`William Shakespeare, he wrote, 'died a papyst.'
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND THE OLD FAITH
By Kevin Hilferty
WAS Shakespeare a Catholic or a Protestant? No
one knows. Over the centuries Catholics, Anglicans and agnostics have claimed him.
The Anglicans point out that he and his children
were baptised in the Anglican Holy Trinity church in Stratford on
Avon, Shakespeare is buried there and that his plays show a
knowledge of the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
Catholics respond that Holy Trinity had been a Catholic church for
centuries, the clergyman who baptised him was known to be Catholic
at heart, Shakespeare's plays display a considerable knowledge of
Catholic teaching, doctrine and practice and his sympathies are generally Catholic.
A recent BBC TV series, In Search of
Shakespeare, by Michael Wood and a fine accompanying book
examine the facts, such as we know them. The best response the
author can offer is that Shakespeare was a man of his turbulent
times, he kept his religious beliefs (if any) very much to himself and so he survived.
But the Catholic connections of his family were
known and brought down on them the power of the law, in the form of
heavy fines and even execution for refusing to conform to the new
State religion of Protestantism.
When Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon
in April 1564 England had been a Protestant country for more than
30 years. So it was to remain. Shakespeare's life and his rise to
eminence as a playwright came under Elizabeth I and James I, who
both repressed Catholics.
They employed a network of spies, informers,
bounty hunters and double agents. Their detailed reports into every
aspect of peoples' lives can still be seen in the Public Record Office in London.
Michael Wood is a skilled historian and
documentary-maker; readers may recall his series on Alexander the
Great and the Spanish Conquistadors. This series has the advantage
of lush photography of the English countryside and ancient
buildings as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company performing
excerpts from the plays. While the recorded facts about
Shakespeare's life are limited to some church and legal documents,
Wood and the BBC researchers have turned up some fascinating items
that cast a new light on his times.
The Shakespeare and Arden families: The
poet's father, John Shakespeare, was a glover and wool-broker and a
local alderman and bailiff (equivalent to mayor) of Stratford. He
was a Catholic and a few months before the birth of William, the
town council commissioned him to destroy the medieval paintings
that covered the walls of the guild chapel, next door to the
guildhall and the school. But John and the council left the stained
glass in place, partitioned off the chancel to preserve the
paintings there and thinly coated the others with whitewash. They
were uncovered in 1804 and some of them can still be seen today.
John's wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote,
Warwickshire, came from an ancient Catholic family. She was one of
seven daughters of a prosperous farmer. They would have sent young
Will to the excellent local grammar school, where the curriculum
was aimed at creating conforming members of the Protestant state.
Two of the six teachers during Shakespeare's time were Catholics
and one went to a seminary in Douai and became a Jesuit.
It is easier to get older|
than to get wiser.
But trouble was looming for John Shakespeare. In
1572 he was fined for breaking the laws protecting the monopoly of
the Staple of Wool Merchants. He had been shopped by a government
informant as a 'brogger' - an illegal wool dealer. In 1576
Elizabeth began a new drive against her Catholic subjects. Anyone
who held civic office had to swear allegiance to the Queen in
matters of religion. This led to John and his Catholic friends
leaving their posts on Stratford Council. Recusants - Catholics who
absented themselves from the Protestant communion and service -
were to be fined or imprisoned. For this offence, John was fined heavily.
In 1757 workmen in John's old home in Stratford
found concealed in the roof a six-page Catholic testament of faith
in English, signed on each page by John Shakespeare. The document,
since lost, was long dismissed as a forgery. It is now recognised
as genuine and a 16th century translation of a spiritual testament
composed in Latin in the 1570s by Cardinal St Charles Borromeo of
Milan. Called The Last Will the Soul, it was for Catholics
threatened with religious persecution. The Jesuit missionaries
Edmund Campion and Robert Persons stayed with the Cardinal on their
way to England and may well have taken copies with them.
In his testament John sought the protection of
the Virgin Mary, asked his family to arrange for Masses for his
soul after his death and promised 'that I will patiently endure and
suffer all kind of infirmity, sickness and, yea the pain of death
itself' rather than abandon the Catholic faith.'
