On Facebook, I recently mentioned the importance of an article by Leland Ryken on Shakespeare as a Christian writer. I found the article incredibly helpful as I face this semester a Shakespeare professor who very vocally opposes Christianity, and seems to take much pleasure in presenting Shakespeare to his class in this professor’s own anti-Christian image. Well, after finding this article, I decided that I wanted to explore how Shakespeare treats Christian doctrines and themes in the two papers we have the opportunity to write. Below is the first paper of the semester, a preliminary essay in preparation for a more substantial research paper.
The original title was actually, “Christian Worldview and Moral Chaos”, but I like this new one better:
Shakespeare’s Portrayal of George as a Model Christian Convert in Richard III
Shakespeare’s mid-1590s play, Richard the Third, depicts the rise of the play’s namesake to seize the throne of England, as well as his subsequent fall and death. Throughout the miserable circumstances of murders and intrigue in the play, characters routinely must deal with questions of moral judgment and are often confronted by a guilty conscience. Though Shakespeare’s Richard the Third does not present a simple moral message, i.e. that the good live happily while the evil die miserably, there is yet, like an invisible hand throughout the play, a positive affirmation of the Christian worldview regarding morality, future judgment, and redemption through Christ’s blood. This affirmation is made visible through the motif of characters’ struggling with conscience. Those characters one might consider “good” engage their conscience and ultimately heed its warnings, while those characters one might consider “bad” either ignore or suppress the working of their conscience. The positive affirmation of Christian morality, future judgment, and redemption through Christ’s blood are most clearly seen in Shakespeare’s portrayal of George, the Duke of Clarence, as he struggles with his conscience in Act 1, Scene 4.
George, Richard III’s brother and rival heir to the throne, struggles with his conscience in the events leading up to his murder. In this scene, George clearly reveals his own conviction of morality, judgment, and redemption, and this conviction is significant to determine why he responds in the way that he does when the pangs of his conscience begin. In a dream, George is faced with his own guilt for the betrayal of his father-in-law, the Duke of Warwick, and the killing of Prince Edward in battle. He dreams that he is knocked into the water and slowly drowns, his body refusing to let him die. At length, he finds that he has died and is in hell. In the darkness of hell, George finds himself face to face with those two men whom he previously betrayed. Warwick and Edward loudly proclaim how George betrayed them and pass judgment on him, which is promptly carried out by demonic minions. After this, George wakes and begins to consider the import of this dream.
The dream calls up George’s remembrance of past sins, thus acting as an instrument to reveal the guilt of his conscience. The knowledge of what he has done in the murder of Edward, confronts him in this dream as Edward’s ghost says, “Clarence is come, — false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence, / That stabb’d me in the field by Tewksbury; — / Seize on him! Furies, take him unto torment” (1.4.57-59). This confrontation of past sins is not unlike a judge’s verdict of guilt and punishment for a criminal. Whatever the cause of George’s dream may be, there is a recalling of specific details of which he would be keenly aware. His betrayal and his stabbing of Edward at Tewksbury are deeds that he willingly carried out and remembers. The torment ordered by Edward refers to the pains of hell that await all those who die outside of Christ. In his vulnerable, subconscious dream state, George is forced to confront both his sins and the punishment that he knows his sins deserve.
When he wakes, George’s response to his guilty conscience is one of confession and implicit repentance:
Clar. O Brakenbury! I have done these things
That now give evidence against my soul,
For Edward’s sake; and see how he requites me.
O God! if my deep prayers cannot appease thee,
But thou wilt be aveng’d on my misdeeds,
Yet execute thy wrath on me alone:
O! spare my guiltless wife and my poor children.
It is evident from this passage that George believes the dream to be a true account of his sins as well as a prophetic message of his future, and his response is to experience a profound sense of guilt. Rather than ignoring or suppressing the guilt stirred up in his heart, George engages it and responds to it in a typically Christian fashion. He acknowledges the conviction of his conscience, confesses his sins, and prays to God for mercy. George, having committed betrayal and murder, and having nothing worldly to gain for himself through this confession and prayer, models the repentance of sin characteristic of the Christian whose heart has been changed through redemption.
