from Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury by Charles Williams
This is my first character analysis and I believe that there could not be a more fitting character to analyze than this walking, dancing contradiction. The Skeleton from Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury by Charles Williams is one of the most complex characters I have ever read. At times he seems to represent Christ, and at other times he seems to represent the devil. In an essay I wrote for Grove City College, I claim that he represents both.
My professor disagreed strongly with my essay, since she thought that the Skeleton was exclusively a Christ figure. She said I was too swayed by one critic, which was not at all true because I came to my conclusions by reading the play carefully and thoroughly before I read any literary criticism. What I can say in her favor was although she didn’t agree with me, she did give me an A.
The analysis that I go into below is adapted from that essay. The citation style I used is MLA.
This play is a tragedy that follows the life and death of Thomas Cranmer, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Reformation under the reign of Henry VIII. Under the subsequent reign of Mary, when power in England flips back to the Roman Catholics, Cranmer is sentenced to death on charges of heresy. The Skeleton controls the action throughout and is a constant companion to Cranmer as well as reacting to other characters.
Few critics have seriously analyzed the Skeleton from Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury due to the play’s obscurity. This is strange, considering that according to Nancy-Lou Patterson, the play, “produced and published in 1936, is perhaps Williams’ best play” (321). Additionally, it was performed at the Canterbury Festival, which ought to have attached a certain fame to it, meriting it a body of established criticism. Its obscurity, therefore, has nothing to do with problems of publicity, but rather its complexity and ambiguity. These traits are best encompassed by one of the play’s main characters, the Skeleton. Typically, in literature a skeleton is a representation of death or evil, but to assume Williams’ Skeleton plays a role so simple would be to mischaracterize him. In Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury by Charles Williams, the skeleton functions as a Janus figure, a biblical echo chamber, and a personification of death.
Before seeking to understand William’s work, it is worthwhile to understand who he was. According to James George Dixon III, “Charles Williams is an enigma in twentieth century literature. He was born in 1886, died in 1945, achieved fame as a critic, poet, novelist, playwright, lecturer, biographer, essayist, theologian, and brilliant conversationalist” (170). He was a Protestant, and his religious beliefs heavily influence his work. It is worthy to note that starting in 1931, Hopkins was a major influence on Williams (Patterson 320). Many critics concur that Hopkin’s complex poetry may have impacted Williams’ later works, which no doubt would include his playwriting and his development of character dialogue in Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury.
Before going any further, it is necessary to lay out who the Skeleton is as a character in the play. A shallow understanding of the play would label the Skeleton as the antagonist, but his stance toward the protagonist changes throughout the course of the play, since by the end his intentions become more obviously good. As Dixon says, “the Skeleton is the touchstone of all the action that occurs in the play, setting up one action by his command, whispering in the King’s ear to stop another action, generally (and sometimes literally dancing through the scenes)” (180). He is a character of power, who knows it and uses it. Indeed, “the Skeleton’s presence unifies the action and keeps the play from being merely a chronicle play” (Dixon 180). It is the Skeleton himself who makes this play worthy of scholarly analysis and preservation, keeping it from being just another religious play or a footnote in the history of the Canterbury festival.
When Williams saw the Skeleton on stage, he was “delighted with the chorus figure, the Skeleton, who wore a black body-suit with white appliqué bones, and a black cloak ‘lined throughout with the green of spring, which appeared again as ivy-leaves round the brow’” (Lindop 348). This reveals that it represents his intentions for the Skeleton, for a writer could never be satisfied with a costume design for one of his characters that did not properly demonstrate the character’s inner values and meaning. From Williams’ pleasure alone, one can infer that the Skeleton is a character of complexity, for his costume design is one that represents both death in the form of bones and life in the form of ivy.
