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‘Cruel Irreligious Piety’—Shakespeare Tears the Bloody Curtain Aside

Chapter 1 

The December 2013 Smithsonian has Ron Rosenbaum’s interview of stage and film director Julie Taymore—she of the glorious staging of The Lion King and film of Shakespeare’s The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. Regarding the Bard, Taymore says his plays are “a fantasy and a nightmare.” (SOURCE: Rosenbaum, R. (2013). Why Shakespeare is Julie Taymor’s Superhero. Smithsonian.

No wonder. “By S. Clarke Hulse’s count, Titus Andronicus is a play with 14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity and 1 of cannibalism—an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or 1 for every 97 lines.”

Titus has returned to Rome after 10 years of warfare and the death of 21 of his 25 sons. He then sacrifices the son of the captured queen of the Goths, Tamora. Seeing her first-born murdered, she cries, “Cruel irreligious piety.”

What of “piety”? According to the ubiquitous Wikipedia, “the word piety comes from the Latin word pietas, the noun form of the adjective pius (which means ‘devout’ or ‘good’). Pietas in traditional Latin usage expressed a complex, highly-valued Roman virtue; a man with pietas respected his responsibilities to gods, country, parents, and kin.” (SOURCE:  Piety. (2017, April 3). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:30, May 31, 2017, from

Then what about joining irreligious to piety? This is an oxymoron—incongruous or contradictory terms appear side by side. Or this is paradox, a contradiction, and in this case is a bold contradiction straight up. And that is what we will be reviewing here—the strange denial by the kings or rulers, so that no matter how horrific their actions in war, if these actions can be clothed in some form of supposed virtue, right, or justice by the lights of the rulers, then the actions cannot be judged irreligious. 

For Taymor, these are “the most extraordinary three words. They represent our day and age better than any I know. Because [our day and age is filled with] ‘cruel, irreligious piety’—in the name of which we bomb these people or we kill those people.”
[Taymore closes with] “My favorite play is Titus and it will always be Titus…I think it contains the truth of human nature. Especially about evil, about violence, about blood. [Titus] investigates every aspect of violence that exists. It is the most terrifying play or movie that exists. Because what Shakespeare’s saying is that anybody can turn into a monster. That is why I think Titus is way beyond Hamlet.”

SOURCE: Rosenbaum, R. (2013). Why Shakespeare is Julie Taymor’s Superhero. Smithsonian.

Chapter 2

Shakespeare coined the phrase “irreligious piety” and used it in Titus, but by God, he instantiates it in several of his other plays. Within days of reading Taymor’s remarks, I viewed The Hollow Crown:

…a tale of family, politics and power. The films tell the rise and fall of three Kings and how their destiny shaped our history. Richard II is a vain, self-indulgent man who rules with little regard for his people’s welfare. He is ultimately overthrown by his cousin Bolingbroke, who ascends the throne as Henry IV. Henry IV’s reign is marred by his own guilt over Richard’s death, civil war, and the fear that his son Hal is a total wastrel. When Hal comes to the throne as Henry V he is left to bury the ghosts of his father’s past whilst fighting his own demons. 

SOURCE: BBC. (2012). The Hollow Crown.

More ‘cruel irreligious piety’ you could not ask for, and the Bard produced it on stage as a “fantasy and a nightmare,” lo those many years ago in England, and more’s the pity. No. Wait. It is good that the Bard has shown the gnarled understanding of kings who would claim piety of motivation to cover over their wars, their meanness, their avarice, their irreligious, vicious, bellicose instincts. 

Chapter 3 

Enter Henry V and his train. His Norman family, having crossed the channel generations ago, are back on the continent in France putting forward claims on various lands. Henry V addresses the Governor and some French nationals from the walls of Harfleur; the English forces there also.

Henry V

How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit;
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves;
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst: for, as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried. 
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants. 
What is it then to me, if impious war,
Array’d in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do, with his smirch’d complexion, all fell feats
Enlink’d to waste and desolation?
What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career? 
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore.
Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany. 
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes, 
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughter men.
What say you? will you yield, and this avoid,
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d?

So much for kindness and mercy among Christians, Angles and Normans in the Middle Ages! Harking back to Athens, in its self-governing heyday, the conquered were in no better condition, for Athens was, for all its trumpeted democracy, a rabid imperialism all around the Mediterranean, according to Bettany Hughes. (SOURCE:  Hughes, B. (no date). “Athens: The Truth About Democracy.”

Kings and rulers do not confine their wars to the battlefields. Civilians have been crushed and flattened all through the ages right up to Syria, 9/11, Baghdad, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Auschwitz, Little Big Horn, Rwanda. 

