Shakespeare Sunday 2010
It’s really nice to see you out for this special service with the theme of Shakespeare and his works. As a church, we hope in this way make a small contribution to the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, as well as to join together to worship God.
I’m the Reverend David Smith, and my wife and family and I are very fortunate to have just moved to Prescott. One of the first things we did was to see Macbeth, and we deeply enjoyed it. My father was a high school English teacher when Shakespeare was the mainstay of the curriculum, so Shakespeare was a household name when I was growing up. When he talked about Macbeth, my father would sometimes refer to him as “Mack the Knife”!
My parents attended the opening season of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, when the plays were performed in a tent. The Stratford community raised money for a permanent theatre and when they did, the donors all received a strip of canvas from that tent. My parents had one of those. Wouldn’t it be great if something like that could happen in Prescott?
It’s great to see some of you in costumes! One of the things that attracts us to the Elizabethan period is the colour and gusto of the time, and it is nice to see that reflected here today. But if we are going to try at this service to recreate some of that Elizabethan atmosphere, we have to realize that part of the complexity of the period was that in their religious lives the Elizabethans were quite severe. It’s appropriate that we should have people in colourful costumes, taking part in a service that is in some ways quite austere. It’s a very Elizabethan combination.
We look at the beautiful stained glass in this church and it seems part of English church tradition, and so it is. But during the Elizabethan period if they built a church there would have been no stained glass. That was considered too much a part of the religious past. The beautiful stained glass of the cathedrals was maintained, but the churches of the day were very plain and Spartan in their decoration.
Tracey and I are wearing a cassock and surplice—this white vestment. It looks very plain compared to what had been worn before, and what is worn today in many Anglican churches. But even the surplice was considered far too ceremonial for many in Shakespeare’s day. The influential Puritan party in the Church of England didn’t want to wear it and they were forced to do so by regulations stemming from Queen Elizabeth herself.
Elizabethans went to church expecting the preacher to put their hearts to the test. Preachers were expected sometimes to weep over the sins of mankind from the pulpit. I just want to assure you that I won’t be weeping this morning. I don’t think so anyway!
Of course, Shakespeare’s plays also put the human heart to the test. In the severe religious climate of the day, there was much discussion as to whether drama was even allowable, and here the Puritan influence can be seen. The pro-drama crowd argued in their defense that drama could hold up a light to the heart in a way that sermons couldn’t. Plays could be a kind of sermon out in the world, where they would reach people that sermons didn’t reach.
Some have questioned whether this could have been part of Shakespeare’s intention. Why, they ask, didn’t his plays tell more directly the message of redemption, if that was his purpose? After all, the medieval morality plays had presented the Christian message directly. But that had been under the Roman church. Since the Reformation, Christian doctrine had become a minefield. To put its teaching on the stage directly would have been to land yourself in the middle of doctrinal controversy.
Other powerful theological visions were about, competing for the hearts of believers. One was held by the ancestors of our Roman Catholic friends just down James Street, and another by the ancestors of our Presbyterian friends just across Centre Street. The pro-drama people argued that plays could avoid controversial religion by presenting Christian truths in stories, with the message implied. They could thus stay out of the controversy and reach people in a different way. And this line of thinking may have been that of William Shakespeare.
So what might be the spiritual truths conveyed by the play Macbeth? And why might people of faith suppose that there is something for them to learn from that play, important enough that it might be worthwhile having a Shakespeare Sunday?
Well, we must start off by saying that Macbeth is first of all a story. As we saw it so well performed at the festival just this week, it is a fast-paced, exciting story. It is the story of a man who kills his king, egged on by his wife, then kills again and again to defend his ill-gotten crown, and ends up being killed for his pains. There are frightening, supernatural scenes and pity-inspiring human ones. The story picks you up by the scruff of the neck and carries you through speeches, fights, and conversations and doesn’t let you relax for a minute. Performed as well as it was, it’s a gripper!
But as you watch you realize that this is not just a thriller. Although Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are very frightening people in a way, they are also people we can identify with and sympathize with. It’s a disconcerting combination. When Macbeth first conceives of the idea of killing the king, he is horrified at his thought. We identify with his proper moral instincts first, before he goes on to do it.
