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 @

Catholic Shakespeare

Fr. Milward on Shakespeare's faith, as reflected in his plays.

Catholic Shakespeare


Fr. Peter Milward

Catholic Shakespeare
Peter Milward
According to Ben Jonson's frequently touted claim, in his prefatory verses to the First Folio of 1623, Shakespeare was "not of an age but for all time." The implication frequently drawn from this claim is that Shakespeare belongs as much to the twenty-first as to the sixteenth century, and that his plays can be treated accordingly – which means abused according to the taste of every twenty-first century producer, whether feminist or post-colonialist or materialist or Marxist. His plays are accordingly treated by them as so many noses of wax, to be shaped by their errant fantasies, and to be commended by their errant flatterers. On the other hand, we may point to the less frequently touted observation of George Bernard Shaw, in his The Sanity of Art (1909), "The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are 'not of an age but for all time' has his reward in being unreadable in all ages." On this point, one can't help sympathizing with Shaw against Jonson, only Jonson would have been the first to agree that Shakespeare wasn't aiming at producing platitudes; except now and again. After all, platitudes or (as they were then called) "commonplaces" were the very stuff of Renaissance writing. At the same. time, if I may twist words put into the mouth of Iago, Shakespeare was nothing if not topical, but his topicality was (needless to say) situated not in the twenty-first but in the sixteenth century, and pace Jan Kott, he was not "our contemporary" but (all ironically) Ben Jonson's contemporary. What is more, I say that we have to respect that topicality of his, since it is central not only to the topics occasionally touched on in his plays but to his deepest inspiration, as I wish to prove.

Then, before we can duly consider the plays of Shakespeare, we need a preliminary consideration of his life and times – remembering the all-important fact that he was born not in 1964 but in 1564, a full five years into the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and he survived her by thirteen years into the reign of her Scottish successor James I. If he had been born a century before, or died a century later, let alone four centuries later, he simply wouldn't have been the Shakespeare he became during the twenty years of his dramatic career, from (roughly) 1590 to 1610.   And one all-important contrast between then and now, a contrast ignored by the majority of Shakespeare scholars, is that the great issue of his time was that of religion, considering the way Queen Elizabeth inherited the Catholic religion of her countrymen from her half-sister Queen Mary, and by the end of her 45-year reign she made it more or less Protestant. Considering this, we may well ask how this change came to be reflected in the plays of Shakespeare in view of their unending topicality? "Not at all!" say the agnostic scholars, who see in the plays reflections of their own agnostic tastes. "Everywhere!" I say, as I see in the plays a reflection not just of my personal tastes but rather of the dramatist's concern for the gradual dying of the old ideal of Catholic Christendom. What I maintain is that there are several dimensions to be recognized in all his plays – not just the dimension of plot and character and language, according to the preference of most scholars, but also the deeper dimension of religious and Biblical reference with which the plays are charged to such an extent as to turn their meaning as it were upside-down and topsy-turvy - which is what those scholars refuse to recognize. Further, beneath this religious reference, which would not have been rejected by Shakespeare's own contemporaries, whether Catholic or Protestant; I see yet a third dimension of topical reference to the real situation of Catholic recusants during the prevailing persecution; which had its successive explosions in the defeat of the Spanish Armada of 1585 and the exposure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Here precisely I would pin-point the well-spring of Shakespeare's inspiration as a dramatist, not least in the greatest of his plays, King Lear, when he finds that the only way of giving expression to his deepest feelings (on the very eve of the Gunpowder Plot) is the way of madness.

