Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England

By Dennis Taylor; David Beauregard | Go to book overview

12
Shakespeare on Monastic Life:
Nuns and Friars in
Measure for Measure

by David Beauregard

Our Lady of Grace Seminary, Boston

IN THE OPENING SCENE of A Midsummer Nights Dream (c. 1595), Shakespeare inserts some anachronistic lines, excised "on pious and/or anachronistic grounds" by every nineteenth-century production of the play except one (Griffiths 1996, 91). When Hermia refuses her father's command that she marry Demetrius, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, warns her:

Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires,
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father's choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mewed,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice blessed they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness

(1.1.67–78)1

What is remarkable about this passage, aside from the fact that it was always cut in nineteenth-century productions, is its profoundly Catholic spirituality, its realistic distinction between married life as "earthlier happy" and monastic life as "blessed." Shakespeare's terminology suggests the distinction between the Aristotelian notion of happiness,

-311-

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