Lady Macbeth early on takes us into her confidence about her husband. In a chilling way, she tells us that she is afraid he is “too full of the milk of human kindness” to do the deed. Yet how well she knows her husband! “What thou wouldst highly, that wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false, and yet wouldst wrongly win.” In other words, Macbeth would rather do good . . . but he’d rather do evil than not get what he wants.
She is a cold and calculating one, but still, the way she invites us into her confidence about her husband gives us a kind of intimacy with her. In a way, she could be any wife that ever felt she had to encourage her husband to reach for the top. “Oh, you know Harold, he’ll never do anything on his own!”
Then Macbeth is plotting to kill Banquo. He shares his fears about Banquo with his wife, but won’t worry her with his plan. “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, till thou applaud the deed.” It is a touching act of kindness to his wife—from a murderer.
As we see the play unfold, Shakespeare brings out in us a disturbing combination of identification with, and revulsion for, Macbeth and his wife. So what is Shakespeare saying? Is he saying, “even murderers are human beings”? That if you walked a mile in Macbeth’s shoes, you would see why he did what he did? No, it can’t possibly be that. He can’t be asking us to fully sympathize with the killer of MacDuff’s child.
Is he saying then that this human side of Macbeth and his wife is all an illusion? Underneath they are really devils, and this is a black and white tale of villains and their evil-doings? But too much of the play is devoted to showing us that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not devils: they are human all right. This came out so powerfully in the performance, the way we were occupied with them as human beings, the way they involved us.
Is Shakespeare saying then that good and evil may be hopelessly bound together in some people: “Isn’t it a strange world?” But that is really to say that there is no message, just a kind of reporting about the mish-mash of good and bad in life.
Rather, the tragedy is about the collision of the moral law with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s desires, and the way their desires are confounded. In our psalm today, the psalmist compared the moral law to the sun beating down on the earth. “Nothing is hid from the heat thereof.” And nothing is hid from the law of the Lord. The moral law is a light that nothing escapes.
And so the psalmist is moved to ask God, “Keep thy servant also from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me; so shall I be undefiled and innocent from the great offence.” God’s law prompts the psalmist to ask that he not make the choice that will lead him into opposition to it.
But that is what Macbeth does. And though the action of the play consists of Macbeth and his lady breaking the moral law over and over, the moral law still pursues them from within and without. When they oppose God’s law, it remains itself, but they break apart. That is what makes the tragedy a tragedy.
It’s not just a sequence of terrible deeds that fortunately runs out of gas in the end. The relentless forward movement of the plot that kept us glued to our seats is an image of what happens when we set ourselves against the moral law.
Macbeth complains to his wife that the man he has killed is more fortunate than he: “better be with the dead, whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave; after life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.” His wife tries to buck him up, “Come on; Gentle my lord, sleek o’er you rugged looks, be bright and jovial among your guests tonight.” Gradually we see that they have been trapped by their deeds in a spiritual dead-end. They cannot get what they want in life this way, and they cannot go back. Macbeth says, “I am in blood stepp’d in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
How many people in lesser ways have said something similar: “Well, it’s too late to do anything about it now”? All this is strangely moving because, though they have set themselves against the moral law, they are still human. There is a momentum to their great offence that leaves them weary, yet still trudging on in the path they have chosen.
In fact, Shakespeare has already shown us at the beginning of the play the only way back. The Thane of Cawdor, the Scottish noble who also betrayed the king and gave Macbeth his title, repents before he dies. Malcolm tells us: “I have spoke with one who saw him die; who did report that very frankly he confessed his treasons, implor’d your highness’ pardon, and set forth a deep repentance: nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”
But repent is something the Macbeths won’t do. They may regret, but repentance means doing whatever it takes to get back into line with the moral law you have broken.
The character in the Bible that reminds me most of Macbeth is Saul, from our other reading today. Saul too is divided, Saul too knows that he is in the wrong with God, and yet he won’t stop. Even the atmosphere of the scene with the woman with the familiar spirit—the medium—reminds me of the atmosphere of Macbeth. Saul, like Macbeth, seeks guidance in the occult.