How then, we may ask, did Shakespeare come to develop these three dimensions in his plays? The first dimension is, of course, part of his stock-in-trade as a dramatist, not by inventing plots of his own (as we expect our novelists to do today) but by taking existing stories and dramatizing them. The second is only natural, considering the age in which the dramatist lived, as being the golden age of Biblical translation, though Shakespeare goes in for Biblical echoes far more noticeably than any of his contemporaries in this field - no doubt because he realizes, more than any of them did, the dependence of his Elizabethan stage on the medieval stage with its age-old tradition of mystery, miracle and morality plays. As for the third, it was unnaturally related to the abrupt change in religion effected not so much by Henry VIII (who had remained in his own esteem Catholic to the end) or by Edward VI (who had largely refrained from open persecution during his brief reign) as by Elizabeth I during her long reign of 45 years with the astute assistance of her arch-persecutor Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley (in whom we may see Shakespeare's Polonius).

This change we may further find reflected in the young William's life, first in his parents; John his father and Mary his mother, whose Catholic allegiance particularly appears in the eventual recusancy of the one (in 1592) and in the persecution of his mother's Arden relatives over the Somerville affair (in 1583), and then in his children, of whom the eldest Susanna was also indicted for recusancy (in 1606), while the younger twins took their names in baptism from their recusant godparents, Hamnet and Judith Sadler. Even more interesting are the Jesuit connections of the young William's three schoolmasters at Stratford Grammar School. The first, Simon Hunt, left Stratford in 1575 with one of his pupils, Robert Debdale, for the English College at Douai in the French Ardennes, before going on to Rome to join the Society of Jesus. By 1580 he had already been ordained priest, so as to take the place of Robert Persons as English penitentiary of St. Peter's, when the other went off with Edmund Campion on their English mission. Then he must have had many a conversation with those two about their prospects in England – and no doubt in Stratford as well. The second, Thomas Jenkins, before his arrival in Stratford, had been a colleague of Campion's as fellows of St. John's College, Oxford, and he would surely have had much to tell his new pupils about his memories of that star performer at the university. The third, John Cottam, was brother to the seminary priest Thomas, who was among the members of the so-called "Jesuit invasion" of England, only, unlike Persons and Campion, he was arrested soon after his arrival in the country and found with a letter from Robert Debdale to his family in Shottery. He was also neighbor (in Lancashire) to a certain Catholic gentleman Alexander Houghton, in whose will (dated August 1581) an interesting mention is made of a talented young man named William Shakeshafte. Couldn't this, one wonders, be none other than William Shakespeare, who is said by a reliable tradition going back to his own time to have been in his younger years "a schoolmaster in the country"? If so, the young William would have had to be trusted as a Catholic, since it was against the law for Catholics to admit such schoolmasters into their households. Moreover, in the spring of 1581 Shakespeare would have been with Alexander Houghton at the same time with Edmund Campion, who was then staying with his half brother Richard at the nearby Park Hall, and who would have seen in the young William a promising recipient of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius – echoes of which are scattered throughout the plays, as I have shown in a monograph on The Plays and the Exercises (2002). But in the July of that year, when Campion was arrested and brought for examination (under torture) to the Tower, Alexander drew up his will and William had to return to Stratford, where he met and married Anne Hathaway in 1582.

Turning now from the life and times of Shakespeare, at least in his formative years, to his plays, we may further ask to what extent his Catholic formation would have entered into his dramatic career? To this question few scholars are prepared to answer affirmatively, but all too many, even of those who admit the Catholicity of his formation, draw a line of demarcation between the early years and the plays. Yet given the hardships endured by professed Catholics during the years of Shakespeare's dramatic career, amounting even to persecution – as maintained by Campion's Jesuit companion Robert Persons in his book An Epistle of the Persecution of Catholics in England (1582) – we can hardly expect the dramatist to have been open about his Catholic beliefs in his plays. Rather, everything in them points to a secrecy, as when he himself declares in one of his sonnets, "I may not evermore acknowledge thee" (Son.36), when he himself complains in the voice of Hamlet, "But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!" (I.2), and when it is said of Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure, that most Catholic of the plays, "His givings out were of an infinite distance from his true-meant design." (I.4) Accordingly, in Shakespeare's case, we have to follow the advice given (in a different context) by Polonius to Reynaldo, "by indirections" to "find directions out" (11. 1). In this way of proceeding we may well find innumerable indirections, such as the favorable treatment of his three friars (Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing and Friar Lodowick in Measure for Measure), the inside knowledge of things Catholic shown by the dramatist, including his familiarity with Catholic liturgical hymns with which he sprinkles his plays, not to mention hi. s familiarity with the wording of the Spiritual Exercises. his characterization of heroines in terms of "grace'", as if echoing the medieval. devotion to Our Lady and the Biblical greeting of her by the angel, "Hail, full of grace!" (Luke I.28), and his frequent allusion to the typical sufferings of Catholic recusants, such as their continual harassment by spies (also called intelligencers), the frequent invasion of their private homes by search parties, their subjection to imprisonment on failure to pay the recusancy fines, occasional torture, particularly that of the rack, and the execution mainly of priests as traitors by being hanged, drawn and quartered in view of an often bloodthirsty crowd.

