Was He Catholic?

April 19 2012 | by

FOR MONTHS, the South Sudan Theatre Company has been making preparations for May 2012. The theatre troupe from the world’s newest nation is due to perform Shakespeare’s tragedy Cymbeline as part of the Globe to Globe Shakespeare festival in London. Recited in Juba Arabic, it is one of the thirty-seven languages that will be heard in the multilingual programme of Shakespearean productions. Confirmation, if it were needed, of the continued global appeal and relevance of the Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Despite being the most famous playwright on the planet, there are many aspects of William Shakespeare’s life and thinking which remain hazy to this day. In a review of the film Anonymous, which was released late last year, L’Osservatore Romano explored the film’s premise that the works of Shakespeare were actually penned by the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. The Vatican newspaper opted for an open verdict on that, but concluded that there was no doubt that the writer who authored the material was a Catholic who concealed his religious beliefs because of the anti-Catholic persecution of Elizabethan England.


Two types of evidence


In the absence of definitive evidence, or any overt profession of faith, what suggests that Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic? In his article Assurance of Faith: How Catholic was Shakespeare? Paul Voss identifies two types of evidence. One concerns the historical and archival record, and the other relates to allusions to the Catholic faith in his writings. A number of scholars believe there is a strong case to be made that the playwright was intimately acquainted with Catholicism, Catholics and the Catholic sacraments, and that he may have secretly cleaved to the ‘old faith’ despite appearing to have joined the Protestant faith. Some argue that Shakespeare’s Catholicism was a matter of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and point to the fact that he sprinkled his oeuvre with allusions to Catholic sacraments and fraternised with Catholics – some of whom were killed in the most horrific ways by authorities determined to be rid of Papists. Adopting an outward appearance of Anglicanism would have safeguarded him and his family as well as his livelihood.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the son of John and Mary Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, who were practising Catholics during the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-1558). ‘Bloody Mary’ sought to overturn the inroads Henry VIII had made with Anglicanism by restoring Catholicism. Her strictures on Protestants were as cruel and harsh as her half-sister Elizabeth I’s later penalties were on Catholics. In 1559, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement broke the links between the Church of England and the Church of Rome definitively. Recusancy laws made it almost impossible for Catholics to attend Mass while any service not contained in the Book of Common Prayer was outlawed.


Recusant father


In 1561 a new pastor was appointed to Stratford-upon-Avon’s Protestant Holy Trinity Church. The town archives indicate that William’s father, John Shakespeare became a member of the Church of England around this time and helped give Holy Trinity a makeover which involved removing objects belonging to Catholic ritual.

However, in 1592, when William Shakespeare would have been 28, his father was named by the authorities as a recusant because he had not been attending services in the Anglican Church. Whether that was due to a lackadaisical attitude towards religious observances on John Shakespeare’s part or because he was still a Catholic who was keeping an outward appearance of being a Protestant cannot be established with any certainty.

On 10 March 1613 William Shakespeare bought a property called ‘Blackfriars Gatehouse’ in London. The deeds of the purchase are today held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. The playwright’s motivation for buying it is unclear. Some argue it was an investment. However, the property was reputedly a place used to hide Catholics in London, and came complete with secret tunnels. Was Shakespeare aiding the recusant cause?


Obscure life


Shakespeare’s lost years (1582-1592) have long been a source of speculation. What we do know about those years is that he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, and that six months after the marriage, his first child Susanna was baptised in May 1583. Then in February 1585 his twins, Hamnet and Judith, were baptised. But there are periods for which little or nothing is known.

One theory proposes that he may have visited the Venerable English College in Rome during this time. Founded as a hospice in 1362, it became a refuge for persecuted Catholics and a seminary in 1579. It has kept a guestbook down the centuries and amongst its signatures are those of the English poet John Milton, and one signed by ‘Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis’ meaning ‘(King) Arthur’s (compatriot) from Stratford (in the diocese) of Worcester’. It is speculated that this may have been a coded signature of Shakespeare. Another entry in 1587 ‘Shfordus Cestriensis’ may stand for ‘Sh(akespeare from Strat)ford (in the diocese) of Chester’.

Shakespeare’s mother Mary belonged to the staunchly Catholic Arden family. The historical record shows that a cousin, Edward Arden, was executed in 1583 for his opposition to the Elizabethan policies towards Catholics. He had harboured Fr Hugh Hall, who lived under an assumed role at Edward Arden’s estate.