The genuine repentance of George is further communicated to the audience when he pleads, albeit desperately, with the two men who have come to murder him. As he finds out from the men that they come under the command of his brother Richard’s authority, George appeals to their conscience, arguing from the divine authority that trumps even those with great power such as Richard:
I charge you, as you hope to have redemption
By Christ’s dear blood shed for our grievous sins,
That you depart and lay no hands on me;
The deed you undertake is damnable.
In the same way that George’s dream stirred up his own conscience through thoughts of future judgment, George appeals to the conscience of his soon-to-be murderers. He speaks of the damnation that will result from killing him; the torments of his dream probably still fresh on his mind. The assumed knowledge here is that the deed is damnable because it breaks God’s law. A couple lines later, George reinforces this by speaking of God hurling vengeance “upon their heads that break his law” (1.4.170). Clearly George is arguing for his own benefit, so that he will not die, but the fact that his argument is consistent with Christian moral thinking, combined with the fact of his prior repentance of his own sins, provides evidence that his appeal to Biblical teaching is genuine and from conviction.
In fact, he does not stop at the coming judgment, but appeals to the conscience of the murderers based on their hope for redemption through Christ’s blood. The incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of the God-man, Christ Jesus, to redeem his people from their sins is the central defining aspect of the Christian faith and gospel (c.f. Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:13-20). When George bases his appeal to conscience not only on the language of law and judgment, but also of Christ and redemption, he is appealing to the deepest convictions of Christian faith. So, in his plea before the murderers, George provides for them the knowledge of how heinous the deed is that they are about to commit, what the punishment is for that deed, and how the performance of that deed constitutes a rejection of the gracious love of God in Christ that is central to Christian faith.
Yet, for all this, he is stabbed and dumped in a wine cask to die. This speaks to the complexity of Shakespeare’s treatment of the moral issues that surround his characters in Richard the Third. Even though the cause of “good” ultimately conquers the cause of “evil”, Shakespeare does not present the audience with a simplistic story where good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Yet, for all the interaction of sin, redemption, living, and dying, the audience still has a sense of which characters may generally be described as “good guys” and “bad guys”. Characters and events in Shakespeare, as well as in real life situations, are not simplistic, but they still may be generally assessed. By the Christian standards Shakespeare uses, the penitent George is ultimately portrayed on the side of right. He is a “good guy” both for the repentance of his sins and for his opposition to the evil cause of Richard the Third. It is true that George’s earlier betrayal and killing actually worked in favor of Richard’s scheming, and it is true that George dies early in the play. However, George dies having repented of his earlier deeds, and he dies in opposition, albeit passive opposition, to the murderous intent of Richard’s plot. George was faced with a crisis of conscience, and he heeded the warnings of that conscience.
Richard the Third is a long, complex play, and in it, Shakespeare does not exhibit a simplistic attitude towards “good” and “bad” characters. There are many interactions between characters, and, with perhaps the exception of Richard himself, none of them is either fully good or fully bad. Many horrible events occur throughout the course of the play, both to those that deserve punishment and those that are innocent, even to the point that the early printed editions of the play were classified as “Tragedie” instead of “History” as we might call them today. Yet, George with his heeding of conscience is portrayed generally in a positive light, as a “good guy” of sorts. The Christian convictions of sin, judgment, and redemption through Christ’s blood are also portrayed in a positive light, vicariously in and through the character and interactions of George in Act 1, Scene 4. Through all the tragic events in the play, these convictions come on hard times, but in the defeat of Richard, they are ultimately portrayed as on the side of justice and goodness.
Shakespeare, William. Delphi Complete Works of William Shakespeare LITE (Illustrated). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition. 2013.