Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. It was here that William Shakespeare was baptized, and later buried on April 23, 1616. As many around the English-speaking world will be celebrating ‘the Bard’ this coming week on the 400th anniversary of his death, I thought it appropriate to explore how his life and work might deepen our understanding of the gospel today.
To set the context for Shakespeare, our sung music will include ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ and ‘Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life’, as well as organ music ‘Clarifica Me Pater’ by contemporaries William Kethe, George Herbert and William Byrd. I will focus upon his Sonnet #146.
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Why feed’st these rebel powers that thee array?
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
As with so many of his works for the stage, whether of comedy, history or tragedy, Shakespeare’s sonnets present our human frailties and failures with amazing perception and deep sympathy. This particular sonnet speaks movingly of our innate human yearning for something ‘more’ – the poet speaks of mortality but also of the ‘soul’, and points to life after death.
The yearning is real and universal, but ultimately delusive. The grave is the end of human life, body and soul … were it not for gospel of the resurrection of Christ and of Christian. With skill, beauty, and honesty, Shakespeare invites us to think about living in the light of eternity, where ‘there’s no more dying then’. And in so doing, he brings us directly to the grace of God in Christ and to Christian faith and life – ‘But thankes be vnto God, which hath giuen vs victorie through our Lord Iesus Christ. Therefore my beloued brethren, be ye stedfast, vnmoueable, aboundant alwayes in the worke of the Lord, forasmuch as ye knowe that your labour is not in vaine in the Lord‘ (I Corinthians 15:57 as found in the most popular English translation of the Bible during Shakespeare’s life and for a century afterward, the Genevan Bible).
And this may explain why we may pick up a volume or see a play of Shakespeare occasionally, but we gather at the beginning of every week in praise of God! Join us if you are in the area this Sunday. There is free parking along the streets around and in the city lot just behind the church off Queen Street. During the service there is a nursery offered for children, and a programme for children. And consider the announcements of the weekly congregational bulletin as personal invitations to join us fellowship and study as well as worship.