Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 2

Communion and Conscience: The Stratford Chalice

In every society sharing a drink together affirms friendship and builds community. It's a universal ritual. It can be joyous, it can be ceremonial and it can be dangerous. What you drink and who you drink it with is always significant. For Shakespeare's generation, if you were handed a cup by a bishop or a king and told to drink, how you responded could be a matter, quite literally, of life and death, in real life just as much as in the theatre.

King: Stay, give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine, Here's to thy health. Give him the cup.

Hamlet I'll play this bout first; set it by a while. Come.'

[They play]

It is the closing scene of Hamlet.

Hamlet: Another hit. What say you?

Laertes: A touch, a touch. I do confess't.

King: Our son shall win.

Queen: He's fat and scant of breath.

Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows.

The King is trying to make Hamlet drink from a poisoned cup. But it is about to go horribly wrong.

Queen: The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

Hamlet: Good madam!

King: Gertrude, do not drink.

Queen: I will, my lord. I pray you, pardon me.

[She drinks. And offers the cup to Hamlet.]

King: It is the poisoned cup. It is too late.

(Hamlet 5.2.276-86)

I am in Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare's parish church, Holy Trinity, and I am looking at a small silver cup with a matching lid. As far as I know, it was never used to poison anybody. But what this cup held, and what that meant, was a matter of life and death in this church as in every other church in 16th-century Europe. In this series, we will be looking at 20 objects, objects that reveal something of how Shakespeare's audience experienced and understood the world they lived in. Experiences of course that shaped what they saw in the playhouse and how they understood it. This silver cup, from which Shakespeare himself may have drunk, is one of those keys and it lets us come, I think, a little closer both to Shakespeare himself and to the playgoers of Shakespeare's time.

It's a pretty plain silver goblet. The only decoration is a run of engraved leaves and flowers round the rim. It stands on a small base and looks a bit like a bell turned upside down. It's about the same height as a takeaway cup of coffee. It's a communion cup, but more important, it's a Protestant communion cup, much simpler than the usual ornate Catholic chalice, this is a new kind of vessel for a new kind of religious service. It came to Stratford when Shakespeare was a boy as part of a nationwide campaign to tell England that Catholicism was well and truly out and that the Protestant reformation under Elizabeth was not only back, but was here to stay. Local piety was inseparable from national politics and what happened in this parish church was decided in London.

Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 1530s and the Reformation that followed had been brutal but piecemeal. After Henry's death there was a dizzying six years of extreme Protestantism under his son Edward VI, followed by a no less dizzying five years of vigorous Roman Catholicism under Edward's half-sister, Mary. When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 and reinstated Protestantism, many people must have wondered whether her reign or her religion were going to last long enough for it to be worth anybody converting again.

Which brings us back to our cup. In the Catholic mass, the wine was drunk only by the priest. In a Protestant service every parishioner was allowed, indeed obliged, to sip from it in commemoration of the Last Supper. A silver cup like this one was for Elizabethans a kind of Protestant team-building exercise, a new communal experience, not just a religious innovation but a social and a political one and everybody had to join in.

In Shakespeare's day church attendance was compulsory, imposed by act of parliament and enforced by law, so any religious change affected the fabric of the whole society. Every life was lived within the framework provided by the church but, ever since Henry VIII's break with Rome that framework had become more and more unstable. The generation that first heard Hamlet had never known the timeless security of the faith of their grandparents.

Here in Holy Trinity Shakespeare's own life is marked out for us, this is where he made his entrance and his exit. He was baptised here in this medieval font and it was here, 52 years later, that he was buried on the 23rd April 1616. With me is the Reverend Martin Gorick, Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, and we are looking at the Parish Register now held in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust:

Rev Gorick: 'Well we are looking at the register entry for Shakespeare's birth in 1564.'

N MacGregor: Yes it says `Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere' and then the date says 26th April 1564. Is that his birth date?

Rev Gorick: 'That is his baptism date. We don't actually know his birth date. We know then people baptised their children as soon as possible after birth.'

N MacGregor: So he comes a few days old, he is baptised here, and if we look at the burials section of the same register we realise that was actually not a great moment to be born in Stratford.

Rev Gorick: 'Exactly. I mean this is the 11th July you've got `here begins the plague' and then you've got 20th, two on 24th, three on 26th, it just increases faster and faster. I mean within a couple of days in July you've got 2 children from the same family dying here of plague.'

N MacGregor: And as the months go on this rhythm continues, until the end of the year.

Rev Gorick: 'And this is in a town nothing like the size now, it was only 3000 people. So you could imagine that number going, each one a great mound of earth in the churchyard. Dramatic really.'

Shakespeare was lucky to survive. Although he was baptised here into a clearly Protestant church, there were still lots of physical traces of the Catholic past roundabout and there were lots of worries that that Catholic past might still be dangerously present. During his childhood, the visible signs of Catholicism were being systematically removed, and in Stratford, few played a bigger part in that process than Shakespeare's own father.

