Did Shakespeare study for the priesthood… in Rome?

Fr. Longenecker has an interesting post about Shakespeare:

The literature on Shakespeare being a Catholic keeps mounting. Clare Asquith’s book Shadowplay along with the scholarship of Fr.Peter Milward started the ball rolling, then Joseph Pearce’s excellent, The Quest for Shakespeare gathered all the evidence together in a rollicking good read and the PBS documentary In Search of Shakespeare made it visual.

Now some mysterious evidence has emerged in the Venerable English College in Rome. You can read the article here. They have found some documents that might have Shakespeare’s name on them, indicating that during his ‘lost years’ from 1585 – 1592 he was in Rome, and if in Rome was he studying for the priesthood? [This is from The Daily Telegraph.]

A leather parchment kept by the college is signed by "Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis" in 1585, "Shfordus Cestriensis" in 1587 and "Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis" in 1589. The college believes these signatures are: "(King) Arthur’s (compatriot) from Stratford (in the diocese) of Worcester," "Sh(akespeare from Strat)ford (in the diocese) of Chester" and "William the Clerk from Stratford".

What makes the quest so intriguing is that the evidence for Shakespeare’s life is so scant, and in this particular area it is very scant indeed, but the times were dangerous. To be a Catholic in England was considered an act of treason. Catholics had to disguise their identities. If the names in the register at the English college were cryptic maybe they had to be so that real identities would not be revealed. It’s all very juicy conspiracy theory stuff, and yet that was the situation the Catholics were in. They were members of an underground church. They had to destroy or disguise evidence and ‘keep it secret keep it safe.’

As it happens, I’ve produced the outline of a screenplay called The Shakespeare Plot. In it Shakespeare is a secret Catholic in Elizabethan England and is all tied up with spies, disguised priests, torture chambers priest’s holes, executions and other juicy stuff. Think Man for All Seasons meets Shakespeare in Love. Some people in California seem to be interested.  [Intriguing!]

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24 Responses to Did Shakespeare study for the priesthood… in Rome?

  1. Kerry says:

    “To be a Catholic in England was considered an act of treason.” Hmm…now what is it considered…bigotry? Lunacy?

    More, “I will not sign. I will not tell you why I will not sign.”

  2. Sid says:

    A former student in the Division For Advanced Studies at the Missouri Institute of Epistemology, St. Petersburg, MO, I have my doubts. Rosenkranz (“Rosary”) in Hamlet is Catholic; he’s also villainous.

  3. Philippus says:

    Hmm..what if Shakespeare was a Catholic Priest incognito? Wouldn’t that make for a juicier plot? But then, there would be the matter of his wife and etc.

  4. Geremia says:

    I remember hearing that the whole last act of Henry VIII, portraying a Protestant baptism as a happy ending to the story, might not have been authored by Shakespeare. There is a lot of evidence that he was Catholic, and some of his plays show elements of Catholic thought, e.g., a purgatory reference in Hamlet. The Catholic Encyclopedia has a good entry on “The Religion of Shakespeare.”

  5. Phillipus: I don’t recall the Bard had an especially close relationship with his wife, however. But that is an interesting thought.

  6. dlongenecker says:

    It is likely that Anne Hathaway was pregnant when she and Will Shakespeare married. If it was a ‘shotgun marriage’ there would be possible grounds for annulment.

  7. Mike says:

    I wrote a children’s book on this issue in ’06–it’s called Swan Town, if anyone is interested, published by harpercollins…

  8. Norah says:

    1. Shakespeare, if indeed these three names are all his, may have studied for the priesthood but was not ordained.

    2. If he was ordained would there not be a reference to the fact in his real name?

  9. trespinos says:

    I dunno. If you take Occam’s Razor to all that, there is nothing left at the end, whereas if Sobran’s book is right, and I think it mostly is, Shakespeare’s works were written by the Earl of Oxford, who most definitely had Catholic sympathies, but weakly conformed to the Queen Liz’s Church. Rather more interested in his art than his religion, and weakened morally by his struggles with SSA, he cannot be claimed as a faithful Catholic, just a very wounded soul with a divine writer’s gift.

  10. Sam Urfer says:

    trespinos, if you actually believe that anyone other than William Shakespeare, son of John Shakespeare, from the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, and think that Occham’s razor applies to those *other* ideas about the Bard, I am flabbergasted. I have an English degree, and I studied with some world-class Shakespeare scholars. The Catholic thing, might be something there. William Shakespeare wrote the plays of Shakespeare, full stop.

