in Stratford and in London, he would have knelt with the rest of the congregation:
Almightie and moste merciful father, we have erred and straied from thy waies, lyke lost shepe. We have folowed too much the devises and desires of our owne hartes. . . . graunt, O moste merciful father, . . . that we may hereafter lyve a godly, ryghtuous, and sobre life, to the glory of thy holy name. Amen.
I like to think of his mind entering meditative depths as the chants of the prayerbook rolled through it:
O all ye powers of the lord, blesse ye the Lorde: prayse hym,
and magnifye him for ever.
O ye Sonne and Mone, blesse ye the Lorde: prayse hym
and magnifye him for ever.
O ye starres of heaven, blesse ye the Lorde: praise him
and magnifye him for ever.
O ye showers and dewe, blesse ye the Lorde: prayse him
and magnifye him for ever.
O ye windes of God, blesse ye the Lorde: prayse him
and magnifye him for ever.
O ye fyre and heate, blesse ye the Lord: praise him
and magnifye him for ever. . . .
And so this great passage from Daniel goes on and on, settling the mind in a beautiful way.
The problem is to bring all this into touch with his works. If church-going was a matter of legislation in Shakespeare’s time, so was the matter of keeping plays and the theatre out of any obvious engagement with religion – and there was a large constituency that backed this trend. Christian humanism, of the kind that Shakespeare embodied, was a daring balancing act. The fact that Puritans and others objected to plays in principle, both as time-wasting in relation to the business of saving one’s soul and because theatres were alleged sites of immorality, ensured that, by and large, Shakespeare and others steered clear of explicit religious subject-matter and comment: at least at a basic level, the theatre was secular. Hence, we might say, Shakespeare’s love of settings in pagan, classical, and English historical times, and strange overseas (Catholic) locations: such spaces were designed to open up vistas for the audience whilst guaranteeing little obvious overlap with the contemporary world. For us, theatre is secular within a secular culture, or almost (given its emotional heightening within the secular space) a quasi-religious thing, defending the realm of the spirit; for Shakespeare it was secular within a religious culture – a different thing.
Even the inhibitions of his time could not wholly prevent the plays from taking up ‘religious’ material. There is a mass of critical commentary on this. Obviously, when Lear strips off his kingly robes to feel what it is like to be poor, or Prospero chooses forgiveness over revenge, or when Duke Vincentio stages his very imperfect ‘Last Judgement’, we feel again and again Shakespeare’s instinctively religious engagements. ‘Oh’, cry the postmodernists, ‘what of the doubt and nihilism of Lear? What has that to do with religious faith?’ Only perhaps those who have not looked very hard at the brutal torture and horror, doubt and nihilism, of the Crucifixion narrative could ask such a question.
Musing on these things, I continue my walk: up some curved steps by a wooden palisade, round into the graveyard with its large bent-over tombstones, along by the side of the church, and in through the narrow and low door of entrance. At this point, I feel a Henry James moment coming on. I am thinking of James’s wonderful short story ‘The Birthplace’ (1903), set in the late nineteenth century, about the early days of Stratford as a full tourist venue. Its protagonist, Morris Gedge, is custodian and guide at the Birthplace house in Henley Street, and, to save his job, develops a wonderful line in over-the-top historical evocation:
‘We stand here, you see, in the old living-room, happily still to be reconstructed in the mind’s eye . . . Across that threshold He habitually passed; through those low windows, in childhood, He peered out into the world that He was to make so much happier by the gift to it of His genius; over the boards of this floor . . . his little feet often pattered . . .’
. . . Except, of course, in this case, Shakespeare’s feet really did pass over these flagstones into the church, or at least the flagstones, in the same positions, that preceded these ones.
There is nothing particularly stunning to view in the interior of Holy Trinity Church. It is an amalgam of styles and features going back to the 13th century. Modern, brightly-covered NRSV bibles litter the pews, and – for Lent, I suspect – rather brightly-coloured canvas Stations of the Cross hang temporarily on the walls. As I stroll down the nave looking at the ceiling, and heading for the chancel, an old lady taps my arm, enquiring if I want to volunteer the £3 donation to see the grave, ‘for the upkeep of the church’ – but note, again, there is no turnstile, no ticket-office, just a table and a wicker basket. The theme-park is still held at bay.
