Swept away by Shakespeare, the poetry of prayers


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This summer, my family and I attended a production of The Merchant of Venice at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver. While the content of that play could inspire any number of columns, I found myself thinking more about the way in which Shakespeare has become an important intergenerational experience for us, not unlike our experience of church.

Shakespeare has been part of my family’s summer since my son was six years old. We began with productions in the park by Montreal’s wonderful Repercussion Theatre, thankful for the low-risk outdoor setting and pay-what-you-can cost for our first experiment. We needn’t have worried. Although a few whispered explanations were required, our son entered into the flow of the story and was swept away by the poetry and drama and humour, along with everyone else in the audience. Did he understand every nuance or follow every twist? Assuredly not, but then neither do I and that doesn’t reduce my enjoyment or my participation.

When I was first introduced to Shakespeare, it was through the written word rather than the performed one. I read the plays in English class and listened to my classmates as we grudgingly attempted to read them out loud. There was a touring school production or two and some filmed productions, but the dominant experience was of awkward rhythms and unfamiliar words. What a difference from the music of Shakespeare’s language on the lips of a skilled actor. Although I have seen enough live Shakespeare to expect it, I never cease to be amazed by the shift from being estranged from the language to being at home in it, relaxing into the rhythm and allowing the meaning of the whole to carry me through any gaps that might exist in the particular.

Church can work this way, too. The language of worship may sound strange at first, filled with words and images and sentiments that we don’t often encounter, but the poetry of the prayers and the rhythm of the liturgy draw us to worship through our emotions and imaginations. Complete comprehension is not required, nor is perfect, unbroken focus—if it were, none of us would be up to the task.

This is not to say that there is no place for the study of either Shakespeare or theology. I love when I see a new-to-me play, motivating me to learn a little bit more about the history of the story, the context of its writing and the interpretations of its various directors and dramaturges filling in some gaps and deepening my understanding. And I love exploring the history of our liturgical tradition, the careful study of biblical texts, the examination of doctrine. There is certainly a time for analysis—it’s just not likely to be in the midst of Act II, Scene 3.

As the years have gone by, we have all grown in our capacity to engage with both church and the works of Shakespeare, during the events themselves and in conversation afterwards. I am hopeful that both will be part of our son’s life well after we have any say in the matter.




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Rhonda Waters

Rhonda Waters

The Rev. Rhonda Waters is incumbent of the Church of the Ascension, diocese of Ottawa.

2 Responses

  1. There are so many important connections between Shakespeare and spirituality. Most Shakespeare lovers remain unaware that his personal copy of the Geneva Bible is the most priceless book at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I have had the privilege of doing research on it since I first heard about it in 2002. He clearly read it closely over many years, and showed his interest in many, many passages by underlining verse numbers and words; by drawing flowers and pointing hands in the margins; and by writing key-words in the margins. The latter showed his special interest in social justice–he was more likely to write “the poor,” “alms” and “usury” in the margin than he was other key-words.

    It was my good fortune to discover through examining his copy that the primary psalms translation that influenced Shakespeare’s literary works was the musical Whole Book of Psalms (the Elizabethan “hymnal,” translated by Sternhold and Hopkins). Knowing this unlocks many mysteries, especially in the psalms, but also in several plays and in his neglected long poem, The Rape of Lucrece.

    There is a trade-off before we can fully plumb the depths of Shakespeare’s keen interest in the psalms. We have to leave the Shakespeare mythographers behind, and accept the growing evidence that Shakespeare was one of several pen names used by Edward de Vere, Early of Oxford.

    The full text of most of my 75 publications on this topic can be read on my Georgetown faculty website.

  2. Fascinating I have always been fascinated by both the Bible & Shakespeare, not only for the content, but also the poetry. Sarah. ntecontent

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