This week I had opportunity to attend a live performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was wonderful, which was to be expected (it’s my favourite Shakespearian play). This performance was wonderfully done, perhaps one of the best I’ve seen.
There was a child sitting behind me, and while very well behaved, he did (quietly) ask his mother a number of questions throughout the performance. She would whisper back a response, all so the boy could better understand what was happening. One of their interactions jostled me out of Elsinore, and stayed with me the rest of the play. During the gravedigging scene, when Cain and Abel are referenced, the boy asked:
to which his mother replied:
“I don’t know.”
It made me realise just how much I take for granted my religious education and general knowledge.
Anyone who has seen or read Hamlet knows the multitude of religious references, both obvious and subtle. I would not necessarily be surprised if an average theatre-goer could not identify some of the scriptural quotations or more nuanced references to biblical themes. However, the more obvious connections are evident throughout the play; indeed throughout so much of Shakespeare’s works. Prayer is regular, sins and sacraments are regularly mentioned, underlying themes include forgiveness, judgement, heaven and hell.
The religious themes which would have been well-understood in Shakespeare’s time can no longer be assumed to be comprehensible to today’s theatre-going audience. Even when it is obvious; Claudius’ failed confession without penance, Ophelia denied a Christian burial, the Nunnery scene; all conveying a secret message to those who understand the context.
There is much beauty and depth of Shakespeare’s work which depends on a basic knowledge of religion. The staging for this particular performance emphasized religion’s role; there were several scenes in a chapel, and Polonius was not just advisor but priest to the royal household.
It is not just Shakespeare who bases much in the presumption of religious knowledge; so much of our arts have been inspired by the scriptures; painting, sculpture, music, dance, poetry, plays. One need not look far (nor too far back in history!) to find religious connections in the arts; yet one does need to know what they’re looking at if they’re to understand it.
As such, I now wonder about our society: are we biblically and religiously illiterate? Are we to lose the meaning and benefit of centuries of art because we do not know the most basic of biblical narratives? Is it possible to reverse this trend, and if so, how?