Despite what many modern critics say, Shakespeare's plays are written from a profoundly Christian perspective. This site presents literary criticism demonstrating that. To submit your essay for publication (arguing either for or against this position), email us - kevin @

Was Shakespeare a Catholic?

Peter Milward tackles the question.

Was Shakespeare a Catholic?


Fr. Peter Milward

“Was Shakespeare a Catholic?”  That is the question which is increasingly raised nowadays, especially now that the question of Shakespeare’s religion is no longer under a taboo.  Yet all too many scholars loath to give a straight answer, for fear of being regarded as “sectarian”.  But I have to plead guilty of sectarianism, in the interest not of any sect but of the simple truth.  At least, I can share my guilt with two other sectarians both of them far more famous than I.  One is G.K.Chesterton, who not only maintained, in opposition to Shaw, that Shakespeare was “spiritually a Catholic”, but also claimed in his study on Chaucer, “That Shakespeare was a Catholic is a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true”.  In this statement, moreover, he is all but quoting that other sectarian, John Henry Newman, whose favourite form of proof, developed in his Grammar of Assent, was one based upon a convergence of independent probabilities.  It is also Newman who stated in his Idea of a University, “Shakespeare has so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able without exaggeration to claim him as their own”.

   But now it is for me to go beyond such general impressions of such famous sectarians – of a sect, I may add, that is not only today over a billion strong, but once prevailed all over Christendom till close on Shakespeare’s time, when the very idea of a Christian sect came in with the Protestants – and consider in detail how it was that such sectarians could have formed such impressions on the basis of a “convergent common sense”.  For they themselves, sadly enough, failed to go so far, relying as they did on the witness of scholars better versed than themselves in the plays of Shakespeare, Newman on the witness of the Victorian scholar Richard Simpson, whose elaborate notes on the subject were posthumously drawn upon by the Oratorian priest Henry Sebastian Bowden for his book on The Religion of Shakespeare (1899), and Chesterton on the other witness of the Comtesse de Chambrun, whose book on the same subject, Shakespeare Actor-Poet (1927), he reviewed in the following year.  But now it is my intention to go beyond these two other authors and to set forth what I myself have found on the basis of my own researches concerning the truth not just of Shakespeare’s presumed religious allegiance but rather of what may be gathered from his plays – namely, a certain characteristic which he shares in common with both Newman and Chesterton, and which sets him apart from the Protestants of his time, his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

   As for Chesterton, I have just been reading Ian Ker’s recent biography of him (2011), in which he twice mentions Gilbert’s boyhood devotion to the Virgin Mary, even though in his Protestant surroundings it was regarded and rejected as “Mariolatry” (p.279).  Subsequently, in one of his last publications, The Well and the Shallows (1935), Chesterton says more explicitly, “I can scarcely remember a time when the image of Our Lady did not stand up in my mind quite definitely”, considering that “what is Catholic is to be distinguished from what claims to be Christian”.  Nor did he ever doubt that this image “was the figure of Faith”, and this it was that eventually brought him not just to the Anglo-Catholicism of his wife Frances but (preceding her) to the Catholic Church (p.416).  Needless to say, it is also Ian Ker who has up till now been recognized as the outstanding expert on Newman, from the time of his great biography of him published in 1988.  And Newman, too, in his Apologia pro Vita Sua, not only recalled his boyhood devotion to the Virgin Mary but was later inspired by her to take a vow of celibacy in his receiving of Anglican orders.  Then, as he subsequently recorded in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, published in the very year of his reception into the Catholic Church at Littlemore in 1845, the two Catholic doctrines which (he says) paved his way to his acceptance of the full Catholic faith, in contrast to their denial by Protestants, were those concerning the primacy of Peter and his successors at Rome and the veneration due to Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God.

