Could the most famous writer in history have been a Catholic? The very suggestion is enough to throw the liberal literary establishment into an apoplexy of spluttering fury. How could the Bard of Avon, who has been lauded by “queer-theorists,” feminists, relativists, and atheists as one of their own, be a conservative Christian? The very thought is unthinkable. And yet it seems that the unthinkable is a reality.
G.K. Chesterton certainly believed that the evidence pointed towards Shake speare’s Catholicism, stating that the “convergent common sense” that led to the belief that the Bard was a Catholic was “supported by the few external and political facts we know.”1 One presumes from this assertion that Chesterton was familiar with the considerable historical and textual evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism that had been gathered by the 19th century Shakespearian scholar Richard Simpson.
Yet Simpson was not the fi rst scholar to conclude that there was suffi cient evidence to point to the Bard’s Catholicism. In 1801, the French writer François René de Chateaubriand asserted that “if Shakespeare was anything at all, he was a Catholic.”2 Thomas Carlyle wrote that the “Elizabethan era with its Shakespeare, as the outcome and fl owerage of all which had preceded it, is itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages.”3 Carlyle’s great Victorian contemporary, John Henry Newman, was even more emphatic about the Catholic dimension, stating that Shakespeare “has so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able, without extravagance, to claim him as their own.”4 Hilaire Belloc, echoing the verdict of Newman, insisted that “the plays of Shakespeare were written by a man plainly Catholic in habit of mind.”5
These great writers of the Victorian and Edwardian periods perceived Shakespeare’s Catholicism in the moral vision that emerges from the plays. Yet modern “scholars,” blind to this moral vision, have habitually misread the plays. Instead of seeing evidence of traditional Christian morality, they see the plays as a reflection of their own secular fundamentalist prejudices. It is, therefore, necessary to discover the real Shakespeare, and the real beliefs that he held, in order to expose this literary abuse of his work.
Thankfully a good deal of solid historical scholarship in recent years has added signifi – cantly to the “few external and political facts” known by Chesterton and his contemporaries. In consequence, the claims made by Carol Curt Enos in her recent book, Shakespeare and the Catholic Religion, are more self confidently emphatic than those made by Chesterton: “When many of the extant pieces of the puzzle of Shakespeare’s life are assembled, it is very difficult to deny his Catholicism.”6 Every piece of the puzzle, placed painstakingly where it belongs, brings us closer to an objectively verifi able picture of the man who wrote the plays. And that man emerges as a believing Catholic at a time when Catholics were persecuted ruthlessly for their faith.
Let’s examine the evidence. The investigation of Shakespeare’s life begins with the overwhelming evidence that the faith of his family was defiantly Catholic. Much of the historical scholarship in recent years has centered on the spiritual will of John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, which clearly demonstrates his Catholic bona fides and itemizes his earnest desire to die a Catholic, in good faith and conscience. Item IV is particularly striking for its enunciation of his desire that he should receive the last rites of the Church, and his hope that the desire for the last rites would suffice should there be no priest to administer the sacrament at his moment of death.
In the time of persecution in which John Shakespeare was living it was a crime, punishable by death, to harbor a priest in one’s home. It was, therefore, very possible that no priest would be available for the Catholic in extremis. It is in the spirit of this gloom of persecution, with the cloud of unknowing looming overhead, that John Shakespeare’s defiant desire for the last rites should be understood.
Other items of the will lamented and repented any “murmuration against god, or the catholic faith” and offered “infinite thanks” to God for all benefi ts received, including “the holy knowledge of him and his true Catholic faith.” The strength of the evidence that John Shakespeare remained a defi ant Catholic, in the midst of widespread anti-Catholic persecution by the Elizabethan state, has forced most modern scholars to accept that William Shakespeare was brought up as a believing Catholic. Such evidence is strengthened by the fact that John Shakespeare would later fall foul of the law for his continued commitment to the Catholic resistance, being fi ned in 1592 for his “recusancy,” i.e., his refusal, in conscience, to attend Anglican services. It should be noted also that Shakespeare’s mother was a member of the Arden family, one of the most militantly defi ant Catholic families in the whole of England.
If the overwhelming weight of the evidence has forced most scholars to accept that Shakespeare was raised in a staunchly Catholic family, they insist that he lost his faith after he came to seek his fortune in London. This is very convenient for the secular “scholar” because it enables him to see any Catholic influence in the plays as a remnant of a childhood faith that the poet subsequently rejected. Unfortunately for these “scholars,” the actual facts of Shakespeare’s life suggest that he remained a believing Catholic throughout his years in London and that his Catholic faith informed his works.
Before his arrival in London, there is evidence that Shakespeare might have spent some time as a schoolmaster in a militantly Catholic home in Lancashire, and there is also evidence that he was forced to leave his hometown of Stratford in a hurry because of persecution by Sir Thomas Lucy, a notorious persecutor of Catholics. In London, his patron, the Earl of Southampton, was a well-known Catholic, from a staunchly Catholic family, who had the Jesuit St. Robert Southwell as his confessor.
