World & Vatican
Was Shakespeare a secret Catholic?
April 26th, 2016
By CNA/EWTN News
ROME – April 23 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the playwright, poet and actor widely considered to be the most influential literary figure in the English language.
Yet, there’s one mystery which continues to elude scholars to even this day: What exactly was Shakespeare’s relationship with the Catholic Church? And, could he have been a secret Catholic, forced to conceal his true religious identity in an era of persecution?
At the time of Shakespeare’s writing, Britain was in a period of religious upheaval. Its people were still caught in the crossfires of the English Reformation that had begun decades earlier when Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England. Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, outwardly followed the state-imposed religion, since it was illegal at that time to practice as a Catholic in England. However, scholars say he nonetheless maintained strong sympathies with the Church of Rome.
Shakespeare’s writings “clearly points to somebody who was not just saturated in Catholicism, but occasionally argued for it,” said Clare Asquith, an independent scholar and author of a book on Shakespeare called “Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.”
He “was definitely putting the Catholic point of view to an intellectual audience,” she said.
An example of this relationship with Catholicism comes out in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” a play which scholars say captures the sense of conflict experienced by the population as the country transitioned to the Church of England.
“Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, dramatizes the position of all these people, torn apart like Hamlet, having to play a part like Hamlet, pretend they were irresponsible, perhaps mad, and yet, having to make a decision about what to do about this,” Asquith told CNA/EWTN News.
She said that this conflict is particularly represented through the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Act I.
“Everything about the ghost is the old order, which has been displaced by a brand new Tudor state with the monarch as the head of the church, which was still highly, highly contentious,” she said. “I think scarcely anyone in England went along with it at that point. They did superficially, out of self-interest, and it gradually did produce a creeping secularism.”
Hamlet’s mother, who had married his uncle very soon after the king’s death, represents the “England that has given into the new order, reluctantly,” while urging Hamlet to go along with it, Asquith said.
“On the other hand, he has his father saying: ‘No, Hamlet. Stand up against it. You must do something about it.’”
Author of “Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays,” scholar Joseph Pearce takes this conflict with Hamlet a step further by saying the play is speaking out against England’s persecution of Catholic priests.
“The play illustrates the venting of Shakespeare’s spleen against the spy network in England which had led to many a Catholic priest being arrested, tortured and martyred,” said Pearce, who is director of the Center for Faith and Culture in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of three books on Shakespeare.
“The ghost of Hamlet’s father is clearly a Catholic in purgatory who exposes the wickedness of the usurping Machiavellian King Claudius.”
Pearce reiterates that more people at that time had Catholic sympathies than is commonly believed.
“Although the anti-Catholic laws made it necessary for any writer, Shakespeare included, to be circumspect about the way that they discussed the religious controversies of the time,” he said, “it is clear that Shakespeare’s plays show a great degree of sympathy with the Catholic perspective during this volatile time.”
While scholars agree that Shakespeare’s writings indicate sympathies for the Catholic cause, definitive proof from his life that he was a covert Catholic is harder to come by. In fact, Asquith said, there is even resistance among the academic community regarding his possible relationship with the Catholic Church, despite the evidence from the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
“People want Shakespeare to be an enlightened secular humanist, and they are not going to move an inch in the direction of him being committed in a religious sense at all.”
Few pieces of hard biographical evidence support the case for Shakespeare’s Catholicism, but there are other clues. For instance, his daughter Susanna had been brought before the court of the recusant because she, like many Catholics, refused to swear allegiance to the reigning monarch as head of the Church of England.
In 1613, Shakespeare purchased the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London and immediately leased it out as a safe house for Catholics. The property would be used to harbor Catholic priests and fugitives, among other activities.
“Shakespeare’s purchasing of the Blackfriars Gatehouse, a house well known as a base for the Catholic underground, would be enough to prove Shakespeare’s Catholicism,” Pearce said.
From April 28, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.