Shakespeare Scholars Say the Bard was Catholic?

PAUL BURNELL

An international gathering of scholars this summer examined the theory that playwright and poet William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic.

MANCHESTER, England - It is early in the Protestant Reformation, and a time of fierce persecution of Catholics in England. Every Catholic faces the same questions: Will I rise up against the Queen if required? Will I become a martyr if given the chance?

If a group of English scholars are right, one Catholic poet summed up the dilemma nicely:

“To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”

An international gathering of scholars this summer examined the theory that playwright and poet William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. The meeting was held at Hoghton Tower, in Lancashire, North England, a country manor house which may have figured largely in the poet's life. They claimed Shakespeare even used the name Shakeshafte to avoid scrutiny by the anti-Papist authorities in Elizabethan England, and examined the emerging consensus about the poet's undocumented “missing years.”

Organizer Professor Richard Wilson, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Lancaster, England, said a 16-year-old Shakespeare came to Hoghton Tower, the nerve-center of a Catholic counter reformation in 1580, with the Jesuit priest and martyr St. Edmund Campion. “That was the start of a period of 10 years for Shakespeare in a series of Catholic houses in North West England,” he said.

Scholars also cite the “spiritual testament” of John Shakespeare, the writer's father, to support their account of the family's faith. The document, found in 1750 in the rafters of the family home in Stratford-Upon-Avon, is a fervent declaration of faith and is believed to have been written by St. Charles Borromeo and brought to England from Milan to Father Campion. A connection with the Catholic underground—“headquartered” at Hoghton Tower — would make Shakespeare a much more subversive figure than many English assume.

A few days after Father Campion's arrest and torture in the Tower of London, Hoghton was raided. A record of the time notes that the head of the family, Alexander Hoghton, asked in his will, for a neighboring family to take care of a young scholar called William Shakeshafte. Academics are convinced this was an alias for Shakespeare. They believe he took the name of his grandparents to escape persecution.

Said Professor Wilson, “It was a common thing for young Catholics, who may have been heading for seminaries in Northern France, to take an alias. “It does look as if Shakespeare was heading, with other Catholic young men of the era, for the Catholic seminaries such as the one at Douai in northern France to train as a priest.” But it also looks as if Campion's arrest and execution and the ongoing persecution of Catholics halted his plans. “Perhaps the evasiveness and anonymity, which mean that we know so little of Shakespeare's life, were produced as a defense.”

To be or not to be

Citing Hamlet's, “To be or not to be” soliloquy as an indication of this spiritual turmoil, Professor Wilson said, “This is Hamlet contemplating suicide — but it is also about the self-destruction ... of a generation of martyrs.” He added, “Shakespeare's plays revolve around the 'bloody question,' where your true loyalty lies. It was a question of what would happen if there was a move by Rome against the Protestant Queen.”

The claims of the Bard's Romish leanings were greeted by delight by Catholic thespians. Michael Slater, Master of the British Catholic Stage told the Register, “There is such humanity which encroaches into his plays it wouldn't surprise me if he was a Catholic. The plays speak for themselves. I just wish I was his agent.”

Slater, who is currently involved in supporting a new theatrical project based on the life of Father Campion, said, “It does open all sorts of possibilities. Scholars often speculate about the identity of the 'dark lady' in his sonnets. Maybe it was our Lady,” he said. Asked about the Hamlet claim, he replied, “I don't know about that I would have to reread the text.”

Theories about Shakespeare's Catholicism have been percolating throughout the century. In the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, Herbert Thurston recounts that Anglican Archdeacon R. Davies wrote at the end of the 17th century that the dramatist had a monument in Stratford. In his diary, Thurston added the words, “He dyed a Papyst.” Thurston commented, “Davies, an Anglican clergyman, could have had no conceivable motive for misrepresenting the matter in these private notes.”

Shakespeare on Purgatory

“I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confirmed to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.”

—Ghost of Hamlet's father,
Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

Plans are currently being made to turn Hoghton Tower into a Shakespeare center, including a library, study center and 800-seat theater. David Thacker, a former director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, will be artistic director and Prof. Wilson will be director of the study center. The project has attracted support from the United States. Former President of Colombia Pictures Steve Sohmer has agreed to be a trustee along with his wife Deirdie Hall, star of “The Days of Our Lives.”

The Religion of Shakespeare
From the Catholic Encyclopedia 1912

Of both Milton and Shakespeare it was stated after their deaths, upon Protestant authority, that they had professed Catholicism.

In Milton's case the statement is certainly untrue. This emphasizes the need of caution — the more so that Sahkespeare at least had been dead more than seventy years when Archdeacon R. Davies (d. 1708) wrote in his supplementary notes to the biographical collections of the Rev. W. Fulman that the dramatist had a monument at Stratford, adding the words: “He dyed a Papyst”.

Davies, an Anglican clergyman, could have had no conceivable motive for misrepresenting the matter in these private notes and as he lived in the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire he may be echoing a local tradition. To this must be added the fact that independent evidence establishes a strong presumption that John Shakespeare, the poet's father, was or had been a Catholic.

His wife Mary Arden, the poet's mother, undoubtedly belonged to a family that remained conspicuously Catholic throughout the reign of Elizabeth.

On the other hand many serious difficulties stand in the way of believing that William Shakespeare could have been in any sense a staunch adherent of the old religion. To begin with, his own daughters were not only baptized in the parish church as their father had been, but were undoubtedly brought up as Protestants, the elder, Mrs. Hall, being apparently rather Puritan in her sympathies.

As regards the internal evidence of the plays and poems, no fair appreciation of the arguments advanced by Simpson, Bowden, and others can ignore the strong leaven of Catholic feeling conspicuous in the works as a whole.

Archdeacon Davies's statement that “he dyed a Papyst” is by no means incredible, but it would obviously be foolish to build too much upon an unverifiable tradition of this kind. The point must remain forever uncertain.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Paul Burnell. “Shakespeare Scholars Say the Bard was ... Catholic?” National Catholic Register. (September 5-11, 1999).

Reprinted by permission of the author. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

THE AUTHOR

Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England. CNS contributed to this story.

Copyright © 1999 National Catholic Register