A character of opposites—that is what the Skeleton is. Williams’ own words confirm and expand on this concept and provide insight into the variety of things a Skeleton can represent:
A book of some interest may be written upon English literature through the ages under the title of the Skeleton….Every age, like every poet and every man, has the skeleton it deserves; the life of the skeleton is its own doubled life, and marriage with the skeleton is after all the wisest intercourse with it—meaning by that all that marriage involves of intimacy and strangeness, of friendship and hostility, of freedom and captivity, and something like a new life.”Williams qtd in Dixon 182
This is what the Skeleton is—it is also relevant to remember what the Skeleton is not. He is not a mind or soul, which he himself reveals in one of his monologues:
Fast runs the mind,
and the soul a pace behind:
without haste or sloth
come I between both.”Williams 5
Basic logic establishes that something between two things is not either of those things, but is instead something entirely different. He explains who he is in the next few lines: “And along the hangman’s way/we all three run level,/mind, soul, and God or the Devil.” (Williams 3). If he is not the mind or the soul, he must be God or the Devil. Now the word “or” is used in two ways—either exclusively or inclusively. Exclusive “or” requires that it must be one or the other; it cannot be both. Inclusive “or” permits either of the options to be correct, or both. This essay argues that the inclusive sense of the word “or” is correct here. Woody Wendling argues that “it is ambiguous whether the skeleton represents Christ or devil, or both,” supporting an inclusive use of the word (4).
The Skeleton represents both Christ and the Devil. As Williams points out in the quote included earlier, “the life of a Skeleton is a double life” (qtd. in Dixon 182)—which can be understood to mean that he does not represent just a single entity, but two. This is why such an apt comparison can be drawn between Janus, the two-headed god of Roman mythology, and the Skeleton. It is useful to consider one by understanding the other, because it can illuminate what Williams’ was attempting to achieve with the Skeleton. Janus is a god of opposites, of beginnings and endings, life and death, childhood and adulthood, war and peace. He is also the god of transitions, which will be covered later as another similarity with the Skeleton. For now, it suffices to appreciate that Janus is opposites which exist in a complementary whole, just like the Skeleton, who manages to represent Christ at times and the Devil at others.
Wendling goes on to say that the Skeleton, “a figure apparently representing Evil or Death ultimately appears, in the light of eternity, as the instrument of Good” (3). This is not, however, because the Skeleton was a representation of Christ all along. Rather, it is a demonstration that any conflict between Christ and the Devil, even if they are both present in a figure such as the Skeleton, is bound to end out with God as the victor. This is because the God of the Christian religion not only uses good to achieve His ends, but can bring good even out of evil, using the Devil’s own devices against him.
It is sensible that a play ending with a representation of Christ in the form of the Skeleton show glimpses of the Skeleton as a Christ-figure at the very beginning. The Skeleton first appears while carrying a crozier, which is a hooked staff carried by a bishop and associated with shepherds. In fact, it was chosen as a symbol of pastoral office because of its resemblance to a shepherd’s staff—which is a clear reference to Christ, who is often referred to as the Good Shepherd.
In case viewers or readers become too comfortable with the idea that the Skeleton represents Christ alone, there are many lines that connect him to the Devil and Christ. For example, the following section:
I am the way, the way to heaven;
who will show a poor blind beggar the way to heaven?
I am the way, the way to hell,
who will teach a poor blind beggar the way to hell?
I am the way, the way to salvation,
who will desire the way of salvation?”Williams 13
Christ does describe himself as “the way” (John 14:6). He certainly does present himself as the way to heaven and salvation, and even says that “no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). He never, however, even remotely suggests that he is the way to hell. It is simply not logically possible for a closer relationship with Christ to lead to estrangement from God. There are only three possibilities that directly result from consideration of these lines. Either this Skeleton represents both Christ and the Devil, just represents the Devil (who is certainly capable of quoting Scripture for his own manipulative uses), or Christ is being represented as a liar. The first is frankly the most reasonable. The positive ending of the play with Cranmer’s repentance and the Skeleton’s role in leading him to it makes it impossible for the Skeleton to be just the Devil. If the Skeleton only represented Christ, he would not call himself the way to hell, which would certainly qualify as a lie or a major theological error, both of which the Protestant Williams would be unlikely to attribute to merely a Christ-figure.
There are certain times when the Skeleton simply acts as a Christ figure. For instance, when he is described as “Christ’s back” (Williams 54). According to Wendling, “at one point the skeleton refers to himself as the backside of Christ…Williams obviously has Moses in mind” (4). This reference to Moses comes from Exodus 33:18-34:9, when Moses saw God, but could only be shown His back, for Moses’ own protection. As a result, it can be inferred that the guise of a Skeleton was adopted in part to protect Cranmer from the grandeur of God, which would be otherwise overwhelming. Thus, Christ’s back is not a negative image—it does not mean Christ is turning his back on Cranmer.
