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bard of avon shakespeareBlessed John Henry Newman wrote that Shakespeare had “so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able, without extravagance, to claim him as their own.”[1] Hilaire Belloc, echoing Newman, insisted that “the plays of Shakespeare were written by a man plainly Catholic in habit of mind.”[2] G.K. Chesterton, reaching the same conclusion, stated that Shakespeare’s Catholicism was “a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true.”[3] Newman, Belloc, and Chesterton drew their conclusions from their deep understanding of Shakespeare’s work, not having the benefit of the wealth of biographical evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism that has emerged in the past century or so. Today, those who claim that Shakespeare was a Catholic can employ the historical facts of his life and times, as well as the textual evidence to be gleaned from his poetry and plays.

Today, it is widely accepted, albeit reluctantly by many, that Shakespeare was raised in a devoutly Catholic family at a time when the practice of the Faith was illegal. His mother’s family was one of the most notoriously defiant of all the recusant Catholic families in England. Several of Shakespeare’s cousins lost their lives for their part in so-called papist plots. John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, seems to have resigned from his life in local politics rather than take the anti-Catholic Oath of Supremacy. Years later, in 1592, while his son was in London forging a reputation as a playwright, he was fined for being a defiant Catholic who refused, in conscience, to attend the services of the state religion. Years later, in 1606, Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, was similarly fined. Like his father and daughter, Shakespeare seems to have refused to attend Anglican services.

As for Shakespeare himself, he seems to have inherited and embraced the Catholicism of his parents. He was apparently forced to leave his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon after making an enemy of Sir Thomas Lucy, a notorious persecutor of local Catholics, and there is evidence that he worked as a schoolmaster at a militantly Catholic house in the north of England, possibly meeting the Jesuit martyr, St. Edmund Campion, while he was there.

Following his arrival in London, court records show that Shakespeare had allegedly threatened the lives of two anti-Catholics who had gloated about their raids on Catholic homes and their burning of “papist” books and crucifixes. Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, was a Catholic who had another Jesuit martyr, St. Robert Southwell, as his personal confessor. There is abundant evidence to show that Shakespeare knew and admired this Jesuit saint.

Perhaps the strongest biographical evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism is his purchase of the Blackfriar’s Gatehouse, a notorious centre for illegal Catholic activity in London, and his befriending of John Robinson, a Catholic whose brother entered the English College in Rome to study for the priesthood. The final piece of biographical evidence is provided by Shakespeare’s will, of which many of his Catholic friends were beneficiaries, proving beyond all reasonable doubt that, in the plaintive words of the sixteenth century Anglican clergyman, Richard Davies, Shakespeare had “died a papist.”

catholocismApart from the overwhelming evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism to be found in the facts of his life, there is an abundance of converging evidence that emerges in his works. Several of his sonnets and poems allude sympathetically to known Catholics, killed or persecuted for their faith, including St. Thomas More, St. Robert Southwell, St. Anne Line, and William Byrd. As for his plays, his sympathy for Catholic martyrs is evident in his part in the writing of Sir Thomas More and in the sympathetic portrayal of Catherine of Aragon in Henry VIII. Positive allusions to the life, death, and poetry of St. Robert Southwell can be seen in several plays, including Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear. There are thinly-veiled attacks on Queen Elizabeth I in Richard II and Hamlet and an excoriating condemnation of the ruthless Machiavellianism of King James I in Macbeth. Shakespeare also vents his spleen against the anti-Catholic spymasters, such as Lord Burghley and Francis Walsingham, in his characterization of Polonius in Hamlet and in the host of evil machiavels that he parades in his plays, including Iago in Othello, Edmund in King Lear, Claudius in Hamlet, and, of course, the diabolically ruthless Macbeth.

One could go on endlessly showing the evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism that emerges in his poetry and plays. Indeed the unearthing of such evidence would be a life’s work for a diligent scholar. Since, however, one must make an end, at least within the confines of a brief essay, we will conclude by returning to the words of Chesterton that the Bard of Avon’s allegiance to the Church of Rome is “a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true.”

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the St. Austin Review.

Notes:

[1] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1873); quoted in Peter Milward, Shakespeare: The Papist (Naples, Florida: Sapientia Press, 2005), p. x

[2] Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith (1920); quorted in Velma Richmond, Shakespeare, Catholicism, and Romance (New York: Continuum, 2000), p. 16

[3] G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (1932); republished in Chesterton: The Collected Works, volume 18, p. 333

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6 replies to this post
  1. I’ve not had the pleasure of reading Mr Pearce’s first (Shakespeare) book, “The Quest for Shakespeare”, wherein he seeks to prove that the Bard was a closet Catholic. It would make me happy to think that he (Pearce) is right about Shakespeare, and that he (Shakespeare) was right about Catholicism.

    I did, however, have the pleasure of enjoying a very spirited tussle between Joseph Pearce and Robert Miola (Loyola University) in the pages of “First Things” a few years ago beginning with Miola’s “Thy Canonized Bones” review of Pearce’s book.

    Always fun to see two intelligent people at each other’s throat whilst I drink a dram of Laphroaig. Or two.

  2. Just like the Catholics you mention above, I too sensed Shakespeare’s sympathy toward Catholicism and its practice in the plays. I assumed it was just Shakespeare being close in time to pre-reformation England, and that perhaps he was a high church Anglican. But when I read your book, The Quest for Shakespeare an epiphany came right over me. It was such a convincing proof, and made all the sense in the world when I looked back on the plays. Without a doubt in my mind, William Shakespeare was Catholic and sympathetic to the Catholic cause.

  3. While cutting the grass one afternoon, possibly after reading something on this website, I thought it might be fun to parody an attempt to place an article in a scholarly literary journal. Portraying Shakespeare as an anti-Catholic came to mind, and I came up with two silly examples. One was Laertes fulminating against the priest who wanted to prevent Ophelia from receiving proper burial because her death was possibly a suicide:
    I tell thee, churlish priest,:
    A minst’ring angel shall my sister be
    When thou liest howling.
    The other was to interpret Friar Laurence as a meddlesome priest whose interference brought
    about the deaths of two young people. Don’t give much thought to this. It’s probably catching.

  4. Of course all of this is premised on the idea that the works of Shakespeare were penned by William of Stratford, these days an increasingly dubious proposition. What are we then to do with the highly placed Catholic clerics in the plays who are depicted as rogues and knaves? What about the disparaging reference to Papists? Why would a devout Catholic celebrate in Macbeth the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic undertaking? Would a strident Catholic become the darling of King James I? Take a close look at Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII, in which its heroine, Katherine of Aragon is presented in a secular rather than Catholic mode, though in historical fact she was a passionate Roman Catholic. The most evident religious position of the plays’ author is one of classical paganism, not Christianity in any form. It may be pleasant for some to think of Shakespeare as a Catholic, but the idea that the works we revere were composed by a member of that faith is even less tenable than the supposition that he was the canny grain merchant from Warwickshire. By the way, long ago Mrs. C.C. Stopes showed that in early modern England “William Shakespeare” was a common moniker. Think about that. Do documents showing a “William Shakespeare” resided in London mean that a “William Shakespeare” moved there from Stratford circa 1588 (just in time for the Spanish Armada)? Interested folks can find these issues discussed in detail in Hamlet Made Simple and Unreading Shakespeare, both available from New English Review Press. Good luck!

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