Over the Easter weekend we’ve probably all eaten too many Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies. As the first festival of spring, it’s also traditionally our first opportunity for getting outdoors after the cold, dark days of winter, when we enjoy the return of life to the countryside with spring flowers, baby lambs and trees coming into leaf.
Easter is the most important festival in the Christian calendar, its message of resurrection after death and the forgiveness of sin being central to Christianity. Shakespeare rarely mentions Easter specifically, but this message of suffering, forgiveness and rebirth is deeply rooted in many of his plays.
Easter follows the six abstemious weeks of lent, when in the past food was naturally scarce at the end of winter. Many people still give something up, usually alcohol or chocolate. In the days leading up to Easter the Good Friday crucifixion of Christ is remembered. In Richard II, Shakespeare’s king draws parallels between himself and Christ, in particular the story of Christ’s betrayal leading to his crucifixion. This post from Blogging Shakespeare examines these connections in detail.
Easter Sunday celebrates Christ’s resurrection and is a time for feasting, hence the chocolate. The Christian festival is closely related to pagan fertility rites celebrating the rebirth of the natural world in spring. The word Easter itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, Eostre. Like the dawn of every new day, Easter marks the return of warmth to the earth, when plants begin to grow and animals begin their breeding season.
The ideas of hope and renewal are so deep in Shakespeare’s mindset that they permeate his plays. The most direct references to resurrection come in the plays that he wrote towards the end of his career, where a series of women appear to come back to life: Thaisa in Pericles, Imogen in Cymbeline and most explicitly, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. She has been thought to be dead for sixteen years, and in the final scene of the play her statue appears to come to life. What must it have been like to be in the audience for the first performance, when the miracle of resurrection happened before their eyes? The audience, for once does not know what is going to happen. When Claudio is revealed as being alive in Measure for Measure, or Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, the audience already knows they aren’t dead. But not this time. There’s even an echo of Christ’s command to his disciples not to touch him when Paulina commands Perdita not to touch her “The statue is but newly fix’d, the colour’s not dry”.
Shakespeare’s people are not brought back to life by miracles, but by being concealed and rediscovered. The Tempest might not have such an obvious Easter theme as The Winter’s Tale, but it has echoes everywhere. The back-story is the betrayal, years earlier, of Prospero by his brother. Prospero and his baby daughter seem to those who are shipwrecked on the life to come back to life after years of being assumed dead. The final scene of The Winter’s Tale focuses on those who observe the resurrection, but The Tempest is seen from the point of view of the person in control, Prospero. Prospero has divine power over life and death: “Graves at my command have wak’d their sleepers, op’d and let ’em forth” and he has power over all the humans on the island. He has the opportunity to take revenge on those who deposed him and sought his death.
But Prospero chooses to become a vulnerable human being, freeing himself of resentment against those who betrayed him and forgiving them, a parallel with Christ’s crucifixion. Finally, he puts his fate into the hands of the audience:
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
It’s an extraordinary moment in the play which is thought to have been the last he wrote, and in which that final speech has sometimes been interpreted as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. One of Prospero’s last acts while in control is to set free Ariel, the spirit who has served him while he has lived on the island. Contemplating freedom at last, Ariel sings about his idea of paradise, and it’s a vision of the English countryside in springtime:
Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
Shakespeare remains important to us because although he wrote at a particular place and time in history, his work applies to people no matter where or when they live, and regardless of their beliefs. He absorbed universal ideas of suffering, death, forgiveness and rebirth, linking them with pagan ideas about the cycle of the year bringing life back to the earth. For Shakespeare this is the most important and most optimistic time of the year – enjoy it!