Getting Shakespeare WRONG

As some of you know, I am a great fan of The Bard. (For example, HERE.  I really must get back to that some day.)

I saw at Saint Austin Review a piece by Joseph Pearce which struck a nerve.  What Pearce saw done to Shakespeare is what we also see being done in theology today.

Fighting The Shakespeare Wars

Last night I was fighting the Shakespeare Wars at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. I had been invited by the priest who runs the university’s centre for faith and culture to address the controversy surrounding the Catholic Shakespeare as part of DeSales’ annual Shakespeare Festival. Instead of giving a speech followed by a period of questions, I was asked to make only a few brief introductory comments so that the bulk of the event could be devoted to a period in which I would field questions from the audience. A lively session followed in which I addressed questions connected to Shakespeare’s life and to many of his plays.
Immediately after the event I took my seat at the university’s theatre to see a performance of Measure for Measure. It was well directed and extremely well acted, though the production succumbed, all too predictably, to the modern tendency to vulgarize and accentuate the bawdy elements to the detriment of the main moral thrust of the drama. Nonetheless, the palpitating presence of Isabella’s holiness exorcised the demons and shone forth Shakespeare’s patently Catholic purpose. Her role and presence in the play serves as a timely and timeless mataphor for the power and purpose of the presence of the saints in the vale of tears. Indeed her presence tears the veil so that the light of heaven can penetrate the darkness. Although the non-believers in the audience did not know it, they were being evangelized with the light and love of the Gospel.
On a darker, uglier note, I was saddened to see that the theatre’s bookstore offered only two books on Shakespeare, both of which are examples of woefully poor scholarship. The first was Bertram Fields’ pathetically shallow attempt to show that Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare but that he was really the Earl of Oxford in disguise. The other was Germaine Greer’s equally pathetic and perverse effort to show that Shakespeare was a male chauvenist pig. The bookstore also offered a pink t-shirt for sale with a picture of the Bard wearing heavy make-up and transformed into a transvestite. Thus the false Shakespeare, the feminist Shakespeare and the queer Shakespeare were all on gaudy display. Needless to say, the real Shakespeare was nowhere to be seen. Such crass injustice to our Catholic Bard merely encourages me to fight all the harder in the Shakespeare Wars.

May I recommend a couple books about Shakespeare’s (unquestionable) Catholicism?

First, try Clare Asquith’s Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. She over plays her hand once in while, but in the main the book is engaging and convincing.

Also, Joseph Pearce, mentioned above, has The Quest for Shakespeare

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    There is also a BBC Documentary called “In Search of Shakespeare”, by Michael Wood which presents a ton of evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism, and (surprisingly) places it in a good light for the most part.

  2. lmgilbert says:

    Father, the following is from the introduction to “Redemptive Themes In Shakespeare”
    By Frederic W. Baue, which was published in The Lutheran Theological Review, Volume XII, (Academic Year 1999-2000) pp. 6-19. If you would like the entire article, let me know.


    My concern in this paper is not academic but pastoral. That is, my
    aim is not to develop a tightly-reasoned critical analysis for
    scholarly disputation, but rather to demonstrate in a simple way
    some redemptive themes in the plays of William Shakespeare: first, for the
    personal edification of pastors; second, to give them handy material for

    William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
    After a successful career as an actor and playwright in London, he returned
    in style to his home town, where he died in 1616. I visited Stratford in 1991
    and spent a pleasant, sunny afternoon at the local church. There I saw
    records which demonstrate that Shakespeare was baptized at that
    congregation, held office as an active member, and received Christian burial
    in a state of grace. In fact, he was interred in the chancel, an honour granted
    only to the most prominent citizens.

    While he was honoured in life by kings, in death by his congregation, and
    ever since has been esteemed by the world, today Shakespeare is under
    attack. The Washington Times reports that Arizona State University fired
    drama professor Jared Sakren because of “his determination to stage works
    from the ‘sexist European canon,’ including Aeschylus, Ibsen, and—most

    According to a Philadelphia Inquirer story,
    “Shakespeare, Melville, Chaucer, and Dickens may be on the way out in San
    Francisco, where school board officials are considering a proposal that up to
    70 per cent of school reading should be books by ‘authors of color.’”
    Why is Shakespeare under attack? Because his works, like those of other
    classic writers, form the foundation of western civilization. It is clear from
    his plays that Shakespeare holds traditional views on many subjects. Take
    the role of women in Taming of the Shrew, where the termagant Kate finally
    submits to her husband. Regarding government, his history plays such as
    Richard III show that men who abuse power always come to a bad end. On
    religion, his protestant sympathies can be seen in his positive treatment of
    Anne Bullen, or Boleyn, mother of Queen Elizabeth I, in Henry VIII, where
    the villainous Cardinal Woolsey calls her, “A spleeny Lutheran” (IV.ii.99).
    If Shakespeare upholds traditional values, those who are out to destroy
    western civilization must destroy him.