In particular, I would now like to give a more extended treatment to three plays, which cut across the boundaries of history, comedy and tragedy, and which concern the problems faced by the disinherited, as Catholics became on choosing the path of exile namely, Richard II, As You Like it, and King Lear. In the first place, Richard II unusually poetic for a Shakespearian play and unusually simple with only one plot running throughout is based on a complex up and down contrast between "two such opposed foes" as king and beggar. In the first half of the play it is Richard who is king, and whose head is filled with the typical Tudor dogma of "the divine right of kings", while his foe Bolingbroke has to "'tread the stranger paths of banishment" (I.3) on a "pilgrimage" away from home. But in the second half it is Richard who is reduced to imprisonment and beggary, even to the condition of "nothing'", while comparing himself to Christ in his Passion and hearing the comforting words of Christ, "Come, little ones" (v.5), while Bolingbroke replaces him on the throne as King Henry IV Also within this second half, we come upon the further contrast between the "new world" (in a political sense) envisaged by Fitzwater (iv. 1) and the "'new world's crown" (in a spiritual sense) proposed by the deposed Richard on his way to prison to his weeping queen Isabella. The effect of the play as a whole may thus be compared to a see-saw, in which the dramatist sides with neither Richard nor Bolingbroke but with whichever of them happens to be "underdog", thereby sharing their situation with Catholic recusants whether in prison at home or in exile abroad.

Secondly, As You Like it while being more prosaic and less complex than Richard II, as moving from court and city in Act I to the countryside of Arden for the rest of the play shares with the history play the plight of the disinherited. First, it is the elder Duke, now significantly nameless, like the banished Edgar in King Lear, who represents the exiles in the Forest of Arden, a setting which ambiguously signifies both Shakespeare's own forest to the North-West of Stratford and the Ardennes in France, for which he is indebted to his source, the Catholic Thomas Lodge's romance Rosalynde. In his opening speech to his "co-mates and brothers in exile"; he strangely echoes the other opening speech of Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, while both speeches in turn look back to the popular Christian classic (popular not least in Shakespeare's time) Thomas A Kempis' Imitation of Christ. Also in view of his setting he may well be compared to Dr. William Allen at Douai (in the French Ardennes), with his Oxford scholars as the Duke's "loving lords", "whose lands and revenues enrich the new duke", and the many young men who come to him for their Catholic education as the "many young gentlemen" who "flock to him every day". (ii.1) Then into the same path of exile we follow the young Orlando with the old servant Adam, whom he praises as a "good old man" in whom appears "the constant service of the antique world" with typical recusant nostalgia for the good old days of Catholic England. The same nostalgia reappears when Orlando comes upon the group round the elder Duke and challenges them, "if ever you have looked on better days,/ If ever been where bells have knolled to church," and the Duke affirmatively responds to him point by point (ii.7). What is more, whereas the forest seems to be positively crawling with old religious men, such as the one who succeeds in converting the usurping Duke to a more religious way of thinking, yet when it comes to the wedding of Touchstone with Audrey the only minister they can find is the obviously Puritan Sir Oliver Martext (echoing the Puritan Marprelate Tracts of 1588) as being "the vicar of the next village". Then it is that Touchstone remarks, "Here we have no temple but the wood"' (iii.3), with implicit reference to the church of Temple Grafton, where the young William may have secretly married Anne in a Catholic ceremony under the old Marian priest Sir John Frith, before obtaining the necessary Anglican dispensation from the registry at Worcester.

