It has been an amazing weekend. The crowds have been out on Bankside between the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral as people have crowded into London to experience something of the events surrounding the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. It was a particular privilege for me and my colleagues to welcome HRH The Duke of Edinburgh to the Cathedral for the service which began Saturday, a joint service with the Globe Theatre, carefully constructed to weave scripture and scripts together.
The reason that it was so appropriate to hold the service at Southwark was because, whilst Shakespeare was working at the Globe, he lived for some of the time in the parish of St Saviour. At the reformation the old priory had become the parish church and in the neighbourhood were the Rose and the Globe Theatres. When Shakespeare’s brother, Edmund, died in 1607 Shakespeare paid for the service to take place in the parish church, for the bells to be rung and his brother buried in the quire. It all took place in the morning so that the show could go on in the afternoon.
Those same bells rang to welcome the congregation to the Cathedral and to welcome Prince Philip as we gave thanks to God for this great man, this great Englishman who was born and died on the same day of the year, St George’s Day – what could be more perfect.
We had commissioned a new anthem for the service. To be honest, however, it wasn’t easy to find a Shakespearean text to be set to music for the Great Choir to sing. Shakespeare’s sonnets were not about divine love, but romantic. His clerics are figures of fun or villains. He just didn’t write the kind of thing that you can easily set to music in a sacred setting.
So we resorted to something based upon a disputed tale. Some say that he might have been involved in the translation of the psalms into English for the King James Version of the Bible. He was 46 when that was happening and some people see the signs of his hand in the translation of Psalm 46. They also see signs of his wit. The 46th word from the beginning is ‘shake’; the 46th word from the end is ‘spear’. Perhaps it is both wishful thinking and a good story. But maybe it is true. And so that was the text that the former Director of Music at York Minster, Philip Moore, set to music for us.
It was all wonderful and after the service I was one of those privileged to go along to the Globe to watch the players who had taken Hamlet to every country around the globe come back and perform it again on the home stage.
In my welcome to the service I commented that perhaps Shakespeare is more loved now than he was then. Certainly more people know his plays than ever before. His contemporary Ben Johnson wrote of Shakespeare
He was not of an age but for all time!
That seems to be more and more the case, his words are not exhausted, they seem to resonate more deeply, be more applicable to how things are, four centuries after he breathed his last. It is remarkable.
But let me be honest. When I was doing English at school I really couldn’t stand having to read Shakespeare. It seemed dull, boring, I couldn’t understand it. You seemed to have to read it with one finger in a glossary. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. We read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and saw ‘Julius Caesar’ at the RSC at Stratford but none of that really did it for me. And to be really honest I think it wasn’t until I came to Southwark and saw the memorial and the window and then went to the Globe and saw the crowds queuing to get in that I really understood what was going on.
I had to give an interview last week about Shakespeare’s relationship to faith. How would I know? He would have gone to church, he would have had to go to church, and Christianity was part of the air that people breathed. His plays are littered with gods as well as God but it’s hard to really get any kind of impression of what his own relationship to God was. But what we do know is that he understood the tragedy and the comedy of life, he understood that we all tread the boards of a stage in life, that we need our hopes and fears, our anger, our wonder, our hatreds, our nightmares played out before us. That’s what they do on ‘Eastenders’ and ‘Coronation Street’ and even in ‘The Archers’ – and we need that. We need to see how others play their parts so that we can play ours. That is what I value, that is what thrills me so much and takes me back again, and again, to hear such wisdom and insight played out before us.
Queen Elizabeth I famously said ‘I would not open windows into men’s souls.’ That was in relation to what people believed in their Christian faith. But in many ways that is what Shakespeare did and does. Not in the way that some wanted the Queen to do, so that they could pry and accuse, but in the way that as Hamlet says ‘to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’, human nature.
That is, of course, what religion does, and as St Paul writes to the Corinthians (in the King James Version)
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
The mirror in the hand of William Shakespeare continues to reveal humanity to humanity, the globe to the globe.
for all the insights into who I am,
wherever they come from,