Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 7th Aug 2016 10:00am
Description

The Reverend Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Research, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

For Shakespearians from all over the world, this has been an extraordinary week. Seven hundred of us have descended on Stratford-upon-Avon and London in this, the quatercentenary year of Shakespeare's death. Many of us are here this morning. We've been attending the World Shakespeare Congress, a major gathering, organised by the International Shakespeare Association, that takes place every five years in a different country. Our theme has been 'Creating and Re-creating Shakespeare'. We have heard and thought about his influence on artistic endeavour, and how his works are re-created in successive generations.

It was with amazement and delight that, having being invited to preach, I noticed the readings set for this morning's service. The Psalm we heard a moment ago, Psalm 115, is the psalm that King Henry V, buried in this very Abbey, asks his soldiers to sing after the Battle of Agincourt. They are exhausted, relieved, and awe-struck in the face of bloodshed. Their King commands: 'Let there be sung Non Nobis and Te Deum.' The Te Deum we have also just heard. 'Non Nobis': 'Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give the praise.' We do not praise ourselves, but something greater than ourselves.

On Tuesday, the Congress heard from the actor Adrian Lester, himself a memorable Henry V. He confessed the following: 'Here's my thing', he said, 'we do not know who we are', and he went on to explain how Shakespeare demonstrates that we can only know ourselves in relationship, and moment by moment.

'Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?' That line from one of the greatest love poems ever written, the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, reminds us of ourselves in relationship, ourselves at our best, when we experience an overwhelming of love, leaning on our beloved, coming up out of the wilderness. It is love that shows us who we are, and moment by moment. And the love song continues:

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm, for love is strong as death; jealousy cruel as the grave […] Many waters can not quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would be utterly contemned.

Shakespeare, of course, is a great writer on love, and in many forms: familial, romantic, erotic, and selfless. Whether he is depicting a king who gives away his crown; a prince who is visited by his father's ghost; love which challenges expectations; murderers or clowns; jealous husbands or loyal wives; prostitutes or puritans; buffoons or bumpkins; pedants or prisoners; war heroes, magicians, drunkards, shepherds, soldiers, servants - or a bear - Shakespeare looks upon individuals and finds in them the glories of existence. 'Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live', says the broken braggart Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well (4. 3, 339-340). 'Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?' Whoever it is, Shakespeare, like the writer of the Song of Songs, is always on the side of life, and love. Shakespeare's art sees the world with the eyes of love, and people just as they are, with a passionate particularity.

Love, says the Lord Biron, in Love's Labour's Lost, adds 'a precious seeing to the eye' (Love's Labour's Lost 4. 3. 310). And he continues:

Love's feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockled snails.
(Love's Labour's Lost 4. 3. 313-314).

Love is as vulnerable, sensitive and particular as the horns of a snail. We've just heard Psalm 115. We're now going to hear the Shakespearian actor John Heffernan read Shakespeare's Sonnet 115.

Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million'd accidents
Creep in 'twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp'st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas! why, fearing of Time's tyranny,
Might I not then say, 'Now I love you best,'
When I was certain o'er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Love is a babe, then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow?

The sonnet we've just heard reminds us of our longing always to renew the love we feel for others. And, even when we think we've done so, we realise the limitations of our efforts:

Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
E'en those that said I could not love you dearer.

'Now I love you best', we might think, we might feel – here, in this moment, now, 'crowning the present, doubting of the rest'. And then Shakespeare arrives at his disarming conclusion: 'Love is a babe'.

The Christian message tells us that if we want to know what God is like, then one way is to think about the babe, the homeless, and soon-to-be-refugee babe, Jesus, newly-born, vulnerable, and lying in an ordinary, but particular manger in Bethlehem. Love is a babe, and we know, don't we, deep down, that our feelings of love are particular to each and every one of us. We are dependent on each other to feel secure, for happiness, for love, to know who we are: 'who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?'

And earlier this week we heard from the Jewish novelist, Howard Jacobson, whose latest book is a re-telling of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. The Jewish Ghetto in Venice happens to be five hundred years old this year. Last week, I was one of two thousand people who saw a production of The Merchant of Venice, performed in the Ghetto itself. We were reminded about Jewish persecution, but also about how the Jews who lived, and still live, there have made the Ghetto their own. But in the particular persecution of Shakespeare's unfortunate Shylock, we also find a warning that is keen and urgent for our own troubled times. Religious and xenophobic persecution seem like a new, international plague. But, 'Love is a babe' – it crowns the moment – and, if we truly trust and live this, then, even at the ending of the world, writes St Peter in that letter we heard from, we can expect to see 'new heavens and a new earth.'

In a moment, when we lay a wreath for Shakespeare in Poets' Corner, we'll hear Dame Janet Suzman read from The Tempest, Prospero's apocalyptic lines about even 'the great Globe itself' dissolving, and leaving not a rack behind. 'We are such stuff / As dreams are made on', Prospero says, 'and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.' (The Tempest 4.1.156-8). And we all go to sleep expecting and hoping to wake again. Our sleep, like our loving, is particular for each one of us, and we awake each time to what Shakespeare in The Tempest calls a 'brave new world.'

Like Shakespeare, we love in the particular; this is part of what he, like the writer of the Song of Songs, reflects back to us. And our love continues, even for the dead. In his novel, Howard Jacobson depicts Shakespeare's persecuted Jew, Shylock, as grieving for his wife, Leah. 'When she was no longer there to speak to him', Jacobson writes, ' it was as if a chord had been severed.' So, Jacobson's Shylock speaks to his dead wife at her graveside. When I listen to those who are grieving, they often tell me that they speak to their dead loved ones. I reassure them: keep on talking to your loved ones, and especially in the ordinariness of life, pegging out the washing, sweeping the path, parking the car. 'Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?'

Shakespeare is justly famous for being one of the most humane, inclusive, challenging, brave, and sensitive of writers. And he is there to encourage people of all faiths – and none – to see and think better, to feel more deeply. That is why we are commemorating Shakespeare today, in this Abbey. We want to honour him, so we will lay a wreath for him on behalf of the millions of people who love him. Shakespeare can thrive in cultures very different to his own; he is understood and loved because of his great and generous heart.

If Shakespeare had died in London it is likely he would have been buried in Poets' Corner (as was his contemporary, the playwright Francis Beaumont in the March of 1616, and later his friend, Ben Jonson, in twenty-one years later). As we praise God, we also honour William Shakespeare in the 400th year of his death. We continue to love him, and we'll continue to talk and, through his works, to listen to him, a saint among all the dead who, our faith tells us, are all saints, and with whom we are in a mystical communion, the communion of saints. And we'll continue to love all those who have died, with whom, at the end of our own lives, 'rounded with a sleep', we shall join in sleep, and let our God, who is love, take care of the rest: 'Non Nobis': 'Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give the praise.' Amen.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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