In 1583 Shakespeare's family was caught up in
tragedy. The head of the Arden family (of which the poet's mother
was a member) was Edward Arden, a prominent landowner of Park Hall,
Warwickshire. He was a Catholic who maintained a priest, Father
Hugh Hall, disguised as a gardener, to say Mass. He had a powerful
enemy in Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's enforcer in
Arden's son-in-law, a deranged young man called
John Somerville, was arrested in October, 1583 in a village on the
road to London. It was claimed that he had waved a gun around and
made threats against the Queen. The news attracted the interest of
Elizabeth's Secretary of State and spymaster, Sir Francis
Walsingham. Always ready to exaggerate (or invent) a plot,
Walsingham acted swiftly. Arden was arrested and joined Somerville
in the Tower as did his wife Mary Arden, their daughter Mrs
Somerville and Father Hall all accused of plotting to kill the
Queen and high treason.
Arden and Hall were tortured on the rack. Then,
despite a total lack of evidence against them, Arden, Somerville,
Father Hall and Mrs Arden were condemned to death. Somerville was
found dead in his cell, strangled either by his own hand or more
likely that of a paid killer. Arden was dragged behind a horse on a
hurdle (a type of sledge) from Newgate Prison to the execution
place at Smithfield where he was subjected to a prolonged ritual of
death: briefly hanged then cut down and ritually butchered.
Shakespeare"s birthplace in Stratford
A diary written by a priest imprisoned in the
Tower that year records his death in these words: 'December 20.
Edward Arden was led to the scaffold and there hanged, protesting
his innocence of that which he was accused and claiming that his
real crime was profession of the Catholic faith, with his usual
high spirit, protesting to the last his innocence of anything save
being a Catholic: Father Hall died in prison and Mrs Arden was released.
Shakespeare the actor and playwright:
William Shakespeare appears in the records in November, 1582 when
he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant at
the time. The marriage did not take place in Stratford, where the
vicar was a staunch Protestant, but in the village of Temple
Grafton where the vicar was an old priest suspected of being a Catholic.
Their daughter Susanna was christened at Holy
Trinity on May 26, 1583 and twins Hamnet and Judith on February 2,
1585; they were named after their neighbours and godparents, Hamnet
and Judith Sadler, both Catholics. With his father in financial
difficulties, William Shakespeare became the family's principal
earner. He appears to have left Anne and his children with his
parents while he set out to make his mark.
After the birth of the twins, there is no report
of Shakespeare until 1592 when a jealous reference by a rival
showed that already he was a playwright of repute, having written
Richard II. His historical plays, Henry IV Parts 1 and
2, featuring the character Sir John Falstaff were great hits.
They touched a nostalgic chord with their audience as they looked
back at England's history with its splendours and cruelties and
mediaeval Catholic past.
The police records show Shakespeare living in
London, with a French Huguenot (Protestant) family in the theatre
district around Shoreditch and in the parish of St Helen's,
Bishopsgate. According to a diarist of the time, Shakespeare went
home once a year, during Lent when the theatres were closed. He
kept in touch with his origins, using Warwickshire dialect in his
plays and took the names of his characters from tombstones; two
names in Henry V, Bardolph and Fluellen, appear in a list of
Shakespeare acquired as a patron the Earl of
Southampton and joined a new company of players founded by Lord
Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, as an actor and
It was common for great men to found such
companies. The astute Sir Francis Walsingham knew that the theatre
was the main form of public communication. In 1583 he founded the
Queen's Men who were to tour the country to spread Protestantism
and royalist propaganda.
By 1596, at 32, Shakespeare was recognised as
England's greatest poet (for Venus and Adonis) and playwright. In
August of that year his son Hamnet died and within a few months
Shakespeare had acquired for his family one of the biggest houses
in Stratford, New Place.
Anne Hathaway's cottage in the village of Shottery.
New hits followed with Romeo and Juliet
and A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1599 Shakespeare and his
backers put together funding and built the Globe Theatre in
Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames and not far from the
present reconstruction of the Globe stands today. The original
Globe held 3,300 people - more than twice the number that can be
accommodated in the new building on Bankside.
