Was the greatest English writer of all time a secret Roman Catholic?
I’m referring, of course, to William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the playwright and member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the players who made the Globe Theater famous and sometimes performed for Queen Elizabeth I herself.
And there’s the rub: If he were Catholic, Shakespeare would have known only too well that to actively, publicly profess what had become the “Old Religion” was risky – and that’s an understatement.
For those unaware of the background, ample evidence associates John Shakespeare, Will’s father, with the R.C. Church. And a number of the great dramatist’s other relations – on both his father’s and his mother’s sides – were actually part of the Counter-Reformation and paid the ultimate price for their dissent from the new Protestant orthodoxy. Although the original has been lost and its very existence is a matter of controversy, a copy of a Catholic testament of faith was found, in the century after Shakespeare’s death, hidden in the home of John Shakespeare, and there seems little dispute that the Shakespeares and the Ardens (John’s wife Mary – Will’s mother – was an Arden) remained Catholic after Henry VIII broke with Rome. The “testament” in question may have been brought to England by the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion (William Shakespeare was seventeen when Campion was hanged, drawn, and quartered, a martyr for his faith). Campion’s pamphlets were a sort of seventeenth-century Samizdat, because, as historian Michael Wood puts it, Elizabethan England had become a veritable “police state.” The young playwright and poet from Lancashire had little choice but to disguise his faith if he had ambitions to write for London’s stage.
Space here does not allow for a fuller discussion of the evidence for Will’s and his family’s fidelity to Rome, but it’s important to note that much of it is rejected by scholars and critics, some of whom practically rend their garments at the suggestion that Shakespeare was anything other than a precursor of the Enlightenment. As one writer in the stately Times Literary Supplement put it, the Shakespeare-as-crypto-Catholic meme is “bosh”:
For some reason, Shakespeare as Shakespeare is not interesting enough for the sort of taste that dabbles in this area. It has to be Shakespeare and the great pyramid of Ghizeh, Shakespeare and the knights templar, Shakespeare and the missing Lancashire years (under the name Shakeshafte) leading to Shakespeare and the Jesuits and, of course, Shakespeare and the gunpowder plot.
In the hothouse of such intellectual intemperance, some champions of the truth about Shakespeare – among them Joseph Pearce (author of The Quest for Shakespeare) and Claire Asquith (Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, worth reading if only for her marvelous Introduction in which she compares coded messages in a Soviet-era production of Chekov to Elizabethan productions of Shakespeare) – have been excoriated for reading into the texts of the plays allusions to the author’s Catholicism. But wait! How could any son of a Catholic, presumably educated in the faith and despite later secular influences (not to mention fear for his life), not have reflected in his writing the education of his youth?
Mr. Pearce (author also of Through Shakespeare’s Eyes) has been attacked from the left and the right and by secularists and Christians (including some Catholics), in part because he has a combative personality and in part because both the faithless and the faithful alike have their reasons for doubting the evidence that Shakespeare’s religion mattered very much to the playwright or, if it did, that it is hidden in his work. There may be some truth in both views about the Bard: Yes, he was a Catholic and the penumbras of his faith may be glimpsed in the plays; no, he wasn’t a crypto-catechist whose genius was devoted to bringing souls to Christ.
In any event, there are clear clues in the plays that support Pearce and Asquith against their detractors. For instance, in that Catholic testament found – or allegedly found – in John Shakespeare’s house, there is (in preface to his pledge to seek last rites upon his deathbed) a hope that he not be “cut off in the blossom of my sins . . .” And in Shakespeare’s greatest work, the ghost of Hamlet’s father mourns:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O, horrible, O, horrible, most horrible!
This alone (and, again, there are scores of similar passages) may prove nothing, but it is suggestive that the faith of his youth stayed with Shakespeare throughout his life and may be seen in his mature work.
And now from Rome’s Venerable English College (the Catholic seminary founded when Shakespeare was fifteen) comes evidence that Will was a student there – or at least that he visited. As the headline in the London Telegraph proclaimed (12/22/09): “Shakespeare was a ‘secret Catholic’ new exhibition shows”.
To be sure, this new evidence will be considered by some to be sketchy at best, indicating only that some signatures found in late sixteenth-century records may be Shakespeare’s. Or it may prove that, while in his twenties, one of the greatest literary artists of all time was secretly studying in a Roman seminary. The other signatures, “Sh(akespeare from Strat)ford (in the diocese) of Chester” and “William the Clerk from Stratford,” may be more compelling, but rather like those who continue to insist that Alger Hiss was not a Soviet spy, some invested in Shakespeare’s supposed secular humanism will never accept any contradictory evidence. But one Shakespeare scholar now does. His German biographer, Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, told the Times of London that she has “come to the conclusion that Shakespeare was a Catholic and that his religion is the key to understanding his life and work.”