And so to Shakespeare’s grave: Shakespeare’s wife, Shakespeare, the husband of his grand-daughter, his daughter Susanna and her husband, all laid under flat stone tablets just below the altar, as near to the holiest part of the church as you can get. Around me are a loud gaggle of Japanese teenagers, with an English male guide booming out the obvious, very loudly. I have to say ‘excuse me’ several times to get through, and read the words Shakespeare wanted put over his tomb:
GOOD FREND FOR IESVS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE.
BLESTE BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES,
AND CVRST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.
This year 25 March was Good Friday. In 1616 it was a little earlier, the Monday of Holy Week. On that day Shakespeare, who may already have been in his last illness, was finalizing his will. One biographer, Katherine Duncan-Jones, has done a hatchet job on this ‘sour and angry’ document, but her version of things seems unlikely. If Shakespeare was not a saint, it is hard to imagine him as the worst of sinners, given the idealism of the plays. If, as she concedes, he was ill and in pain, perhaps we should balance any deficiencies against the preface: ‘Firrst I Comend my Soule into the handes of god my Creator hoping & assuredlie beleeving through thonelie merittes of Jesus Christe my Saviour to be made partaker of lyfe everlastinge’. In his Documentary Life (1975), Schoenbaum immediately tells us that this is not really ‘a confession of personal faith’ since the pious preamble is ‘formulaic’ – but again this is the either/or of our secularity. Formulas, religious or otherwise, are rarely simply empty or hypocritical: think of the words of the marriage service, only said cynically by rogues.
Prior to coming to the church, I have been reading the conclusion of Park Honan’s Shakespeare: A Life, often praised as one of the most scholarly and even-handed of present-day biographies. I was surprised to see no close attempt to imagine the burial. Perhaps Honan felt he had to avert his eyes. The question I wanted answering seems natural enough: Who would, or could, have been there? There were many from the town no doubt; only a few theatre people perhaps, for the news of his passing would barely have reached London; but there could have been only ten members of immediate family: Shakespeare’s wife, Anne; his two daughters, Susanna and Judith and their husbands; his grand-daughter Elizabeth (8); his sister Joan, and her three boys, William (16), Thomas (11), and Michael (8). Joan, in particular, must have been distraught, for she had lost her own husband only eight days before. Park Honan avoids imagining the church scene; he resorts instead to secular poetry, placing the beautiful dirge from Cymbeline at the end of his account. But, in real life, we know exactly the words that had to be said, after the body in its winding-sheet had been lowered into the tomb, for the law required them: ‘The Order for the Buriall of the Dead’. In the 1559/1604 version of the prayerbook, before the Collect, this is the final prayer which the family group would have heard:
Almightie God, with whom do live the spirites of them that depart hence in the lord, and in whome the soules of them that be elected, after they bee delivered from the burthen of the flesh, be in joye and felicitie. We geve thee hearty thankes for that it hath pleased thee to deliver this William oure brother, out of the miseries of thys synneful worlde, beseching thee that it may please thee of thy gracious goodnes, shortelye to accomplishe the numbre of thyne electe, and to haste thy kyngedome, that we with thys oure brother, and all other departed in the true fayth of thy holy name, may have our perfect consummacion and blisse, bothe in bodye and soule in thy eternall and everlastynge glorie. Amen.
I come out of the church blinking, and sneeze as I often do entering the light! The tourists have thinned, and I walk back along the same way, by the edge of the church, down the steps, and along the footpath. A swan labours to take off on the Avon; a tourist motor-boat heads downstream. The playhouse is there in the spring sunshine. Is my mood one that Shakespeare often felt? ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances’; ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep’. Every time Shakespeare went to church he stepped into that other world, of what is beyond. Was that how his mind sharpened itself to perceive so exactly the things of this world? Perhaps Holy Trinity Church was the perspective, the good distance from the pivot of worldliness, that allowed him to lift up so much of the heft of things, to celebrate the good so fully, while acknowledging also what O’Hara calls poignantly ‘the universal light of tragedy’.
Stefan Hawlin has special interests in English poetry across all periods and in contemporary poetry and fiction. His publications include, as co-editor, volumes 7, 8, 9, and 15 of The Poetical Works of Robert Browning in the Clarendon Press edition (OUP), and, as author, The Complete Critical Guide to Robert Browning (2002). He is professor of English Literature at Buckingham University.