Shakespeare and Resurrection

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In my last blog, I considered how Good Friday influenced Shakespeare’s imagination. We are now properly in Eastertide (forty days from Easter Day) and it is not surprising that the Resurrection of Jesus (or ‘uprising’ as William Tyndale referred to it) made such a considerable impact on Shakespeare’s imagination.

Shakespeare is not telling the Christian story, but he is writing and performing plays in a deeply Christian context. When we go looking for ways in which he engages with the Resurrection story, we find it writ large throughout his work and career.

The most significant, early example is in The Comedy of Errors. Egeon, his wife Emilia (now an Abbess), their twin sons, and their twin servants are all re-united at the end after, significantly, thirty-three years (traditionally understood to be the earthly life-span of Jesus). It is as if their lives are being given back to each other, freshly created. New births are being celebrated, ‘after so long grief, such nativity’ (act 5, scene 1). In Much Ado About Nothing, Hero is thought to have died from shock after her public defamation by Claudio. But she is given back to him in the final scene. The twins Viola and Sebastian both believe each other to have drowned in Twelfth Night, or what you will. Their reunion is a moment of epiphany, of revelation, and takes place almost out of time, as they share personal and profound exchanges. Sebastian sees Viola disguised as a boy and recognises himself in ‘him’:

SEBASTIAN
Do I stand there? I never had a brother,
Nor can there be that deity in my nature
Of here and everywhere. […]
Were you a woman , as the rest goes even,
I should my tears let fall upon your cheek
And say ‘Thrice welcome, drowned Viola.’ (5.1.224-226 and 237-239)

This moment of mutual resurrections significantly coincides with the theatre audience hearing Viola’s name for the first time. Through the seas they have both come, as though newly baptised.

Claudio returns alive to Isabella and Juliet around forty lines before the end of Measure for Measure, a moment so strange and powerful that Shakespeare gives them no words to exchange. A pregnant Helen returns to a guilt-ridden Bertram raising the question how far is All’s Well That End’s Well? Thaisa who is thought to have died is given back to her husband Pericles, and Hermione whom Leontes thought he had killed with grief sixteen years ago is miraculously restored to life after posing as a statue in The Winter’s Tale. When Innogen is finally reunited with her husband, Posthumus, who she thought was dead he says to her: ‘Hang there like fruit, my soul. / Till the tree die.’ (Cymbeline 5.6.263-264). This is surely as good an expression of what resurrection feels like as any in literature. And in Sonnet 146 we read:

So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

There are other instances, too, when new life springs forth from that which is dead or dying, and Shakespeare invites us to consider resurrection as a real and tangible, bodied-forth theatrical reality. Here his strong imagination works so profoundly that it becomes easy to believe that such resurrections are in fact reflections on deeper spiritual and bodily truths.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Andrea Campana

    Thank you, Dr. Edmondson, for your recognition of the deeply religious allegory underlying Shakespeare’s work. I think that in all of your examples of resurrection, we can also see “reconciliation” of the various characters. Reconciliation, the Catholic sacrament associated with penance, was being promoted by the Council of Trent and by the Jesuit leaders to Catholics as a way to reaffirm their faith amidst the religious reforms under way. All of the reconciliations in the plays result after the turmoil of exile and banishment, reflecting how families were torn apart by religious fractures. Will Shakespeare ever receive his due?

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