In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Marcellus declares, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Published in 1603, at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the tragic play can be read as a reflection of the politics of the day in England, said Arthur Marotti, Ph.D., FCRH ’61, a Shakespeare scholar, in a lecture at the Rose Hill campus on Oct. 22.
“In the last years of Elizabeth’s rule people believed something was rotten in England—though perhaps not rotten enough to justify regicide,” as in Hamlet, “a play inordinately preoccupied with king-killing,” said Marotti, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Wayne State University.
In his lecture “Shakespeare, Tyrannicide, and the Papal Deposing Power,” Marotti laid out the prominent religious and political struggles of late 16th-century England and discussed how they informed Shakespeare’s plays.
“William Shakespeare repeatedly dramatized king-killing and the planning of king-killing,” Marotti said, a dangerous act in a country that could stretch the definition of treason to include even thinking about the death of a monarch. “Perhaps this is one reason why the act itself often takes place offstage, instead of being presented vividly onstage for absorption in the memory and imagination of spectators.” Regicide is depicted or alluded to in many of the bard’s plays, including Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, with threats to nobles in Henry IV, Part 1 and The Tempest.
William ShakespeareIn Richard II, for example, Shakespeare depicts a weak monarch, King Richard II, who is succeeded by a strong leader, King Henry IV. Henry takes the crown following an onstage assassination “prompted by a clear signal from the new king that [Richard] needed to be killed—though Henry pretended he had expressed no such wish,” said Marotti.
Richard II was written and performed during an especially tumultuous time in England, when assassination attempts on Queen Elizabeth abounded. It was also a time of great tension between Catholics and Protestants. In 1570, Pope Pius V issued Regnans in Excelsis, a papal bull formally excommunicating the Protestant queen, declaring her a heretic and absolving her subjects of any allegiance to her.
Marotti said that the papal bull was “an extreme case of [the Catholic Church]using the power the papacy claimed it had,” the power to exert both religious and political influence in England. But it was “a watershed event” for the country, contributing to “the nascent historical narrative of England as a fundamentally Protestant nation threatened by international Catholicism.”
When Pope Gregory XIII came to power in 1572, he tried to ease the bull’s harsh effects on English Catholics, who feared retaliation from authorities. Marotti said that Catholics were urged by the papacy to continue practicing their religion, but, if possible, should work to overthrow, or even kill, the queen as a “heretical tyrant.”
The queen was haunted by worries of assassination. Religious fanaticism in the late 16th century brought about the deaths of several European rulers: Henry III and Henry IV of France and William of Orange. But killing a reigning monarch, because it was both morally wrong and sacrilegious, said Marotti, required compelling political and theological justification.“On neither side was toleration or religious pluralism a desirable policy since all conceived of church and state as inextricably bound,” Marotti said.Where did Shakespeare’s sympathies lie? Recent scholars conclude that it’s impossible to determine whether he was a Protestant or a Roman Catholic based on his writings, said Marotti, but the plays do show sensitivity to his religiously mixed audiences.
“He consistently avoided crude religious or political propagandizing,” Marotti said. “Political resistance, regicide, and tyrannicide were for him good dramatic materials, but they led him to explore their human, social, moral, and religious dimensions and to engage his audience in this effort.”
Four hundred years later, Marotti said, the playwright’s words continue to test theatergoers’ moral imagination.
“The prompts are Shakespeare’s; the conclusions we reach are ours.”
The lecture was sponsored by the Department of English, the Comparative Literature Program, and the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. It marked Marotti’s first time back on the Rose Hill campus since 1961, when he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. He spent part of the day touring the campus and meeting with students at the University and at Fordham Preparatory School, his high school alma mater.
“I spent eight years here and they did leave an indelible mark on me,” he said before his lecture in Tognino Hall. “I learned how to study, how to work hard, and those qualities …. have stayed with me since that time.”
— Rachel Buttner