THROUGH SHAKESPEARE'S EYES:
Seeing the Catholic presence in the plays
by Joseph Pearce
(Ignatius Press, 2010, hardback, 207pp, $39.90. ISBN: 978-1-58617-413-2. Available from Freedom Publishing)
In his previous work The Quest for Shakespeare (see review October 2009), Joseph Pearce examined the case for Shakespeare being a Catholic.
Pearce is not the first scholar to examine Catholic themes and influence in Shakespeare's writings. Towards the end of this work, Pearce cites scholarly research that acknowledges the importance of Shakespeare's Catholic background in his writings, particularly amongst scholars of the last generation.
However, such a recognition of a Catholic ethos - either overt or in the form of passing allusions - is not new. Blessed John Henry Newman, in The Idea of a University wrote of Shakespeare that "there is so little of a Protestant about him." This correlates with an interesting detail cited by Pearce that some of Shakespeare's plays such as King Lear and King John were written later than versions that were anti-Catholic by other playwrights, circumstantial evidence that suggests Shakespeare may have written his versions in response to them.
Working on the presumption that Shakespeare was a Catholic Pearce examines three of his plays, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and King Lear. Some of the Catholic allusions he finds are overt. For example, when Hamlet dies, Horatio says, "Good night, sweet prince/and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." This is an almost verbatim translation of the In Paradisum at the end of the Requiem Mass, the celebration of which was strictly forbidden in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
Similarly, Pearce argues that in The Merchant of Venice there are direct allusions to and endorsements of the ideas in the poetry of St Robert Southwell, a Jesuit who had been martyred in 1595, in the early period of Shakespeare's literary career. However, arguably most of the allusions are less obvious.
Such an approach is understandable, given that the practice of Catholicism was forbidden in England. For example, Pearce argues that the ghost of Hamlet's dead father is in fact a soul from purgatory. Other elements in the play that Pearce argues reflect Catholic beliefs include Hamlet's decision not to kill Claudius whilst at prayer, because his soul will be saved, an outcome Hamlet does not want.
Similarly, Hamlet insists that his friends swear an oath upon a sword - a pre-reformation Catholic practice. This is in response to the friends insisting that they swear "in faith". Hamlet's insistence that faith alone is insufficient reflects the Catholic response to Protestant theology regarding salvation.
Pearce also notes the observation made by other scholars such as Milward that Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is not so much a critique of Jews as of Puritans who engaged in usury. Pearce suggests that scholars, in their haste to focus on the antiSemitic elements of the play, overlook the Christian themes underlying The Merchant of Venice, which are central to the three tests in the play.
The one most known to readers, namely the judgement against Shylock, has at its core the tension between mercy and justice. One common contrast throughout Shakespeare's plays - including these three works - is that between characters who practise Christian virtues and evil characters who engage in Machiavellian type deception.
Pearce argues that characters such as the scheming Polonius would have been interpreted by Shakespeare's audiences as an attack upon the machinations of political figures such as Cecil who used all sorts of chicanery to weed out real and imagined enemies of Elizabeth's regime, including Catholic priests and their supporters.
Central to Pearce's thesis is that these plays need to be read as expressions of Shakespeare's inherent Catholic beliefs and with respect to the context in which they were written. He rejects a post-modernist approach to reading Shakespeare because it has as its foundation the denial of objective reality.
However, in an academic milieu that regards feminist, Marxist and 'queer' readings of Shakespeare as de rigueur, one has to ask why a Catholic reading would be any less valid. But as fewer and fewer scholars, particularly younger ones, have a clear understanding of Christian thought and teachings, one can only anticipate that failures to recognise inherent Christian themes within the great works of literature will be on the increase.
Michael E Daniel is a Melbourne based writer.