Former Archbishop of Canterbury Discusses Shakespeare’s Works

Dr. Rowan Williams delivered a lecture on Shakespeare as the third part of this year’s Notre Dame Forum, which was also the 2018-2019 Religion and Literature lecture. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus leader of the Anglican Communion worldwide, and an acclaimed scholar of religion and literature, Williams’ speech was a highly anticipated event. Given on November 26 in the Dahnke Ballroom, he entitled his lecture, “Relieved by Prayer: Power, Shame, and Redemption in Shakespeare’s Drama”.

Williams began by reading the final speech of The Tempest, which is delivered by Prospero, the central character of the play. The key line, from which the title of the lecture was drawn, is: “Now I want / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, / And my ending is despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer…”.

Prospero is addressing the audience, asking them to pray, Williams explained, as “Shakespeare was interested in prayer, interested in the ways in which prayer is frustrated, misdirected, made possible or impossible by the acts in which people are implicated, and particularly in the years between 1599 and 1611 he addresses this question in various ways.” Williams then examined prayers from several different plays before returning to Prospero’s speech in order to elucidate it.

The first example he brought forth was from the fourth act of Henry V, where Henry, the king of England, beseeches God to allow him to win in battle the next day. “But what Shakespeare has done in this speech,” Williams argues, ‘is to foreground that possible dimension that could render prayer ineffectual, which is the inner dividedness of the praying soul.” Henry is only king because his father deposed a lawful king, Richard II, and thus Henry knows he cannot claim divine assistance, as he cannot truly be penitent while still possessing the fruits of that sinful action. Shakespeare questions what allows prayer to be effectual or ineffectual, and if interior penitence is the entirety of the matter.

The second example, which Williams named as likely being the most famous prayer in all of Shakespeare’s corpus, is Claudius’s prayer in Hamlet. Claudius is struggling with his guilt for having murdered his brother to marry his wife and become king, another prayer attempting repentance while still possessing those goods which were obtained through a sinful action. Williams recognized that in prayers of repentance, “penitence is indeed all-powerful, the internal turning to God is crucial, but it’s not something which can simply be detached from the business of restored relationship.”

The truth must be acknowledged, but Claudius, as Williams stated it, is merely trying to “stage” repentance and fails. His prayer was insincere, and the scene ends with him acknowledging that his prayer was “abortive”: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (III.iii.). He “is frozen in a state of untruthfulness,” Williams explained.

The final instance Williams addressed was from Measure for Measure, where Angelo, who is the deputy of the Duke of Venice while he is away, has attempted to blackmail a Franciscan postulant into impurity, and then summons her back the next day and reveals that he spent the past night in thought and prayer. Yet he admits that “heaven hath my empty words” (Act II scene iv). What he is actually intending to do is not moved by the prayers of repentance he offers. Although the play is a comedy and ends with a series of marriages, “the artificiality, the violence of the last scene” Williams said, “shows us that we are very definitely in an unreconciled world, where prayer has once again been frozen, aborted or frustrated.”

This, Williams describes, is “a rather bleak picture of prayer.” What has been demonstrated in these three examples is prayer that is nullified by shame and violence, and that the struggle to exert one’s power ultimately leaves one trapped.

Returning to Prospero, Williams asked why Prospero would then think he could be relieved by prayer? In The Tempest, Prospero has succeeded, with everyone but himself: he has uncovered the truth and set the rest of the characters free, yet he is left unreconciled. Although the renunciation he performs in the final speech is key, prayer is also required, which is why, “he needs the audience, he needs the redeemed human community,” he explained.

Williams then began to move from the realm of the stage into the reality of the audience, who is asked to breathe life into Prospero, just as a community breathes life into each other. Within the final line is the word indulgence: “Let your indulgence set me free.” While Williams acknowledged the tumultuous history of that word within the history of Christianity in Europe, he asserted that Shakespeare saw in the word indulgence the meaning that one member of the Body of Christ, in some sense, is able to take on the suffering of another. At the end of the play, we are called to enact for Prospero what we need to do for one another, and when we breathe this freedom, prayer is justified and answered, and “we are relieved.”

Williams’ genius shone through the gentleness with which he taught to an audience ranging from professors of English and Theology to undergraduate students. While exploring the depths of Shakespeare’s thought on prayer, he was able to provide a natural context for each of the plays, so that it was neither redundant for those who were Shakespeare scholars nor bewildering for those who have not read Shakespeare since high school. However, the great beauty of his lecture came from his seamless synthesis of the realm of religion, in terms of a Christian understanding of prayer, and his astounding perceptions into literature, as the lecture was grounded in Shakespeare. The closing, however, elucidated the heart of the lecture: after all of the examples of frustrated, ineffectual prayer, there is found in Prospero’s speech a recognition of the need for the members of the Body of Christ to reconcile one another through prayer, which became a call from Williams to his own audience members, that we part from the lecture in order to relieve others by prayer.

Therese Benz is a senior English major who wishes she owned two guinea pigs, which she would probably name Merry and Pippin. If you have a similar wish, let her know by emailing her at