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Was Shakespeare a Recusant?

Peter Milward on the evidence that Shakespeare was a recusant.

Was Shakespeare a Recusant?

   Unlike his father John and his daughter Susanna, William Shakespeare never appears by name in any list of recusancy returns, whether in his native Warwickshire or in London.  But unlike them, thanks to his profession as a player, he had no fixed place of residence that might offer a charge of non-attendance at the local church, or in so far as he resided in London, it was with the Huguenot Mountjoys under whose protection he might have eluded the recusancy laws.  Anyhow, that is but a negative argument.  We have no positive proof that he was a recusant, nor on the other hand that he ever attended the Anglican services.  Only, we have evidence that he stood as godfather to two individuals, William Walker, who is mentioned as such in his will, and William Davenant, who in later life claimed to have been Shakespeare’s godson.  In this way, it seems, he would at least have attended the Anglican ceremony of baptism, unless he was godfather by proxy.  In any case, even Catholic parents were obliged by law to have their children baptized in the Anglican church, as Shakespeare had himself been baptized.

   This is all, however, a matter of merely biographical interest, and as Samuel Schoenbaum has amply shows in his Documentary Biography (1975), it is difficult for us at this distance of time to tell for certain one way or the other.  Even when we have the facts duly documented, there still remains the problem of their interpretation.  On the other hand, what, we may ask, prevents us from interrogating the evidence of the plays themselves?  It is all too customary among Shakespeare scholars to draw a clear line of demarcation between the “facts” of his biography and the “imagination” of his plays, as if there is an unsurpassable gulf between them – as between Abraham’s bosom and Hades in Christ’s parable of Dives and Lazarus.  Yet there are indications that Shakespeare, as a Renaissance artist, drew hints for the delineation of his characters and even the development of his plots from contemporary individuals and current events.  This is what Hamlet himself seems to be insisting with Polonius, when he speaks of the plays as “the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time” (ii.2), and when he goes on to get the players to present a play called “The Murder of Gonzago” with which he intends to represent the other murder of his father by Claudius, so as “to catch the conscience of the king” (ii.2).  I might also mention the contemporary saying of the Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell in the Preface to his prose Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears (1591), “I know that no man can express a passion that he feeleth not, nor doth the pen deliver but what it copieth out of the mind.”  In a word, when we interrogate Shakespeare’s plays for their contemporary or topical reference, we have to look beyond the merely superficial level of drama in plot and characterization to the deeper level of what may be termed “meta-drama”.

   Now among all the plays that which presents itself most insistently for a recusant interpretation is surely, as has already been hinted, Hamlet.  After all, what is Hamlet on his shocked return from Wittenberg to Denmark but a recusant, if only in the general sense of one who rejects the new political regime as he finds it at the time of his arrival, in preference for the old regime of his recently deceased father?  Needless to say, in Hamlet’s Denmark there is no question of any change of religion as there was in Shakespeare’s England.  Yet the change of religion under Queen Elizabeth was prompted as much by political as by religious motives, and under the guidance as much of Machiavelli as of Luther.  True, Hamlet himself has evidently been indoctrinated in the teachings of Luther at Wittenberg, a university which was only founded in the early sixteenth century well after the lifetime of the original Hamlet.  It is only when he finds himself back in his native Denmark under the new regime of Claudius that he inevitably becomes a recusant in the literal sense of one who rejects that regime and is nostalgically drawn, for all his Lutheran upbringing, to the lost cause of his dead father.

