Four hundred years after William Shakespeare's death, Simon Callow investigates the great bard's spirituality, and Josie d'Arby joins in the celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon.
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BAND STRIKES UP
Hello! If you've ever said,
"I must be cruel to be kind" or "I'm in a pickle"
or "on a wild goose chase",
you've been quoting the great man himself.
In the week that the country has been
celebrating 400 years of William Shakespeare's legacy,
I'm here in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon, to
search for the religious influences
that may have shaped his work.
I decipher medieval wall paintings...
glimpse a 16th-century Book of Common Prayer
believed to have belonged to him...
And look for answers in the inscription on Shakespeare's
final resting place.
All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.
And we join Shakespearean actor Simon Callow as he reveals
what it's like to perform the great Bard's work.
"Music oft hath such a charm to make bad good
"And good provoke to harm",
wrote Shakespeare in Measure For Measure and today, we have no
shortage of music to inspire you, with hymns
from across the country,
including a special performance of one of the Bard's own sonnets
performed here at the church where he was both baptised and buried.
But we begin with a joyous hymn
that Shakespeare himself would have known,
sung for us now in London, where the Bard wrote most of his plays.
It's a historic day here in Stratford-upon-Avon as 20,000
people have gathered to commemorate William Shakespeare,
400 years after his death.
But it's not all sorrow and tragedy.
-Hip, hip, hip!
In a dramatic twist,
both his death and his birth are marked on the same date.
He is the most celebrated playwright in the history
of the theatre.
It's quite hard to overstate the influence his work has
had on language and culture,
so it's no wonder his hometown is putting on quite a show.
But although his works are well known,
his personal faith is more difficult to uncover.
Perhaps the first clue lies in the town's Guild Chapel
that was well known to Shakespeare's family.
As Dr Paul Edmondson explains, the young Shakespeare grew up
in a time when Catholic imagery was suppressed.
It was a turbulent time for religion.
The state had moved from Protestant to Catholic to Protestant again
and it was a time surely of
psychological trauma for the people.
Shakespeare has a direct connection to this very chapel, doesn't he?
He does. When his father was Chamberlain for the borough council,
John Shakespeare ordered the whitewashing
and the defacing of the medieval images here.
So this wall painting
that we can still sort of see is important, then?
The Last Judgment in this chapel was also known as a "doom image"
and in Macbeth,
when Shakespeare's conveying just how awful
the image of the murdered King Duncan is, he talks about it being
like "the great doom's image",
perhaps thinking of paintings like this one.
And in Hamlet, when he mentions Purgatory,
a Roman Catholic belief, he also mentions
the death of 20,000 men who go to their graves like beds.
When you see what this picture was like and the souls are rising
at the last judgment, it looks like they're just climbing out of bed.
So it's becoming clearer and clearer that Shakespeare was heavily
influenced by religious iconography of his time.
I think so and he's really been brave in the way he's able to
remind people of religious issues, but he wasn't allowed
to refer to them explicitly, because of censorship.
But he could allude to it and as the wall paintings had vanished,
they're re-emerging in these vibrant, bold,
brave images on stage.
Shakespeare is undoubtedly Stratford-upon-Avon's most famous
son, but of course he spent most of his professional life in London.
And it's from the capital that Shakespearean actor Simon Callow
shines a little more light on the Bard's relationship with the church.
"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.
"They have their exits and their entrances
"and one man in his time plays many parts,
"His acts being seven ages."
Famous words from As You like It,
and surely the way Shakespeare saw the world.
We're all actors in this "wide and universal theatre", as he puts it.
I've been enchanted, enraptured by the works of William Shakespeare
since I was five years old.
I've acted in his plays, I've written books about them,
I've done a one-man show to try
to find out who the man was who wrote these plays.
He gives incomparably the greatest account of what it is to be
a human being, but what of the spiritual dimension of his plays?
This is Southwark Cathedral.
In Shakespeare's day, it was St Saviour's Parish Church,
just a short walk from the Globe Theatre.
We obviously don't know how often
Shakespeare will have come to church here,
although there was an expectation
and a legal obligation upon people at one stage to go to church.