   Now, then, I may ask, what has Shakespeare to say about the Blessed Virgin Mary in his plays?  Well, so far as I have noticed, her name is explicitly mentioned only twice, in such a way as not to offend a Protestant ear, once as an expletive in the mouth of Juliet’s old Nurse, “God’s lady dear!” (ii.5), and once in the mouth of the aged John of Gaunt in Richard II, recalling the crusades for the recovery of the sepulchre “Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son” (ii.1).  Otherwise, what Chesterton calls “the figure of Mary” recurs in almost all the ideal heroines with reference to her description in the angel’s greeting as “full of grace” – which is the form used in the Catholic Rheims version of 1582, as contrasted with the Protestant versions available to Shakespeare, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 and the Geneva Bible of 1560.  Such, for example, is the word used of Juliet by Romeo in speaking of her to Friar Laurence (ii.3), of Silvia in the Song of Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona (iv.2), of Luciana by Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors (iii.2), of the Princess of France by Boyet in Love’s Labour’s Lost (ii.1), of Beatrice by Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (ii.3), of Rosalind by Orlando in As You Like It (iii.2), and above all, of Desdemona by Cassio welcoming her on her safe arrival in Cyprus, “Hail to thee, lady! And the grace of heaven/ Before, behind thee, and on every hand,/ Enwheel thee round!” (ii.1) 

   In this tragedy of Othello, not only is Desdemona hailed by Cassio in such explicitly angelic terms, but she is even described by Iago in his temptation of Cassio, with a further evocation of traditional Marian devotion (as in the popular prayer Memorare), “She is of so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition, that she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested.” (ii.3)  She herself goes on to apologize to Cassio for her unexpected failure to intercede for him with her husband, saying, “”My advocation is not now in tune” (iii.4) – where the hapax legomenon of “advocation” points unmistakably to the medieval hymn Salve Regina, in which Mary is hailed as Advocata nostra.  Nor is that all.  Now with Othello it is as if the dramatist feels relieved to find himself free from the oppressive shadow of that other so-called “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth I, who had sought to attract to herself much of the old medieval devotion to Mary under such pagan names as Cynthia, Diana, Belphoebe and the Fairy Queen, thanks to the ingenuity of such poets as Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser.  Still he can’t speak openly of Mary herself, as he confesses in Sonnet 36, “I may not evermore acknowledge thee.”  Then again, just as the Marian reference is scarcely veiled in the case of Desdemona, this is what we also find in the contemporary comedy of All’s Well That Ends Well, in the case of the miracle-worker and pilgrim Helena, who is described by her patron the Countess as an “angel” whose prayers “heaven delights to hear and loves to grant” (iii.4), who herself appeals to “the greatest Grace lending grace” (ii.1) when about to perform her healing miracle on the king, and whose miracle evidently echoes the contemporary miracles said to have been worked at the two shrines of Our Lady in Halle and Montaigu in the region of Brabant.  No less evident, too, is the Marian reference in the later romance of Pericles, in the moving reunion between the aged hero and his long-lost daughter Marina.  Her very name recalls both the name of Mary and her title Stella Maris, or Star of the Sea; and she is hailed by her over-delighted father as “Thou that begettest him that did thee beget” (v.1) – in an almost word for word translation of the Marian hymn Alma Redemptoris Mater, which continues, “Tu quae genuisti/ Natura mirante tuum sanctum genitorem” – Thou who didst beget, to the wonder of Nature, thy begetter.  These words are, moreover, echoed by both Dante in his Paradiso and by Chaucer in the Second Nun’s Prologue in his Canterbury Tales.  Finally, mention must also be made of the heroines, mother and daughter, Hermione and Perdita, in The Winter’s Tale, who are both repeatedly described in terms of “grace”.  Also of Miranda in The Tempest, who combines in her name the Marian titles, Mater Admirabilis and Virgo Veneranda, as emphasized by her lover Prince Ferdinand in calling her “Admired Miranda!” (iii.1). Thus we may say of all Shakespeare’s plays, from first to last, that Our Blessed Lady stands over them as the dramatist’s heavenly patron, as though to certify his Catholic allegiance.