The Globe opened with Julius Caesar
followed by As You like It then in early 1601 Twelfth
Night, Troilus and Cressida and his great drama,
Hamlet. In September of that year John Shakespeare died and
was buried in the Stratford churchyard. By this time William was
becoming rich and he acquired land and houses in and around Stratford.
Shakespeare and his company were commissioned
each Christmas to entertain Elizabeth with his newest plays at
Hampton Court. But in 1603 the old Queen died and was succeeded by
James I. It was noticed at the time that Shakespeare did not
produce a new poem to commemorate either event. The Lord
Chamberlain's Men became the King's Men and Shakespeare became a
Gentleman Groom of the Privy Council.
In 1605, as Shakespeare was writing King
Lear, the defining event of James' reign, the Gunpowder Plot
was revealed. This was claimed to be a Catholic attempt to blow up
Parliament and the King. Guy Fawkes was arrested and the principal
plotters were hunted down and killed. Show trials of some of the
conspirators underlined the official line that the plotters had
been spurred on by the Jesuits. Powder Day was initiated to
commemorate the plot and, transformed with its anti-Catholic
message into Bonfire Night, it is still celebrated in parts of
England and Ulster.
A new law was passed under which everyone had to
receive Protestant communion at least once a year or pay a huge
fine of 20 pounds in the first year, 40 pounds in the second year
and 60 pounds in each succeeding year. Among the 21 people brought
before the church court at Stratford in May 1606 for not receiving
communion at Easter were the poet's daughter, Susanna, and many of
his old friends including Hamnet and Judith Sadler, the godparents
of his twins.
For and against|
To his brother `Bobus': 'Brother, you and I
are exceptions to the laws of nature. You have risen by your
gravity, and I have sunk by my levity.'
- Sydney Smith, [1771-1845] wit, co-founder of
the Edinburgh Review and Anglican Clergyman, quoted in The Smith of Smiths, by Hesketh Pearson, 1934.
Shakespeare was back in Stratford in 1607 for
the marriage of Susanna to Dr John Hall, a moderate Puritan. In
1608 Shakespeare made another shrewd move into theatrical real
estate. The Globe had proved a poor venue during the long, cold
winters so he and his friends leased the indoor theatre at
Blackfriars as their winter home. On the north side of the Thames,
not far from St Paul's, it was a great success for them.
In a burst of creativity between 1599 and 1606
he had written at least 14 plays. This was to continue into his
closing theatre years, with The Tempest, Cymbelline
and Pericles. In 1613, he was back in London arranging to
buy the gatehouse at Blackfriars, adjacent to the indoor theatre.
The property had long been known to the authorities as a Catholic
safe house, protected by a maze of tunnels and passages - a
Also in 1613 the King's Men put on a play based
on the life of Henry VIII - the break with Rome, his divorce from
Katherine of Aragon and his relationship with Anne Boleyn. It was
initially performed in Blackfriars, where Henry's court had sat to
hear the King's divorce process and where his Black Parliament had
authorised the break with Rome. It would have been impossible to
stage this play in Elizabeth's time, with its sympathetic treatment
of Katherine. The play is known today as Henry VIII but
Shakespeare called it All Is True.
In April, 1616 Shakespeare died and was buried
in Holy Trinity Church. His life had encompassed a time of great
change in England, from a land of simple Catholicism to a fiercely
aggressive Protestantism, imposed as the old hymn used to say by
Dungeon, Fire and Sword. There is some interesting testimony from
Archdeacon Richard Davies, a 17th century Gloucestershire clergyman
and historian. 'William Shakespeare,' he wrote, 'dyed a Papyst.'
But until further evidence shows up, the
question of Shakespeare's religious convictions must remain open.
There is no record that, unlike his father and daughter, he was
fined or charged as a recusant.
Danger in generalising
IF I say 'England defeated Australia in 1954'
it is merely a matter of cricket. But if I say 'Germany defeated
France in 1940' it is an affair of whole armies and nations and
thousands of people killed. In other words, even national names
like these are apt to be ambiguous, and still more so are words
like Peace or Freedom or Democracy. A more serious danger than
ambiguity, however, is that some of these abstract terms may not
stand for any real entity at all. People are so used to coining
words like these that they can too easily imagine that they have
only to invent a new word and a new entity will automatically come
into existence. Words like England or France denote bits of the
Earth's surface, and they also denote real societies of human
beings, bound together by common language traditions and loyalty.
