Mistrust might be too strong a word, but there was always a youthful rebellious streak in me (Catholic-educated in what was at the time a pretty Catholic town), pushing against what I increasingly viewed as the bastard child of The Party in Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four and a medieval Ponzi scheme. The Catholic hierarchy increasingly personified notions of hypocritical middle-men, ‘eternal life’ assurance brokers, gatekeepers against the hereafter who would feed on the poor, vulnerable and frightened, whilst actually allowing anyone through, if the price was right.
Finally, I officially ‘fell out’ with God in a completely predictable spat – over bureacracy, not the Bible; red tape, not redemption; compliance, not communion …
Occasionally, I wonder idly what sort of relationship I might have had with God had I been born a Protestant: religion is, after all, largely an accident of birth, which is another reason I can’t take its impositions too seriously.
Most of the time, though, I’m thinking about how the Christian denominations (of all flavours) achieved and maintained power and influence, and the Church’s ongoing relationship with the Crown during Shakespeare’s era and the historical times he wrote about. (And to that end, I probably have to thank my Catholic education for a thorough grounding in doctrine: Religion and History are easily the two most useful subjects when it comes to English Literature of the Early Modern Period.)
Stephen Greenblatt‘s essay on ‘invisible bullets’ takes a leisurely, meandering course – springing cold and lively from the charges of atheism levelled against Marlowe, through the rapids of the exploration of the New World until pooling softly in Henry IV and Henry V. What I do sense throughout it, and which I didn’t really focus enough on recently when I read The Prince, is an underlying tension between Machiavelli and the Catholic church. The subject deserves more than just a couple of marginalia.
Why? Because Machiavelli largely posits the Church as a useful tool; a life of unremitting virtue as a fool’s errand; piety (and in this I would include religious observance and respect for the church) as a gaudy costume to be seen out in and then to shrug off in favour of something more comfortable in the comfort of your home.
The Prince is – in many ways – an atheist textbook for rulers …
Here’s Greenbatt on the subject:
‘Machiavelli’s writings are important, for The Prince observes in its bland way that if Moses’s particular actions and methods are examined closely, they do not appear very different from those employedby the great pagan princes, while the Discourses treat religion as if its primary function were not salvation but the achievement of civic discipline and hence as if its primary justification were not truth but expediency.’ [a]
‘We have then, as in Machiavelli, a sense of religion as a set of beliefs manipulated by the subtlety of priests to help ensure social order and cohesion […] the very core of […] Machiavellian anthropology that posited the origin of religion in a cunning imposition of socially coersive doctrines by an educated and sophisticated lawgiver upon a simple people.’
Let’s connect this specifically to some of the plays – here are a few random observations, to finish off:
Richard II – specifically challenges the notion of divine right (and it’s worth remembering the Bishop of Carlisle’s outburst when Bolingbroke tries to assume it: ‘In God’s name, I’ll ascend the regal crown‘ [b] is the trigger for some real venom – because it challenges the church’s authority – and remarkably, Carlisle is apprehended for ‘treason’ as a result
1 Henry IV – Bolingbroke knows that he is on the road to hell, having commissioned a regicide, and tries to pave it over with the good intentions of a penitential crusade, announced at the end of the previous play. It’s destined, of course, never to happen – think of it as an ‘aspiration’ rather than anything else (when I come to read-through the play, I’ll also touch on his ‘Machiavellian’ treatment of his former allies
Henry V – the opening of the play neatly illustrates the schism between Church and Crown, and the former’s willingness to provoke international conflict rather than take a heavy hit of taxation which would ‘drink the cup and all’. The play is also remarkable for the off-hand ‘miracles are ceased’, which I have always viewed in the most jaundiced possible way. Henry also feels he can bribe God on the night before Agincourt – that’s the Catholic way, right?
Richard III – Richard is quite generally labelled as Machiavellian for his plotting. For the purposes of this post, I want to linger on how he uses religion as that dazzling, reassuring overcoat, swearing ‘by St Paul’ at every opportunity and never forgetting the role of religion in that wonderful play-within-a-play, when he and Buckingham conspire to secure Richard the popular acclaim he needs to become king
Henry VI – let’s not forget that the most pious of the History Cycle’s kings was probably the least effective. He was too nice, inside and out, and was therefore gobbled up by his wife and nobles, as Machiavelli predicts, and finally
Henry VII – obviously and almost nauseatingly wears that religious cloak to explain his usurpation of Richard III, right? Or is my bias showing?
[a] Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Invisible Bullets: Renaissance authority and its subversion, Henry IV and Henry V‘ in Jonathan Dollmore and Alan Sinfield (eds.), Political Shakespeare: essays in cultural materialism (second edition), (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1994)
[b] lines from Shakespeare’s plays taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org