    We clergy who uphold traditional values in the area of religion find a
    hearty marching-companion in Shakespeare. His is a profoundly Christian
    mind, but one that expresses itself in drama. What are the tragedies but
    moral exempla of men who give themselves over to the passions of the
    Seven Deadly Sins? Julius Caesar cultivates superbia, or pride; Marc
    Antony, luxuria, or lechery; Othello, ira, or anger and jealousy. The
    tragedies give moral instruction by negative example.

    On the Gospel side of the coin, Shakespeare’s mind is equally active. As
    you read Shakespeare’s plays, you cannot help but be struck by how often
    the mystery of the faith is portrayed in dramatic action. That which was lost
    is often found, as Antipholus is in The Comedy of Errors. Unmerited
    forgiveness is granted to Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Prince Hal, a
    prodigal son if there ever was one, comes to himself in Henry IV. Portia
    pleads for mercy over justice in The Merchant of Venice. But the central
    episode of the divine comedy is the Death and Resurrection of our Lord
    Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is no surprise to find a resurrection worked out
    onstage in several comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing.
    Shakespeare has been called “the mirror of mankind”. What pastor cannot
    benefit from a close acquaintance with the greatest author in the English
    language, whose works not only demonstrate Christian themes explicitly, but
    also reflect in precise detail the complete range of the human character,
    noble and base, tragic and comic? Blessed are ye who live in southern
    Ontario, and can attend the excellent live performances at Stratford. Many
    states and cities in America have Shakespeare festivals. Arise and go! Also,
    many fine productions of the most popular Shakespeare plays are available
    at your video store, or the A/V section of your area public or college library.
    Verily I say unto you, watch!

    Now to homiletical application. There are two areas of theology to which
    Shakespeare can provide insight: Law and Gospel. As for the Law, consider
    how much wisdom and insight is contained in the traditional Mediaeval
    schema of the Seven Deadly Sins. Taken together, they comprise a complete
    psychology of the human condition. Chaucer’s “The Parson’s Tale”, usually
    excluded from college texts of The Canterbury Tales, is nothing other than a
    sermon on these seven sins. Likewise, Shakespeare deals with these sins in
    several plays. . . . “

  3. RidersOnTheStorm says:

    To be, or not to be, that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them?

    ……Aye, there’s the rub.

  4. rswain says:

    Seems that most of the country would be what we think of as Catholic in many ways. You don’t rub out the culture overnight.

  5. Tom in NY says:

    Auctor sua interpretatione coepit in litteras aut ex litteris interpretationem quaerit? Et temporibus antiquis et novissimis quaeritur.

    Salutationes omnibus.

  6. Palladio says:

    Nobody much looked for Catholicism in Shakespeare when I studied him, at a university that shall remain nameless, for the Ph. D. Those who do now fight an uphill battle, and perhaps overstate their case, often by a lot. “Patent” is not a word that jumps out at me when I think of Shakespeare’s alleged Catholicism, which I would be delighted to see proven, exemplified, etc. What seems beyond doubt is that his father was Catholic and kept the faith (was a recusant). That’s already very interesting in itself and equally suggestive. It will take years before this possible aspect of Shakespeare is adequately treated and becomes more widely accepted (Greenblatt, of whom I am no admirer, certainly thinks Shakespeare was a Catholic, for what that may be worth). It’s a complex question, historically. It would help if the pro-Catholic side were actually in control of the history. For instance, the best book on Catholic recusancy shows there were 6 ‘ways’ to be Catholic in England by the 17th century (e. g., covertly).

  7. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I watched In Search of Shakespeare (“Hosted by Michael Wood”) with interest when it came out (2004), but have not yet properly dug into the ‘Catholic Shakespeare’ scholarship. How old, and continuous, is the discussion? I ask this, remembering something in Chesterton, and not being able to remember just where!