Thirdly, and above all, King Lear may well be seen as falling into the category of "tragedy of recusancy", as I define it in my recent book on Shakespeare the Papist (2005). From the outset we have the banishment of Cordelia by her enraged father, when, like the weeping Queen Isabella, she makes her way to France – not however to a cloister but to the embraces of the French king, who welcomes her in Messianic terms, "Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor) Most choice, forsaken, and most loved, despised." (I.1) Then the loyal Kent is also banished with her, only to return in disguise – as the returning priests had to return to their home country in disguise – to serve his former liege lord in the latter's ironic banishment at the hands of his two false daughters. Yet another victim of banishment is the good son of Gloucester Edgar, who also resorts to disguise to protect himself, and who also becomes as it were "nothing" (ii.3). Like the hunted priests from the time of Campion onwards, he too is pursued by intelligencers, hears himself proclaimed; and has the ports watched for him – in a typical Shakespearian disregard of anachronism and transposition from Lear's Britain to Elizabeth's England. (In this connection, it is noteworthy that in this play there is no mention of "Britain", since the reference throughout is to contemporary England – in contrast to the frequent mention of "Britain" in Cymbeline no less than 27 tunes, as being the name favored in Tudor times by both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.) Again, just as in As You Like It, it is the good characters who are all sooner or later sent into exile or banishment in the countryside, while the court and city are under the rule of the (more or less) wicked, only whereas in the comedy they are protected "in this desert inaccessible,/ Under the share of melancholy boughs" (ii.7). in the tragedy they have no such protection but are exposed to the full blast of the tempest where "for many miles about/ There's scarce a bush" (ii.4). All the same, this is the setting in which the wayward king grows in self-knowledge under the tutorship first of his Fool, then of the seemingly mad Edgar, and eventually of his daughter Cordelia herself, as she is the heart and wisdom of Lear, or coeur de Lear. Thus we come to the further contrast between this most moving of all scenes in world drama – when the suffering old father recognizes his dear daughter (in what Aristotle defines as anagnorisis), and she replies in her tears, as it were echoing the divine name, "And so I am, I am!" – and the subsequent moving scene, when the sorrowing father comes on stage with the dead body of his innocent child, crying, "Howl; howl, howl, howl!" Then it is that Albany exclaims, "O see, see!" – with an echo at once of Jeremiah's lamentation, "attendite et videte!" and of the Church's liturgy for Holy Week – while pointing to what is an obvious parallel to the Pieta of the sorrowing Mother holding the dead body of her innocent Son. Such, it may be added, is the dramatist's own lament over the death of Catholic England.

In conclusion, I would like, for these and so many other reasons, to include the name of `William Shakespeare among the three champions of Catholic England at the time of the English Reformation under the Tudor rulers. First comes the name of St. Thomas More, notably in the speech he made in Westminster Hall once he found himself condemned to death for treason in 1535 and the strings of his tongue were appropriately loosened. Then he made this moving appeal from the local court of little England to the universal court of Rome and all Catholic Christendom. Such was the appeal subsequently made by St. Edmund Campion in similar circumstances, when he found himself and his companions condemned to death for treason also in Westminster Hall. And now I may add, in view of all I have said, and much more that I could say, the name of Shakespeare, who is always looking in his plays from the Tudor England of his own time to medieval England and to the Catholic continent, even including the Rome of his (seemingly pagan) Roman plays, to the wider, universal ideal of Christendom – as opposed to those agnostic scholars for whom "Catholic" means nothing more than "sectarian", in contrast to the "Protestant" that was born with Luther, followed by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, in the sixteenth century.

