Professor Mark Bauerlein has recently argued in Public Discourse that liberalism, or the moral and epistemological relativism it engenders, starves literature of the narratives that alone can provide a work with meaning. Indeed it suggests that meaning itself is an illusion; and, once that is said, art disappears, and only the wraith of escapism, or the bullhorn of political manipulation, remains.
I agree with this assessment, and should like to illustrate it by calling upon the Shakespeare Conundrum. Consider that the number of literate people who speak English is at least a hundred times greater than in the days when Elizabeth sat upon the throne of England. Why, then, do we not have a hundred Shakespeares in our midst? One answer is that we do indeed have them, but we do not recognize them yet.
Really? Where are they?
I believe that the reputation of John Ford will only rise; but not even I would claim that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the equal, for poetic skill and depth of intuition into human motives, of the plays of Henry IV; and, for all that, Ford still retained the moral narratives that liberalism would destroy. Indeed the replacement of the archetype of the good man who sacrifices what he loves best, with the respectable man of technological and political progressivism, is what lends that unresolved film its power.
No, we do not have a hundred Shakespeares. We do not have a single one, nor are we likely to. A man with a hundred acres will not necessarily grow a hundred times as much wheat as a man who has one. He may not know how to tend the soil; the techniques may have been forgotten. But there may not even be much soil to tend in the first place. He may be sitting on a hundred acres of dust. We are, culturally, a clumsy farmer with a lot of dusty land.
Perhaps it will help here to discover again what rich, thick, black soil looks like – soil with the scent of life so strong in it that it seems good enough to eat. That is the soil Shakespeare had to till. Here, for example, is the climactic moment in The Winter’s Tale, when Paulina, acting as a patron of art, a magician, and a spiritual counselor all at once, commands the “statue” (or is it real after all?) of Hermione to come to life again, in the awestruck presence of the once-jealous husband who condemned her to die, and the daughter whom all had believed lost forever:
‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel; come;
I’ll fill your grave up. Stir; nay, come away;
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you.
“Be stone no more.” With those four little words Shakespeare has summoned up a veritable sea of Scriptural allusion. “I shall take away their hearts of stone,” says the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel, “and give them hearts of flesh.” “It was because of the hardness of your hearts,” says Jesus, explaining to his disciples why God once permitted men to put away their wives. “These very stones would cry out,” says Jesus, condemning the stony hearts and deaf ears of the Pharisees. The word “redeems” then places these theological motifs in the midst of a symphony of love. It is “dear” life, beloved and precious at once, that is the Redeemer, the Buyer-Back; and we think of the Son of Man who would give His life “as a ransom for many,” so that Saint Paul would cry, “Where, O grave, is thy sting?”
It is, in fact, an Easter scene. Visually, it is Hermione whom we see arising from the dead, as it were; but the one who has really been redeemed from the tomb is her husband Leontes, who has spent sixteen years doing penance for his evil deed. It was not enough that he should feel sorrow on the instant, when he first learned that the evil had caused the deaths of his small son and also, apparently, his wife and his infant daughter, whom he stupidly believed to be illegitimate. The “fullness of time,” as Scripture puts it, arrives only now, when that daughter has been found again. In the meanwhile, under Paulina’s direction, Leontes has been following the Pauline command to pray unceasingly, redeeming the time, for his days had been evil.
All this do we hear and see when we behold this scene – if we have ears to hear and eyes to see; that is, if we dwell in the Christian narrative of death and resurrection, of sin and redemption, of good wrought by God out of evil, of the blind made to see and the deaf to hear. Now I am not simply affirming that one requires some knowledge of Scripture in order to make sense of The Winter’s Tale. Nor am I simply affirming that Scripture endowed Shakespeare with a wealth of images and ideas and stories that he could take for granted would be understood by his audience, thus obviating the need to invent many wheels. I mean what I take Professor Bauerlein to mean. The narrative of Scripture guarantees the meaning of human life and of any narratives we employ to portray it. It not only gives a particular and powerful meaning to this particular narrative; it assures the very meaning of meaning. It assures what liberalism denies.
We may see how powerful and world-restoring this assurance is when Shakespeare dramatizes the alternative. In Measure for Measure, a newly appointed proxy for the Duke of Vienna takes it upon himself to enforce laws that had fallen into desuetude. One of those laws condemns fornicators to death, and a noble if somewhat self-indulgent young man, Claudio, falls afoul of the law. His sister Isabella, a moral rigorist of all people, approaches the proxy, Lord Angelo, to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo casts the matter in wholly abstract terms that seem to admit of no compromise. He retreats into a world of quasi-mathematical ideas. The law, and not he, condemns Claudio. He shows mercy to unknown and unknowable future souls by being rigorous now. He checkmates all who argue with him on the terms of abstract justice. “There is no remedy,” sighs the good lieutenant Escalus, who fails to move Angelo one inch from his resolution.
“Your brother is a forfeit of the law,” says Angelo, and suddenly Isabella is struck with an inspiration. The word “forfeit,” a bit of legalese, is also a word employed in Scripture – and Scripture is not a tissue of legal theory or of bare theology, but rather a narrative of the salvation of real sinners of flesh and blood, saved by a man who is like us in all things but sin. Says she:
Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once,
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy.
There is that word “remedy” again, a word that appears several times in the play. What does Isabella mean by it? Without the narrative soil that the Christian story provides, she can only be referring to some more or less tolerable difference-splitting between justice and mercy, whereby neither justice nor mercy will really be done. But that is not really a remedy. It is a palliative.
What the play insists upon, rather, is a genuine “remedy,” which is more than a modus vivendi, and more than an abstract solution to a problem. We must take Shakespeare at his word, here. A remedy is what a doctor applies to heal a disease. It is a motif near to the playwright’s heart. “More needs she the divine than the physician,” says the wise doctor who understands that he cannot heal the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth. “Be aidant and remediant in the good man’s distress,” cries Cordelia, appealing to the secret powers of the earth to heal the madness of her aged father Lear. The remedy is physical only to the extent that it is moral and spiritual. But sinful man can never discover this remedy for himself. “Throw physic to the dogs, I’ll none of it,” says Macbeth, not understanding the import of his own words. The remedy comes rather from the action of grace. It is Christ, the true Aesculapius, who heals. The author of the story of life is immanent in every moment of that story, and more. As Christians affirm, He has Himself descended into the story, as a man, to suffer in His own person the burdens and the futilities of historical man. He has done so, to nail our sins to the cross with Him – not “our sins” as a generality, but my sins, your sins, every man’s sins.
“There was speech in their dumbness,” says a gentleman in The Winter’s Tale, relating for us the wonderful discoveries that are but the preparation for the final resurrection of Hermione, “language in their very gesture; they looked as they had heard of a world ransomed, or one destroyed.” Precisely. Shakespeare could write of a world, because he had a world to dwell in. He could write of a redeemer, because he believed the Redeemer had come. He could tell a story, because there was a Story to tell.