So, still working my way through the Year of Lear by James Shapiro, which is excellent. I mentioned before that the book is about the year when Shakespeare wrote King Lear and MacBeth. It was also the year of the Gunpowder Plot, known to every British youth as “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November.”
So, your key storyline here is that the Catholics are being persecuted by the Protestants in England. It is serious, along the lines of any other religious persecution, you might want to find, even the pre-final solution days of the Holocaust.
In modern terms, England/Britain was a police state, with the same ubiquity of surveillance and oppression of speech that we saw in Leaving Berlin.
So, the Jesuits came in from outside the country to provide sacraments to Catholics, any of who could put brutally executed if caught. People actually built houses designed to hide priests.
So here is the thing. This is a pre-fifth-amendment world. You could be forced to testify against yourself and you were, in fact, required to. (This is where the Fifth Amendment came from). So, the Jesuits develop a theory of equivocation, which meant that because God knew your thoughts, it was OK to lie under the right circumstances.
This was a huge controversy. People were drawn and quartered over this very issue, which was used to prove the moral weakness of the Papists.
There are a lot of interesting sides to this. One of them, though, is the impact it had on storytelling. Because, whatever you might want to say, storytelling is a form of lying, even true storytelling. Shapiro writes:
And what else did playwrights do, in an age of theatrical censorship, but encourage actors to say one thing while slyly pointing at another?
Of course, we know this is true, even when there is no censorship. You only have to read the summaries of three random Shakespeare plays to see some of the most complex subterfuges which often flip on themselves until they reach a bewildering scale. He didn’t just portray everyday equivocation, borne of human weakness, but true strategic and intentional equivocation, borne of bad intentions.
It had to be that way because drama is about conflict and usually that’s between good and evil. That’s a timeless idea.
But the passage above brings another element into the question, which is the idea of censorship and repression.
And this is another timeless idea: that artists sneak social criticism into the work and get away with it because it’s just a story. Here, Shakespeare is no different than Vaclav Havel.
Shapiro points us to Sonnet 138 to make one last point, and that is the naive idea that you can “root out” equivocation is “dangerously naive.” This is true if no other reason than this: many times the truth is punished.
He only quoted the first two lines of Sonnet 138, but I’m going to put the whole thing in here. It is pretty beautiful when viewed both at the level it was written…and at the symbolic level we are discussing here.