Shakespeare: Catholic

When I was seven, I discovered Shakespeare. Ever since his works have never been far from my reach.  In my seventh year I was given sets of LP records with some of the greatest actors in the world reading the plays. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but I was enthralled.  I was driven to a dictionary, and to the texts of the plays in print.  Slowly but surely, it all started to make sense.  The language provided endless treasure hunts.  I was ensorcled.

We’ve even observed “Talk Like Shakespeare Day” here (skipped this year for obvious reasons).

I am convinced that Shakespeare was Catholic and that he put all sorts of Catholic content in his works.

This is the subject of some books (which you readers have sent me from my wish list), such as Clare Asquith’s engaging but uneven book Shadowplay Joseph Pearce’s critic-provoking The Quest for Shakespeare and Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: seeing the Catholic presence in the plays. And it is has been advanced that he studied for the priesthood, in Rome.

Today I saw this in The Telegraph:

William Shakespeare was probably a Catholic, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who discussed spirituality and secularism in the Bard’s plays with the actor Simon Russell Beale. [Beale, by the by, is the fellow who narrated that great BBC 4 series on Sacred Music.  It’s on DVD.]

Little is known of Shakespeare’s life and there is no direct evidence of his religious affiliation, but Dr Rowan Williams said he believed him to be a Catholic. “I don’t think it tells us a great deal, to settle whether he was a Catholic or a Protestant, but for what it’s worth I think he probably had a Catholic background and a lot of Catholic friends and associates. [With due respect to Dr. Rowan’s erudition, I do think it makes a difference.  We may read his plays differently.]

“How much he believed in it, or what he did about it, I don’t quite know. He wasn’t a very nice man in many ways – it’s always very shocking, that. The late Shakespeare was hoarding grain and buying up property in Stratford – it was not terribly attractive.”

However, he went on: “The extent to which I want to call him a Christian is not [an attempt] to kidnap him for the tribal trophy wall, but a) because everybody at that time was some sort of Christian, and b) there are things in his plays you can’t understand without understanding the notions of forgiveness and free grace.

“He wrestled with human questions and he ends up saying there is a great deal more to all this than some might think. That mysteriousness is part of what the plays are about. That seems impossible without something of the sacred.” [Do you suppose this is brought up in public schools when Shakespeare is read.  No… wait… is any Shakespeare read any more in public schools?]

Asked which Shakespearean character he found most compelling, Dr Williams chose Macbeth, but quickly added: “That’s not to say I identify with him, because you don’t really want a serial killer as the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. kat says:

    Although I do not know much about Shakespeare , (being a Dickens fan since high school myself), our students put on a play at the end of every school year, and most years it is Shakespeare. This year it was Cymbeline. When the students study Shakespeare in their Literature classes, they always speak about the Catholicity of the plays and the questions of morality, etc. in them. Yes, there are high schools which still have students study the classics!

  2. AnAmericanMother says:

    Ah, Dr. Williams. You can always trust him for something pithy . . . and then something truly odd.

    The nominally Presbyterian (but actually nondenominational Christian) high school that my mother, I and my daughter all attended has always taught Shakespeare intensively. You can expect to read at least a play a year as part of the English program. Being still Presby at heart, they fight shy of the idea that he may have been Catholic, though, although it was discussed (especially by the Catholic students. There are lots of them, as well as a strong Jewish contingent.)

    While my daughter was there, the drama club put on Hamlet, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Midsummers Night’s Dream. She was a spear-carrier and sound-and-light technician. Bonus: the AP exam focussed heavily on Hamlet. Can of corn.

  3. lucy says:

    Fr – could you comment on Shadowplay? Our Catholic bookclub has been interested in reading this book for awhile now. Is it worth a read ?

  4. Dr. Eric says:

    My Lutheran (for lack of an Episcopalian Church in my hometown?) High School English teacher used to reminisce about her English relatives. She definitely talked about Catholicism in Shakespeare’s plays and the difference between his mindset and Protestantism.

  5. Sissy says:

    I’m an Oxfordian, and yes, Oxford was a Catholic.