But it does not follow that we can take any other bit of the
Earth's surface, call it by one name and assume that that too will
become a single society of men and women. Names like Nigeria, Sudan
or India are by no means on all fours with names like Britain or
the US, and one result of imagining that they are is that people
may try to give what they call self-government to a purely
imaginary nation. The attempt cost a great deal of bloodshed
between India and Pakistan, and it may yet have the same effect in
Nigeria and Sudan. Indeed, that very word 'self-government' is a
dangerous one - even where a more or less homogeneous society is
concerned. For no society really governs itself. It is governed by
human rulers; and to give what is called self-government to people
who are not united by a common loyalty is more likely to give them
tyranny or anarchy or civil war.
- Green-Armytage, quoted in Taking Stock, Collected Writings of A.H.N.
Green-Armytage, ed. Janet Kovesi Watt, Perth 2001 [available
from 1 Kott Tee, Claremont WA 6010. $28 includes postage anywhere in Australia].
I went to hear Michael Wood speak about his book
and TV series in Bath in 2003. He gave an informative and
entertaining account of how he had gone about his research then
told of an intriguing piece of evidence that emerged too late to be
included in the book and TV series.
This concerned the poem, The Turtle and the
Dove, a love elegy attributed to Shakespeare in 1601. Scholars
have different opinions about this work and there were doubts about
Recent textual research has established that
Shakespeare wrote it to commemorate a Catholic widow, Mrs Anne
Line, executed at Tyburn on February 27, 1601 - Shakespeare's only elegy.
But Anne Line was more than just a simple widow.
She was born in Dunmow, Essex, in the late 1560s. Her parents,
William and Anne Heigham, were ardent Calvinists who had become
rich from the spoils of the suppressed monasteries. While Anne and
her brother William were still in their teens they became Catholics
so her parents disinherited them and drove them from home.
Soon after this, Anne married Roger Line, also a
convert. In 1585 Roger, then 19, and Anne's brother William were
arrested for assisting at Mass. Roger was sent into exile in
Flanders where he died in 1594 and William became a Jesuit brother in Spain.
Anne, although still young, was an invalid. But
she accepted an invitation from a Jesuit missionary, John Gerard,
to administer a house he had established in London for priests. She
managed the finances, did the housekeeping, answered inquiries,
taught children and embroidered vestments. After Gerard's arrest
and subsequent escape from the Tower in 1597, the house was no longer safe.
So she moved to another house where she took
vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. On Candlemas Day, February
2, 1601, she invited an unusually large number of Catholics to
Mass. The crowd attracted attention and the constables arrived. The
celebrant, Francis Page SJ, escaped but Anne and some of the
congregation were arrested.
On February 26, she was tried before Lord Chief
Justice Popham and sentenced to death for harbouring a priest. But
as the priest had not been found, the charge was unproved. In the
climate of the times, such legal niceties did not trouble the
authorities and the next day Anne was dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn
where she was hanged. Martyred with her were two priests, Blessed
Mark Barkworth OSB and Blessed Roger Filcock SJ, who had long been
a friend and confessor of Anne. Anne was beatified in 1935 and
canonised as St Anne Line in 1970; her feast day is February 27.
The executions would have been the talk of
London at the time and highlighted the risks of being known or
suspected as being a Catholic or even a sympathiser. Yet
Shakespeare - on this evidence - seems to have taken this risk.
It all adds to the mystery of Shakespeare and
his allegiance or otherwise to England's Old Faith.
The ABC ran the TV series of In Search of
Shakespeare over four Sundays in October, 2004 beginning at 2pm
- hardly prime time. But the DVD and videos of the production are
available from ABC Shops for $40.95. Wood's excellent book from
Random House with its fine illustrations is widely available at
$29.95. It is worth checking your local library for the book and DVD.
KEVIN HILFERTY is a Sydney journalist with an
interest in English Catholic history and is a regular contributor
to Annals Australia.
From "Annals Australasia" March 2005
Portal to all Annals Australasia and Dr Leslie Rumble files
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