   But still that isn’t all there is to be said about her patronage.  No less alien to the Protestant mind of Shakespeare’s contemporaries was the medieval practice of pilgrimage, not least to shrines of Our Lady, such as that of Walsingham in England.  This is a practice that recurs again and again, now literally, now metaphorically, in the plays, significantly in the context of romantic love.  Such is notably the case with Romeo and Juliet when they first meet each other at the Capulet’s ball, and they fall into a riddling conversation with each other in terms of a pilgrim coming to the shrine of a holy saint, such as that of Saint James at Compostela in Spain (i.5).  Similarly, in The Merchant of Venice, both the hero Bassanio and his princely rival of Morocco envisage their wooing of the lady Portia in romantic terms as a holy pilgrimage.  Then in the history play of Richard II, the unjust banishment of both Bolingbroke and Mowbray – as of Catholic exiles in Shakespeare’s time – is presented in the same terms.  Even in Hamlet, what isn’t always realized is that in her loss of mind at the loss of both father and lover poor Ophelia recalls snatches of a song about pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, as implied in the question, “How should I your true love know?” – looking back to the days when pilgrims made their way thither with their “cockle hat and staff” (iv.5), whereas now there are only “bare ruined choirs” (Sonnet 73).  Then again we may return to All’s Well That Ends Well, whose heroine Helena appears not only as a worker of miracles, recalling those worked at Our Lady’s shrines in Brabant, but also as a professed pilgrim to “Saint Jaques le Grand”, namely the shrine of Saint James at Compostela, from which they returned home with their cockle shells (found in abundance on the nearby coast).

   Further, in connection with such holy pilgrimages one may think of the many nunneries that recur in the plays, not infrequently as a refuge for disappointed lovers – and not without recusant implications for the dramatist and Catholic members of his audiences.  Such is the idea of Friar Laurence at the failure of his plan for Romeo and Juliet, when they come upon the dead body of Romeo in the tomb and he urges Juliet to make their escape, when he will dispose of her “Among a sisterhood of holy nuns” (v.3).  Such is also the idea of the other Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing, when, if his plan also ends in failure, the poor heroine may be concealed “in some reclusive and religious life” (iv.1).  It is also the alternative proposed by Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to poor Hermia, in place of the death penalty invoked on her by her stern father, that of “the livery of a nun,/ For aye to be in shady cloister mewed”, in which she may spend what he also calls a “maiden pilgrimage” (i.1).  Then there is the advice of the deposed Richard II to his sorrowing queen as he meets her on his way to imprisonment in the Tower, “Hie thee to France,/ And cloister thee in some religious house./ Our holy lives must win a new world’s crown.” (v.1)   Finally, there is the repeated advice urged by Hamlet on poor Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery!” and “To a nunnery, go!”  Especially if we think of Shakespeare’s time and the persecution of Catholic recusants under Queen Elizabeth, all these indications of a convent life may be taken as applying to so many daughters of Catholic families whose only resort was to such a life spent in exile on the Catholic continent.  Above all, when we cross the borderline between Elizabeth Tudor and James Stuart, we come almost at once upon what has been called (by Christopher Devlin, in Hamlet’s Divinity, 1963) “the most Catholic of Shakespeare’s plays”, Measure for Measure.  Here the hero is the Duke of Vienna Vincentio, who for reasons of his own assumes (with the permission of the friars) the habit of a friar, as Friar Lodowick, and as such, like the other two friars mentioned above, he assists the poor lovers, Claudio and Juliet, now in prison on the charge of fornication (if with the excuse of a pre-contract).  The heroine is Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to enter a convent of Poor Clares, but she is persuaded to interrupt her calling to intercede on her brother’s behalf before the precise judge Angelo.  In this play there is no mention of Mary or her shrines or of miracles to be performed at her intercession, but only of the nunnery into which Isabella proposes to enter; but there is also an interesting coincidence between her name and that of an Isabella Shakespeare, who was prioress of Wroxhall Abbey in the Forest of Arden before the Reformation, and between “the moated grange” of her friend Mariana and the nearby recusant moated manor of Baddesly Clinton, which served as a hide-out for Jesuits and other hunted priests of the time.  (By the way, in passing we may note the favour with which the Elizabethan Shakespeare looks on these three friars, in contrast to the critical view of the Friar in the medieval Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.)

