By Ian Wilson

In this article Ian Wilson looks at some of the arguments in support of the claim that Shakespeare was a Catholic. The reluctance of the English literary establishment to accept Shakespeare's Catholicism may only pass when its monarch is allowed to practise the same faith.

ASK the average Englishman whether William Shakespeare was Church of England or a Catholic, and they're almost bound to answer 'C. of E., of course!' After all, England's greatest Bard was at his height in the reign of Queen Elizabeth of Spanish Armada fame, when to be a Catholic was not only unpatriotic, but downright dangerous. The usual fate of any Catholic priests, if they were found out, was to be hung, drawn and quartered. Generation upon generation of schoolchildren have been taught Shakespeare's plays without being given the slightest inkling that they might have been written by a Catholic. And while there's often an irrational preparedness to believe that the strangely elusive historical 'Shakespeare' could have been Christopher Marlowe, or Sir Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, for him to have been a Catholic - never!

However, when Shakespeare's life and works are properly examined, the evidence for his covertly having been a Catholic is very compelling. Take his mother Mary. A member of the staunchly Catholic and genteel Arden family, her father's will shows that he died a very devout Catholic, and that Mary was the favourite - and youngest - of his eight daughters. Mary was also a close relative of the Ardens of Park Hall, who suffered executions for their Catholic sympathies during the 1580s.

Take Shakespeare's father John. In 1592 John appears listed in official records as a recusant, that is, one who would not obey the law that required all Englishmen to attend Church of England services. In 1757 a handwritten testament of his Catholic faith, signed item for item by him, was found secreted in the rafters of the Stratford-upon-Avon 'Birthplace' house that today thousands visit annually as where the young William was born and grew to maturity. Although the genuineness of this testament was once doubted and the original lost (specifically through disbelief that Shakespeare and his family could have been 'tainted' with Catholicism), the finding as recently as 1966 of a second, almost identical such document has effectively dispelled remaining doubts concerning the authenticity of the first. Likewise, when we look to Shakespeare's elder daughter Susannah, we find that she appears in recusant records for the year 1607, as do the Stratford-upon-Avon couple Hamnet and Judith Sadler who were godparents to Shakespeare's twin younger son and daughter, these latter receiving the same Christian names.

So what of Shakespeare himself? Certainly he seems to have been very careful personally to avoid getting onto any recusant lists, very necessary for a man whose theatrical livelihood depended upon patrons who included Queen Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain, followed, upon Elizabeth's death, by none other than her successor, the also very Protestant King James I. Shakespeare also very carefully avoided directly addressing religious issues in his plays. Nevertheless play after play of his contains unmistakable clues to his underlying religious affiliations.

For instance, whereas his playwright contemporaries Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe and others, went out of their way to present Catholic clergy in an unfavourable light, delighting in representing them as indulging in sexual promiscuity and gluttony, Shakespeare (power-playing bishops and cardinals aside), very pointedly never did so.

His Romeo and Juliet, for instance, very sympathetically features two Franciscan friars, Lawrence and John. Because Romeo and Juliet are represented as dying largely because Friar Lawrence's daring plan to help them went badly wrong, Shakespeare could easily have chosen to present these Franciscans as bungling idiots, thereby earning brownie points for himself from the Protestant establishment of his time. But he did not. The reason he gave for why Friar John could not convey the vital message that could have saved Romeo and Juliet, was the very laudable and understandable one that he had been visiting people sick of the plague, and had been forcibly detained by townspeople fearful that he was contagious.' Catholic clergy also feature similarly favourably in Comedy of Errors (abbess Emilia); in Much Ado about Nothing (Friar Francis), and particularly in Measure for Measure (which includes a very moving confession scene), in the persons of Friar Thomas and 'Friar Lodowick'/Duke Vincentio.

