Heretic’s Foundation V: Shakespeare’s Spoofs of the Virgin Mary



By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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The Virgin Mary has been getting around a lot in recent years, appearing in the griddle of a Mexican restaurant, in a patch of damp on the concrete of a motorway underpass, even in a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that 400 years ago she also “appeared” in the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, since it is generally thought that the Man from Stratford was a practicing Catholic. We should be utterly astonished, however, that when the Virgin Mary “appears,” it is in situations even less salubrious than partly munched food. The allegorical depictions of the Virgin Mary in the plays are not merely bad taste, they are scathing, even shocking parodies of the most sacred Christian doctrines.

At the time, the encoding of underlying allegorical meanings in plays was a conventional literary technique. It was used, for example, in the allegorical theater of John Lyly. Queen Elizabeth, in her comments on Richard II, recognized that the author was making a contemporary allegorical reference to her, while lecturer-critic Gabriel Harvey noted obliquely that the Shakespearean plays contained secret meanings that would only be recognized by “the wiser sort.”

The same allegorical technique is used in the plays to depict the Virgin Mary. For instance, several plays depict the Annunciation, that picturesque account of an angel appearing to Mary and telling her she would conceive a child through the Holy Ghost. In Romeo and Juliet, the nurse’s name is Angelica, which in herbal medicine is the root of the Holy Ghost. The Nurse addresses Juliet as a “lady-bird” (1.3.3), an established symbol for the Virgin Mary; the account of Juliet being weaned is derived from the account of the Virgin Mary being presented in the Temple at the age of 3, as it appears in the Infancy Gospel of James. This same apocryphal account that mentions Mary being a dove and dancing with her feet may have led to the dance scene in which Romeo calls her “a snowy dove trooping with crows” (1.5.48). The Nurse’s scene also occurs on St. Anne’s Day. St. Anne was the mother of the Virgin Mary. Finally, the Nurse refers to Susan (which in Hebrew is Susannah, meaning a lily, the standard symbol of the Annunciation), and that she is ‘with God’ — or in Hebrew, ‘Emmanuel,’ referring to the prophecy in the Gospel of Matthew that a virgin shall conceive a baby. The Nurse addresses Juliet/Mary as “God mark thee to his grace” (1.3.59), echoing the traditional address of Mary as being full of grace. Taken as a whole, it appears that the Nurse’s scene is a comic parody of the Annunciation which this virgin comically wants to refuse!

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The Annunciation scene in Othellois more attenuated: one has to notice the references to a messenger coming from Signior Angelo and letters to Marcus Luccicos (referring perhaps to the gospels of Mark and Luke) all taking place at the same moment it is rumored that a virgin is having sex. Later, however, there are direct connotations of the worship of Mary when Desdemona is addressed by kneeling men (“Hail to thee, lady!”) and surrounded with heavenly grace.

The most blatant Annunciation parody is in Hamlet. Ophelia is twice interrupted, once while reading, the other time while sewing, which were the two traditional ways the Virgin Mary was shown in Renaissance art being interrupted by the angel of the Annunciation. Hamlet warns that Ophelia may conceive if exposed too much to the sun; he compares her to the way the carcass of a dead dog can generate maggots in the sun by a “God kissing carrion.” This revolting image was used by Christian theologian Alanus de Insulis as a way of explaining how Mary might have conceived Jesus by supernatural means. A less repulsive image of the Annunciation in Renaissance art was that Mary conceived Christ, while remaining a virgin, in the same way sunbeams pass through a glass window. In the play, Hamlet, as the son of Hyperion, represents Helios the sun god, and he bends the light of his eyes/sunbeams to Ophelia without looking away, even while he walks out of the room. In Hamlet’s behavior, such as holding his head, there are parallels to the account in the Infancy Gospel of James of how Joseph behaved when he found out his wife was mysteriously pregnant.

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To understand the overall allegory being made, we need to look at what happens to the characters next. In the case of Desdemona, the men of Cyprus fall on their knees to her, saying “Hail to thee, lady” (2.1.84) as an equivalent of a ‘Hail Mary’; her handkerchief is embroidered with strawberries — the Virgin Mary’s emblem— not in the source text. This is perhaps why there are references to the “divine Desdemona” (2.1.73), “full of the most blest condition” (2.1.247), with a “blest disposition” (2.3.315) who acts as an intermediary or intercessor and engages in religious exercises of “fasting and prayer” and “exercise devout” (3.4.40-1) and is “heavenly true” (5.3.133). She is a virgin nun or “votarist” (4.2.190) that kneels and prays (4.2.23), a chaste virgin like Diana (3.3.390), deceived by charms, including fantastic stories and the gift of the handkerchief.

Audiences might also recognize Desdemona as a dying Christ figure who dies a guiltless death (5.2.121), saying “Commend me to my good Lord” (5.2.122) — a plea similar to that made by the dying Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Her death is described in Christological terms as a “sacrifice” (5.2.65), and associated with a “bloody passion” (5.2.44), which are allusions to the crucifixion story. Before her death, she recites the Eucharistic prayer Kyrie eleison — ‘Lord have mercy on me.’ Her life is snuffed out like a candle on Holy Saturday, the day in which church ritual candles are snuffed out, because it is the day in which Christ lay in the tomb with a handkerchief over his face, waiting to be resurrected. The gospel reading for the day is “when Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child by the Holy Ghost.” So it would therefore appear that Desdemona not only represents the Virgin Mary, she represents the Virgin Mary pregnant with Jesus; she is killed by her husband a few minutes before Easter Sunday, so there can be no resurrection.

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Even blacker humor appears in Hamlet. When Ophelia appears with all her flowers, a careful analysis in an article “Ophelia’s Herbal” shows almost all these flowers are emmenagogues, meaning they cause abortion/menstruation. Why? Presumably that is what she has been using them for. The research has been repeated by several scholars, including in Erik Rosencrantz Bruun’s article “As Your Daughter May Conceive” (1993) and Maurice Hunt’s article “Impregnating Ophelia” (2005). There has been at least one production, directed by Darko Tresnjak at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2007, that showed Ophelia being visibly pregnant.

Until now, to my knowledge, no theater company has taken the next logical step of showing the allegorical Virgin Mary aborting the baby Jesus, then falling off the branch and hanging suspended between earth and heaven, singing Psalms, and wearing a coronet before falling into the “glassy” brook — which presumably reflected the sky — as a parody of her Assumption into heaven. She would presumably take with her the virgin ‘crants’ (5.1.225), a rare expression that echoes the name Rosenkrantz, or rosary, which in popular legend was created by the Virgin Mary.

Later this year the Dark Lady Players will stage an experimental and, I hope, controversial New York production in which the full, horrific implications of the Virgin Mary allegory in all these plays will be brought out on stage. Ophelia, for example, will be equipped with puppet maggots.

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This work will thus raise a profound question: Why would a recusant Catholic like the Man from Stratford write such shocking anti-Christian parodies? Surely their existence is one more indication — like the comic parody of the crucifixion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — that the plays may have been written by someone else, a someone who is certainly not a Christian. In Elizabethan England, that narrows the field down considerably.

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John Hudsonis a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.