Tuesday, June 25, 2024

If Shakespeare Survived the Adapters, the Old Mass Will Survive the Reformers

The digital grapevine is astir with forebodings. I am told that the eucharistic liturgy of my ancestors—not the Protestants who settled in Pennsylvania, that is, but rather the von Keims of medieval Germany—is once again ritus non gratus at the Vatican.

Actually, the rite threatened with imposed obsolescence is not exactly that of my ancestors. Liturgical forms, like the living beings who enact and behold them, tend to change and grow in response to their environment, even after they have reached maturity. Tradition is not stagnation, after all, and the act of “handing down” implies both a giver, in the past, and a recipient, in the future. In fact, a certain Professor Grillo, of whom I know very little, explains that tradition is the future: “la tradizione non è passato, ma futuro.

I agree that tradition is not the past, or at least not merely the past, but I do not see how it can be equated with the future. The professor no doubt recognizes how impossible this maxim is given the etymology and standard denotations of the word “tradition,” so I will assume that his language here is operating on an alternative plane of meaning—and I don’t fault him for that. I teach rhetoric, the sister of poetry, and therefore spend a great deal of time on alternative planes of meaning.

And it is precisely because I spend so much time wandering the poetic uplands of life that I do fault Professor Grillo, not for the style of his discourse, but for the apparent objective of his discourse—namely, the disappearance of the Roman-Frankish Mass of western Christendom from the lived reality of the modern Church. Such an objective is incomprehensible to me, for this Mass is not merely a means to a sacrificial or sacramental end. It is a work of art that transcends every other cultural achievement in European history. This Mass is poetry in the fullest sense of the word—a poetic masterpiece, in fact, encompassing and sublimating every facet of the artistic experience, and appealing to every facet of the human experience. What society treats their artistic heritage this way? Who even in the secular world—a world of convulsive re-evaluations and tenacious presentism, a world where nothing is sacred and where the very concept of sacrality is questioned—who even in that world espouses the wholesale suppression of an artistic corpus so magnificent and influential and historically momentous as the liturgical rites of western Christianity?

Let us at least be consistent. If we are to bury the Old Mass under the shifting sands of the Pauline rite, let us also bury Shakespeare and everything he wrote. We have plenty of new plays, including some written in the 1960s, and these are better anyway: shorter, more colloquial, more “relevant” to modernity, and of course, much easier to understand—all that archaic language and iambic pentameter and rhetorical artistry is passé de mode and just makes Shakespeare’s plays even less like a television show.

At least Shakespeare didn’t have the gall to write in a dead language like Latin—well, actually, Latin words and phrases do occur regularly in his plays, and one of these is among his most famous: Et tu, Brute? Dante condemned Brutus to the lowest circle of Hell, because he betrayed Julius Caesar, his benefactor and his lord. Two others were there with him. One was Cassius, also a leading figure in the betrayal and assassination of Caesar. The other was Judas Iscariot.

Shakespeare’s works are still known, admired, and loved all over the world. And despite the widespread penchant for non-historical costuming and a few other experimental tendencies, modern scholars and readers and theater-goers are interested above all in the “authentic” Shakespeare, that is, in the plays as he originally wrote them. This was not always the case.

Shakespeare died in 1616. In 1642, the Puritans ordered all of the theaters in London to close. The prohibition was lifted in 1660, which marks the beginning of the historical period known as the Restoration. Newly reopened theaters needed something to perform, and since playwrights had little reason to compose new plays during the puritanical clampdown, the works of Shakespeare and other pre-1642 playwrights were revived.

However, Shakespeare’s style had already gone out of fashion—oh “cruel fate / And giddy Fortune’s furious fickle wheel, / That goddess blind, / That stands upon the rolling restless stone” (Henry V, III, 6). Since something very serious was at stake (namely, profits), the theaters called in the Reformers. The result was that “Shakespeare” plays performed in the Restoration and in the eighteenth century were commonly rewritten to satisfy a new generation of audiences. Some infamous examples include King Lear with a happy ending and a patchwork mutilation of As You Like It entitled Love in a Forest.

King Lear in the Storm, by Benjamin West (d. 1820).

But Shakespeare survived the adapters. The reason is simple: superlative poetry endures. This was known even in the early first century, when the Roman poet Ovid was writing the Metamorphoses:

And now a great work I have completed,
which not the ire of Jove, nor fire,
nor sword or devouring old age can unmake.
Whenever it will, let that day—
which only over this body hath power—
let that day bring an end for me
to life’s uncertain span.
In my better part, however, I, immortal,
shall be borne above the stars on high,
and my name shall never die.
Wherever Roman power to conquered lands extends,
by the mouth of the people I shall be read
and—if any prophecies of poets have truth—
I shall live in fame, till all ages end. (Book XV, lines 871–79)

The poet was right. Ovid is long dead, but his literary creations are still studied and admired to this day.

The precise status of poetic works, even the finest works ever created, will rise and fall as the great waves of fashion and ideology and innovation crash upon the shore of human society. Nevertheless, poetry has proven remarkably resilient. Like the divine Word from which its power ultimately flows, artistic language captivates, enchants, and purifies the hearts of men, in every age and in every land. I speak here of language in all its forms: verse, music, narrative, oratory, supplication, clothing, iconography, symbolic gesture, ritualistic movement, and yes, even silence. The “Latin” Mass speaks many languages, and not one of them is dead.

The Metamorphoses survived the fall of the Roman Empire. Shakespeare survived the Puritans and the Age of Adaptations. And the Old Mass will survive the current pontificate. A poetic lamp so brilliant and edifying and passionate as the traditional Roman liturgy cannot be hidden under the bushel basket of papal directives, for the simple reason that it will set those directives aflame before the ink is dry. The Old Mass will endure, because it is a sanctifying, Truth-telling masterpiece wrought by God and man during the Church’s most fervent and fruitful centuries, and because ordinary Catholics all over the world thirst for its ancient, elevating, life-changing poetry.

If I live to see the day when the liturgy of my fathers is once again loved and honored by the popes and prelates of the Church, I’ll have an excellent reason to recall a few more of Shakespeare’s Latin words, this time spoken by King Henry V after his miraculous victory at Agincourt:

Come, go we in procession to the village,
And be it death proclaimèd through our host
To boast of this or take that praise from God
Which is His only.
Do we all holy rites.
Let there be sung Non nobis, and Te Deum,
The dead with charity enclosed in clay,
And then to Calais, and to England then,
Where ne’er from France arrived more happy men.

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