The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome

The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome
William Shakespeare’s Catholic faith emerges in his poetry and plays

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote that Shakespeare had “so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able, without extravagance, to claim him as their own.” Hilaire Belloc, echoing Newman, insisted that “the plays of Shakespeare were written by a man plainly Catholic in habit of mind.” G. K. Chesterton, reaching the same conclusion, stated that Shakespeare’s Catholicism was “a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true.” Newman, Belloc and Chesterton drew their conclusions from their deep understanding of Shakespeare’s work, not having the benefit of the wealth of biographical evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism that has emerged in the past century or so. Today, those who claim that Shakespeare was a Catholic can employ the historical facts of his life and times, as well as the textual evidence to be gleaned from his poetry and plays.

Today it is widely accepted, albeit reluctantly by many, that Shakespeare was raised in a devoutly Catholic family at a time when the practice of the Faith was illegal. His mother’s family was one of the most notoriously defiant of all the recusant Catholic families in England. Several of Shakespeare’s cousins lost their lives for their part in so-called papist plots. John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, seems to have resigned from his life in local politics rather than take the anti-Catholic Oath of Supremacy. Years later, in 1592, while his son was in London forging a reputation as a playwright, he was fined for being a defiant Catholic who refused, in conscience, to attend the services of the state religion. Years later, in 1606, Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, was similarly fined. Like his father and daughter, Shakespeare seems to have refused to attend Anglican services.

As for Shakespeare himself, he seems to have inherited and embraced the Catholicism of his parents. He was apparently forced to leave his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon after making an enemy of Sir Thomas Lucy, a notorious persecutor of local Catholics, and there is evidence that he worked as a schoolmaster at a militantly Catholic house in the north of England, possibly meeting the Jesuit martyr, St. Edmund Campion, while he was there.

Following his arrival in London, court records show that Shakespeare had allegedly threatened the lives of two anti-Catholics who had gloated about their raids on Catholic homes and their burning of “papist” books and crucifixes. Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, was a Catholic who had another Jesuit martyr, St. Robert Southwell, as his personal confessor. There is abundant evidence to show that Shakespeare knew and admired this Jesuit saint.

Perhaps the strongest biographical evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism is his purchase of the Blackfriar’s Gatehouse, a notorious centre for illegal Catholic activity in London, and his befriending of John Robinson, a Catholic whose brother entered the English College in Rome to study for the priesthood. The final piece of biographical evidence is provided by Shakespeare’s will, of which many of his Catholic friends were beneficiaries, proving beyond all reasonable doubt that, in the plaintive words of the 16th century Anglican clergyman, Richard Davies, Shakespeare had “died a papist.”

Apart from the overwhelming evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism to be found in the facts of his life there is an abundance of converging evidence that emerges in his works. Several of his sonnets and poems allude sympathetically to known Catholics, killed or persecuted for their faith, including St. Thomas More, St. Robert Southwell, St. Anne Line, and William Byrd. As for his plays, his sympathy for Catholic martyrs is evident in his part in the writing of Sir Thomas More and in the sympathetic portrayal of Catherine of Aragon in Henry VIII. Positive allusions to the life, death and poetry of St. Robert Southwell can be seen in several plays, including Romeo and JulietThe Merchant of Venice and King Lear. There are thinly-veiled attacks on Queen Elizabeth I in Richard II and Hamlet and an excoriating condemnation of the ruthless Machiavellianism of King James I in Macbeth. Shakespeare also vents his spleen against the anti-Catholic spymasters, such as Lord Burghley and Francis Walsingham, in his characterization of Polonius in Hamlet and in the host of evil machiavels that he parades in his plays, including Iago in Othello, Edmund in King Lear, Claudius in Hamlet, and, of course, the diabolically ruthless Macbeth.

One could go on endlessly showing the evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism that emerges in his poetry and plays. Indeed the unearthing of such evidence would be a life’s work for a diligent scholar. Since, however, one must make an end, at least within the confines of a brief essay, we will conclude by returning to the words of Chesterton that the Bard of Avon’s allegiance to the Church of Rome is “a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true.”

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