A short and intriguing book, Piero Boitani’s The Gospel According to Shakespeare is written by a major scholar for everybody: for scholars, for non-scholars, for us all. It is a fine book, and its intriguing quality is that the reader keeps wondering if Boitani can pull it off. Can he establish, with scholarly care, that there really is a “Gospel according to Shakespeare”?
To make his case, Boitani, professor of comparative literature at the University of Rome (“La Sapienza”), argues that Shakespeare in his last works—two tragedies and four late romances—“is meditating on providence, on forgiveness, and on goodness and happiness, and is doing so in Christian terms.” After six short, clear and lively chapters on “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” (each begins with a helpful plot-summary), Boitani concludes that Shakespeare’s late plays “constitute his good news, his Gospel,” a final “testament that is truly his: the New Testament of William Shakespeare.” In arguing his case, Boitani goes from Hamlet’s echo of Matthew’s Gospel in “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” to Prospero’s rewrite of the “Our Father” as he ends “The Tempest,” “As you from crimes would pardoned be/ Let your indulgence set me free.”
Perhaps I can best introduce Boitani’s Gospel by first describing his methodology—his framework of thinking—then by showing its use through examples. Boitani describes his book as “meditating” on “movements” as happiness, relationships, revelations, reconciliations, epiphanies, apocalypses, suffering, death, endurance, purification and fulfillment. In these meditations Jesus, Job, the Gospels and the Scriptures hover in the background, for Boitani holds that “Shakespeare...always approached the Bible obliquely.”
In these six late plays the broad themes come alive in dramatic and specific terms through multiple Gospel and scriptural parallels, allusions, even quotations. I take my examples first from the two tragedies. Besides young Hamlet’s mention of “the fall of a sparrow,” he earlier spoke of a “consummation/ Devoutly to be wished,” which Boitani finds a reflection of Christ’s “consummatum est” —“It is finished”—in John’s Gospel. Then King Lear’s loss of everything resembles Job’s “tragedy of evil and suffering,” as Lear on the heath (like Jesus in Gethsemane) at first wants only to “pray and then...sleep” but suddenly has a change of heart, sympathizes with the “poor naked wretches” who are homeless and hungry, and in pelting rain wants only to “expose” himself—rip off his clothes—“to feel what wretches feel,” with Gospel-like generosity and “charity.” Then near the end, as Lear and his daughter Cordelia prepare for prison, he tells her they will “pray and sing” and “take upon us the mystery of things,/ As if we were God’s spies.” In this scene, writes Boitani, “the Gospel according to Shakespeare takes its first form...as Lear and Cordelia resemble the Christ who takes upon himself the evil of the world.”
The four romances expand this Gospel. In “Pericles,” the hero, like Lear, loses everything but “speaks like the Scriptures and feeds the hungry,” and becomes “the ‘meek’ of the Gospels, of the Sermon on the Mount.” In “Cymbeline,” set in pagan Britain at the time of Christ’s birth and life, death and rebirth dominate the whole play, as “a new light shines on existence,” Jupiter’s appearance “is a theodicy,” and Imogen “is divineness.” In “The Winter’s Tale,” the main theme is resurrection: Paulina uses the words faith and redeem about Hermione’s statue coming to life, and, writes Boitani, this and other “parables” “preach, in feminine mode...the resurrection of the flesh.” Finally, in “The Tempest,” Prospero becomes a Christ-figure, “the god who makes himself man,” and shows “a moral grandeur out of the ordinary...that transcends human ethics, as if it were that of a Christ who takes upon himself the sin of the world.” In these ways, Boitani finds “profound links between these plays” which lead him “to follow the development of such links...in this book.” Shakespeare’s “larger vision” in these plays thus becomes “theological,” and the “final scenes of [his] romances” offer “a plenitude—a grace—that is found only in the Gospels (and particularly in those of John and Luke) within the post-Resurrection scenes.”
I greatly enjoyed reading The Gospel According to Shakespeare. Though not a Shakespeare scholar, I have taught his plays, and I have seen them staged in Philadelphia, Washington, New York, and—best of all—London, at the Old Vic, the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe. I remember four London stagings with special delight: years ago at the Old Vic, Laurence Olivier’s famous blackface “Othello” and a ferociously funny “Much Ado about Nothing”; more recently, at Shakespeare’s Globe, a luminous “Henry V” and “King Lear.” Enriching all these stagings, Boitani showed me Shakespeare’s sense of transcendence; his creativity, imagination and art; his love of recognition scenes and of forgiveness; and his deep knowledge of the Gospel and of Scripture that resonates with care for his characters, events and phrases. The breadth, the complex linkings and the fresh “angle of approach” made this book, for me, epiphanic and unforgettable, as if I lived in a world of peace, joy, reconciliation and Christian wisdom.
So yes, Boitani did pull it off. There really is a “Gospel according to Shakespeare” in these six plays, and Boitani explains it with clarity and elegance. Shakespeare will be richer for me after this warm and insightful study of his new “Gospel.”