Archbishop Lefebvre and Shakespeare

By Andrew J. Clarendon

In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver writes: “Evidently it is the poet’s unique command of language which gives him his ability to see the potencies in circumstances. He is the greatest teacher of cause and effect in human affairs; …poets are the quickest to apprehend necessary truth.” Dealing in “the evocative power of words…[and] the mighty power of symbolism,” it is not surprising that a poet can teach profound truths even centuries after his death; at the highest level, poetic lessons have perennial value. Such is the power of inspiration that poets even seem to prophesize: one thinks of Virgil’s famous Fourth Eclogue, often called the Messianic because it reads like a foretelling of the coming of Christ. In English, the greatest poet is, of course, Shakespeare, whose plays, while presenting a certain plot with certain characters, nevertheless express universal themes. The lessons conveyed can therefore be applied to other situations and can be useful in understanding the cause and effect in human affairs that Weaver identifies above. For this year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Society of Saint Pius X, reviewing some themes in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear and his comedy As You Like It is a poetic, connatural way to further appreciate Archbishop Lefebvre’s stand for tradition and orthodoxy.

The Bard’s Greatest Work

Generally regarded as his greatest work, Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear involves a crisis of authority; the play is a study of how the mistaken decisions of the one in power can have disastrous consequences. All tragedies involve an error made by the tragic hero, a misstep that leads to profound suffering for the hero, those closest to him, and society at large. In Lear, this mistake is made in the very first scene: the king decides to abdicate by dividing his kingdom among his three daughters based on how well they flatter him. When the youngest daughter, Cordelia—whose name means “ideal heart”—refuses to participate in this charade, Lear angrily disowns her. As the scene progresses, only one member of the court dares to stand up to the king: the Earl of Kent. His words provide a template for loyal resistance to authority gone mad, a resistance in the spirit of Archbishop Lefebvre. Already angry with Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him, when Kent speaks in her defense, Lear immediately threatens to punish anyone who stands in the way of his rash actions, saying “The bow is bent and drawn. Make from the shaft.” Kent’s answer is the essence of true loyalty: “Be Kent unmannerly / When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man? /…in thy best consideration check / This hideous rashness.” When the king is so fixated on his will as to threaten Kent’s life, the noble earl affirms his true loyalty: “My life I never held but as a pawn / To wage against thine enemies, nor fear to lose it, / Thy safety being motive.” In the face of losing everything, Kent demonstrates that the only way to really help Lear is to point out his mistake, to urge him to change course before anything irreparable is done. As Lear rages, Kent stands for the true good: “Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow / Upon the foul disease…/ Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat / I’ll tell thee thou dost evil.” The result is that Kent is banished on pain of death; it is only after a long period of suffering that Lear comes to realize that the earl, who he thought to be a traitor, is the most loyal subject in the realm. What is more, while Lear rejects Kent, the loyal subject does not reject his king. Disguising himself, he rejoins Lear later in the play to do what he can to help his sovereign. In a famous exchange, Kent says to Lear that “you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master…Authority.” Kent is one of the greatest symbols of loyalty in literature precisely because he resists the mistaken policies of his master while still recognizing him as the authority. The parallels to Archbishop Lefebvre and the traditional movement are obvious to anyone who recognizes the crisis: while still affirming the pope’s authority, the archbishop did not hesitate to resist the madness of discarding the Church’s traditional teachings even when most of the rest of the hierarchy was silent, even when it meant a sort of banishment.

The Image of Exiled Tradition

An image of exiled tradition itself is found in the comedic analogue to King Lear, As You Like It. Set in the Forest of Arden in France—“a thinly veiled reference to Ardennes, the region of northern France that was the center for English [Catholic] exiles,” as Clare Asquith puts it in Shadowplay, her excellent work on Shakespeare’s hidden Catholicism—the plot involves the exiled Duke Senior, whose younger brother Duke Frederick has usurped the crown. While Duke Frederick holds the court, young men flock to Duke Senior in the forest, a band of merry men like Robin Hood’s. Duke Senior’s opening speech, while recognizing his plight, nevertheless praises the hand of Providence: “Sweet are the uses of adversity /…And this our life, exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” Such do traditional Catholics feel. While “they have the buildings, we have the Faith”; our exile has the sweetness to it that St. Paul mentioned to the Romans: “And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good.” In addition, the conclusion of Shakespeare’s comedy includes the hoped for ending: just as the new order under Duke Frederick comes to the forest to destroy Duke Senior and the old traditions once and for all, the tyrant meets “with an old religious man, / [And] after some question with him, [is] converted / Both from his enterprise and from the world.” As “men of great worth” continue to “resort to this forest” of traditional Catholicism, may there be a similar conversion of those in authority.

Fifty years into the heroic stand for tradition, the fight continues. The traditional Catholic movement is clearly one involving the youth: it is traditional and orthodox communities that have the vocations and families with children while the modern experiment is literally dying out. The next generation is poised to either receive and preserve what has been passed down or to be swept into the modernist current. Now, therefore, is the time to be reminded of why the pioneers of the traditional movement did what they did, resisting even Peter to the face. Shakespeare indicates that the end of crises involve suffering and conversion; with the current crisis in the Church still raging, these are central themes of the beginning of the next 50 years of the SSPX.

King Lear Casting Out His Daughter Cordelia, Richard Earlom (London 1743–1822 London)
King Lear Casting Out His Daughter Cordelia, Richard Earlom (London 1743–1822 London).