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WIlliam ShakespeareEncyclopedias come in many shapes and sizes. They also come in many stripes and guises. Some should be taken seriously; others, less so. One would, for instance, be playing with fire if one relied solely on Wikipedia for one’s facts, and one would be quite frankly foolhardy to presume that every “fact” documented on the world’s largest and most extensive encyclopedia was trustworthy. Other encyclopedias are, however, more reliable and deserve and perhaps even demand our respect. We go to these resources because we trust them. One such encyclopedia is the Catholic Encyclopedia, published online by New Advent. It was, therefore, with a deep sense of disappointment that I discovered the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry for “The Religion of Shakespeare” which is quite frankly a travesty of the existing evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism.

The entry begins with the evidence that Shakespeare’s parents were staunchly Catholic and appears to concede, albeit seemingly reluctantly, that there is no real doubt that Shakespeare was raised in a Catholic home. It is once we get to the evidence for Shakespeare’s own faith as an adult that the author of the encyclopedia’s entry displays his woeful lack of understanding of the subject under discussion. Take, for example, the fact that Shakespeare and his daughters were baptized in an Anglican church. This is taken as evidence that they were not Catholic. This is quite frankly nonsense. One can go through a list of any number of known recusant Catholics, i.e. those documented in law as being fined or imprisoned for their Catholicism, and find that they were all baptized in their local Anglican church. In Shakespeare’s time, the Anglican church was the only legally constituted place for sacramental baptisms to take place. In short and in sum, Shakespeare’s parents had no option but to have him baptized in the local church, in spite of their known and documented Catholicism, and Shakespeare would have had no option but to have his own children baptized in similar fashion. The same can be said of marriages and funerals. Marriages were not considered legal unless contracted in an Anglican church and there was nowhere to be buried except in the consecrated ground in or surrounding the local Anglican church. Let’s not forget that these churches were seized from the Catholic Church’s ownership by the state and that it was not legal to build new Catholic churches. Catholics, therefore, had absolutely no option but to be baptized, married and buried in Anglican churches.

The entry then claims that Shakespeare’s daughters “were undoubtedly brought up as Protestants” in spite of the singular absence of any evidence to support such a claim, and in spite of the existence of documentary evidence to show that, on the contrary, one of the daughters, Susanna, was actually fined for her Catholicism. The supposition that the daughters were “undoubtedly” raised as Anglicans rests entirely on the fact that they later married Anglicans. It is a singular leap of logic to claim that marrying an Anglican as an adult proves that one was raised as an Anglican as a child. Even less does the religion of one’s spouse prove, “undoubtedly” or otherwise, that one was raised in the spouse’s religion. One wonders what those of us who are parents would think of someone who claimed that we must be atheists because our children married atheists and that they seem to have become atheists themselves. Such a claim would not prove “undoubtedly” that we must be atheists. It would only prove, indubitably, that the person making such a claim is silly.

The claim that Shakespeare’s residing for a time in the home of a French Huguenot proves that he sympathized with Protestantism proves nothing of the sort. The Huguenots were exempt from having to pay fines for non-attendance at Anglican services, an exemption that extended to those residing with them. We know that Shakespeare resolutely failed to attend his local Anglican church and it would seem that residing in a house owned by a Huguenot enabled him to do so without incurring the fines. Needless to say, the fact that Shakespeare had Protestant acquaintances and friends, such as, for instance, Ben Jonson, does not prove that he was a Protestant nor that he was not a Catholic. Most Catholics, then as now, number Protestants among their friends (Deo gratias!) so why this is cited as evidence that Shakespeare is not a Catholic is somewhat bizarre, or perhaps it’s simply a case of clutching at straws.

There is no mention whatsoever of Shakespeare’s Catholic patron, the Earl of Southampton, nor of evidence that he knew Catholic martyrs, such as St. Robert Southwell and St. Anne Line, nor of his documented enmity towards individuals who persecuted Catholics, such as his being cited in court for threatening physical violence towards them. There’s no mention of his purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse, a known center for Catholic activity in London.

As if all the foregoing were not damning enough, the biggest flaw in this wholly deficient and defective portrayal of “the religion of Shakespeare” is its outrageous skewing of the textual evidence to be found in the Bard’s plays, poems, and sonnets. There is no mention of the host of solid critical engagement with the text which shows beyond any reasonable doubt that his works are interwoven with Catholic references and a Catholic worldview. None of the major books on the subject are cited, of which there are many, with the list growing almost annually, nor is there any reference to the numerous papers on the topic, written by some of the foremost academic scholars alive today.

Having read the whole entry with a growing sense of astonishment and irritation, I was further astonished to see that the whole house of cards had actually been written more than a century ago, in 1912 to be precise. No wonder there’s no engagement with a whole century of recent scholarship! No wonder the author of this entry, Herbert Thurston S.J., is ignorant of all the great works that disprove his case. He is hardly culpable. He was dead before any of them were written.

This is as may be, and may he rest in peace, but what of this woefully inadequate entry on such an important and contentious topic? Surely it would be appropriate for such an entry to be removed until a truly informed entry is available to replace it.

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8 replies to this post
  1. As usual, Joseph Pearce provides his readers with clear, credible reasons to accept Shakespeare’s Roman Catholicism. Has another Jesuit amended Fr. Thurston’s mistakes in recent times? Gonzalo T. Palacios.

  2. There is some great information in it, but why is the Catholic Encyclopedia stuck in 1912?
    Maybe a project like this should be wrapped in with other Vatican Museum efforts in preserving cultural achievements.

  3. It should also be mentioned that Ben Johnson converted to Catholicism for a while, and I believe suffered imprisonment for it. If anything, Shakespeare’s relationship to Johnson supports the Bard being Catholic. If you have any doubts about Shakespeare being Catholic, read Mr. Pearce’s excellent The Quest for Shakespeare. I was totally convinced after having read it.

  4. One other thing, as to encyclopedias, I know many criticize Wikipedia. I think I’ve even seen Mr. Pearce criticize Wikipedia. A traditional encyclopedia can be just as erroneous as Wikipedia. Both potential errors stem back to who placed the entry. Once an erroneous entry is printed into a paper text and published, it is impossible to change it until the next edition, and even then many printed versions are in the public domain. Wikipedia has the ability to correct on the fly when proper expertise finds an error. In my opinion, and this may be shocking to some, properly managed Wikipedia is the superior source for facts.

  5. Excellent article Mr Pearce. I too was bemused by the lack of references to the Earl of Southampton and Blackfrairs Gatehouse. Furthermore Shakespeare’s last will, favoured his daughter Susannah. Why would he favour the known and convicted Catholic recusant?

  6. Nota Bene:
    Early reformers opposed marriage without parental consent. Marriage without parental consent was supported by the Catholic Church.
    This dividing line between Reformers and RC’s twists into an entirely different metaphor from the usual high school analysis in the destruction of Romeo and Juliet.

    Hamlet “swears on a rood”, one of the first things to be destroyed by Reformers in churches, indicating Hamet is Catholic.

  7. The Catholic Encyclopedia presented by New Advent may seem outdated in some respects because it is the latest one published. I believe it was published in 1917. If any one has the inclination and resources to publish a new edition, please do so.

  8. I don´t know if he was or wasn´t a devout Catholic. I DO know that he has been a sincere searcher of Truth . His writings show it clearly. And this is a demonstration of his real FAITH. God guided him.

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