Baring the Breast of Shakespeare

Eric Mallin's book "Godless Shakespeare" includes very revealing commentary about the Last Supper scene in Titus Andronicus:

"Claims of Shakespeare's Catholic sympathies could do with some adjustment when it comes to this play ... The Last Supper is parodied, made gristly through a banquet sequence that concludes the play. In Titus Andronicus, that meal importantly recounts elements of the Eucharist, including the pivotal claim about the real presence of Christ [in the sacraments of Communion] ..." (p 35)

This scene in Titus Andronicus mocks the raging theological debate over whether Christ is present in the bread and wine of Communion, as well as the cycles of violence that had taken place between Catholic and Protestant factions over this and other equally ridiculous points. Mallin states, "Though Titus [Andronicus] does not translate with neat entirety into an anti-Catholic screed, neither does it, with its horrific literalism and dismal martyrdom, plausibly endorse any faith." Instead, he concludes, "The play has simply been waiting for its atheist moment". (p 39)

This last assertion comes across as a bit extreme, however as was demonstrated by the analysis of Midsummer Night's Dream, the atheism of ancient Athens (in turned modeled after that of Akhenaten's Amarna) would have been one of the elements emulated in Tudor England. And the spirit within the spirit of the Renaissance was in fact one of Humanism based on the revival of Classical (pre-Christian, i.e., "Pagan") learning. Humanism (glorification of the human, especially the royal human as heirs of the gods) had long been the spirit of "the holy family", who were both the "authors and finishers of faith". In other words, they brought religions into the world and could also take them out. The Shakespeare plays offer a penetrating view into the belief system of these earthly powers and their private world where nothing was sacred other than self-preservation of the ruling prerogative.

Mallin also makes a number of critical observations about the character Aaron. For example, "Aaron, the lone major character absent from the unholy meal of the Andronici, rises above the derangements of belief". As a nominal Moor/Muslim, Aaron has nothing but scorn for "popish tricks and ceremonies" and other Christian fetishes. Aaron is however no Muslim role model (or exemplary atheist for that matter), and he also appears as psychotic as his Roman and Goth associates, if not more so.

As noted previously, the founding of Islam was at least in part the reaction of a Byzantine ruler named Heraclius (!) to the insane bickering of Eastern/Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy over theological concerns, particularly the nature of Christ. There was no debate in Islam about whether Christ was human, divine, or some combination of both. Islamic/Moorish figures are given equal status in Shakespeare. Their denigration reflects common national rivalries and prejudices rather than a sense of innate superiority from the royal perspective.

Review of "Godless Shakespeare":

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