Heretic’s Foundation IX: What Does Harry Potter Have to Do with Shakespeare?


Potter vs. Jesus
By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

Since J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series began, there has been major opposition from those who see satanic subtexts in her world of witchcraft and magic. Opponent have made it their business to ban Rowling’s books from schools and libraries, making them some of the most controversial literature of the still-young 21st century. There’s even an entire Wikipedia entry dedicated to the religious response to Harry Potter. However, those who see in them the instruments of Satan received a severe blow in October 2007 when Rowling herself clearly indicated she had written the books as a Christian allegory.

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This really should not have been a surprise, for the allegorical content was blatantly obvious. Lisa Miller, in an article in Newsweek, found the clearest evidence in Harry walking voluntarily to his death, after which he encounters a father figure at King’s Cross, and then returns from death. In a long article for a website, Abigail BeauSeigneur argued that the great magician Harry Potter is an allegory for Christ, that “Rowling is telling an allegorical gospel.” Whereas the Christ figure is imagined as having a halo or nimbus, Harry Potter has a broomstick named nimbus. Whereas Jesus was supposedly holy, Harry Potter has a wand made out of holly (and it repels evil). Harry Potter’s most powerful spell (“expecto patronum”) is Latin for “I look for a protector” and generates a stag, which as BeauSigneur notes is a traditional symbol of Christ. Like Christ, Harry Potter clearly fights against the powers of evil and demons/dementors. Both began in humble circumstance — Harry Potter, in the first book, sleeps in a broom closet, equivalent to a stable. Jesus was born to Mary, who was associated with a lily, the symbol of the Annunciation; Harry Potter’s mother’s name was Lily. Dumbledore — which comes from the Old English word for ‘bee’ — is, like the bee, a symbol of wisdom and possibly a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

I find it encouraging that the world’s most popular author uses allegorical religious symbolism. Even more interesting is that we have an extremely rich, living author who writes wildly popular allegorical books that are utterly misread and not understood by her fans. As one article noted,

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“If J.K. Rowling intends her Harry Potter books to be Christian allegories and to communicate basic Christian messages to her readers, then the complaints of the Christian Right are about as wrong as they could be. One might be able to argue that Rowling isn’t doing a very good job at communicating Christian messages, such that she is too easily misunderstood.”

Yet the allegories are simple and straightforward. They are perfectly clear to anyone with a good knowledge of English literature and the Bible, which 50 years ago, in England at least, could be taken for granted. Today, unfortunately, the general public does not have that knowledge, let alone an ability to engage in allegorical and intertextual reading. They cannot see an allegory when it stares them in the face because they have neither the background nor the skills to do so. Writing on one of the nation’s ultra-conservative websites in 2007, media personality Jerry Bowyer put his finger on it in an article titled “Harry Potter and the Fire Breathing Fundamentalists”:

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“so much of the religious right failed to see the Christianity in the Potter novels because it knows so little Christianity itself….the gospel stories themselves, the various metaphors and figures….are largely unknown to vast swaths of American Christendom, including its leaders.”

And this brings us to Shakespeare. Here, too, we have a writer with a voluminous output who offers a surface that is brilliant, captivating and disguises a religious allegory underneath. However, the challenge of understanding it is much worse. Not only is the author dead, but the texts were written in an archaic English more than 400 years ago; the different plays do not tell a single coherent story with 30 or so characters, but contain more than 1,000. Instead of being simple allegorical transpositions of the themes in the New Testament, they are complex inversions, reversals and parodies. Instead of being written to covertly promote Christianity, it appears they were written for the opposite reason — to covertly oppose it. Worse, institutional resistance from those who insist that the texts only contain surface meanings is not a decade old but as old as the texts themselves; their beliefs are entrenched in universities and in theaters that cannot understand Shakespearean allegory any more than the religious right can fathom Harry Potter — they simply don’t have the necessary background knowledge. In other words, as independent scholar John McMichaels notes in his website, “We have lost sight of the notion of complex allegory.” It will probably never come back.

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I wrote my thesis on allegorical dramaturgy in Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-Upon-Avon. I am thus horrified by New York productions of Shakespeare that seem actor- and star-struck, concerned entirely with the entertaining surface and not about meaning. Consider, for example, As You Like It. I have seen no productions, other than my own, that show it to be a Biblical allegory from Paradise to the Flood and covering, in the process, two characters — one called Jakes (Elizabethan for toilet), and one who is an allegory for its inventor:

I have also seen several Hamlets, but none showing Ophelia as an allegory for the Virgin Mary or that the sewing and nunnery scenes are rewritings of the Annunciation.

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The Dark Lady Players’ demonstration on the afternoon of Sept. 5 at Manhattan Theatre Source and in Washington Square Park will be the first. I have seen many productions of Romeo and Juliet, but never one showing the Nurse Angelica as the angel Gabriel who in the Nurse’s scene mentions Susan (I.iii.18-19) because this is from the Hebrew word Susannah, meaning lily, the symbol the Angel gives to Mary at the Annunciation. I have seen many productions of A Midsummer Nights Dream, but never one revealing the allegorical nature of the characters, though over the last decade Professor Parker at Stanford has written several major articles such as ‘Murals and Morals; A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1998) which set out their identities very clearly. Again, it was left to the Dark Lady Players to put on the world’s first production illustrating this level of meaning. Next year, they will go to a college in Massachusetts to show why, in Twelfth Night, Orsino is melancholy, who Cesario and Sebastian really are, and why Malvolio is an allegory for the demoniac Legion at Gadara (Mark 5:1-20) and what exactly happens to everyone when he runs off at the end.

To perform the surface verse without a dramaturgy that shows what the verse actually means allegorically risks treating the audience like dummies. They will be entranced by the beauty of the verse, like the most uneducated members of Elizabethan theater, and will look no further. And that would do a great disservice to them, to the plays and to their author.

John Hudson is 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.

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The views expressed in Heretic’s Foundation are not necessarily those of The Clyde Fitch Report.