The possibility that William Shakespeare was a Catholic continues to tantalize some readers, and for good reason. How remarkable it would be for the greatest English poet, who reached maturity during Elizabeth I’s persecution of English Catholics and execution of Catholic priests, were among the many Englishmen who secretly remained faithful to the Church. How clarifying, further, if the poet’s religion could serve as a key to understanding the sprawling, brutal, and fustian tangle of his plays.
Few contemporary readers take much interest in the life and work of one of Shakespeare’s great contemporaries – who was, at least for a time, a Catholic and ran great risks to remain in the faith. Raised a Protestant, Ben Jonson established himself early, in London, as a poet and playwright. In 1598, he fought a duel with Gabriel Spencer, an actor in one of his plays, and killed him. Arrested for murder, Jonson was held in Newgate Prison, where the company and counsel of a Catholic priest – likely facing martyrdom at Tyburn – persuaded Jonson to be received into the Church. Jonson was convicted of murder, but released on a legal technicality. He went back to work in the theater and remained a Catholic for twelve years.
One of Jonson’s biographers, Marchette Chute, speculates that Jonson’s conversion was “not moved by an overwhelming spiritual conviction,” but rather by appreciation of the heroic and contrarian virtue of the imprisoned priest. Jonson was himself bold and defiant and evidently appreciated that quality in others.=
Years later, he was present at a dinner party whose guests included the major figures behind the Gunpowder Plot. The following year, he and his wife Anne would be called before the Consistory Court in London on charges of “recusancy.” Jonson was further charged with being a “seducer of youth to the popish religion.” Jonson denied the charges, but insisted his religion was a matter of conscience. The Court ordered him to meet regularly with a distinguished Anglican to discuss Christian doctrine, in hopes that his conscience might be bent back to the national church. Eventually, it was.
One reason Jonson’s faith draws less attention than Shakespeare’s is that religion in general seems far less at the heart of his work. Shakespeare’s tragedies can be so radical in their displays of human faithlessness and cruelty that only the workings of grace could possibly redeem us from despair. King Lear’s disintegration into a “poor, bare, forked animal” can only be undone by Cordelia as a figure of Christ. Shakespeare’s comedies, moreover, have hints of providence, enchantment, and fantasy that set them apart from most of his contemporaries, and which suggest that the world is a liturgical and sacramental mystery.
Most stage comedies in Shakespeare’s time were satirical in nature. Rather than revealing supernatural mystery, they focused on the “humors,” i.e., the odd but persistent foibles of human character. Jonson’s were no exception. Indeed, he was accused of being a mere “sponge,” soaking up the actual behavior of others and staging it for laughter.
In later decades, Jonson had at least as great a reputation as Shakespeare’s. Whereas Shakespeare was viewed as a playwright of wild and fantastic imagination, Jonson better exemplified a verse that was “correct” and classical, modeled on Horace and Seneca, and so serviceable to prove English national literature a worthy heir to the Greeks and Romans. Jonson annotated his tragedy Sejanus with classical sources. John Dryden would later write that one could see his footprints tracked “everywhere” in the “snow” of the ancients. Jonson was distinguished therefore for his poetics of classical humanism rather than Christian mystery.
There are, however, moments of piety in his work. His first book of poems, Epigrams, consists, like his comedies, largely of witty verse about social follies. Addressing the mountebank alchemists in the England of his day, for example, Jonson coined this epigram:
If all you boast of your great art be true;
Sure, willing poverty lives most in you.
His verse admonishes and chastens rather than inspires. And yet, the elegy for his first son, who died in infancy, offers a powerful statement of Christian forbearance. Among his later poems are five devotional lyrics (two dedicated to the Blessed Virgin). “The Sinner’s Sacrifice” is theologically rich like the hymns of Aquinas and as rhythmically ingenious as John Donne or George Herbert. “A Hymn to God the Father” is representative of Jonson at his best, at once classically chiseled and deep in its sense of the mystery of grace:
Hear me, O God!
A broken heart,
Is my best part:
Use still thy rod,
That I may prove
Therein, thy love.
If thou hadst not
Been stern to me,
But left me free,
I had forgot
My self and thee.
Not all readers have overlooked these lines. During WWII, Helen Pinkerton entered Stanford, intending to become a journalist. But on her first day of classes, she encountered the “classicist” poet and professor, Yvor Winters, who was a great advocate of Jonson’s work. From the moment she heard Winters lecture, Pinkerton knew her destiny lay in verse.
She married a classmate and fellow Winters disciple, Wesley Trimpi, who later published Ben Jonson’s Poems: A Study in the Plain Style .
Pinkerton had been raised Catholic, but her family had long ceased to practice. As she studied Jonson and the other great seventeenth-century devotional poets, and read, at Winters’s suggestion, Etienne Gilson’s histories of medieval philosophy, her faith returned. In many of her poems, one can hear Jonson’s verse and devotion, as in “For an End”:
Had I not loved,
I had not known
That you could love
Both mind and bone.
Had you not loved,
When your decree
Seemed total loss,
You had lost me.
For Pinkerton, Jonson’s classicism proved a snow-covered pathway that led from a poetry of wit and moral seriousness, into the mystery of grace, where all that was lost is recovered and fulfilled in the Mystical Body. May Jonson’s humanism prove a pathway to the grace of God for many other such readers.
*Image: Ben Jonson  by Abraham van Blyenberch, c. 1617 [National Portrait Gallery, London]