Such passages that directly connect the Skeleton to Christ are countered by passages that could only be associated with the Devil. For instance, the Skeleton asserts that “yet I only am the pit where Gehenna is sprung” (Williams 11). In the Christian religion, Hell, also referred to as Gehenna, did not spring from Christ, but rather from the machinations of the Devil and the sin and wickedness of humankind. It is the representation of the Devil that is speaking here, a terrible source of evil in Christianity who desires the damnation and destruction of humans—in this case, Cranmer.
There are instances when the Skeleton speaks of Christ. This seems to suggest that he is not Christ, since it is rare for anyone to refer to himself or herself in the third person. “Christ rode into Zion,” the Skeleton explains before identifying himself with the donkey Christ was riding instead (Williams 13). It makes sense that in this line it is the Devil who is being referred to, because there are numerous parts of the Bible where the Devil is described as being put beneath Christ. An example is 1 Corinthians 15:25, which states that “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Another verse claims that man and Christ will crush the head of the serpent; in other words, the Devil (Genesis 3:15). Both of these examples are of the Devil being physically and metaphorically beneath Christ, which is why when the Skeleton identifies himself as the donkey, he is associating himself with the Devil.
There are other times, however, when the Skeleton refers to Christ, but it does seem like he is speaking in the third person. One point where this happens is when the Skeleton says that “Christ laughs his foe to scorn, his angels he charges with folly” (Williams 54). The Skeleton is a dreaded character, and yet is a character of mirth. He dances around the stage and even sings at one point in the play. The song seems to be a mockery of Cranmer’s fear and amusement at his fate of burning at the stake:
For the burning of a poor man, a very poor man:
a poor man in duty, God save him from duty!
a poor man in honour, God save him from honour!
a poor man in misery, God save him from misery!
All Christian people, God save from riches!
if you have duty, God save you from duty!
if you have honour, God save you from honour!
if you have misery, God save you from misery!
God make you poor men for the burning of a poor manWilliams 54-55
It truly is as if the Skeleton is laughing and scorning the desperate Cranmer, just as he suggests Christ laughs at the folly even of the angels. At the same time, the laughter of the Devil would also seem warranted, though for a different reason. It is as if the Devil also thinks he has won at this point, with his little ditty about how the Christians must be saved from duty, honor, and misery, probably because it seems like they cannot handle it. Cranmer is a prime example of how a man can fall while carrying his cross, and it is likely that the Skeleton is mimicking Cranmer’s thoughts. No doubt Cranmer is mentally begging Christ to save him from his duty, honor, and misery—and most importantly, from burning. He does this despite his recantation, which he signed to save his life, though it proved futile.
That passage was one instance where it seemed that both Christ and the Devil were apparent. Here is another: “We of heaven are compassionate-kind” (Williams 6). Both Christ and the Devil are “of heaven” since Christ descended from heaven and the Devil is a fallen angel who originated from heaven. The Skeleton’s claim that he is “compassionate-kind” may be an honest assertion or a form of sarcastic irony (Williams 6). It is not clear who is speaking here: Christ, the Devil or both. In the end, this passage is a strong representation of how the Skeleton is a Janus-figure—one who represents Christ and the Devil.
A comparison between the Roman god Janus and the Skeleton is also a helpful way of understanding the Skeleton because Janus is the god of transitions. As explained earlier, the Skeleton is the way to both heaven and hell, a sort of path to either. He brings people to their ultimate destination, driving them toward either extreme: toward eternal happiness or eternal damnation. He is also “the delator of all things to their truth” (Williams 34). A delator is basically an accuser. The Skeleton, through his admonitions and scorn, drives people to their truth. He forces people to show their hand, revealing who they are as people. A person might profess love of God while his own cowardice leads him to recant, such as what happened to Cranmer. The Skeleton was not satisfied; he dug deeper, and when the burning was to happen anyway, Cranmer did a counter-recantation, and at the end of his life he reaffirmed his Protestant Christian beliefs. The Skeleton pushes a person through a period of transition to his or her ultimate fate, which is another way he resembles both Christ and the Devil. Christ seeks to lead a person toward heaven, and the Devil attempts to drive a person toward hell—the Skeleton, as both, does both.
