· Shakespeare at the Vatican ·
We do not know much about Shakespeare. He is probably the most famous “unknown” in early modern history. Many claim to be certain about his “real” identity, including the nature of his religious belief. Usually, those who shout the loudest are those who wish to claim the Bard for themselves or their tribe. By doing so, they are missing the point, which is that Shakespeare is, rightly, considered a universal genius, his cascade of words applicable to all people, at all times. Choose a language into which Shakespeare has been translated, or a culture through which he has been interpreted, and the genius emerges, burnished and intact. He was a truly great Briton, who belongs to the world.
This was something well understood by Pope Paul VI. In November 1964, the Pope attended a Shakespearean recital at Palazzo Pio, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company to commemorate the 400 th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. In brief remarks at the event, the Pope celebrated Shakespeare as “this supreme writer”, noting “how the profound humanity of Shakespeare, ever open to adventurous and poetic exploration, leads to the discovery of the moral laws, which make life great and sacred, and lead us back to a religious understanding of the world. His lofty genius and powerful language induce men to listen with reverence to the great verities he expounds, of death and judgement, of hell and heaven. The plots of his plays are a salutary reminder to modern man that God exists, that there is a life after this life, that evildoing is punished and good rewarded.”
It is therefore more than appropriate that during this year’s commemoration of the fourth centenary since Shakespeare’s death in April 2016, for the first time one of his plays will be performed in its entirety on Vatican territory. The play will be Hamlet, often considered the greatest in the canon, and it will be performed by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at the Palazzo della Cancelleria as a central element in their ambitious Globe to Globe world tour, during which they are performing their latest production of Hamlet in every country in the world.
Hamlet is appropriate for many reasons, not least because Pope John XXIII is on record as referring to Archbishop Montini of Milan as the “Hamlet Cardinal”. Later, as Pope, shortly after the November 1964 Royal Shakespeare Company performance, Paul VI told the media that: “The press which you represent can be a most important instrument of great good, always faithful to the truth, that is the question”. All the journalists present at that 3 December conference immediately understood which Shakespearean character the Pope was quoting.
I am sure that at this year’s performance of Hamlet we can avoid what was a near diplomatic disaster back in 1964. The Royal Shakespeare Company owns a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, and brought it to Rome, carefully and delicately packaged, for the Pope to bless after the performance. Having bestowed his Apostolic Blessing upon the actors and those accompanying them, Paul VI was shown the prized copy of the First Folio. He would have been told that it was printed in 1623, that only 233 (mostly incomplete) copies remain, and that it is one of the most valuable books in the world. His Holiness, perhaps misunderstanding the gesture, leafed through some of the precious pages, and then graciously accepted the kind gift for the Vatican Apostolic Library!
It is not recorded how the First Folio was extracted back from the Pope. Perhaps my then predecessor, the then British Minister to the Holy See Sir Peter Scarlett, had to exercise some of his well-honed diplomatic skills. Be that as it may, it is now safely kept at the Shakespeare Birthday Trust in Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, having survived its encounter with the Bishop of Rome.
It is right that, finally, after so many years. Shakespeare’s greatest play will be performed on Vatican territory, in rooms beside those decorated by William Shakespeare’s near contemporary, Giorgio Vasari. It is also appropriate that this special event will occur during this Jubilee of Mercy. Paul VI said back in 1964: “Our enjoyment of the poet’s vision of humanity should not make us overlook the high moral lessons and admonitions contained in his works”. We do not know whether or not Shakespeare ever came to Rome in his lifetime. However, even 400 years after his death is not too late for this universal genius.
Nigel Baker, British Ambassador to the Holy See