Catholic friends


Another fact which may have a bearing on this issue of Shakespeare’s faith is his close contact with Catholics at school. Three of his teachers, Simon Hunt, Thomas Jenkins and John Cottam, were Catholic and had first-hand Catholic connections. Hunt later became a Jesuit priest. Jenkins was a student of the martyr Edmund Campion at St John’s College, Oxford, while John Cottam’s brother was the Jesuit martyr, Blessed Thomas Cottam, who was executed at Tyburn. One of Shakespeare’s fellow students, Robert Debdale, later trained at a priest and was executed at Tyburn in 1586.

When William married Anne Hathaway in 1582, the cleric who presided at the ceremony, John Frith, was four years later named by the authorities as a Catholic priest who was masquerading as a Protestant clergyman.

One document which appears to clinch the argument is a pamphlet which was unearthed in the roof of Shakespeare’s parents’ home on 29 April 1757 by a bricklayer. The pamphlet was an English translation of ‘Last Will of the Soul’, a profession of faith by the Archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo. It was intended to rally those persecuted for their faith and was distributed among English recusants by Fr Edmund Campion (1540-1581). The Jesuit was canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales – their common feast day is 4 May. The pamphlet was found secrete in the rafters along with a copy of John Shakespeare’s will, an indication of its importance.


He dyed a Papyst


One of the earliest biographical notes on Shakespeare claims, “He dyed a Papyst”. Anglican archdeacon Richard Davies knew many of the dramatist’s contemporaries. Though some scholars believe the claim is an 18th century apocryphal story, it is contained in a document which was gifted to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1690.

According to the Dominican poet, Fr Paul Murray, it is not helpful “to characterise Shakespeare formally as a religious dramatist. The fact is that he chose, by and large, to leave religion alone.” Analysis of his published work sheds no definitive light. However, literary scholars such as Fr David Beauregard, who lectures on Shakespeare, and Jesuit author Fr Peter Milward, as well as writer Clare Asquith, are among those who believe Shakespeare’s Catholic sympathies are detectable in his writings.

They cite his favourable depiction of Catholic priests or friars at a time when they were being hung, drawn and quartered in England. Among these are Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet and Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing. Though, equally there are Catholic figures that are not so favourably depicted, including Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part I as well as Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop Ely in Henry V. The novice Isabella in the play Measure for Measure is depicted as a virtuous and religious figure, while Fr David Beauregard argues that Prospero’s farewell, in the epilogue of The Tempest, which states, “And my ending is despair/Unless I be reliev’d by prayer”, is a call for intercessory prayer in contradiction with the Protestant doctrine of assurance.


Defence of marriage


Perhaps of greater significance is the way Shakespeare handles the sacraments. In Hamlet, the ghost of his murdered father tells the Prince of his current location, which appears to conform to the Catholic understanding of Purgatory of the time. Hamlet’s father tells the Prince that this has happened because he died “unhous’led” by which he means without the Eucharist; “unanel’d” that is, without extreme unction; and with “no reck’ning made” that is, without confession.

After Elizabeth I became monarch, marriage was de-sacramentalised while the Catholic Church remained firm in its teachings of its sacramentality. Scholars argue that Shakespeare’s treatment of marriage shows a sacramental understanding and cite numerous examples, of which two stand out. One is the “stirring defence” of marriage by Portia in Julius Caesar. She makes it abundantly clear to Brutus that the “great vow” exchanged between them transformed their very nature from two into one. As a result, Brutus owes a responsibility to Portia far exceeding a mere contractual arrangement.

This sacramental understanding of marriage is affirmed in Romeo and Juliet, where the couple both receive the sacrament of reconciliation before their marriage and Friar Laurence asserts he will not leave the young lovers alone “till Holy Church incorporate two into one.”


[1. ritratto – apre] William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the son of John and Mary Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, who were practising Catholics during the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-1558)// © Corbis

[2.] Shakespeare played in two comedies before Queen Elizabeth I in December 1594

[3.] Modern reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre located on the south bank of the River Thames; it was opened to the public in 1997

[4] The cottage of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, in Shottery, Warwickshire, Great Britain

[5] Shakespeare’s grave is located in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

Updated on October 06 2016