   As for this change of regime, there is much in the play to indicate that it has largely been engineered by the old councilor Polonius.  He it is to whose son Claudius declares from the outset, “The head is not more native to the heart,/ The hand more instrumental to the mouth,/ Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.” (i.2) Moreover, the influence he wields over the royal council, particularly in effecting the smooth succession from elder to younger brother rather than from father to son, is clearly connected with his expert knowledge of affairs of state – as he himself maintains in his words to Claudius, “If circumstances lead me, I will find/ Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed/ Within the centre.” (ii.2)  This propensity of his to ascertain whatever is going on around him prompts him to indulge, now with comic, now with tragic effect, in the art of spying, whether on his own son Laertes in Paris, or (more centrally to the action of the play) on Hamlet.  In such activities he may well be compared to the architect of the Elizabethan settlement Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley.  The latter not only arranged the smooth succession of the Princess Elizabeth, though an acknowledged bastard of her father, but developed the first spy-system in Europe in the outcome of the Ridolfi Plot of 1570 with the able assistance of Sir Francis Walsingham.  He also, it may be added, left a series of moral instructions for his son William in much the same spirit as Polonius gives his parting words of advice to Laertes (i.3).  His very title as Lord Burghley, moreover, may be seen as altered in a Renaissance form of Welsh Latin (as Cecil’s ancestors had been Welsh) to “Polonius” (with B pronounced as P).

   In the course of the play the central issue of recusancy is to be found stated most impressively in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be.” (iii.1)  On the one hand, in the narrow terms of plot construction this soliloquy – unlike Hamlet’s first soliloquy, “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt!” (i.2) – seems to have no reference to its dramatic context and might easily be omitted by an impatient producer, but that he knows everyone in the audience is awaiting its impressive declamation.  On the other hand, in the wider meaning of the play as presenting the contemporary problem of recusancy, it is all important – which may be recognized by a simple application of its dilemma to that facing any Catholic gentleman of the time, such as Shakespeare’s cousin (on his mother’s side), Robert Catesby.  In the eyes of such a gentleman what was “to be” but “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, in the form of crippling fines, loss of property and occasional imprisonment for recusancy?  And what was the alternative “not to be” but “to take arms against a sea of troubles”, such as the armed rebellion of the Earl of Essex in 1601 and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605?  It is because Hamlet is afraid to face this alternative, for fear of what Job calls “the undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns” (vii.10), that he comes to no decision – though in failing to do so, he ironically ends up by killing Polonius and Laertes and Claudius himself, and indirectly his lover Ophelia and his mother Gertrude.  He is a real recusant, if only in a political sense!

   This recusancy in Hamlet may be further illustrated in the play that evidently followed upon it, if in a merely negative manner, Troilus and Cressida. Not that Troilus may be seen as a recusant like Hamlet.  He has no such incentive as Hamlet to oppose any new regime, save insofar as he beholds his lover, like Hamlet’s mother, snatched out of his loving arms by the Greek Diomede.  Insofar as there is any contrast between an old and a new regime, one may say it is the Trojans who stand for the old, mediaeval, chivalrous ideal, which is betrayed by Troilus himself in opting against all reason for a continuation of Helen’s war, while the Greeks stand for the new regime.  It is here among the Greeks that we come upon another figure of a wily councilor in Ulysses, especially in consideration of his words to Achilles, “The providence that’s in a watchful state/ Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,/ Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps,/ Keeps place with thought, and almost, like the gods,/ Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.”  And then, “There is a mystery – with whom relation/ Durst never meddle – in the soul of state,/ Which hath an operation more divine/ Than breath or pen can give expressure to.” (iii.3)  Here we may recognize the very mind of Polonius, or rather of Lord Burghley, at least in the days before he fell into a state of doddering decay.  For the dramatist it was no doubt safer in Hamlet to depict Elizabeth’s all-powerful minister in such a state, out of prudent consideration for the “suborned informer” in his audience (Sonnet 125), whereas the depiction of Ulysses at the height of his discretion in Troilus and Cressida may have been a reason why that play (as implied in the Preface) never hit the boards in the dramatist’s lifetime.