    At the risk of belabouring the obvious, and to compare smaller things with great, Shakespeare did not provide much ‘red’, while Wagner, for example, provided oodles, but both (along with everyone else who wrote (musical) dramas), are now (for decades) subjected to productions which do things to their ‘black’ rather than serving to let it do what it pretty clearly seems intended to do – not so unlike what too often befalls the Liturgy.

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    Fr. Z., you are matchless in your Shakespearean writing! I marveled again at this too accurate representation of what could be said by the players. Just dead on. I love Cardinal Dolan offering his chin as evidence! I do not know how you can write such a thing so well. Last year’s was awesome too. I think I have it saved somewhere in my computer. I read some of Shakespeare’s insults the other day. How hilarious.

  9. Kathleen10 says:

    I meant to also say how sad that even Shakespeare can’t be appreciated by our vulgar culture without basing that appreciation on some narcissistic endeavor to make him reflect our personal causes. They don’t appreciate him, they just use him.

  10. HyacinthClare says:

    I HIGHLY recommend Joseph Pierce’s The Quest for Shakespeare. I was given it as a gift and enjoyed it all the way through. In fact, I started it again almost immediately and enjoyed it just as much the second time.

  11. HyacinthClare says:

    sorry… sorry… Pearce.

  12. Deacon Nathan Allen says:

    Might I also recommend, for those interested in a more scholarly treatment of the subject of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, the work of Peter Millward, SJ, in this area, and especially his books Shakespeare’s Religious Background, The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays, and Shakespeare the Papist.

  13. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Peter Milward – the Peter Milward who attended Lewis’s lectures and the Socratic Club and corresponded with him thereafter? Yes! (The things one does not know!) I see (via the Wikipedia article) he has an autobiography posted online, chapter 29 of which is entitled “Catholic Shakespeare”.

  14. David Zampino says:

    I love Shakespeare; always have, since I was a child (a long time ago!) I’ve followed the “Shakespeare/Catholicism” discussion for a number of years. It would not surprise me if the Bard was truly a Catholic, though I don’t think that the case has been proven. Even amongst the anti-Catholic persecutions in Elizabethan England — if you were in favor with the Queen, you could get away with being a recusant. (William Byrd, anyone?)

    I must confess, however, that I have been underwhelmed (to say the least) by Joseph Pearce. He has, to my knowledge and my research, no academic credentials to speak of; I don’t like his use of polemic; I don’t care for the ad hominim attacks against scholars who disagree with him (and whose academic and scholarly credentials far outweigh his); and I found his writings on Tolkien to be unoriginal (at best) and bordering at points on outright plagiarism. I don’t understand why Ignatius Press (a publishing house with which I am otherwise quite pleased) has given him the forum that they have.

  15. Gail F says:

    Readers may find my review of Joseph Pearce’s “Shakespeare on Love” interesting. It’s had many hits so people are finding it helpfu. The book is not about what Shakespeare as to say about love, it’s Pearce’s explanations of how he thinks “Romeo and Juliet” should be staged and it’s quite convincing:

  16. Gail F says:

    I ought to mention that I don’t find the question of whether Shakespeare was Catholic to be interesting and I have not read any of the books on the subject. If the man hid his Catholicism he certainly hid it WELL, because no one picked up on it for several centuries! That said, I thought the most interesting part of the book mentioned above was the description of Shakespeare’s source for R&J from its author. WOW. You could not find anything much more Puritan if you tried. R&J is not Puritan. Shakespeare had a Catholic sensibility, whether or not he was Catholic (and at the time, surely many people still had a Catholic way of looking at things even if they weren’t Catholic anymore). As a writer, I find that many talented writers today have a talent for blending all sorts of things together and I don’t see why Shakespeare could not have been the same — hence, why I don’t care about proving it either way. You might as well try to prove that Joss Weedon is Catholic. Many of his movies and shows are full of redemptive imagery and storylines, but that’s because he’s a good storyteller and fabulous writer who uses whatever works best to tell his stories. He’s an atheist.

  17. maryh says:

    The example of William Byrd is given by Pearce to show that it was possible for a known Catholic to exist at the court of Queen Elizabeth. Pearce’s (and people he cites, like Wood and Williamson) aren’t making the case that he was a covert Catholic – they think that he was known to be one and didn’t show any signs of his faith in public. As in, because of his talent, the fact he was Catholic could be tolerated as long as no one had to see it.

