Tuesday, September 10, 2013
And no snoring during the sermon
"Come, sermon me no further....."
Timon of Athens (II, ii)
Shakespeare's Timon, a noble Athenian, is impatient with advice. He's finding out the hard way that once his means are no longer keeping up with his boundless generosity, the praise that he's become accustomed to falls away. Timon's steward Flavius hits the mark: he describes such shallow, fickle adulation as "feast-won, fast-lost." But his "sermon" of insight is cut short by Timon, who is evidently not one to be preached to.
Timon probably couldn't have endured the likes of Launcelot Andrewes (1555-1626), the most learned English churchman of Shakespeare's day, who fueled his lengthy sermons with remarkable biblical erudition. Andrewes is best known for overseeing the various translation committees that worked together to produce the 1611 King James Version of the Bible (called the Authorized Version at the time). Andrewes and a number of his colleagues in that effort shared an immense appreciation for the beauty of the spoken English language. A portrait of Andrewes, painted from life, hangs in the Great Parlor at Agecroft Hall and is pictured below.
The portrait of Andrewes, painted in 1615 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1635), shows Andrewes at age 59, when his position in the highest reaches of the Church of England had become well established. He served in the bishoprics of Ely, Winchester, and Chichester in the reign of King James I, after having been a chaplain to James' predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, among other ecclesiastical roles. The painter of Andrewes' portrait, Gheeraerts the Younger, was also the painter of Elizabeth's last official portrait in 1592, and later was a favorite of Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James.
To his enormous credit, Andrewes was no shrinking violet when it came to preaching words that his reigning monarch did not like to hear. He was against any royal diversion of church revenues, a position that did not sit well with the increasingly cash-strapped Queen Elizabeth. Her efforts to stand in the way of Spanish hegemony were proving expensive, and she wanted to leave no stone unturned in her search for funds.
James Shapiro, in his insightful book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare:1599 (published in 2005), maintains that Shakespeare might have been influenced by one or more of Andrewes' powerful sermons on the theological justification for an offensive war. The author points to lines written when Shakespeare was crafting his Henry V.
Shapiro observes that when the disguised King Henry is arguing with his men on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt that "every subject's soul is his own" and that every soldier should "wash every mote out of his conscience" and renounce sin in combating sin, Shakespeare was echoing at least one of Andrewes' well-documented sermons.
After the death of Elizabeth, Andrewes assisted in the coronation of James I, and his stature as a scholar of the church continued to rise in the years that followed. He was said to have mastered fifteen languages. As a prelate, he was regarded as just and relatively tolerant, and unwavering in his high principles. His sermons frequently used word-play to convey the fundamental truths that he wished to impress on his listeners. Evidently, his was the kind of brilliance that kept snoring in the pews to a minimum.