Hypothetically speaking…

Imagine, hypothetically speaking, that you were studying Shakespeare’s problem play, Measure for Measure, and attempting to historically contextualise it. You attend a lecture that sets out a brief history of the 16th Century politico-religious situation, starting with Henry VIII’s break with Rome which explains the various political, physical and religious tensions and undercurrents that were simmering in London of 1604. Fears of an imminent Spanish invasion and return to Catholicism were rife, James VI, the great Protestant hope had acceded the throne, immediately signed the Treaty of London, ending the hostility between Spain and England and was making moves to marry his son to a Catholic Spanish princess.

Shakespeare writes an enigmatic play, in which it is widely agreed that  two of the major characters, Angelo and the Duke, represent Puritanism and Catholicism respectively. The lecturer repeatedly refers to these as two extremes, which is correct in a historical context. James VI was keen to be seen as a moderate, to steer the via media between Puritanism and Catholicism. The lecturer also explains the Elizabethan dramatic traditions of staging plays involving members of religious orders (associated with physical and moral corruption and portrayed with the manifestations of venereal disease) in order to contextualise the role of the Duke, who spends the vast majority of the play in disguise as a Friar, listening to confessions. Measure for Measure is littered with allusions and puns concerning syphilis.

What the lecturer fails to communicate, in the opinion of the hypothetical listener, is that Catholicism is not considered to be an extreme religion in today’s contemporary society, perhaps assuming that when repeatedly mentioning “the extremes of Papism” and the “extremes of Catholicism” as opposed to Puritanism, that the listener would understand that “extreme” was meant in a historical context and that the play is concerned with portraying polar opposites. It could, in fact, be viewed as a play that portrays Catholicism in a very positive light, however therein lies a whole other narrative.

Whilst feeling a little bit uncomfortable with the constant references to “extremes of Popery”, the listener senses that they are perhaps being a little over-sensitive. The listener remembers the lecture  as being identical to the previous year, which fell immediately after the Papal visit and in the light of the negative press from the likes of Master Hari, so decides that it is just their own bias and sensitivities.

The lecture moves on, with the listener thinking that they really must read more about the practices of Renaissance Catholicism to see whether or not it might be justified as being viewed in an “extremist” light, before realising that they read need to tackle the core reading in front of them, instead of day-dreaming of Eamon Duffy and the like. The lecturer then begins to examine the hypocrisy prevalent in the character of Angelo, the Puritan. They then go on to say that of course religious hypocrisy, the tensions between the outer manifestations of piety and the innate desires of the individual are still apparent and causes problems in Catholicism today, something that is illustrated by the child abuse scandals.

Perhaps a more accurate and balanced turn of phrase would be to note that many religions struggle in terms of religious leaders being perceived as hypocrites, or that many politicians experience similar problems. The listener was left with the impression that a room full of first year undergraduates were given the impression that Catholicism is an extreme religion with hypocrite priests as shown by the scandal of clerical abuse. The listener felt that the lecturer lacked nuance and though students are blessed with the ability to think for themselves, a lecturer describing Catholicism as extreme and stating that it still has difficulties with hypocrisy today (when in fact it was the hypocrisy of the Puritan that is manifest in the play) constituted a subtle form of indoctrination.

Of course all religions have their hypocrites, but I wonder how many students were able to identify the undercurrents and how many have now come away with the impression that Catholicism is extreme. Many people would not have a problem with the situation as described, however were a student to be in a lecture which subtly endorsed a Christian or Catholic perspective, one suspects that there would be an outcry.

It illustrates that education can never be wholly impartial, education will always consist of more than a simple delivery of facts, a teacher or lecturer can never be wholly objective or impartial.

Had the listener had time, then hypothetically they would have liked to have discussed this further with the lecturer. They are also inclined to see if they can have a word or send an email to the lecturer, advising them that though they greatly enjoyed the content of the lecture having now listened to it twice, they found the allusion to the contemporary child abuse scandal rather unnecessary and offering comment which could well have been interpreted as being definitive knowledge.

The listener doesn’t wish to gain a reputation for being a trouble-maker early on and sometimes wishes that they were possessed with the ability to keep their head down, their mouth closed and their opinion to themselves, but is nonetheless troubled and disturbed by what they perceive as an example of institutional and cultural bias. Would silence constitute an acquiescence or passive acceptance? Would speaking out change anything or would silence be an implicit collaboration in calumny?

Passion is sometimes a very mixed blessing, particularly when one has not been blessed with an equal measure of sagacity.

3 thoughts on “Hypothetically speaking…

  1. Save it for your essay and seminars – lectures are for taking in the wisdom or otherwise of the lecturer. You’d have enjoyed Oxbridge – lectures are optional and generally only of tangential relation to the syllabus or indeed, reality at times. Study in your own personal Oxbridge by not worrying about whether you agree with what the lecturers are telling “the others” and carrying on intepreting them with your own intelligence and knowledge.

  2. Silence, at this stage, wouldn’t constitute passive acquiesence or anything at the sort. It would, frankly, be the most prudent move, for three reasons.

    1. A new student hasn’t earned the right to be listened to, at least not in a deep historical sense. Everyone has a right to an opinion, of course, but opinions are given weight depending on other factors. I don’t believe that a student at the beginning of first year would have the credibility that would make their opinions seem weighty. Speaking up now — at least out of context — could well lead to the student being dismissed as ‘a mad Catholic’ such that other comments, later down the line, would also be dismissed. I think it’s wisest to earn respect and then speak with authority.

    (It’s a bit like Just War Theory: one doesn’t engage in a war, however noble the cause, unless one has a decent chance of success.)

    2. Being thought of as a trouble-maker would be unwise at this stage. There’s a sense in which University is a game, and there are rules one must learn. One of the key ones is that a student shouldn’t alienate people. The University, though one institution, is divided into several fiefdoms which think of themselves as almost autonomous, often because they once were. A student might wind up in trouble with admin at some point, in which case one would want a department that’d look after one’s back.

    3. There are mechanisms in which one can, legitimately, demur from views expressed by the lecturer and indeed by the core texts, and they’re not private emails to lecturers. Rather, they are tutorials, seminars, and essays. If a lecturer turns out to be expressing views and using language similar to those in a core text, it’d be wisest to train one’s guns on the core text rather than the lecturer. In going beyond core reading, I’d venture two tips: first, of the revisionists, Christopher Haigh may be of special value, as might Patrick Collinson; second, find out how those who believe Shakespeare was a Catholic think about Measure for Measure.

    4. I’m not sure there’s any point making too much of a fuss about the abuse thing just yet. It can — and I think should — be quietly raised over coffee with other students, but the fact is that it’s part of the language now. The lecturer used it as a lazy example, knowing the students would understand it. Oddly, I had an English lecturer do a very similar same thing with reference to Chaucer back in 1994! Lecturers can specialise to an extent that their knowledge of other topics — even ones relevant to their subjects — can be inaccurate or years if not decades out of date!

  3. It sounds like this hypothetical lecture painted pretty broad brush strokes. The religion of the time was more complex than just being about two opposing views. Equally there is an interplay between religion and power that can’t be over looked, nor even the relationship between playwright and patron. However, careful artists have always managed to please patron, please the crowd while creating more complex and layered pieces than this interpretation suggests. There are other comparisons between characters that can be made here. Why only chose to compare the Duke and Angelo? And other themes worth investigating too. What about justice v mercy? Or the nature of leadership. Of course relationships between men and women is an obvious one too. Shakespere’s plays never work on one simple level. Otherwise they are purely simplistic allegory.

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