Arts > Cardinal sin

04 May 2017 | by Mark Lawson

Cardinal sin

The Cardinal, Southwark Playhouse, London


The recurrence of Roman Catholic cardinals as characters in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dramas – most notably in the plays of William Shakespeare and John Webster – has two motivations.

Cardinal Wolsey at the court of King Henry VIII and Cardinal Richelieu’s service to King Louis XIII offered close historical models for sybaritic or libidinous princes of the Church, as devoted to political power as to divine reward: Richelieu became France’s Foreign Minister. And caricatures of such Vatican barons could be calculated to please monarchs and playgoers in post-Reformation England.

But an equal attraction to dramatists in the eras either side of Shakespeare – who features cardinals in four plays, including King John and Henry VIII – is that a cardinal then had a job description crammed with possible plot twists. A man who presides over coronations, weddings, funerals, baptisms, exorcisms and confessions is never going to be short of story-advancing things to do on stage.


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