Shakespeare and Good Friday

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Good Friday: the beginning of an extraordinary moment in the Christian calendar which remind us of the intense human drama that marked the end of Jesus’s earthly life: profound loneliness, desertion, denial, interrogation by state and religious officials, mockery, beating, and the most painful of deaths.

Easter, and these events that lead up to it, provided a great store of theatrical energies for Shakespeare, many of which were woof and warp to him through his inherited cultural tradition of the medieval mystery or morality plays.

Interestingly, many of the most explicit references to the Easter season are to be found in the history plays, perhaps connected in Shakespeare’s mind to Jesus’s own sense of kingship, and how he understands it to be ‘not of this world’ (John 18:36). So, in Richard II, when Richard is giving away his crown, the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday allusions pile up quickly one after the other. Looking around him for support, Richard finds himself deserted:

‘Yet I well remember
The favours of these men. Were they not mine?
Did they not sometime cry “All hail’ to me?
So Judas did to Christ. But he in twelve
Found truth in all but one; I in twelve thousand, none.’ (Richard II 4.1.158-162)

And a few lines later we hear Richard identifying himself with the events of Good Friday:

‘Nay, all of you that stand and look upon
Whilst that my wretchedness doth bait myself,
Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,
Showing an outward pity, yet you Pilates
Have here delivered me to my sour cross,
And water cannot wash away your sin.’ (Richard II 4.1.227-233).

There are other moments, too, when characters who are facing up to extreme suffering either allude verbally to Jesus’s own suffering, or visually echo it in dramatic terms. I think, for example, of another Richard, the Duke of York being taunted, mocked, and tortured by Queen Margaret on his mole-hill Golgotha in The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry Sixth (Henry VI Part Three). She puts a paper crown on his head and wipes his brow with the blood-stained napkin of his own son (1.4.).

Regan and Cornwall’s mocking of the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear leads to them plucking out his eyes but not before Regan plucks the bound-up Gloucester’s beard. Surely this visual and awful stage-image recalls the words from the prophet Isaiah: ‘I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair’ (Isaiah 50:6). The blinded Gloucester is then thrown out of doors and carries his cross with him until his death in act five. But Gloucester’s suffering is there to parallel Lear’s own. King Lear is the fullest exemplification of Good Friday in the canon, yet it is never specifically alluded to. Here, I think, Shakespeare is using the dramatic energy of the Christian story and re-appropriating it within a Pagan context. His subtle allusions surely shone brightly for his original audience, and are still there for us to appreciate.

But it’s Easter Day itself, and the many dramatic uses of Resurrection, that seem even more to have fuelled his creativity. I’m hoping these will form the basis of my next blog…

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Elizabeth

    But when Edgar sees mad Lear he exclaims: “O side-piercing sight!”, an allusion to Longinus’ lance piercing Christ’s side. And Lear holding dead Cordelia reminds of the many “Pietà” statues and frescoes of Medieval and Renaissance art of Our Lady holding Christ’s body

  • steroids

    prob Britains most famous man.

  • Backlinks

    Nice post, well written, I like what was said here.

  • ajleon

    As always, great post, Paul. 🙂

  • ajleon

    As always, great post, Paul. 🙂

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