We do know, however, that he paid for his brother's funeral here,
and we also know that that funeral had to be
arranged for the morning so that the show could go on in the afternoon.
'But the theatre was by no means universally
'accepted by the establishment.
'Indeed, when Shakespeare first came to the capital,
'all productions had been forced outside of the City of London.
'But I've come to Shoreditch,
'near the site of the first purpose-built playhouse in London,
'to discuss with Professor Alison Shell
'how it wasn't all condemnation.'
Here in Shoreditch,
on the foundations of this actual church,
was the first actors' church,
so that tells us there was a church which looked favourably on actors.
Yes, and I think that's partly because
the techniques of actors,
erm, were so often used by preachers themselves.
Both professions of preacher and player were in the business
of communication and effective, entertaining communication.
If you really had to, Alison, would you describe Shakespeare as
a religious man or a non-religious man?
I've never had the impression that he was somebody who found
personal piety as important as many of his contemporaries did,
and the interesting point of comparison here is John Donne.
You never get away from religion in what Donne writes.
Yes, by comparison with John Donne,
who's always thinking about things in eternal terms,
Shakespeare seems sublimely to connect with human life,
with what it's like to be a human being.
Yes, and in an age when Protestant theology was obsessed with
the sinfulness of humanity, Shakespeare is offering
a much more positive alternative, celebrating humanity.
That's a religious perspective, too.
'The idea of a spirituality rooted in human life is something that
'appeals to me, whether Shakespeare intended it or not.'
But what we do know, me and my fellow actors know,
is that when we open ourselves to his work, we experience
an extraordinary life force, a kind of profundity of emotion
and experience which almost amounts to a religious experience for us.
# Immortal, invisible God only wise... #
'I hadn't expected to find a shop that celebrates Christmas
'all year round on my trail through Shakespeare's Stratford,
'but it's a reminder that the 12 days of Christmas
'and their festivities were hugely popular in Elizabethan England.'
It is the perfect opportunity for me
to tell you about our Christmas card competition.
It's your chance to create one of ten winning designs that will
go on sale later this year, with the proceeds going to Children in Need.
The closing date is May 23rd, so, yes, please, do get designing.
All the information and terms and conditions you need to enter
are on our website...
Now, this Thursday marks 40 days since Easter Sunday,
which means it's Ascension Day.
Our next hymn celebrates Christ's ascension into Heaven
in the glorious setting of St Albans Cathedral.
# Rejoice, the Lord is King... #
'I'm looking for clues to unlock Shakespeare's beliefs.
'His writing was undoubtedly influenced by the Bible,
'but I've been invited to take a look at another object that's also
-So, Daniel, here it is.
-So, this is it.
-Wow, it's so tiny.
-Tiny and very, very fragile.
-Yeah, I can see that.
Let's get this out and put it there.
-So this is the Book of Common Prayer...
..and it was first published in 1549,
and it's really the handbook of the English Church.
And this is special because it's not just any common book of prayer,
this could actually be his.
Yes, it seems so, and what we do is if we open here...
..we see Shakespeare's signature.
Wow, has that been authenticated?
We very much hope this is Shakespeare's personal copy
-since that would be such a wonderful treasure to have.
But even if it wasn't his personal copy, he certainly would have
known the contents by heart, as every worshipper in England would.
You say he would have known this book by heart, is that because
he would have had to have read it, or because he would have wanted to?
Simply because he would have heard it
repeated on Sundays at every church service, at morning prayer,
at evening prayer, so simply by repetition and simply by a kind of
common experience, he would have come to know them.
How significant is this prayer book
in understanding Shakespeare's beliefs?
I think this book is absolutely crucial in understanding both
Shakespeare's beliefs and his plays
because it is often the secret hidden ingredient in those plays.
'I'm intrigued to hear
'just how Shakespeare uses the prayer book in his work,
'but first Daniel takes me to
'the schoolroom that was also a huge influence on his life.
'Today it's part of King Edward VI School.'
This is where he would have gone to school between the age of about
seven and about 14, and he didn't really have much other education.
He didn't go to university, so this is not only
-one of his classrooms, this is really his only classroom.
Here is where he would have first encountered plays,
so he would have seen plays here and also acted in school plays,
so it really is, you know, on both those levels.