In opposite vein Shakespeare notably made somewhat of a speciality of lampooning Protestant clergy as buffoons incapable of conducting even a marriage ceremony, prime examples being the parsons Sir Nathaniel in Love's Labour's Lost, Sir Hugh Evans in Merry Wives of Windsor, and Sir Oliver Martext in As You Like It. Furthermore, at the very heart of Hamlet lies the rescue of the soul of old Hamlet, Hamlet's father, from Purgatory, a realm which Protestants had decreed just a vain Catholic superstition.

And when we look to Shakespeare's Sonnets, almost the only autobiographical information we have of him, we find him reflecting wistfully and poignantly upon the 'bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang', a quite unmistakable reference to the devastated monasteries and nunneries that littered the landscape in his time, fifty years after Henry VIII's Dissolution of them, just as 'bomb sites' did in Britain following the damage done by Hitler's Luftwaffe during World War II.

There is one further clue. In 1688, annotating a diary left to him by fellow-clergyman William Fulman, the Revd. Richard Davies, Dean of Coventry, wrote of Shakespeare 'He died a papist'. Given Davies' erudition and his undoubted familiarity with nearby Stratford-upon-Avon and its local gossip, his statement cannot be lightly ignored.

So why, with all the intense scrutiny that Shakespeare's works have received from literati over the years, has Shakespeare never ever before been recognised as a Catholic? In fact he has, but almost exclusively by Catholics (predominantly Jesuits), whose opinions have been dismissed as biased, and whose voices have been ignored by the academic establishments. Nearly a hundred years ago Father H.S. Bowden showed the way with his The Religion of Shakespeare, published in 1899. In the 1950s Fr Christopher Devlin developed the idea further, in works that included the life of the Catholic martyr Robert Southwell. Also in 1973 Father Peter Milward, director of the Renaissance Centre at Sophia University, Tokyo, wrote the most thorough-going presentation of the same argument with his Shakespeare's Religious Background. Yet although Fr Milward is still very active, not one of these authors has yet seriously stirred the 'official' line.

But there are now encouraging signs that things are changing. Last year Dr Margarita Stocker, highly respected as a lecturer in English literature at St Hilda's College, Oxford, created 'Shakespeare was a Catholic subversive' headlines in The Times with claims that she had discovered Love's Labour's Lost to be, in her words, 'shot through with clever anti-Protestant gibes.' In a scholarly article in the Shakespeare Yearbook Dr Stocker describes Shakespeare's writing of Love's Labour's as 'a terrifically daring act on his part', giving us 'a new view of our most famous playwright as a subversive rather than an establishment toady.' At Cambridge English professor Anne Barton immediately dismissed Dr Stocker's argument as 'rubbish', before, apparently, even reading it. But at least the argument has now reached centre-stage academia.

Overall, for Shakespeare to have been a Catholic certainly explains why, historically, he was such a willo' -the-wisp character. Indeed this is one reason why sensationalists for so long have tried to claim his works written by someone 'famous' such as Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, rather than by a lowly actor from Stratford-upon- Avon. It also explains why, just before retiring to Stratford, he otherwise inexplicably purchased a maze-like gatehouse at Blackfriars in London that had long been under surveillance for the comings-and- goings of Catholic priests. It is little known that only seven years after Shakespeare's death ninety Catholics were killed when the floor collapsed during an over-crowded Mass being held in a secret upper garret to which this Blackfriars gatehouse apartment probably gave access.

So will the English establishment ever come to recognise that the country's number one Bard was, in the words of The Times headline, a secret 'Catholic subversive'? Probably only when it becomes prepared to allow its monarch to belong to the same faith - assuming, of course, that he or she is ever so disposed.


  1. It is noteworthy that Shakespeare's father's 'testament' had been devised by St Charles Borromeo, canonised specifically for his saintly visiting the sick during a plague that devastated Milan in 1576.

Ian Wilson, who currently lives in Queensland, Australia, is author of Shakespeare: The Evidence, published by Headline in 1993, and available in paperback at £7.99.

From "Annals Australasia" April/May 1998

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