   Now from Hamlet we may turn to that other notable recusant drama of King Lear.  Here, too, we find a change from an old to a new regime, again in terms not of religion but of politics, in the person not of successive kings but of one and the same king, before and after his decision to abdicate his throne in favor of his daughters.  Here we come upon two aspects of recusancy.  On the one hand, there is the mad fury of the old king against his two daughters for their monstrous ingratitude, which leads him to speak out in general against all forms of injustice – such as the dramatist himself (no doubt, as a Catholic recusant at least in sympathy) saw all round him in the England of his time, and as he would have found described in detail in Robert Southwell’s posthumous Humble Supplication to Her Majesty (1600).  On the other hand, there is the plight of poor Edgar, against whom proclamations are made, intelligence is given, forcing him to resort to extreme forms of disguise – the very plight of the hunted priest from the time of Edmund Campion onwards.  Kent, too, in his disguised return to the side of the king at the latter’s downfall, as the loyal servant, with his more political activities in connection with the French army of liberation under Cordelia, seems to stand for the other kind of political Jesuit such as Robert Persons.  In their eventual defeat at the hands of the British forces under Edmund, it is no doubt with reference to the failure of the Armada in 1588 that Cordelia makes the sad comment as she is led with her father to prison, “We are not the first,/ Who, with best meaning, have incurred the worst.” (v.3)

In the sadness of their defeat, moreover, we may see an expression of the dramatist’s own sadness at the defeat of the Catholic cause in England, which may be seen as personified in Cordelia.  This is a sadness that rises to a crescendo of grief, as we see and hear the old father tottering onto the stage holding the dead body of his dear daughter and crying, “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!/ O you are men of stone!” (v.3)  He is speaking not just to others on the stage but to all those in the audience, considering that it is they who have all collaborated, if only by silence and outward conformity, in the death of Catholic England!

   Now, just as to our discussion of recusancy in Hamlet we added its dramatic, if unacted, sequel in Troilus and Cressida, so to our further discussion of the same subject in King Lear we may turn to the other unacted, possibly censored, sequel in Timon of Athens.  Here, too, we come upon the same succession of acceptance and rejection in the person of one man, who enjoys the uncommon distinction (for a Shakespearian play) of being a hero without a heroine.  Here, too, we come upon the same savage indignation of the hero against the injustices of his time and the ingratitude of his fellow countrymen.  But as in dealing with Troilus and Cressida I concentrated on the one speech of Ulysses as forming a significant counterpart to that of Polonius in his concern to find the truth “though it were hid indeed/ Within the centre” (ii.2), so now in Timon of Athens I find a parallel speech of special significance in the words not of any wily councilor but of a simple stranger, who utters his impartial observation, “Men must learn now with pity to dispense,/ For policy sits above conscience.” (iii.2)  Here by “policy” I understand such practical or Machiavellian politics as was notably practised by Lord Burghley, and by “conscience” I understand such moral or religious conscience as led the Catholic recusants to refuse attendance at the Anglican services for the reasons set forth by Robert Persons in his original treatise Reasons of Refusal (1580).  Among these reasons not the least urgent, and that also repeated with similar urgency by William Allen in his Defence of English Catholics (1584) against Lord Burghley, is the danger lest by outward conforming owing to fear of incurring the crippling fines the initial “church papist” gradually changed into a conforming and even convinced Protestant, and thus England would become entirely lost to the old Catholic faith.  That is, in fact, what actually took place, according to the intention of Lord Burghley and his royal mistress, at least in the second generation.  Thus by the time of King Lear and Timon of Athens, roughly the time of the Gunpowder Plot, it may be said that England was no more – what it might have been till almost the end of Elizabeth’s reign – a Catholic country.  From then onwards it may be said of the Catholic recusants that, whereas till then they had been an object of sympathy and commiseration among most of their fellow countrymen, now they increasingly became an object of suspicion, hostility and even loathing, till in the succeeding age of “toleration” John Locke in his essay on that subject expressed his readiness to tolerate all but atheists and papists.  That is, moreover, the spirit which has somehow managed to survive even or especially in the academic world till today.