Postscript to "Catholic Shakespeare"

In addition to the theme of disinheritance and banishment, as developed in Richard 11, As You Like It, and King Lear, the following Catholic themes may be added.

a. Typical afflictions endured by the Catholic recusants, such as the torture of the rack to obtain confession of treason, in an extended passage of The Merchant of Venice, and in the tragic ending of King Lear, the need of exaggerated caution before trusting another in conversation, in two unnecessary scenes (as easily cut by an impatient producer) in so short a play as Macbeth, the dragging of a victim to the place of execution on a hurdle in Romeo and Juliet, and the manner of execution by being hanged, drawn and quartered, in two parodic passages in King John and Much Ado About Nothing.

b. The theme of pilgrimage, such as those to St. James of Compostela and Our Lady of Walsingham, in the opening love scene of Romeo and Juliet, in the intentions of Portia's suitors in The Merchant of Venice, in the mad scene of Ophelia in Hamlet, and above all in Helena's pretence for her following of her husband Bertram to Florence as a pilgrim to "Saint Jacques le Grand" in All s Well That Ends Well.

c. The favorable depiction of the three friars central to the romantic plots of Romeo and Juliet (Friar Laurence), Much Ado About Nothing (Friar Francis), and Measure for Measure (the Duke as Friar Lodowick), where the names of the lovers, Romeo and Juliet, Claudio and Hero, Claudio and Juliet, are strangely connected as in a syllogism.

d. The similarly favorable depiction of nuns not only in the happy outcome of The Comedy of Errors, reechoed in pagan terms in Pericles, but also as a last resort for heroines, such as Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and the weeping queen Isabella in Richard II (the three plays of Shakespeare's "annus mirabilis", 1595), Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, and Ophelia in the "nunnery scene" of Hamlet.

e. The frequent depiction of heroines as full of "grace", with a more or less obvious echo of the medieval devotion to Our Lady, as derived from the angel's greeting in Luke 1.28, as shown from Luciana in the early Comedy of Errors to Miranda in the late Tempest, and above all with reference to the "advocation" or intercession of Desdemona on Cassio's behalf in Othello and to the father's recognition of his daughter Marina as "thou that begett'st him that did thee beget" in Pericles (echoing Dante's famous line "Vergine Madre Figlia del tuo Figlio", itself indebted to the liturgical hymn, "Alma Redemptoris Mater," which continues, "Tu quae genuisti, Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem ".

f. In general, the dramatist's familiarity with the hymns and antiphons of the Catholic liturgy, scattered throughout the plays and gathered as an appendix to my monograph on The Plays and the Exercises (2002).

g. In addition, the even more remarkable familiarity shown by the dramatist with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, as shown extensively in the same monograph, with the good possibility that Shakespeare gained this familiarity by making the Exercises under the direction of no less a priest than St. Edmund Campion, when (according to the "Shakeshafte theory") they were both living under the auspices of the Houghton family in Lancashire in the spring of 1581.

h. The historical parallelism between the plots of Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale with reference to the reign of Henry VIII, where the kings Cymbeline and Leontes may be seen as representing Henry, the unjustly accused Hermione as representing Katharine of Aragon, and the young heroines Imogen and Perdita as representing the princess Mary. In the former play, moreover, Imogen's newly married husband Posthumus is described in Papal terms as sitting in Rome "like a descended god" with "more than a mortal seeming", who is moreover "a sir so rare, Which you know cannot err" (as though recalling the moment when Cardinal Pole, subsequently proposed as husband to Queen Mary, came within one vote of election to the Papacy), while in the latter play Perdita's fiance Florizel, son to King Polixenes of Bohemia, is welcomed by the repentant Leontes King of Sicilia with the greeting in similarly Papal terms, "You have a holy father, A graceful gentleman, against whose person, So sacred as it is, I have done sin."