  11. Mike says:

    Sam is right–the authorship Question is a rabbit-hole, not worth serious attention!

  12. Sedgwick says:

    When I was in high school, back in the ancient 60s, I did a paper on the theory that Shakespeare was a Rosicrucian. Catholic AND a Rosicrucian? Now that would be a tale worth telling…

  13. JaneC says:

    The authorship question is indeed a rabbit hole. I’ve even seen a website by someone who claims that the works were written by St. Edmund Campion! That said, it would make a lot of sense if Shakespeare had been educated in Rome. I believe one of the major things that makes some people doubt the identity of the author is the disparity between his supposed lack of formal education and the level of erudition displayed in the writings–this would be well accounted for, if Shakespeare had further education that could not be talked about because it was illegal.

  14. Gail F says:

    I once owned a delightful book about Shakespeare that began, “Thousands and thousands of books have been written on Shakespeare, and most of them are mad.” I think that is still true today. If Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, he sure knew how to keep a secret.

  15. Kerry says:

    dlongenecker, I think that would be a ‘matchlock’ marriage.

  16. Supertradmom says:

    In Search of Shakespeare by historian Michael Wood on the BBC years ago was a series which suggested that not only was Shakespeare a Catholic, as were his parents and teachers, but a Catholic who was connected with “Catholic Houses” in London which had secret tunnels down to the Thames, where Catholics escaped to the Continent. It is highly likely that Shakespeare was indeed a Catholic, but highly unlikely that he was a priest. Priests were under strict disciplinary orders from their seminaries on the Continent and in some cases, under Rome directly. Many Catholics had to live undercover in order to survive. That he was a great rival of Christopher Fry, who was a known agnostic, spy, and homosexual, adds to the intriguing antagonism between the two men. To even think that he was ordained is, I think, ridiculous, as many laymen stayed for periods of time at the Continental seminaries of England for safety and for spiritual reasons. Like monasteries, seminaries would have open hospitality for those in trouble, as a prominent Catholic in England would be.
    As to Shakespeare’s marriage, there is no indication that the dramatist did not love his wife, as he bought her an expensive house later when he “made good”. If Shakespeare was a Catholic under watch by the government, any good wife would want her husband in a safe place, such as the busy city of London, or the confines of Rome. How many wives in other times have sacrificed the comfort of their husbands for political or religious reasons,including some saints. Many prominent wives let their husbands go to the Crusades, for example, and never saw them again.

  17. trespinos says:

    Climbing up out of the rabbit-hole, I’ll certainly agree with JaneC that if evidence can be found to show that William Shaksper of Stratford received a clerical education in Rome, the single greatest objection to his authorship will have been demolished–you know, that bedrock principle of the scholastics that states, “Nemo dat quod non habet.” Until then, though, I’ll throw in with Mark Twain, accepting his take on the subject. I’ll also agree with Sam Urfer that the Razor cuts away a ton of what some wild-eyed Oxfordians have asserted. But enough is left to leave me convinced. I’m 65, so I don’t expect to learn the truth until I reach the other side; I do suspect the truth we all learn there will make many laughingly wonder how their English lit degrees and Stratfordian authorities could have led them astray on this.

    Now I must close the top of my rabbit-hole and disappear. Merry Christmas!

  18. AvidReader says:

    What a wonderful gift it would be, to be able to acknowledge with utter certainty that one of the most brilliant, beautiful and profound authors of the English Renaissance was a fellow Catholic.

    Most critics agree, on the balance of evidence, that Shakespeare was a Catholic. Joseph Pearce does a good job in pasting together all of the biographical evidence available in favour of Shakespeare’s Catholicism.

    I would ward people off of ‘Shadowplay’ however – much of which certainly cannot be substantiated. It relies too much on overt parallels and symbolism. The Royal censor (through which all public plays had to be approved and certified prior to performance) was notoriously sensitive to any material which could cast any political or theological aspersions on the status quo. Though Shakespeare’s birth occurs several years after the 1552 Edwardine book of common prayer (a complete theological divorce from the Roman Catholic Church) the reforms left a bitter tang and legacy that would continue for generations. The authorities had to be extremely careful about the the material that the immensely popular theatres would perform. Most overt references to Catholicism in the appoved canon of Shakespeares works had to conform to Protestant stereotypes and caricatures of Catholicism.

