St. George, Shakespeare, and the Plague

Like many saints, George the dragon-slaying patron of England has murky origins, but he may go back to the Christian martyr soldier who refused to make a pagan sacrifice for the Emperor Diocletian’s bribe of wealth, and lost his head for it on April 23, 303. A millennium or so later, English Crusaders brought back the story that St. George had slayed a plague-infected dragon who was consuming sheep and then the children of the Libyan town of Selena. The Red Cross Knight made a wise-as-serpent bargain: if the locals would take up the healthy truth of the Gospel, he would destroy the evil monster (which may have even been an allegorized figure for the ancient foe Diocletian). When the Libyan king’s daughter was about to be eaten by the pestilence-breathing dragon, St. George made the sign of the cross, transfixed it with a lance, and hung the princess’s girdle around its neck, by which she paraded it around until her Christian champion beheaded it. Thus, a patron of arms, chivalry, and the garter emerged by the time of Richard the Lionheart, and eventually St. George became the patron of many chivalrous countries of Christendom, from the British Isles to Portugal, and from Venice to Georgia and Lithuania.

By God’s providence, St. George’s Day, which until the Reformation was as popular as Christmas and was a holy day of obligation for English Catholics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is the traditional birth and death days of English’s greatest Catholic penman, William Shakespeare, whose entire life and craft moved and had their being pitted against those formidable twin evil scourges, death and sin, and who knew their only sure remedies. He may have even discovered the truth of the image of the Red Cross Knight (whom he refers to sixteen times in his corpus), that slaying evil brings psychic health, for he probably returned to the Old Faith of his youth during one of the six plagues that threatened his life and livelihood.

William was born in 1564 during the greatest Elizabethan outbreak of the Covid-19 of medieval and early modern Europe, the far more deadly bubonic plague, which took one out of six Stratfordians that year. It was only half as deadly as it had been in 1348 and perhaps 16 times more mortal than today’s virus. “Normal” outbreaks returned five more times in his lifetime (1578, 1596, 1597, and 1604). For fear of infection from the plague, his father attended meetings of the town council spread out, without n95 masks, in the Guild garden. William survived, unlike two of his sisters who died from earlier and later epidemics. His son Hamnet died in the plague year 1596, and his father passed in 1601, perhaps with a last will and testament confessing the Old Faith—just as Shakespeare was producing his play Hamlet about a father who (perhaps like William’s own father) dies, “unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled”—that is, without the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Extreme Unction, which were forbidden and repressed by the Protestant establishment.

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Death famously concentrates the mind, and when the plague of 1597 closed the theater, the source of William’s livelihood, he turned to writing sonnets. Mortality, sin, lust, and even plague work themselves into the beginnings and endings of his poems. The poet makes the London epidemic a euphemism for venereal disease:

Only my plague thus far I count my gain
That she that makes me sin awards me pain. (141, 13-14)

I believe that plague and death, and sin and lust provoke in William, as they would have in any serious son of the Old Faith, a religious crisis that fuels the decade of the world’s greatest drama, beginning with Hamlet, whose first act may be read as a medieval allegory of belief in a bold new style. Can Hamlet, the divinity student from Luther’s Wittenberg, trust the report of and by his father’s ghost, who bemoans the loss of sacraments and thus can find no place in purgatory, that liminal space denied by the Reformation?

The suspect and sometimes banned practice of auricular confession, called “vain whisperings” in the Homilies read aloud from the pulpit in Reformation England, indeed may be one explanation of the high development of the soliloquy form in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Can you hear the low trebles of Judas’s troubled conscience in the ashamed sibilants of Macbeth as he is alone confessing his dark intentions to murder Duncan, violate the natural moral law, and throw away that “eternal jewel,” his immortal soul? Can you hear the contrasting dong of doom in the dentals as he contemplates his “deep damnation”?

If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence
And catch with his surcease success; (Macbeth, I.vii.1-4)

(Catch the allusion to John 13:27 in the Geneva translation quoted nearly a thousand times by Shakespeare, when Jesus says to the betrayer who similarly contemplates the murder of his king, “That thou doest, do quickly.”) Of course, Shakespeare knew from the Old Faith’s understanding of sin as a violation not merely of the divine command but also of the moral law that it brings “judgment here,” not only in the afterlife, and it “commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice to our own lips.” These are the thoughts of one acquainted with the Old Faith etiology of sin that seeks mediation.

The serious Christian also knows, however, if only from the brutal evidence of human relationships, that “love is stronger than death.” In a play written during the plague of 1604, King Lear, who has banished the only daughter who truly loves him, finds himself banished in turn by the two hateful daughters, heirs of his kingdom. Escaping from a storm, he thinks he has plunged over a cliff near Dover. When he wakes from a mad sleep, he discovers his heart’s beloved, Cordelia, and imagines himself, in the purgatory denied Hamlet’s father, lying before a saint, banished in fact from Reformation England:

You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave;
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead. (IV.vii.45-48)

What does a serious Christian do with sin? Lear asks Cordelia “to forget and forgive,” even though he is more “sinned against than sinning,” for her sisters have done him “great wrong,” but she has “some cause.” “No cause, no cause,” Cordelia repeats her generous salvific pardon. Thereafter, imprisoned together like the Jesuits actually caught returning thereabouts on boats from Calais in Catholic France, this redeemed pair of penitents hope to “sing together like two birds ‘i th’ cage.” Lear offers a prayer to his daughter:

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and tell old tales,…
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies. (King Lear, V.iii.10-12, 16-17.)

What old tale could comfort more than that of the Resurrection? At the end of this fiercely imaginative decade, Shakespeare returns even more overtly to the medieval mystery theater of his youth, not yet completely banned by Reformers who loathed the superstitious papal past, perhaps on a wagon before Coventry Cathedral, not far from his native Stratford. Despite the royal prohibition of divisive religious subject matter, he stages a quasi-literal Resurrection scene in a setting that scandalously suggests a Marian image in an Italianate private chapel of an Old Faith recusant. Hermione, whose false accusation of adultery “awakens the great faith” of her husband King Leontes, steps out of a statue in defiance of Puritan iconoclasts in The Winter’s Tale, not really having died, unlike Thaisa, who is brought back to life Lazarus-like by a physician in another play of that late period of the romances, Pericles.

Shakespeare died, it is said, of a fever contracted at his daughter’s wedding after drinking too much ale with his playwright buddies Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. Death, whether by plague or coronavirus, is always in the fallen nature of things, a consequence of sin, and it always creates a crisis. May we, like William, Clerk of Stratford, also find the solution in our not entirely banished religious tradition, under the banner of a health-working saint who contended with pestilence!


  • Kenneth Colston

    Kenneth Colston’s articles and reviews have appeared in The New Criterion; LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; First Things; New Oxford Review; St. Austin’s Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He is a retired teacher who lives in St. Louis.

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