Anti-Catholicism at Ashland Festival

(Profound Themes but Disappointing Anti-Catholic Stereotypes)

Some of you asked how I enjoyed the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. It was marvelous to see live productions of five plays – three by Shakespeare, one by Christopher Marlowe and an American comedy from the thirties. I was impressed the way great drama deals with issues which are central to faith: the meaning of human freedom and the choice between good and evil, salvation and damnation.

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is about a scholarly man who desires a kind of knowledge which will give him magical powers and control over others. To gain those powers he sells his soul to the devil. Even though he has opportunities to repent, he does not accept them.

In Shakespeare’s Richard III a misshapen man uses charm and cunning to create a hell that he draws others into. At the end he hears the terrible words “despair and die.” He cannot overcome despair, however, because the only truth he knows is that “Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.”

The issue of salvation and damnation emerges even in one of the comedies. In The Twelfth Night a priggish figure named Malvolio is tripped up by comic characters whose humor has a cruel edge. In the last act everyone is reconciled – except Malvolio. He protests, “Never was a man so notoriously abused.” His final words are “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

The Festival overall was a powerful experience, but it did have negative aspects for me and the priests I went with. The plays, in the way they were presented, contained anti-Catholic stereotyping which disappointed me because it seemed gratuitous.

The most striking example of this anti-Catholic bent was the way they presented Malvolio. In The Twelfth Night he is a stock character – the prig who looks down on others and of course must himself be knocked down a peg or two before the end of the play. He is not a clergyman or even a Catholic. He is referred to as a “puritan” who at the time of Shakespeare were part of the political left wing (they wanted to do away with the monarchy). Nevertheless, when Malvolio makes his appearance, he is dressed as a monk! In case you miss the point, an acolyte precedes him swinging a thurible, walking backwards, incensing the haughty character.

In the same play there is a priest with a very minor role; he was presented as an effeminate and silly character, although nothing in the script justifies it. Of course, directors have a certain license, but as my priest friend noted: In the past, literary people used the “Jew” as a stock character and never gave it a second thought. Our modern culture, especially the entertainment world, does the same thing with Catholic clergy.

Doctor Faustus portrayed the pope as an infant in a high chair, surrounded by female bishops and cardinals. It was way overboard. No one could get away with such stereotyping of blacks or Jews, but today Catholics have become fair game.

--Fr. Phil Bloom
September 2005


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