That leads us to another question: “Hey, what about those witches, anyway? How do they fit in?” In the Biblical story, Saul had himself forbidden fortune-telling. He forbade it because, in the Bible, the supernatural must be one with the moral law. This is of the essence with Biblical religion. A prophet speaks sometimes of the future, but only with words that come from God who is the fountain of all morality. A fortune teller or a witch speaks about the future for private interest, in a way that is independent of the moral law. So in the Bible this is wrong, this is disreputable, this is not to be touched.
But like Macbeth, Saul seeks this guidance anyway. The godly sources of guidance are closed to him. He feels it’s all he can do, but it doesn’t do him any good, just as it doesn’t do Macbeth any good. God’s law is going to work itself out anyway. And at the end of the reading, in a scene that reminds me very much of Macbeth, the woman with the familiar spirit has to feed Saul and encourage him to get back up on his feet, and continue along his weary unrepentant path.
So what might be the message of Macbeth for faith? Somehow, as we watch the tragedy unfold, we realize that while at one level it is about a Scottish usurper and tyrant, at another level it is about us and our imperfect keeping of the moral law.
Our identification with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth leads us to wonder if there are ways in which our choices have also led us to spiritual dead ends—not as terrible as theirs, but affecting our lives nevertheless. In the prayer of confession that we said together at the start of the service, we confessed that we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. It is a perfect description of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, isn’t it? They followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts, and look where it got them.
We may have not done what they did, but according to the Elizabethans anyway, we too have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. Our problems are not all medical, psychological, and financial. Some of them, according to the Elizabethan diagnosis, stem from little choices by which we have alienated ourselves from our God.
Thus the play leads us to reflect about how is it between us and God. Are we in some way weary? Have we lost our way, not completely perhaps, but in some area of our lives? Do we have a spiritual dead-end or two where we are butting up against the rock that will never budge? And what is the answer to that? Medical attention? Therapy? Some new spirituality? Is it possible that we in some way need to repent? Were there choices in our lives that once we didn’t have to make, but having made them, the only relief is to unmake them?
These are reflections that Macbeth brings to mind. At some point in this play, which is admittedly dark, we may ask ourselves, “Where is the redemption?”
And it is there in the person of the English king who shelters Malcolm, the saintly Edward the Confessor. Edward is a holy man, and he practices the ancient royal tradition of healing touch. Malcolm reports: “How he solicits heaven himself best knows: but strangely visited people, all swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye, the mere despair of surgery, he cures . . . with this strange virtue he hath a heavenly gift of prophecy, and sundry blessings hang about his throne that speak him full of grace.” Edward is what a king should be, gifted with the healing and reconciling power of Christ.
In one of the most touching scenes in the play, Lady Macbeth is sleep-walking. Only in her sleep can she can really let out how much hurt her actions have caused to her soul. And a doctor who has been summoned for her listens in to her talking, and realizes what is going on. His comment goes to the heart of the matter: “More needs she the divine than the physician.” In modern language: “She doesn’t need a doctor, she needs a minister.” And then he speaks from the heart: “God, God forgive us all!”
In Macbeth, Shakespeare tells us a lot about that condition for which the remedy is spiritual. It’s not territory that we enter easily in our secular world. So I think that Macbeth has a lot to offer for people of faith. See the play, if you haven’t already. The sermon is no substitute for the play itself. In it Shakespeare shows himself to be not just a great playwright and poet, but a great doctor of the heart and soul.
And I hope we don’t find learning from Macbeth and his lady too difficult, too dark, so that we miss the healing message for our own hearts. If we do, if this is too great a stretch, then all that I can suggest is that we have a second Shakespeare Sunday, where the sermon will be about the next play in the Festival, an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor called Trouble on Dibble Street!
[…] David and Tracey Smith are the Anglican priests of the three-point Parish of Cardinal, Maitland, and Prescott in the Diocese of Ottawa. You can read one of David’s Shakespeare sermons here. […]