Why Protestants Should Not be Scared of the Catholic Shakespeare
Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides …
- Cordelia (King Lear, I.1.282)
Could the most famous writer in history have been a Catholic? The very suggestion is enough to throw the secular literary establishment into an apoplexy of spluttering fury. How could the Bard of Avon, who has been lauded by “queer-theorists”, feminists, relativists and atheists as one of their own, be a tradition-oriented Christian? The very thought is unthinkable. And yet it seems that the unthinkable is a reality.
In Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England, Dennis Taylor, Professor of English at
, discusses the way in which the work of historians was impacting upon the work of Shakespearian criticism. Boston College
In or about 1985, the landscape of Shakespeare and religion studies began to change. In that year, Ernst Honigmann and Gary Taylor, representing mainline Shakespeare criticism, argued for the continuing influence of Shakespeare’s Catholic background on his plays. Since 1985, there has been a flood of criticism reconsidering Shakespeare’s relation to his Catholic contexts … What we have seen since 1985 is the widespread acceptance of the importance of Shakespeare’s Catholic background on both his mother’s and his father’s side, so much so that Honigman and Taylor’s 1985 work – and Peter Milward’s Shakespeare’s Religious Background (1973) – are now routinely cited, with various qualifications, in standard editions and biographies of Shakespeare.
If Shakespeare was a Catholic, and was greatly influenced by the Catholicism of his parents and the persecution that surrounded the practice of Catholicism in his day, it forces us to re-read the plays in an entirely new light. In the past, the lack of knowledge of the personhood of Shakespeare has enabled critics to treat him as a tabula rasa upon which they can write their own prejudiced agenda. For the proponents of “queer theory” he becomes conveniently homosexual; for secular fundamentalists he is a proto-secularist, ahead of his time; for “post-Christian” agnostics he becomes a prophet of post-modernity. It was all so easy to mould Shakespeare into our own image when the Bard was a myth but now that he is emerging as a man, a living person with real beliefs, such distortion becomes more difficult. For “post-modern” Shakespeare scholars the emergence of tangible evidence for the Catholic Shakespeare is not only a challenge but a threat. If he was a Catholic, he becomes irritatingly anti-modern. From the perspective of the modernist and post-modernist, Shakespeare emerges as an unenlightened and recalcitrant reactionary. From the perspective of tradition-oriented scholars, the evident clarity of moral vision that they had always perceived in the plays becomes more explicable and more clearly defined. But what should Shakespeare’s numerous Protestant admirers make of such a revelation? Should they feel threatened by the Catholic Shakespeare? Should they run away from him? Should they retreat to a position of denial, in spite of the evidence? Should they become suspicious of his plays? Should they stop reading them (heaven forbid!)?
Of course Protestants should not stop reading the plays, nor should they shy away from their author, not least because there is absolutely nothing to fear. The surprising truth is that the Catholic Shakespeare emerges as someone with whom Protestants can feel very comfortable. Far from being a threat, he emerges as an unexpected ally, whom Protestants should welcome with open arms, open hearts and open minds. How is this? How can the old enmity be put to one side? How can Protestants see the Catholic Bard as a friend?
The answer lies in the plays themselves. Throughout the plays we see that Shakespeare’s Catholicism does not manifest itself primarily in a doctrinal dialectic with Protestantism but in a philosophical dialectic with the emergent atheism (de facto if not always de jure) of the embryonic Enlightenment. Although allusions to the doctrinal disputes of the Reformation and Counter Reformation are present in the plays, they are eclipsed by the overarching dialectic with secularism.
Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines are invariably adherents of tradition-oriented philosophy and religion, motivated in their choices and their actions by an implicit understanding of Christian orthodoxy and a desire to conduct themselves with traditional virtue. His villains, in contrast, are machiavels, disciples of the new cynical creed of Machiavelli, who are motivated solely by a self-serving desire to get what they want. Shakespeare’s greatest heroines, such as Cordelia, Portia, Desdemona and Isabella, exhibit a self-sacrificial love emblematic of the Christian saint. His great villains, such as Edmund, Goneril, Regan and
in King Lear, King Claudius in Hamlet, Iago in Othello or the demonically twisted Macbeths, are all philosophical iconoclasts, ripping to shreds Christian philosophy and openly defying orthodox moral theology. Cornwall
Clearly Protestants can feel entirely comfortable with the inherent moral dynamic of Christian orthodoxy in the plays, and this is surely one of the reasons that Protestant and Catholic scholars are equally at home in the moral atmosphere that the Bard presents to his audience. Yet why is there such a seemingly curious silence from Shakespeare, for the most part, on the doctrinal differences between Protestantism and Catholicism? Wouldn’t we expect to see more of an obvious engagement with the differences between Catholic and Calvinist theology? Isn’t such comparative silence an argument against the Bard’s Catholicism? On the contrary, and paradoxically, the silence is, if anything, further evidence of his “papist” sympathies.
