When most of us think of Shakespeare we don’t immediately connect him with the saints.
We might think of the play Sir Thomas More, on which he collaborated with other contemporary playwrights and which was banned during his lifetime for its volatile pro-Catholic perspective.
We might connect him with the positive portrayal of Edward the Confessor in Macbeth or the less-than-positive portrayal of Joan of Arc in the first part of Henry VI. In the former case, he shows Edward as the perfect exemplar of the Christian King in contrast to the malevolent and maniacal Macbeth, who serves as an exemplar of the Machiavellian “Prince”; in the latter case, he adopts the contemporary English view of the French heroine as a heretic, which is not, as many critics like to claim, an indication of the Bard’s anti-Catholicism.
On the contrary, the negative view of the Maid of Orléans was held universally by almost all Englishmen when almost all Englishmen were Catholic; it was part of the national mythos to demonize the weird woman whom the French idolized. For the English, Joan was more like a witch than a martyred saint. (How else could burning her alive be justified in the patriotic imagination?) With regard to Joan of Arc and Thomas More, we should also remember that neither of them would be canonized until the 20th century, 400 years after Shakespeare had shuffled off this mortal coil. He was, therefore, not writing about acknowledged saints but about historic personages, one of whom he clearly revered and the other of whom he apparently didn’t.
Another saint who makes an appearance in Shakespeare’s plays, at least allusively, is St. Francis. He is present in the depiction of holy Friars, such as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing, Friars Laurence and Patrick in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and by several Franciscan friars and Poor Clare sisters in Measure for Measure. In the last of these, arguably the most overtly Catholic of Shakespeare’s plays, its having been written during a brief respite in the persecution of Catholics that followed the accession of James I, we are introduced to Isabella, a saintly Poor Clare novice, who rivals Cordelia and Portia as an icon of idealized femininity.
St. Francis also makes an almost ubiquitous if ghostly appearance in King Lear. He is seen in the holy poverty of Poor Tom, whose singing of a Franciscan ballad accompanies his words of counter-intuitive and paradoxical wisdom, and he is present most dramatically in Lear’s stripping of his garments on the heath, the King’s shameless nakedness emulating St. Francis’ own shedding of his clothes to announce to the world his marriage to Lady Poverty.
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