There is considerable documentary evidence to show that Shakespeare and Southwell were friends before the latter’s arrest in 1592. Southwell was tortured repeatedly during his imprisonment in the Tower of London and would be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn in 1595. He would later be canonized as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. There is also good circumstantial evidence that the young Shakespeare may have met another Jesuit martyr, St. Edmund Campion, and it seems likely that he knew the martyred priest Robert Dibdale, who would later be beatified by the Church as one of the Eighty-Five Martyrs of England and Wales.
If Shakespeare counted priests among his friends we know that he counted those who persecuted Catholics among his enemies. Court records show that he found himself embroiled in a legal dispute with William Gardiner, a Justice of the Peace of singularly disreputable character, “who defrauded his wife’s family, his son-in-law, and his stepson, oppressed his neighbors and fleeced his tenants.”7 Gardiner and his equally disreputable stepson, William Wayte (“a certain loose person of no reckoning or value, being wholly under the rule and commandment of the said Gardiner”), 8 petitioned the court for protection, securing the issue of a writ craving “sureties of the peace against William Shakespeare, Francis Langley, Dorothy Soer, wife of John Soer, and Anne Lee, for fear of death, and so forth.”
Although some sources have recorded that Shakespeare was being prosecuted for physically assaulting William Wayte, this is unlikely. There is no evidence that Shakespeare possessed violent tendencies, and the factthat two of his co-defendants were married women suggests that any “violence” done against Wayte or Gardiner, justified or otherwise, was executed with the tongue or with the pen, not with any other part of the anatomy or with any other implement. Nonetheless, this curious court case does give us an invaluable insight into the sort of people with whom Shakespeare was choosing to associate and the sort of people whom he chose to call his enemies.
It is interesting, for instance, that Anne Lee was the wife of the recusant Roger Lee, whose house had hidden many proscribed priests, and that Anne herself had been denounced in the previous year for attending Mass, where she apparently helped the Jesuit John Gerard to hide from the authorities. Such are the people whom Shakespeare was counting among his friends in 1596.
Even more intriguing is the character of Shakespeare’s enemy, William Gardiner. He is variously accused by his contemporaries of being “unchristian,” “irreligious,” “unchristianlike,” “un godly,” and “a man inclined to strange opinions.” Some considered him an atheist, while others considered him a sorcerer or an alchemist. In a court case in 1588, he was accused of “witchcraft, sorcery…and holding of irreligious opinions.” There is, however, one belief of which Gardiner was never in danger of being accused. Nobody would ever have accused him of being a Catholic. Whether he was a Puritan, an atheist, or a sorcerer, everyone knew that he was not a papist, not least because he had earned a reputation for persecuting London’s Catholic community, of which Shakespeare was now a part.
Gardiner’s virulent anti-Catholicism has been preserved for posterity in a report that he sent to Elizabeth’s Privy Council in January 1585, documenting a raid on a Catholic home in London. This document exhibits Gardiner’s vehement disapproval of “papistry” and gives an invaluable insight into the sort of man whom Shakespeare considered to be his enemy. Shakespeare would take his own revenge on both Gardiner and Wayte, writing them into The Merry Wives of Windsor and the second part of Henry IV as the characters Justice Shallow and Slender respectively. Both plays were first performed in 1597 so it is possible that Justice Gardiner, who died in November of that year, would have been aware that his adversary had “staged” his revenge.
During the final years of Elizabeth’s reign, Shakespeare became involved in a controversial play about St. Thomas More, who had been martyred for his Catholic faith on the orders of the queen’s father, Henry VIII, more than 60 years earlier. Not surprisingly, the play was blocked by Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels, who was Elizabeth’s official censor. Quite simply, Thomas More was still a hot potato more than 60 years after his death, touching a raw nerve not only with Elizabeth—whose father had the saint’s blood on his hands—but with the Elizabethan state as a whole. Thomas More had been executed by the reigning monarch for refusing to compromise his Catholic conscience on the altar of Machiavellian realpolitik, making him an archetype for Campion, Walpole, Southwell, and many others who suffered a similar fate in the reign of Elizabeth. As such, any positive depiction of More could be seen as a dangerous indictment of England’s present rulers.
The play was written by Anthony Munday, but Shakespeare seems to have become personally involved in the saga surrounding it. The original manuscript is still in existence and contains amendments to Munday’s original text that are generally believed to be by Shakespeare.9 It seems that Shakespeare tried to patch up Munday’s original work, apparently with the intention of getting it past the censor. Shakespeare’s amendments clearly illustrate his sympathy with More and his belief that there were lessons to be learned by his own time from More’s holy example.
Further evidence of Shakespeare’s admiration for More is discernible in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23, in which the poet employs the same pun on More’s name that he had used in his addition to Munday’s play. If the middle “more” in the 12th line of the sonnet is capitalized (“More than that love which More hath more expressed”), the sonnet is transfigured into a moving tribute to the saint, in which Shakespeare contrasts his own “unperfect” love, weakened by “fear” and “rage,” with the holy love “which [M]ore hath more expressed.”
