Be Stone No More

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.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

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  • poetcomic1

       Well written article but please write simpler and use shorter words – it makes me feel stupid which is bad for my self-esteem. 

    • Maxvinan

      Are there shorter words than, “be stone no more”?

      • poetcomic1

        I was being ironic.  It is an intelligent article but this is a ‘sound bite’ era. 

        • Alex

          I am only able to comprehend graphic novelizations and video game narratives. Please use more action-oriented words plus add some dynamic superhero illustrations. 

  • Peter Freeman

    Hey, Anthony,
    I can’t help but read a large concession to the new historical Marxist interpretive machine in both this piece and Bauerlein’s argument. One can infer from both arguments that art (and especially good art) is the product of society (rather than individual genius). Bauerlein suggests that only certain social structures generate good novels; thus, the  novelist is really only a channel for those social energies that flow through him or her. The response to the “Shakespeare Conundrum” above suggests that we don’t have any Shakespeares because Shakespeare is ultimately a convergence of different social phenomena and beliefs, rather than a uniquely creative individual. In both arguments, literary meaning really does seem to be socially constructed in the end. Thus, liberalism might have eroded the moral stakes that produce literature, but it also hones the critical methodology that enables us to accuse it of such erosion.

  • hombre111

    You go ahead and blame liberalism for the dearth of modern Shakespeares.  I blame that form of liberalism called market capitalism which has infiltrated everything including the world of art.  It is old news that the first thing a publisher asks about an author’s work is the single question: Will it make money?  No way are the best works published every year.  And if they are published, here come all the clones and poor imitations and the market is buried in yuck for as long as the cash registers still ring.  England, in Shakespeare’s day, had not yet been converted to a capitalist paradise.  Especially the capitalist paradise of the big corporation which has swallowed up most of the printing, music, and movie industry, expecting each to serve as a cash cow for the bottom line.  One more time, this article only serves the interest of the Right.  But of course, this is the Catholic Republican magazine.

    • hombre111

      Oh, and as a former campus minister I got to watch the young prepare for life by choosing their college majors.  Want to make money?  Finance, business, science, engineering, chemistry, doctor….  Want to serve people?  Teaching, socialology, nursing…  Want to starve?  Any courses based on art, visual, musical, theater, literarary, and on and on.  I really admired the students who did a liberal arts major knowing the odds against them, especially those who studied the arts.  They usually had to get another degree to get a life. 

      But anyway, this is a much better explanation of what happened to Shakespeare than some smarmy philosophical treatise about the woes of liberalism.  By the way, the areas of study where the students were most likely to be “relatavists” who ignored moral law?  Several studies make it clear: Business and finance.  Home to lots and lots of Republicans.   

      • Carl

        Western Civilization has created and stores the vast majority art the world has ever seen or had.  How else do art students and lovers afford to manage and create the great Art gallery’s in the world—donations from wealthy benefactors! Including rich artists!

        Hombre111, stop for a minute from bashing your straw man and name these great socialistic societies great art collections! China, Cube, Venezuela?

        I got news for you the private sector isn’t fine, there are plenty starving in finance, business, engineering, etc.  And many of us are under employed too, like me!  🙂

      • GHU

        So there are no Democrats in Business & Finance? There are no filthy “rich” Democrats? Oh, my!

        • You are absolutely correct in your assessment, GHU, and thank you for raising the issue. George Soros (not a Republican™) is not filthy rich—his wealth was all gained through altruism. And the elder Gates, Father of Bill (also not a Republican™) albeit a lawyer, was just onw more selfless altruistic Democrat.

          Pax et bonum,
          Keith Töpfer

    • Peter Freeman

      Capitalism is also what enabled Shakespeare to become a playwright (as opposed to a feudal country serf). It enabled him to relocate to an urban environment with a market for his plays (when the government wasn’t busy shutting down theaters). And it is what has enabled millions upon millions of people in the subsequent centuries to acquire cheap and even free copies of his works (which would have otherwise disappeared from existence after their performance if there had not been a hungry 17th Century book market).

    • If your analysis (such as it is) and conclusion are correct, why do you impose upon yourself the penance of returning here to read it?

      Pax et  bonum,
      Keith Töpfer

    • Peadar Ban

       Dear Hombre 111,

      Shakespeare is available for nothing, or next to it, on Kindle from Amazon.  So is everything Aquinas ever wrote.  I imagine that there are hundreds of books recently written which are also available in the same way.  I have read some of them, and found them worthy of buying.   Authors have discovered a new way of putting their work before an interested public.

      Of course, you may still buy any of these books, too without first reading them free on Kindle; some of which may, indeed, turn out to be the best ones published every year. 

      The small publishing house, Sofia Press, which is affiliated with this magazine, is worth your attention since it does not operate as do the big corporations in the capitalist paradise.  In another paradise with which we have had recent experience neither it nor they would have been allowed to operate at all.  Perhaps that is something to think about.  I do not know.  But, though Sofia may ask if a book will make money I am more than reasonably sure that is not the single question asked. Making money serves, for them, as it should serve for us all, something greater.

      I do not know how you can come to the conclusions you seem to have reached in your last two sentences.  Crisis magazine may have a reason for existing quite apart from your assertion. I think it safe to say that reason is to serve the Truth, and in that way, possibly, it will be of service to the Republic.

