BBC Radio 3 recently presented the podcast “Shakespeare: Religion and Clerics“, featuring the Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London and Professor Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham.

Playwrights, during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-1625), were prohibited by Royal Proclamation from writing about religious matters on the stage. So history’s greatest English writer innovates.

King Lear   Take physic, pomp. Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them And show the heavens more just.

Bishop Chartres recites a passage where “King Lear”, no longer in his castle, calls on powerful men (“the Church”!) to embrace “compassion” and “fairness” in his Orson Welles-like voice:

People were commanded to take sides in the great divide between Protestants and Catholics, or risk death. Chartres discusses Shakespeare’s message, asking the audience to “go beyond those antagonisms” to “search for a truth that is elusive”, “and only is revealed if you look from various angles and perspectives”.

The presenter, Rana Mitter, and Professor Fernie discuss Shakespeare’s use of Falstaff to parody religious actions lacking conviction:

Falstaff  To die is to be a counterfit

To “Counterfeit” is “to stage resurrection on the Shakespearean stage”, “linked to the second life of an actor playing another part”, as in acting the part of a born-again Christian. Hypocrites never “feel what wretches feel”.