Thursday, May 12, 2016

Shakespeare and the Parables (part 8)

William Shakespeare's possible birthplace, Stratford


This post includes material that was cut from the book because of space. Keeping such discussions to approximately 2000 words involved a lot of painful decisions, but at least I can share that material and those insights here.       

Shakespeare also makes ample use of other parables that are not quite as pervasive as the parable of the Prodigal Son. Some of these allusions are in passing; others make significant contributions to the plays. In 2 Henry IV, for example, Shakespeare cites both the King going to War (Luke 14:31-33) and Building a Tower (Luke 14:28-30). The play begins with the civil war continuing between King Henry IV and the rebels. 1 Henry IV had ended with the battle of Shrewsbury, where Prince Henry/Hal/Harry had saved his father’s life and the king’s army had won a great victory over some of the rebels. The story begins in 2 Henry IV with the war continuing against the remaining powerful rebels, such as the Archbishop of York (who leads the rebellion), Lord Mowbray, and Lord Hastings. When these and other rebels begin to plan how to advance against King Henry IV, they discuss whether their twenty-five thousand soldiers are enough to defeat the king’s forces without the aid of the powerful Earl of Northumberland. Lord Bardolph notes:

The question, then, Lord Hastings, standeth thus—
Whether our present five and twenty thousand
May hold up head without Northumberland (1.3.15-18). 

Although there is not a direct reference to the King going to War (Luke 14:31-33), it provides a concrete example of how deliberations are made in preparation for possible battles against a king. This rather weak connection is strengthened by other words spoken by Bardolph that soon follow. The rebels decide that their numbers are too few without the Earl’s assistance and not that the battle of Shrewsbury was lost—and the Earl’s son Hotspur killed—because the Earl had refused to send forces for that battle. They hope that the Earl’s desire for revenge for his son’s death might turn the tide in their favor this time (1.3.1-35). Bardolph then states:

When we mean to build
We first survey the plot, then draw the model,
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then we must rate the cost of the erection,
Which if we find outweighs ability,
What do we then but draw anew the model
In fewer offices, or at least desist
To build at all? Much more, in this great work—
Which is almost to pluck a kingdom down
And set another up—should we survey
The plot of situation and the model,
Consent upon a sure foundation,
Question surveyors, know our own estate,
How able such a work to undergo,
To weigh against his opposite; or else
We fortify in paper and figures,
Using the names of men instead of men,
Like one who draws the model of a house
Beyond his power to build it, who, half-through,
Gives o’er, and leaves his part-created cost
A naked subject to the weeping clouds . . .  (1.3.41-61).

This speech clearly seems to build upon the parable Building a Tower, and many scholars also see an allusion to the Wise and Foolish Builders’ parable (Luke 6:47-49) when the Archbishop states that the current commonwealth was a “habitation giddy and unsure” because it was built on a poor foundation: a “vulgar heart” (1.3.87-88; Shaheen 1999: 431-33).

This concludes my series of posts on Shakespeare and the parables, although much more could be written.


One final observation: The importance of the parables in Shakespeare’s plays is not just reflected in the quantity of allusions; the critical nature of those allusions is also seen in the depth of interaction, especially with the parable that Shakespeare evidently found most compelling: the Prodigal Son.

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