  • Tony

    Hello Peter — that is a good question.  I don’t reduce Shakespeare to the culture of his time; he is uniquely the man he was, and I think he’s the greatest genius who ever lived.  But even a genius needs material to work with.  His genius is a necessary condition, but not sufficient.  The cultural soil is also a necessary condition, but not sufficient.  Shakespeare was the beneficiary of a wonderful confluence of rambunctious popular drama with centuries of history behind it, and the recovery of a great lot of classical drama and poetry that had been lost in the west.  We can’t produce a Shakespeare because “liberalism,” the philosophy of autonomy condemned by Leo XIII, rules out the context of meaning from the outset.  It’s interesting that a Tolkien could write what he did only by immersing himself in medieval sagas and Scripture and ignoring just about everything au courant, in literature and philosophy.

    I am no cheerleader for “capitalism,” if by that word we denote the chicanery employed by large enterprises to snuff out their competitors and game the system.  If we mean “a free economy,” then that’s no “ism” at all, because it does not imply any particular system.  But we’re far afield here. 

    • Peter Freeman

      I think we agree that no particular critical method has a monopoly on explaining literary production. Looking back at Bauerlein’s piece, though, he described the professor in The Marriage Plot as being an old school critic…which I took to imply either a historicist or New Critic; neither of which really seem apt to describe the kind of arguments he makes about the novel as a genre (which sounds more like a Marxist approach, only with a morally conservative edge).
      I also tend to think that while The Marriage Plot’s argument might apply to higher education, the popular readership isn’t really on board. After all, the “classics” are still being widely read and enjoyed outside of classrooms. Shakespeare and Austen are still as much popular franchises as Game of Thrones and Twilight. I’d wager that (whether through cultural conditioning or a byproduct of natural law) most readers still believe in “ever after” even if the world they know doesn’t legally demand it.
      Anyway, my pet theory in response to the Shakespeare Conundrum has less to do with the ideology of contemporary creative writers and more to do with Shakespeare himself.
      We don’t have a thousand Shakespeares because we already have one–and anybody who is smart enough to appreciate Shakespeare probably feels like one is all we’ll ever need.

      • Tony

        Hello Peter: I hesitate … I think we may underestimate how drastic the collapse of popular culture has been.  It has been pretty much overtaken by mass entertainment, which is a different phenomenon.  If we were to poke around in the popular magazines eighty or ninety years ago — as I’ve done with a few, like Boys’ Life — I think we’d find an allusive richness that is not to be found now.  It wasn’t the case that everybody read Shakespeare then; but it was the case that everybody had a direct experience of poetry then, if only the poetry of folk ballads.  Ordinary Italians used to argue in train cars about the relative merits of this or that prima donna or leading tenor.  And of course everybody was steeped in the story and the words of Scripture.  It wasn’t ideal soil, but it was still pretty good, and it allowed a John Ford to direct How Green Was My Valley (for example), or a Frank Capra to direct You Can’t Take It With You, both of which can only be conceived in a Christian universe.  My hanging around evangelicals (of all people!) for twenty years as a homeschooling father leaves me with the impression that even Christians do not have the verses and the stories of Scripture ringing in their minds.  The “liberal” narrative, too, which celebrates individual autonomy, is a corrosive, a kind of anti-narrative, because it dislocates the person from any web of meanings that relationships (and obedience to God) imply.

        • Professor Esolen,

          One needn’t even go back 80 or 90 years. As one midway through my seventh decade on this orb, I can distinctly recall the sorts of cultural richness that was available to me in the latter 1950s, and it was at that point in time not erased from popular consciousness in society at large to anywhere near the degree it is in the present.

          Pax et bonum,
          Keith Töpfer

          • Tony

            Keith and Peter:

            Peter: It’s not just general allusiveness that’s the issue.  It’s whether we have stories, related to The Story, that inform our imaginations and allow for the kind of broad-ranging meditation upon human good and evil that you get in Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Tolstoy.  I just don’t think so.  Consider what had to be in place for Shakespeare to write King Lear.  There had to be a deep consciousness of scripture and its significance for the individual sinner and the nation, so that when Cordelia says, “O my father, it is thy business I must be about,” people would nearly gasp — and would see, some more profoundly than others, the fitness of it.  It isn’t just that they’d recognize the allusion, but that they were in the constant habit, as a second nature, of relating stories to The Story; so that Cordelia is immediately recognizable as the one who is righteous but rejected.  There had also to be a fair amount of popular awareness of philosophy and theology, most often taken in by attendance at services, but also through more “popular” means, books of prayers, sacred poems, hymns, and just about everything courtly by Spenser and Sidney and such.  There had to be a firm tradition of popular drama, so that audiences would recognize with ease the tempting but vicious character who steals scenes and confides in the audience: Edmund, whose lineage goes back centuries.  Then there had to be a tradition of poetic meter — the tools — to bear the weight of the meditations.  In literary history, drama of a high quality is sporadic and rare …

            Keith: I agree with you.  A case in point: the movie Lilies of the Field.  I am guessing that not one college senior in five would understand what the title means and how it applies to the movie …

        • Peter Freeman

          I might be out of touch with what kids consume these days, but I feel hard-pressed to think of broadly popular, successful works of mass entertainment that directly “celebrate” this kind of “liberal” narrative. I certainly concur that older, successful works in popular media were more likely to appeal to a higher degree of Biblical literacy, but I’m not sure these are the same issue. I can think of countless successful works of mass entertainment that place a high premium on allusion and intertextuality though.
          I’d also suggest that those who value the “liberal” narrative of individual autonomy are as likely to claim Shakespeare as their champion: “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”