    Asquiths interpretations rely more heavily on the symbolic rather than the actual. Many of her idea’s are only supported through a fairly narrow reading of the original text. Something that the average audience would not be able – in the fast paced atmosphere performances provided – to appreciate in any depth. (None of Shakespeares plays were immediately published when first created – it was not his concern to preserve them in a format which could then be bought and performed by his rivals – a common fate for all plays..).

    Her work is imaginative, creative and interesting but also wrong. For instance her claim that Hamlet could be considered as a parallel to Sir Philip Sidney due to Elizabeth I’s persistent dislike of him. Sidney was far too close to Geneva for ‘jolly old Bess” comfort. It was suspected (correctly) that Sidney wished to establish a Protestant theocracy. (For further reading Stephen Greenblatt and Roland Mushat Frye have written best on Catholicism in Hamlet with ‘Hamlet in Purgatory’ and ‘The Renaissance Hamlet’ respectively).

    I wonder what the reaction to the new findings will be – exciting stuff to be sure!

  19. sirlouis says:

    I’m not in the rabbit hole, but I am open to the thesis that the plays and/or sonnets were written by someone other than the person known as William Shakespeare. The most important factor that keeps my mind open on the subject is that “supporters” of Shakespeare altogether too often greet the possibility of alternative authorship with a blank refusal to discuss the matter, and very often a dismissal of those who wish to examine the question as being nutcakes. Necessarily, that raises in a fair mind the suspicion that those who refuse to treat the subject not only don’t want to meet the arguments for alternative authorship, but can’t. So I conclude that perhaps there really is something there, because opponents have to resort to throwing vitriol.

    I am surprised that the question of Shakespeare’s being a Catholic does not seem to elicit the same kind of response. The fact that vitriol is not being thrown at it perhaps means that the thesis is just being largely ignored, despite its vital interest for us Catholics, or perhaps because the claim can be met with better opposing evidence than can the claim of alternative authorship.

  20. Sam Urfer says:

    You have the causality backwards, sirlouis. The Catholic theory is not met with vitrol because it’s plausible, yet unprovable. On the other hand, the “alternate author” theory is a bad joke with no basis in reality. http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/content/view/14/14

  21. Sam Urfer says:

    Unproveable, that is, unless these new findings are substantiated. This is actually exciting.

  22. sirlouis says:

    Sam, I can only reiterate that dismissing the thesis of alternative authorship with the statement that it is “a bad joke” is not the way a question is treated fairly. The people who assert that William Shakespeare did not write the works published under his name are not joking. I think they bear the burden of proof, and I think they have a weak case, but it is a case that deserves rebuttal, not dismissal.

  23. An American Mother says:

    Sir Louis,

    I’ll be perfectly serious for a moment, but those of us who have read English lit. tend simply to be weary of the endless parade of implausible (and mutually inconsistent) theories about the authorship of Shakespeare by someone other than the man himself. It smacks of both chronological and class snobbery — the candidates are usually noble and prominent.

    And the candidates put forward tend to be plausible only if you’ve never read any of their actual documented work. For example, the Earl of Oxford is being proposed in connection with this news story on another blog . . . by people who have never actually read any of de Vere’s own published work. You will never encounter it unless you read heavily in 16th c. English lit. . . . but you should pray you never have to suffer through such horrible, prolix, clumsy, inkhorn-laden garbage. I did.

    The clincher for me, however, (from a legal and evidentiary point of view) is that we have so much contemporaneous documentary evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship. If Dekker, Burbage, Jonson, Marlowe and all the rest consistently lied about Shakespeare’s authorship, never made a slip even in a private letter, altered his grave monument, and even convinced his enemies to attack him personally over the plays . . . then it’s the greatest and most successful conspiracy in the known civilized world. Not.

    Particularly since nobody questioned Shakespeare’s authorship until relatively recently, when anybody who could have shed light on the question was safely (indeed centuries) dead and buried.

  24. Sam Urfer says:

    sirlouis, that is why I provided a link describing Shakespeare’s formative education, to rebut the lie that he couldn’t have been educated enough to write the plays which he did. They might not be joking, but that does not negate the fact that their proposition is, indeed, laughable *at best*.