    Everyone seems to agree that Shakespeare was the son of a recusant Catholic parents from two known recusant families (both his father’s and mother’s families were known recusant families) in a town with a lot of Catholics. It seems hard to disprove that he was raised as a Catholic by Catholic parents.

    So the question doesn’t seem to be whether Shakespeare was Catholic but whether he ever stopped being Catholic, and if so, when.

  18. Palladio says:

    Nobody now seriously doubts Shakespeare was raised Catholic, whatever that could mean. There is no evidence, however, to answer the question “whether he ever stopped being Catholic.” We know more about Shakespeare than about most Englishman of his (obscure) social standing from those years, 1564 onward, but we have nothing like concrete details that would fill out what we would imagine to be a full biography, let alone a spiritual biography.

    Re Peter Milward, SJ., vox clamans… The problem is that there were not enough people qualified to take on the argument when he–born, by the way, in 1925, wrote. His argument or anybody’s. Not that the secular university was inclined to do so, of course.

    Now the argument that the plays or poems are Catholic is really hard to make, until some anatomy of belief, fully documented and explained, true to the times is available. I’ll take the point of S’s Catholicism in his work when I find a scholar who can a. handle S and b. control the historical sources. The rest is opinion.

  19. Imrahil says:

    I do not feel to have the knowledge to lay down whether or not Shakespeare was Catholic. Only that “in dubio pro reo iudicandum est” and since the charge is of course being not Catholic, that alone makes him to be treated as a Catholic… (Little half-joke.)

    I do make the claim, though, that his works (meaning the plays, I did not read much of the poems) are Catholic. I am a dilettante of course, but I think I could defend that thesis well enough for my own purposes when it came to it. That is actually a interesting, if perhaps as yet undefinied, thing, “being Catholic in one’s writings”. I was anyway struck with “I should have known” when I heard that Alfred Döblin had converted to Catholicism (which was after I read Berlin Alexander Square which he wrote way before his conversion), and I think Joseph Roth lies on the right cemetry, judging from his works. However, you can sometimes write in a Catholic way without actually being one. Ödon von Horvath left the Church explicitly, but still he did write Youth without God.

    On the other hand, you know that Thomas Mann is no Catholic; he is the increasingly rare species of an actual faithful Protestant. Quite apparent when he first draws a highly interesting figure of a Jesuit called Leo Naphta, and after you had been thinking “didn’t I read that in Chesterton?” for a long time, Naptha turns out to actually prefer the useful beliefs to the reasonable ones (and later turns out to be a duellant and suicide and favor both Communism somehow, even as an antagonist, and fascism). Well – you dressed up as a Catholic cleric, but you are not, “you attacked reason, it’s bad theology”, said Father Brown.

  20. Imrahil says:

    Slight correction: Horvath’s “Youth without God” seems to have the English title The Age of the Fish.

  21. Pingback: Joseph Pearce on Shakespeare, on himself | robertbyron22

  22. maryh says:

    I have to agree with @Imrahil.
    Given the evidence, we don’t have to prove Shakespeare is Catholic – we have to prove he isn’t.
    And this is a serious question, given the entire time Shakespeare was alive Mass was against the law, it was against the law to shelter priests, priests were tortured and executed.
    I was sickened to read what the reign of Elizabeth meant for Catholics.

  23. I am unable to understand the need to defend Shakespeare’s Catholicism. Shakespeare’s literary genius, the bottomless insight of his plays and sonnets, does not depend upon our knowledge that he was a Catholic. There are peerless non-Catholic literary writers — John Donne, Homer, Melville, Virgil, Dostoyevsky (sort of) — and there are Catholic writers whose literature is trash (they shall remain anonymous). From the point of view of literary criticism, it matters little whether the author was Catholic. Shakespeare’s plays, especially the great tragedies and comedies, express a deep and rich understanding of man and his relationship to other men, political society, the cosmos, and God. We don’t need to establish his Catholicism in order subsequently to “read” such deep insight into his plays — the insight is there whether or not he’s Catholic — nor are we justified in identifying “Catholic” elements in his plays as proof of his Catholicism — to do the latter would require us to do likewise with such non-Catholic authors as Donne or T.S. Eliot (and, to a certain extent, even the pagan Aeschylus). If it turns out Shakespeare wasn’t Catholic, shall we think less of his literary genius?

    So if history scholars wish to create a niche for themselves determining the religion that Shakespeare held, go for it; but for literary critics such a question has no real import: the texts stand on their own ground.

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