Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Saintliness in Shakespeare - and in Life

Anthony Pasquale has passed along a selection culled from a book by the late Fr. Robert D. Smith on the Catholic elements in Shakespeare.  I've published the article in full on The Christian Shakespeare website.

Here is a very interesting portion of it on how sanctity works, both in Shakespeare's plays, and in life (note as well that the next issue of the St. Austin Review will be all about the Catholic Shakespeare).

In King Lear, Cordelia remains throughout the play loyal to her increasingly dispossessed and destitute father, King Lear. She finds that the Earl of Kent too has been immensely loyal, dressing himself as a poor man in rags so he could remain by Lear’s side and protect him as much as honorably possible. Upon discovering Kent’s loyalty, towards the end of the play, she says to him, “O thou good Kent, how shall I live and work to match thy goodness? My life will be too short and every measure fail me (act IV, sc. 7, 1). What a beautifully expressed tribute, especially from one who is so honorable herself. 

It is a stunning phrase, but when we think about it, it is more than this: it is a beautiful and uniquely Catholic one in three ways.

First, the Church has always taught that saints exist. So much of what passes for literature implies that the whole world is full of corruption, that all people are equally evil, only in different ways. We, as followers of Christ, believe in the existence of saints, not just in heaven but here on earth. Not in perfection, to be sure. Even the saints have human flaws, but they possess withal a level of charity, a level of selfless love, that goes supernaturally beyond what we ordinarily see on earth. They are saints when alive, and everyone sees it but the saints themselves. The world is not full of corruption, but has many saints in it if only we look in the right places. 

Second, Cordelia, saintly herself, has this strong sense of moral humility. There is nothing self-righteous, priggish or presumptuous about her. Here again this differs from the worldly idea. How many narrators of worldly stories and novels imply that they alone are free of corruption? Cordelia, paradoxically, a saint herself, sees saints in this world, and sees herself as very much below them. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that saintliness can have many different manifestations, can show itself in many different ways and lines of conduct. Cordelia was a saint but did not dress herself in rags to help her father. But still, all saints have this sense of deep spiritual humility, again so much opposed to the proud spirit of the world. 

Third, Cordelia’s words show that she has a firm grasp of another Christian, traditionally Catholic concept: that of the need to strive for perfection. She is not trying merely for adequacy in the world’s eyes. So many think of goodness only in this sense. But the world’s goodness is inadequate in the eyes of God. A good man in the eyes of the world today, for example, can be an abortionist, divorced and remarried, and unrepentant in both. Cordelia is seeking not adequacy in the world’s eyes, but perfection. Both Cordelia and Kent go far beyond the world’s standards for goodness. But in a truly Christian way, they are not looking for how far they have come but how far they have to go. That is what makes both of them beautiful in this world, very different from it, and saints.

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