  6. Mike says:

    Michael Wood, an English historian, has a very fine book and documentary “In Search of Shakespeare”, in which he details the many hints that Shakespeare was RC. Most historians agree that the poet’s father, John Shakespeare, was a Catholic due to the “Testament of Faith” signed by J. Shakespeare and hidden in the walls of his Henley Street, Stratford home. This document was discovered by carpenters working in the house in 1757, and the biographer Malone transcribed into his own work. The original does not survive, but the document was a secret profession of Faith in the RCC, first dispersed throughout England by a Jesuit mission involving St. Edmund Campion.

    Wood’s documentary is very entertaining as well, for he tours historical spots with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

  7. Sam Urfer says:

    I think in his heart Shakespeare was Catholic, and there is decent evidence he died in a state of grace, but most likely he had his ups and downs through life; there are as many plaintive cries of atheism and doubt in Shakespeare as any other writer I can think of. My bet is that during the height of his career, he was a deeply conflicted soul.

    Measure for Measure is a good example of a deeply Catholic play, that doesn’t get a lot of screen time these days because without a Christian lens it comes close to making no sense whatsoever.

    This is an interesting take from Adrienne von Speyr:

  8. Jason C. says:

    I don’t know if Shakespeare was Catholic or not, I just know he is the master of English literature. I don’t understand how such genius exists. I am in awe of his work.

  9. Dymphna says:

    There is a group of people who believe Shakespeare was a Jewish woman who, for obvious reasons, could not let her identity be known. Apparently, her life’s travels match the subject matter of the plays. She was well educated and well read. The “Dark Lady Players” insist that there are Judaic allegories in the plays.

    Fascinating theory, at any rate.

  10. Dymphna says:

    Sorry, I forgot to mention her name: Amelia Bassano Lanier.

  11. Andy Lucy says:

    Heh, heh. A distant (very) relative of mine, Sir Thomas Lucy, was pilloried by ol’ Will in The Merry Wives of Windsor, as Justice “Lusty” Shallow. According to the story, Sir Thomas found out that Will had been poaching on his land. Sir Thomas didn’t take kindly to such acts, and threatened him with prison… whereupon, the Immortal Will promptly disappeared.

    Sir Thomas should have been pilloried in reality (as opposed to metaphorically), as he was a most staunch Protestant, and very active in the Elizabethan persecution of the Catholic Church. This might also help explain any enmity betwixt him and Will… were Will to have actually been a papist.

  12. jbpolhamus says:

    Lucy, YES, Shadowplay is very definately worth a read. The revelations and contextualization about Magdalen Montegue is revelatory, as is the section (well, they’re all revelatory, especially to moderns who have only considered Shakespeare as a secularist) concerning the end of “The Winters Tale” when the heroine is brought out dressed as a statue which comes back to life, and where the protagonist is urged to but “wake the better angels of your nature” in order to bring that about. If one accepts that this is a plea to the King, and that the statue in question might bring to mind that of Our Lady of Walsingham, so cruelly and publically burned on Chelsea Reach, the end of the play takes on a national resonance which brings tears to the eyes. It certainly brought tears to mine the first time I saw it after reading Claire Asquith’s book. I highly recommend it.

    True, the book may not be accurate in every aspect, but it highlights a reality which Dr. Williams touches on, which is that in Shakespeare’s time, politics and religion were the same thing, inextricably intertwined. Plays are not written because their authors think some idea is cute, they are written because the author has a point to make, and to consider Shakespeare without taking into account the primary and fundamental national debate, that of the official state religion which was still far from cooled off, is to fail to understand his implications from the very outset. My sense is that she is far more correct than she is mistaken.

  13. BobP says:

    If he had been Catholic, I’m convinced he certainly he would have written something in Latin, which at the time in England was being abandoned due to the Reformation.

  14. AnAmericanMother says:

    How do we know he didnt?

  15. carl b says:

    FWIW, in my public high school we read Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, and went to a performance of Much Ado.

  16. Mark R says:

    Whether he was Catholic or Anglican, these views had an overwhelmingly Renaissance humanistic worldview superimposed.

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