How Christianity Transformed Political Life

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a play as complex as it is dark. Nonetheless it is a comedy as well as a dazzling drama—full of both horror and humor, with a happy ending. Attempting to condense its subtleties does no justice to the lessons its audience learns as they experience the range of emotions and prospects for tragedy and salvation of its central players. As political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa observed, “Shakespeare is Plato writing after Christianity.”

Just by focusing on the 45 lines of Act I, scene 1, we can anticipate how the rest of the play teaches us about the way Christianity transformed political and personal life. Christianity’s transcendent, otherworldly goals for human life forced a reevaluation of political life that risked a kind of fanaticism—the longing for a Heaven on Earth that might produce a Hell on Earth. For what Shakespeare presents is an ancient world that longs for something more than the pagan gods they worship and the realm of brutal, tyrannical politics.

The title The Winter’s Tale reminds us of Christmas. We anticipate a joyful play about the celebration of Christmas, the birth of Jesus. I once saw a performance whose musical accompaniment throughout was “Amazing Grace.”

The tragicomedy opens in Sicily with a genial conversation between two leading politicians of Bohemia and Sicily: Which country offers the most pleasing entertainment for its guests? The King of Bohemia has been visiting his childhood friend, the King of Sicily for nine months. While decades of political duties separated them, they kept in touch through correspondence and ambassadors.

One would assume the play is about contemporary Bohemia and Sicily. For Shakespeare’s audience these two nations raise pressing religious issues. Central Europe’s Bohemia is the late 14th century birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, some 150 years before Martin Luther. The island of Sicily is a Catholic kingdom, whose Mediterranean location places it in the path of an expanding Muslim empire.

In 1571, some 40 years before the play’s first performance, Christian navies, some based in Sicily, defeated Muslim forces in the decisive Battle of Lepanto, saving Italy from Muslim invasion. These two kingdoms are at the heart of world-historical political and religious conflicts—Protestant versus Catholic, Christian unity versus Muslim expansion, the West versus the East. For an Englishman, the situation is perplexing—he might be a member of the Church of England, an enemy (or adherent) of the Pope, one who recalls the terror of the Spanish Armada of 1588, or someone who even sees Islam as a balance against Spanish Papists.

The visiting Bohemian praises Sicily’s young prince Mamillius (about age 7) as, “a gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came into my note.” The Sicilian responds that “they that went on crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to see him a man.” The King has a worthy successor, but even more is portended by these words.

Here is the first biblical reference of many that fill the play: a clear parallel of the Sicilians with the elderly and devout Simeon and prophetess Anna at Mary and Joseph’s presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:25ff.): “And it was revealed unto [Simeon] by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Moreover, Simeon prophesies to Mary, his mother, “this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against. (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

The Sicilian sets us up for a tale of a Christ-like young man who will fulfill the hopes of the Kingdom, but then the play begins to confuse us. This is not contemporary Europe, with all its tensions and terrors. Instead, we find ourselves in a pagan world in which Christianity is marginal if at all present. This is a Winter’s Tale without a Christmas. And some of the main players are far worse than Scrooge.

Mamillius strikes one more as a Young Sheldon than young Jesus in the Temple. Far worse, his father is a mad and jealous tyrant, who, suspecting adultery, orders his boyhood friend the King of Sicily assassinated while also ordering his wife and newborn daughter whom he insists is a bastard thrown into fire.

The Bohemian flees, taking the King’s counselor with him. Urged for clemency, the King relents and commands that the babe be sent out of the kingdom and left to its fate on some foreign shore. Then he insists on a public trial of the Queen (who is Russian royalty) for treason and adultery. This is a Christmas Story with only Herod and the Slaughter of Innocents, and Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus that emphasizes the Savior’s dubious antecedent foreign female ancestors (Matthew 1:1-18).

Seeking to justify his rage by appeal to the Delphic Oracle, the King is thrown into further frenzy when the Oracle declares him a tyrant, the Queen innocent, and the King doomed to die without an heir. After first cursing the gods, he then repents of his outrages, after hearing the shocking announcement that his grieving son is dead and seeing his Queen drop dead before him at the show trial he demanded.

In the meantime, one of the King’s loyalists sorrowfully deposits the baby, together with gold and her name, Perdita (“the lost one”), on the faraway shore of Bohemia. The loyalist is attacked and eaten by a bear, but Perdita is rescued by a peasant and his son.

The second half of the play begins in Bohemia, 17 years later. It is as fantastically comical and musical as the first is barbarically tragic and austere. Romance, gaiety, a sheep-shearing festival, and one of the slyest villains of Shakespeare, the witty petty thief (and minstrel) Autolycus entertain us. Perdita, who apparently knows nothing of her origins, has grown into a stunning young woman, a shepherdess who wins the heart of the son of the King of Bohemia.

We see dialogue and action concerning reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, nature and bastards, superstition and true religion, eternal life, and resurrection—all illumined by the highest form of love—or agape—that is only hinted at. The model human is no longer the ancient world’s cunning thievery of Autolycus (the name of Odysseus’ father) but the loving thievery of Christ, who stole away the sins of the world and was crucified between two thieves.

The Winter’s Tale depicts a pagan world governed by irrationality—and thus not ruled at all—and by swings between brutality and sensual pleasure that long for a purer world that the love of the everliving God prepares us for on earth and in heaven.

The season of Advent anticipates not only Christmas Day but the return of Christ. Requiting that eternal, personal love for a fallen humanity is our ultimate earthly purpose. Without consciousness of that personal debt we cannot govern our lives and truly be free from the tyranny ruling our souls or from the tyranny that comes from other men. We cannot otherwise be self-governing.

Shakespeare brings his audience into his story so that he may lead it. ultimately, toward the only greater story. This purpose is disclosed by the key figure Paulina, who exercises control over both the King and Queen of Sicily: “It is required/You do awake your faith . . . .”

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

Photo: Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images

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