Shakespeare (letter)

Shakespeare (letter)

John Doherty

I refer to a letter from John A. Rayner in the August AD2000.

Rayner admits he has no details to offer, nor any proof, but goes on to maintain that the source of the stories on which Shakespeare based his plays was a book apparently in existence somewhere in Lancashire. The stories in this book are, according to Rayner, those of Hamlet, King Lear, etc. He further claims that some annotations in this book are in Shakespeare's handwriting.

However, apart from some signatures, which in any case vary among themselves, nothing is known of Shakespeare's handwriting. The claim would not be accepted by modern mainstream Shakespearian scholars.

Despite having only a vague memory of what he was told of the book, and building on the insubstantial foundation it appears to offer him, Rayner goes on to maintain it is "reasonable to suppose" Shakespeare spent time in Lancashire visiting the houses of the landed gentry who were, "almost entirely, solidly Catholic". This suggests to Rayner that Shakespeare, being "well-received" in these Catholic houses, was "well-versed in Catholic beliefs and practices and may even have been one himself."

Why is it reasonable to suppose Shakespeare spent much time in Lancashire? How can we conclude he was well-received in Catholic households? How does Rayner's informant know the annotations in the book are in Shakespeare's handwriting? There is far too much of "it is reasonable to suppose", "probably", "it is likely" and "I feel sure" in all these attempts to claim Shakespeare for Catholicism.

Pious suppositions and wishful thinking are not enough. This applies to Hal Colebatch's reply to my earlier letter. He claims the evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicity is "nigh-overwhelming" but does not produce it. He merely contents himself with saying Shakespeare never wrote anti-Catholic propaganda.

My answer to that is, what about King John's virulent attack on the Pope in the play King John; Hamlet's Protestantism or even agnosticism; or the venality and mendacity of the cardinals in the play King Henry VIII?

The list goes on, but it is balanced by Shakespeare's sympathetic portrayal of Catholic clerics in other situations, such as the friar in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare did not take sides. He presented people as he saw them. There is nothing to be concluded, either from his plays or his life as we know it, about the religious or political beliefs of William Shakespeare.

JOHN DOHERTY
Camberwell, Vic

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