There is also a sublime allusion to the Mass as “the perfect ceremony of love’s right,” reinforced by the pun on “right/ rite,” and illustrating a deep theological understanding of the Mass as the “perfect ceremony” that re-presents Christ’s death for sinners as “love’s right” and “love’s rite.” Unlocking this beguiling sonnet still further we see that the poet laments that he is not present at this “perfect ceremony” as often as he should be because of “fear of trust,” perhaps a reference to the spies who were present at these secret Masses intent on reporting the names of “papists” and on betraying the priests to the authorities. Since he does not have the heroic selfsacrifi cial love, even unto death, of a Thomas More, the poet desires that his “books” be his “eloquence,” the “dumb presagers of my speaking breast.” The final two lines are surely addressed to both the poet himself and to his reader, beseeching the latter to “learn to read” in his plays what the poet’s love, silent through fear, dare not speak openly. Since they will not hear the poet speak his mind openly, his readers must see what he means in his plays, hearing with their eyes and using their own “love’s fi ne wit” to discern his deeper meaning:
O learn to read what silent love hath writ,
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.
Bearing in mind Shakespeare’s evident devotion to Thomas More, it is no surprise that he was persuaded to intervene in an effort to get Munday’s play past the censor who had written “Perform this at your peril” in the play’s margin.
In spite of Shakespeare’s best efforts to make the play acceptable, Tilney refused to lift the ban on its performance. It would be another 400 years, during the reign of another Elizabeth, before Munday’s Sir Thomas More would finally be performed. When the Royal Shakespeare Company staged the play at the new Globe Theatre in the summer of 2004, Shakespeare and More were at last united in art as they had always been in creed. The Bard who, in Ben Jonson’s memorable tribute, “was not of an age, but for all time,” had finally been allowed to pay homage to the saint who, in the title of Robert Bolt’s memorable play, was “a man for all seasons.”
One of the most convincing pieces of evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism is to be found in his purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse in March 1613. This house was “a notorious center of Catholic activities,” 10 which had “sundry backdoors and bye-ways, and many secret vaults and corners” and had been “in time past suspected, and searched for papists.” 11 In 1598, acting on a report that the Gatehouse was a hive of recusant activity with “many places of secret conveyance in it” and “secret passages towards the water,” i.e., toward the river Thames whence priests could make their getaway, the authorities raided the house. John Fortescue, the Catholic owner of the house, was absent during the search but his wife and daughters were interrogated, admitting that they were recusants but refusing to confess that they had hidden priests in the house. In 1605, the Jesuit John Gerard, the most wanted man in England, appeared in desperation at the Gatehouse, wearing a wig and false beard as a disguise, and asking for shelter, stating that he did not know where else to hide.
Little is known of the history of the Gatehouse in the few years between when the Fortescues went into exile and when Shakespeare purchased it, but as late as 1610 it was reported in Naples that it was the base for Jesuits plotting to “send the King an embroidered doublet and hose, which are poisoned and will be death to the wearer.” 12 As much as such a statement can be dismissed as the product of the idle fantasies of embittered exiles or anti- Catholic spies, it is apparent nonetheless that Shakespeare had chosen to purchase one of the most notorious Catholic houses in the whole of London. This in itself is curious enough, but it is not by any means the end of the story.
Shakespeare chose to lease the Gatehouse to John Robinson, an active Catholic whose brother had entered the English College at Rome to train for the priesthood. It is obvious that Shakespeare knew that in leasing the Gatehouse to John Robinson he was leaving it in the possession of a recusant Catholic. In consequence, and as Ian Wilson surmised in Shakespeare: The Evidence, Robinson was “not so much Shakespeare’s tenant in the Gatehouse, as his appointed guardian of one of London’s best places of refuge for Catholic priests.”13 Furthermore, John Robinson was not merely a tenant but a valued friend. He visited Shakespeare in Stratford during the poet’s retirement, and was seemingly the only one of the Bard’s London friends who was present during his fi nal illness, signing his will as a witness.
Shakespeare died on St. George’s Day 1616, leaving the bulk of his wealth to his daughter Susanna, who had been listed as a recusant Catholic 10 years earlier. Other benefi ciaries of his will included several of his recusant Catholic friends. It is clear, therefore, as the Anglican clergyman Richard Davies lamented in the late 1600s, that “he died a papist.” It is equally clear that he lived as a papist, a fact that the English did their best to hide in the centuries after his death, and a fact that modern literary critics are trying to deny today.
The news that the Bard of Avon was a passionate member of the Church of Rome is shocking to those who have built their reputations on fallacious readings of his plays. Hopefully it is a shock from which they will not recover. It is, however, a cause of great joy to Catholics to know that William Shakespeare is on the side of the angels.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!