The Skeleton also functions as a biblical echo chamber, resounding with verses and themes from the Bible for the audience to reflect on and appreciate from a different perspective. The fact that he quotes Scripture does not mean that the Skeleton is exclusively a figure of Christ. In the Bible, the Devil himself quoted Scripture while tempting Christ in the desert to give his arguments weight. Therefore, the instances where the Skeleton echoes Scripture can lead to no clear inferences as to his identity, but instead clarify his function as a figure in a religious play.
One example of when the Skeleton echoes Scripture is when he says that “heaven hears not twice” (Williams 6). This bears striking resemblance of meaning to Matthew 6:7, which states “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Both the line of the play and the verse in the Bible lecture against vain repetition, a practice in which a person prays endlessly for a thing in a passionless way without accepting that God will answer the prayer in time. The Skeleton says that “heaven hears not twice” because a prayer does not have to be repeated over and over to be accepted by God.
In addition, the Skeleton says that “The land also has visions. Speak, I permit you” (Williams 11). This may be a reference to Luke 19:40, which claims that if “[Christ’s disciples] keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Christ’s presence can cause even the land to respond. The command to land also echoes when Christ stilled the storm, demonstrating that he is capable of commanding and controlling the elements. The Skeleton, whether he is representing Christ or the Devil at any particular moment, is a character of power.
Another echo of Scripture come from these lines: “Brother reason and sister experience spew at each other, sister dogma and brother denial run askew” (Williams 12). This seems to echo Matthew 10:35-36, which states that:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.
In the lines from the play, brother is being turned against sister in a metaphorical way, but it nonetheless bears striking resemblance to Matthew 10:35-36.
In addition to being a Janus-figure and a biblical echo chamber, the Skeleton also represents death. Even though the Skeleton enters carrying a crozier instead of a scythe, it cannot be without reason that Williams chose a symbol linked so strongly with death. The Skeleton is described as the Figura Rerum, and “for Cranmer, the ‘shape of things to come’ is martyrdom and death. A skeleton is a symbol of death.” (Wendling 3). The Skeleton’s power seems to increase in intensity when Cranmer approaches his death, as the Skeleton begins to dance and sing. In the end, when Cranmer dies, it is clear that the Skeleton is the victor; he has achieved his aim. For all of these reasons, the Skeleton is a figure of death.
The Skeleton is notable for his complex function within the play and the layered symbolism that makes him a striking character. He is so complicated that using multiple metaphors is the only efficient way to attempt an explanation of his function. Through an examination of the Skeleton as a Janus-figure, a biblical echo chamber, and a symbol of death, viewers and readers of the play can come to understand this intricate character.
- Dixon, James George, III. “Cranmer of Canterbury, 1936.” The Canterbury Festival Plays in Production, 1928-1958. Collection of Janice Brown, Grove City, Pennsylvania.
- Lindop, Grevel. “Charles Williams and W. B. Yeats.” Yeats Annual, vol. 1, no. 21, 2018, pp. 317–354. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/90020744. Accessed 28 November 2020.
- New International Version. Bible Gateway, 2011, https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-International-Version-NIV-Bible/. Accessed 28 November 2020.
- Patterson, Nancy-Lou. “Charles Williams (20 September 1886-15 May 1945).” Modern British Essayists: Second Series, edited by Robert Lawrence Beum, vol. 100, Gale, 1990, pp. 316-325. Gale Literature: Dictionary of Literary Biography, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/KYIVSR812168091/DLBC?u=grov34532&sid=DLBC&xid=ce8387d8. Accessed 27 Nov. 2020.
- Wendling, Woody. “So You’ve Always Wanted to Read Charles Williams? An Introduction to His Plays.” Inklings Forever, vol. 7, no. 30, 2010, pp. 1-7.
- Williams, Charles. “Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury.” Collected Plays, edited by John Heath-Stubbs, Regent College Publishing, 2005, pp. 3-59.