He's learning but he's also figuring out about drama
and figuring out about the theatre.
So let's talk more about the Book of Common Prayer
and its influence on him.
So, what the prayer book does is
it gives a kind of structure to human life.
When we're born, we're baptized, according to the prayer book.
When we fall in love and marry, we say the words from the prayer book.
So, really, the prayer book gives a kind of reservoir of things to do
in times of extreme emotion,
and I think that's why Shakespeare, as a dramatist, was drawn to it.
There's a wonderful scene towards the end of Hamlet
when Hamlet interrupts Ophelia's funeral,
and because she's committed suicide she's not allowed to be
buried in church ground, and Hamlet is horrified by this.
And for me that's the voice of Shakespeare, who believed that these
church rites were these crucial, emotional, important events.
So, what's your personal view, then, of his beliefs?
I think what's amazing about Shakespeare's plays is that
they're like a mirror, so that whoever looks upon them
can see him or herself in them.
For me, personally, the important spiritual lesson that comes from
Shakespeare's plays is, I suppose, compassion.
That's the thing I think he truly believes in.
It's incredible to think that such was Shakespeare's brilliance
he's thought to have written 38 plays and 154 sonnets,
one of which was later turned into a hymn.
So, now, for a special performance of Sonnet 146,
which is often thought to be his only Christian sonnet.
And it's performed here at Holy Trinity Church,
where Shakespeare was baptised and later buried.
Sonnet 146 is important as it's Shakespeare's
only piece of work that can be described as overtly Christian.
But that doesn't make it any easier
to pin down exactly what Shakespeare believed.
Dr Anjna Chouhan explains why.
Now, a lot of people will look at the sonnet and say,
well, it's profoundly spiritual.
It's talking about the idea of the soul lasting for ever,
when the body is going to "perish and be food for worms",
as he says in the sonnet.
But some other scholars will actually argue that,
this could be read as a secular sonnet as well,
because the focus is on the body.
There's a lot of talk about earthliness
and earthly sinfulness and lease and buying and selling,
so there's quite a lot of commercial language in there too,
so really you could bring whatever you want to the sonnet.
But in his lifetime, he definitely identified himself as a Christian?
Almost certainly, yes, of course a Christian,
but, you know, ultimately, I think that Shakespeare's work
means all sorts of things to everybody, no matter what your race,
gender, where you live in the world, what age you are.
It's special to everyone.
As my search nears its end, I wonder if Shakespeare's grave and its
inscription gives us any final clues to what he personally believed.
He lies buried close to the altar of Holy Trinity Church.
"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare
"To digg the dust enclosed heare
"Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
"And curst be he that moves my bones."
So, Paul, what clues to Shakespeare's spirituality
-lie here, on his tombstone?
-He says, "for Jesus' sake", so it's a prayer.
-It's two rhyming couplets,
so it's a poem.
It's a blessing and there's a curse at the very end,
-"curst be he that moves" his bones.
Why that curse at the end?
He seems really clear that he wants to remain here.
This is a man who, like the rest of the country,
said that they believed in the resurrection of the body,
-week-in, week-out in church.
-There's a theatricality about it.
There's a sense of doubt that we all feel
as well as hoping in Jesus' company.
And that hope is expressed in our next hymn,
sung here at Shakespeare's church, encouraging us
to praise God in words and music, both in this world and the next.
# Angel voices ever singing... #
Here at Shakespeare's final resting place,
thousands of people are waiting to pay their respects.
The church has become the focal point of the commemorations.
I'm sure the Bard would have appreciated such an audience.
My time here has shown me that, in life as well as death,
Shakespeare was such an inspired dramatist
that he managed to keep everyone guessing
about the person behind his plays.
Perhaps because he could only offer more questions
than answers about life, existence and the soul.
Next week, Sally's in Belfast
to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme
and the Easter Rising and their impact on today's Northern Ireland.
Until then, our final hymn today is a favourite for many of us
as we continue on the pilgrimage of life.
Thanks for watching.
Four hundred years after the death of William Shakespeare, Simon Callow investigates the great bard's spirituality, and Josie d'Arby joins in the celebrations as the great and the good come together in Stratford-upon-Avon.