I am now standing outside the Guildhall, just a couple of streets away from Holy Trinity Church. For me, the most striking example of how the world changed as the Reformation bit deeper is here in the chapel of the Guildhall. Inside the chapel you can still see the remains of a great wall-painting of the Last Judgement: in the middle a cross, on one side the heavenly city and on the other, hell. Everybody sitting in this church would have known that this was going to be the most important moment of their existence, the goal of their spiritual life. But Protestants disliked images of all sorts and so William Shakespeare's father, John, arranged for the whole of this Last Judgement scene to be whitewashed over and for 250 years it disappeared. A huge part of the inherited spiritual landscape, familiar for centuries, was just wiped out.

This is the environment that Shakespeare grew up in. Unlike his parents he never heard a church service in Latin, he read the bible and the prayer book in English, he drank communion wine from a communal cup in a church virtually without images. But in this Protestant environment, just below the whitewash, in the Guildhall chapel in Stratford and across the whole of England, the memories and the images of the Catholic faith were still present and potent. Historian Eamon Duffy of the University of Cambridge:

'The shift from one way of doing things to a new service, which was often seen as being imposed from London, would certainly have been noticed. Some people were thrilled by it, like the arrival of the English bible for many people that was literally a revelation and an empowerment, for other people it was tiresome gobbledegook. So it took people time to accustom themselves to these changes. So when we look at this cup, we are looking at a whole culture in movement, adjusting itself.'

What we haven't mentioned so far is that the lid of this cup bears an inscription, it's engraved with the year '1571'. It's a highly significant date: the year before the Pope had excommunicated Elizabeth and declared that English Catholics were no longer bound to obey her. It was an explosive, provocative move, a great polarising moment in the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism in England. From that point on, to be a Catholic was a high-risk strategy perilously close to treason.

In response, Protestant reforms were given a new push. Unadorned Protestant silver cups like this one were issued to churches across England. In the same year that this cup arrived in Stratford, Shakespeare's father organised the removal of the old Catholic stained glass windows in the Guild chapel and had them replaced with clear glass - a dramatic scene that was likely to have been witnessed by his seven year old son. It would be very hard now to go back to Catholicism. Drinking from this cup meant not just that you were a Protestant, but that you were a loyal subject of the Queen and to refuse to drink from this cup was a very grave step.

In his plays Shakespeare captures this painful transition, the moment when the Catholicism that his parents had practised became something to be spoken of only in the past tense. By the time Hamlet was written you probably had to be about 50 to remember the mass taking place in an English parish church, and not many people made it to 50. Yet Shakespeare knew, as well as anyone, that the reality was more complex. Hamlet and his student friends have all just come back from studying at the University of Wittenberg, the German city where Luther had proclaimed the new Protestant beliefs. Like Shakespeare himself, this Hamlet generation is caught up in the new Protestant future of northern Europe. But it is a future dangerously haunted, as Shakespeare shows us, by the ghosts of the past, in England, as on the ramparts of Elsinore.

Ghost: 'I am thy father's spirit,

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confined to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away.'

(Hamlet 1.5.9-13)

When the ghost of Hamlet's father appears, he speaks not in the language of Lutheran Protestantism, but in the older terms of a soul suffering in purgatory, an idea that Protestantism had vigorously denied. And throughout the play, the old speak the language of an abandoned faith to the bewildered young. The habits and the haunting fears of the past just would not die. Catholicism could be suppressed, blotted out like the whitewashed image of the Last Judgement in Stratford's Guildhall, but it was never eliminated. Eamon Duffy again:

'There would still have been old people when Shakespeare was young saying the rosary, crossing themselves when there was thunder, using holy water. Catholic beliefs remained current in one form or another, especially around things like funerals, for a very long time.'

King: Here's to thy health. Give him the cup.

(Hamlet 5.2.277)

NM studio: The last Act of Hamlet is set in a palace but even in a church, as the cup we've been looking at in this programme demonstrates, drinking as the sovereign commands was inescapably about political obedience. The ghosts of the old faith lingered on in England but as Elizabeth's reign drew to a childless close, so an old fear revived and strengthened: the fear of a succession crisis, of armed conflict between Catholics and Protestants and full-blown civil war.

Hamlet ends with that fear coming true - there is no clear heir to the Danish throne, and the country is invaded by a foreigner who takes the crown. Everybody watching Hamlet around 1600 knew that this long fear, which had preoccupied, obsessed, the nation for over 30 years, was now of unavoidable urgency. When the queen died, there was going to be a crisis.

But as well as worrying about politics, theatre-goers, then as now, were also keen to enjoy themselves. In the next programme, I'll be looking at what they might have been eating as they watched that last act of Hamlet. We'll be snacking through Shakespeare.

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

Hamlet (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01307-7