Let’s put ourselves in Shakespeare’s shoes. As a Catholic in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, his enemy was not primarily the relatively powerless Puritans but the compromisers and equivocators of the Anglican establishment. It was the Anglican ascendancy which was responsible for the systematic, state-sponsored persecution of
’s Catholics. This ascendancy, putting its “faith” in expediency and real-politik, epitomized the unprincipled Machiavellianism that is the target of Shakespeare’s philosophical and artistic ire. Let’s not forget that this same Machiavellian establishment was responsible for persecuting the Puritans at the very same time that it was endeavouring to crush the “papists”. Richard Clyfton, the Puritan whose influence on the Pilgrim Fathers is so well-documented, was preaching his separatist beliefs at his parish in Nottinghamshire from 1586 to 1605, i.e. at exactly the same time as Shakespeare was writing his plays in England . The fact is that Puritans and Catholics shared a common disdain for the impositions of the state church and shared in the persecution meted out by the state church against its “nonconformist” enemies. It should be remembered, for instance, that Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood, two of the leaders of Puritan separatism, were executed for sedition in 1593, even as Shakespeare’s Jesuit friend, Robert Southwell, was being tortured in the London for his own “crimes” of “treachery” and “sedition”. Two years later, Southwell would share the same fate as Barrowe and Tower of London , being executed for his refusal to conform to the dictates of the state religion. Greenwood
Many Puritans, as conscientious objectors to the 1559 Act of Uniformity which made attendance at Anglican services compulsory, were fined for their defiance of the law. In other words, they found themselves in exactly the same onerous position as Shakespeare’s father and daughter, both of whom were fined by the state for their refusal to attend the services of the state religion. Is it any wonder that Shakespeare should reserve his rhetorical skills for those who were persecuting his friends and family rather than expending time and effort attacking those who were also being persecuted by the same common Machiavellian foe? It may or may not be true that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but is it certainly true that one is not going to spend valuable time attacking the enemies of one’s enemy.
Another intriguing parallel between the plight of Catholics and Puritans is their shared hope that the persecution would end following the death of Elizabeth and the accession to the throne of James I. Catholics had high hopes that a period of tolerance would follow in the wake of James’ accession, and the relatively overt Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, in which the virtuous heroine is an aspirant to the Franciscan sisterhood, was a measure of Shakespeare’s own hopes of a new era of religious liberty for Catholics. Similarly the Puritans had hoped for religious liberty following James’ accession and, as with the Catholics, their hopes would be dashed. At the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 the king and the Anglican establishment united in opposition to Puritan non-conformism and a new period of persecution was heralded for Catholics and Puritans alike.
In 1606, the year in which Shakespeare’s daughter was fined for her Catholic recusancy, the Anglican Archbishop of York, Tobias Matthew, began a ruthless campaign against both Catholic recusants and Puritan separatists. Under Matthew’s draconian leadership, all nonconformists, whether Catholic or Puritan, were hounded mercilessly. Writing of the treatment of Puritan separatists, William Bradford, one of the most celebrated of the Pilgrim Fathers, described their plight in terms that are indistinguishable from the plight of
’s beleaguered Catholics: England
But after these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day, & hardly escaped their hands; and ye most were faine to flie & leave their howses & habitations, and the means of their livelehood ... Yet seeing, them selves thus molested … and that ther was no hope of their continuance ther, by a joynte consente they resolved to goe into ye Low-Countries, wher they heard was freedome of Religion for all men; as also how sundrie from London, & other parts of ye land, had been exiled and persecuted for ye same cause, & were gone thither, and lived at Amsterdam, & in other places of ye land.
Whereas the Puritan exiles found sanctuary in
Amsterdam, England’s Catholic exiles sought sanctuary in such places as Douai and Rheims in France, at Valladolid in Spain, and of course in ; otherwise their plight was essentially the same, being hounded from their country by the Machiavellian machinations of the state and its “established” religion. Again, is it any wonder that Shakespeare’s rhetorical spleen is vented against the machiavels and not against the Calvinists? Rome
The parallels between the plight of England’s Catholics and Puritans would eventually find historical expression in the migration of Catholic and Puritan exiles to the New World, to Maryland and New England respectively, and only much later would the two groups fall into political conflict with each other. Since such conflict occurred decades after Shakespeare’s death, it forms no part of his imaginative engagement with the two parties. Instead, we have to see the parallel plight of Puritans and Catholics in Shakespeare’s own time as the historical context which serves as the background to his life and work. Once such a context is grasped, Shakespeare emerges paradoxically and surprisingly as an unwitting ally of Protestant nonconformism, albeit by an accident of history rather than by any conscious design or desire on his part. Furthermore, he emerges as a powerful prophet of the times in which orthodox Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, find themselves today.
Shakespeare writes with unequalled eloquence about the conflict between Christianity and secular fundamentalism. He defends Christian virtue in the characterization of his heroes and heroines and in the cathartically Christian denouements of his dramatic plots. His heroes defy the secular fundamentalism of the machiavel, even unto death. They are not only Christians but are often martyrs for their virtue and their faith. In plays such as Hamlet, Shakespeare defends the Christian realism of Augustine and Aquinas against the nascent relativism of the late renaissance. In an age in which Catholics and Evangelicals find themselves increasingly as allies in the defence of life, liberty and marriage, Shakespeare emerges as a powerful voice for the culture of life against the Machiavellianism of the culture of death and its poisonous relativism. Ultimately Protestants should not be scared of the Catholic Shakespeare because he is on their side. In an age of diabolical scandal, from in utero infanticide to the destruction of marriage, the Bard of Avon is on the side of the angels.
 Dennis Taylor and David N. Beauregard (eds.), Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern
England, New York: Press, 2003, p. 24 Fordham University
 For the huge body of evidence suggesting that Shakespeare was not only raised a Catholic but that he remained one throughout his life, see
Joseph Pearce, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avan and the Church of Rome (Ignatius Press, 2008).
 William Bradford, Bradford’s History “Of Plimoth Plantation”, Ted Hildebrandt, ed.,
: Wright & Potter Printing Co. 1898, pp. 14-15. Boston