   Now, by way of conclusion, there remains one further point indicative of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, no less than his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, with its implication of pilgrims and nuns – all of them anathema to the Protestants of his time – and that is his parallel devotion to the Pope, the Holy Father and successor to St Peter at Rome.  This latter devotion seems to be undercut by the violent speech put into the mouth of King John against the Pope’s representative, Cardinal Pandulph (iii.1).  Only, there are reasonable grounds to doubt the attribution of King John, and of this speech in particular, to Shakespeare; and in any case, John is shown from the outset, even in the words of his mother Elinor of Aquitaine, as a usurper of the English throne.  On the other hand, in Measure for Measure Duke Vincentio, posing as Friar Lodowick, claims to have “late come from the See,/ In special business from his Holiness”, the Pope (iii.2).  More obliquely, yet none the less convincingly, we have two final romances, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, in which the Pope is clearly implied in the respective characters of Posthumus and Polixenes – though few commentators have adverted to this embarrassing connection.  In the former play, Posthumus has been banished by Cymbeline to Rome for his clandestine marriage with the heroine, the king’s daughter Imogen.  While in banishment at Rome, he is described to Imogen by his treacherous friend Iachimo as “sitting amongst men like a descended god”, endowed with “a kind of honour sets him off/ More than a mortal seeming”, and blessed with “the election of a sir so rare/ Which you know cannot err.” (i.6)  Such a description seems all too exaggerated, apart from the fact that it may be interpreted (like Iago’s temptation of Cassio) as Iachimo’s temptation of Imogen.  But in itself it applies all too exactly to the Pope at Rome, especially when we compare the probable allegory between Cymbeline and Henry VIII, between Imogen and the Princess Mary, with Posthumus as her once proposed suitor, now Cardinal Pole, who on one occasion stood within one vote of election to the Papacy.  Then in the latter play, Polixenes king of Bohemia has been equivalently “banished” by Leontes king of Sicilia for his over-familiarity with the queen Hermione, and Hermione is put on trial for the crime of adultery – where Leontes, like Cymbeline, stands for Henry VIII and Hermione stands for Catherine of Aragon (though in that other play Cymbeline’s first wife, mother to Imogen, is not named, but only his second wife is recalled as “the wicked queen” who dissuaded him from his customary payment of tribute to Rome).  Anyhow, when the son of Polixenes, Prince Florizel, arrives many years later at the court of the repentant Leontes with his fiancee Leontes’ daughter, the long-lost Perdita, he is greeted with the strange words, “You have a father,/ A graceful gentleman, against whose person,/ So sacred as it is, I have done sin.” (v.1)  Again, as with Posthumus in Cymbeline, we have an obvious allegory, in which Polixenes corresponds to the Pope (literally, one who is hospitable to many nations) with his description as “holy father”, “graceful” and “sacred”, and against whose person Henry VIII committed the serious sins of schism, adultery with Anne Boleyn, and multiple sacrilege against so many monastic houses and holy shrines in England.  Yet again, no Shakespearian scholar has, to the best of my knowledge, ventured to offer this interpretation, whether of Cymbeline or The Winter’s Tale, though both plays look forward to the historical romance of Henry VIII, which is not, however, wholly by Shakespeare but a collaborative effort with John Fletcher.  It is as if the great dramatist, foreseeing this undesired outcome, anticipated the known character of the tyrant king in these two preceding romances, with a wished-for repentance on Henry’s part that never came about.

   In conclusion, I make bold to add that, if only half of what I have adduced in this paper is true, it is more than sufficient to prove my thesis of Shakespeare’s Catholicism.  But I am even bolder to affirm that all I have said is true, and it all – as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream remarks of “the story of the night” to the sceptical Theseus – “grows to something of great constancy,/ But, howsoever, strange and admirable.”  Such, I may add, is Shakespeare’s way of stating Newman’s thesis in his Grammar of Assent, namely the coincidence or convergence of independent probabilities, which taken together amount to moral certainty.