Chapter 4 

Let us step away from Shakespeare for a while. What of the Spaniards? Did they manifest irreligious piety? Well, they have that Black Legend to contend with:

Black Legend (Leyenda Negra), Spanish term indicating an unfavorable image of Spain and Spaniards, accusing them of cruelty and intolerance, formerly prevalent in the works of many non-Spanish, and especially Protestant, historians. Primarily associated with criticism of 16th-century Spain and the anti-Protestant policies of King Philip II (reigned 1556–98), the term was popularized by the Spanish historian Julián Juderías in his book La Leyenda Negra (1914; ‘The Black Legend’).

SOURCE: Black Legend. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Chapter 5

Before covering another instance of irreligious piety, let me comment that, for my money, the Black Legend applied only to the Spaniards is a bad rap, because they did not by any means corner the market on cruelty.

History is replete with peoples and generals and rulers who practiced cruelty in war in the name of piety from their presumptuous perspective. But a reasonable person should be able to see that this kind of political piety is actually irreligious piety, which has stained centuries of vaunted and hyped so-called civilization.

For instance, the commonly accepted signifier of Alexander as “the Great” would be more precise with the addition of the Greek for killer: μεγάλη δολοφόνος (‘The Great Killer’). Was he a mixture of revered Hellenic values of fame, fabled glory and heroism, and his own instinctual cruelty, lust for power and sociopathy? Michael Wood’s film series about Alexander ends on this note with a “yes.” (SOURCE: Wood, M. (1998) In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. BBC.)

Could the same be said for the romanticized and glamorized Napoleon? If you watch enough History Channel, you will get sick of all the hacking with swords, battle-axes and spears. 

Chapter 6 

So, back to the Spanish. Have you heard of El Requerimiento? I did on the Santa Fe Community College radio show when Craig Barnes interviewed author Michael Wilcox. The internet has reviewed it. Read on.

“The Requerimiento (Spanish—requirement, as in ‘demand’) was a written declaration of sovereignty and war, read by Spanish military forces to assert their sovereignty (a dominating control) over the Americas. Written by Council of Castile jurist Juan López de Palacios Rubios in 1513, it was used to justify the assertion that God, through historical Saint Peter and appointed Papal successors, held authority as ruler over the entire Earth; and that the Inter Caetera Papal Bull, of 4 May 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, conferred title over all the Americas to the Spanish monarchs. The Requerimiento probably had its origins as early as the 8th century in the Dawah messages sent to non-Muslim nations by Arab conquerors, demanding that their recipients submit to Islamic rule.
“The Requerimiento emerged in the context of moral debates within Spanish elites over the colonization of the Americas, and associated actions such as war, slavery, ‘Indian reductions,’ conversions, relocations, and war crimes. Its use was criticized by many clerical missionaries, most prominently Bartolomé de las Casas.

SOURCE: Spanish Requirement of 1513. (2017, May 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:48, June 1, 2017, from

“The text:  

“On the part of the King, Don Fernando, and of Doña Juana, his daughter, Queen of Castile and León, subduers of the barbarous nations, we their servants notify and make known to you, as best we can, that the Lord our God, living and eternal, created the heaven and the earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and we, and all the men of the world, were and are all descendants, and all those who come after us.
Of all these nations God our Lord gave charge to one man, called St. Peter, that he should be lord and superior of all the men in the world, that all should obey him, and that he should be the head of the whole human race, wherever men should live, and under whatever law, sect, or belief they should be; and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction.
“One of these pontiffs, who succeeded St. Peter as lord of the world in the dignity and seat which I have before mentioned, made donation of these isles and Terra-firma to the aforesaid King and Queen and to their successors, our lords, with all that there are in these territories,
“Wherefore, as best we can, we ask and require you that you consider what we have said to you, and that you take the time that shall be necessary to understand and deliberate upon it, and that you acknowledge the Church as the ruler and superior of the whole world,
“But if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”

SOURCE: Spanish Requirement of 1513. (2017, May 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:48, June 1, 2017, from

Sounds like Henry V could have written this stuff.

 Chapter 7 

Closing up this story, let us return to Shakespeare. King Richard II, who was deposed by Henry IV, laments the plight of kings:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings!
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed—All murdered; for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and—farewell, king!
King Richard II (III, ii)

Henry V’s father, Henry IV (reign 1399-1413) complained, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” (Henry IV. Part II) Kings get headaches, and bad ones. They should because they believe the ill-judged piety of Joel 3:10—“Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, ‘I am a warrior.’” (English Standard Version)

Chapter 8

The last word goes to Guru Nanak (Guru Nanak (1469–1539) was the founder of Sikhism):

This is the dark age of the dagger;
The rulers act as butchers,
law has taken wings and fled;
Falsehood prevails; there is utter darkness
as on a moonless night;
It does not appear the moon of truth will ever rise;
Not knowing where the world is leading
I have been exasperated in search of the path;
This suffering is due to the state of ego all round;
it makes me sad;
What is the way out of this? 

(M: 1, p 145).



Originally published February 19, 2014 at:

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