Michael Daniel

Was Shakespeare a Catholic? What the latest evidence suggests.

by Joseph Pearce,
(Ignatius Press, 2008, hardback, 216pp, $39.90.
ISBN: 978-1-58617-224-4. Available from Freedom Publishing)

In recent years there has been a revived interest in teaching and studying Shakespeare. Standard textbooks inform students that Shakespeare lived in a religious age and was a member of the Anglican Church, the official religion of England. However, could this standard opinion be wrong? Was Shakespeare, arguably the English language's greatest writer, a Catholic?

Hardly a year goes by without someone claiming to "discover" something new about Shakespeare: for example, Shakespeare did not write the 37 plays but somebody else did - included in the list being people who were dead long before the complete corpus of the works was written!

Shakespeare was also a feminist, an agnostic or atheist, a homosexual, etc. Mention some such new "discovery" and the reaction of most sane readers is to duck for cover.

However, the thesis that Shakespeare was a Catholic is not a new one, having been proposed and examined since at least the 19th century. Since then, further discoveries of material have increased the body of evidence, which Pearce carefully examines, that suggest Shakespeare may well have been a Catholic.

Hard evidence

Pearce acknowledges we lack the hard evidence to prove that other members of the Shakespeare family were Catholics, such as their names appearing on lists of recusants, that is Catholics who refused to attend the Anglican services.

Similarly, no one piece of evidence that Pearce examines proves in itself that Shakespeare was a Catholic. However, taken as a whole, it provides a strong foundation for the belief that Shakespeare was a Catholic.

The fact that Shakespeare's parents and his daughter Susanna were named as recusants raises the question of why Shakespeare's name does not appear on recusant lists. Pearce suggests that he may have been protected, as the Catholic composer William Byrd was.

While arguments from silence are fraught with difficulty, it is interesting to note that Shakespeare's name is also absent from lists of those who conformed to their legal obligations by attending church, for example in the parish register of Southwark in the 1590s, when Shakespeare was resident in the parish.

Later he lived in a Huguenot household and as a member of that household would have been exempt from the legal requirements regarding Anglican church attendance.

References to him in parish baptism, marriage and burial registers in Anglican parish churches cannot be taken as evidence of his Anglicanism: they were, as Pearce argues, necessary legal steps that were taken by Catholics of the period to ensure that children were legitimate and that bodies were buried. The parish registers of Stratford were full of people cited in various court documents as being recusants.

Indeed, some of the most interesting anomalies in parish documents are the circumstances of Shakespeare's marriage to Ann Hathaway. As both were resident in the parish of Stratford, it was expected they should have been married in the parish church. They were, however, married in one some six miles distant, whose parish priest was a Catholic sympathiser, rather than at Stratford whose parish priest was a Protestant.

Pearce also considers what is often known as "guilt by association", that is, many of Shakespeare's friends and associates were known Catholics. In particular, his patron, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, was at this period of his life a Catholic. And following his retirement, when he had moved back to Stratford, he purchased a house in London which had not only been owned by Catholics but was formerly a Catholic "safe house" used to hide priests and in which Mass was celebrated.

It seems tenuous to argue that he purchased it merely as an investment property, particularly when the tenant, Robinson, was not only a known Catholic but his signature appears to Shakespeare's will.

Similarly, it is highly interesting to note that his children's godparents were Catholics, and the beneficiaries of his will were Catholics, including his daughter, Susanna, who was punished for recusancy and seems to have remained a Catholic, unlike his other daughter Judith who was not a beneficiary, nor his Protestant Hathaway in-laws.

There is also the interesting note made by Rev Richard Davies, some 70 years after Shakespeare's death, that he "dyed a Papist." While his notes are not always reliable, does this comment reflect an oral tradition about Shakespeare?

Catholic world view

Although Pearce refers at points to textual evidence, Pearce does not consider it at length. Perhaps one of the strongest pieces that may imply a Catholic world view is that the plays written immediately after James I's accession in 1603 are highly positive, reflecting the aspirations for Catholics in England for a better future after Elizabeth I's death, whereas those written immediately after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, and the persecution of Catholics which followed, reflect the sombre outlook of Catholics.

An interesting appendix examines a Catholic reading of King Lear. In an academic world in which almost any reading of an English text is legitimate - be it a feminist, Marxist, poststructuralist, semiotic, postmodernist or queer - one is hard pressed to argue why a Catholic reading is any less valid!

Pearce acknowledges that we do not have irrefutable evidence of Shakespeare's Catholicism although he argues that it is beyond reasonable doubt.

Based on the evidence presented, it seems that while there is strong circumstantial evidence, it is difficult to suggest the evidence is not beyond reasonable doubt: taken together, it strongly suggests he was a Catholic.

However, treated as separate pieces of evidence, each seems inconclusive. There are certainly Catholic allusions in the plays, but there are also references indicating the playwright was familiar with Protestant translations of the Bible, which Pearce does not discuss.

Macbeth contains a clear condemnation of equivocation, which was regarded as "Jesuitical" - although it could be argued that if Shakespeare were a Catholic he may have written such a play to distance himself from accusations or suspicions of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.

While Pearce makes various speculations, such as whether Shakespeare may have met and attended Masses celebrated by Campion and Southwell, he is careful to distinguish such speculation from evidence.

While he refers to secondary sources rather than original texts, he indicates a familiarity with the relevant literature. The Quest for Shakespeare is a highly interesting read that, overall, presents a well reasoned case for Shakespeare's Catholic identity.

The Quest for Shakespeare has also appeared in lecture format on EWTN. Audio files in MP3 format are also available for down loading from the EWTN website.

Michael Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.

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