Contemporary commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets privileges physical love over spiritual love and tends to focus critical attention on “pervasive bawdy innuendo” in the sonnets. To the average contemporary reader, it’s all about the sex, of course, and more importantly, it’s about transgressive sex, which these days is so much in vogue. But I think the sonnets have a different story to tell, one in which the final two sonnets provide the key to unlock the deeper meaning of the entire sequence. But we will have to acknowledge spiritual love as a genuine human possibility in order to find it.
Some months ago, I overheard two writers whose work I admire conversing about what makes subject matter—the stuff writers write about—interesting. I’m sure it was rude of me to eavesdrop. “Eavesdropping”— a fabulous word in itself— calls to mind someone lurking unseen, intent on overhearing what’s being said around the corner. It’s the vehicle of mysteries and comedies, depending on how much one overhears and in what context. Without eavesdropping, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing would be a plotless bore.
The great voluntary silences in literature baffle me. Some really did just give this art up. For Gerard Manley Hopkins, burning his poems put away childish things so he could focus on the priesthood. Philip Larkin felt the Muse had moved on and didn’t write for the last ten years of his life.
What really engages Rowan Williams in the three short plays included in Shakeshafte & Other Plays is the costly dynamic of artistic expression— a cost paid dearly by the artists represented in those three plays: by Shakespeare (in the first of the plays, Shakeshafte), by David Jones (in the second, The Flat Roof of the World), and by Jesus (in the third, Lazarus).