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.