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 @

Five Full Years of "The Catholic Hypothesis"

Fr. Peter Milward on the recent explosion in scholarship on Shakespeare the Catholic.

Five Full Years of "The Catholic Hypothesis" 


  Sophia University, Tokyo

Asquith, Clare.  Shadowplay.  The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.  New York: Public Affairs, 2005.  Pp.xvii+348.  Paperback $12.78.

Beauregard, David.  Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays.  Newark NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2008.  Pp.226.  $49.50.

Hammerschmidt-Hummel, Hildegard.  The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, 1564-1616.  Tr.Alan Bance, 2003.  London: Chaucer Press, 2007.  Pp.xi+420.  $50.00.

Jensen, Phebe.  Religion and Revelry in Shakespeare’s Festive World.  Cambridge: University Press,  2009.  Pp.xii+267.  $90.00.

Klause, John.  Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit.  Madison, Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 2008.  Pp.339.  $59.95.

Milward, Peter.  Shakespeare the Papist.  Ave Maria FL: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2005.  Pp.xv+308.  $27.95.

Milward, Peter.  Elizabethan Shakespeare and Jacobean Shakespeare.  Ave Maria FL: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2007.  Pp.150 and 164.  $18.95 each.

Pearce, Joseph.  The Quest for Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008.  Pp.216.  $16.46.

Waterfield, John.  The Heart of His Mystery. Shakespeare and the Catholic Faith in England under Elizabeth and James.  New York: iUniverse, Inc. 2009.  Pp.xiii+666.  $51.95.


What!  Within the space of the five past years, from 2005 to 2009, no fewer than ten books all dealing more or less with what I call “the Catholic hypothesis” concerning the religion of William Shakespeare?  “What!” as Macbeth exclaims in a somewhat different context, “will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?” (iv.1)  At all events, this is indeed, as publishers are wont to say, “a hot topic”, though how many of the books listed above are “vendible” remains to be seen.  On the other hand, one rarely hears of such a thing as “the Protestant hypothesis” or “the Agnostic hypothesis”, still less “the Puritan hypothesis”, though in biographies of the Bard one may come upon the half-hearted opinion that Shakespeare seems to have been a conforming Anglican, though perhaps not a convinced one.  At the most, one not infrequently reads of a Catholic, a Protestant, even a Puritan reading of Shakespeare’s plays, with the implication that these are all subjective, sectarian readings and therefore to dismissed with a wave of the hand into the outer darkness or “lunatic fringe” to which they rightly belong.  But this time, with ten Catholic, or semi-Catholic, readings of the plays in five years, that is surely a conspiracy or else – isn’t it perhaps too good to be true?

   Not that all ten authors I have lined up would concur with my lining them up in this way.  One of them at least has already expressed her disagreement, even without having been notified of her place on this list.  In her study of Religion and Revelry in Shakespeare’s Festive World Phebe Jensen even speaks of Shakespeare as “a playwright who clearly conformed to Protestantism”, (6) though she gives no evidence of that assumed “conformity” and though everything she says in her book goes to confirm Shakespeare’s Catholic viewpoint.  This confirmation of hers is based on a distinction she draws between “Catholic devotional aesthetics” and “Catholic belief”, a distinction which neither the dramatist himself nor his Elizabethan contemporaries would have recognized.  Anyhow, she leaves the unprejudiced (by which I mean academic) reader with the impression that “the revelry of Shakespeare’s festive world” was by and large Catholic, not Protestant, in religion, even though by the time she ends her book she feels it incumbent on her to protest, “It is not this book’s claim that generations of critics have been wrong about Shakespeare’s festive world by underplaying its religious dimension.” (230)  She herself may not make the  claim in so many words, but it is clearly the unexpressed claim of the book.

   Yet another author who may feel less than happy about my proposed list is John Klause in his study of Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit.  Beneath the generalized nouns of his title, he has in mind two other S’s (as if the dramatist is looking at the title, like that of a village inn showing two donkeys over the inscription “We Three”), the Earl of Southampton and the Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell.  Following the suggestion of Christopher Devlin in his Life of Robert Southwell (1956), he sees all three men related to each other not only as distant cousins but also as contemporary influences.  Though in life they may have remained loyal to “the old faith”, once the Jesuit had suffered martyrdom in 1595 the other two – at least, we know the earl and possibly the dramatist – defected from that loyalty.  Anyhow, what Klause brings out, as no other author has ever brought out, not even Devlin himself, is the remarkable extent of Shakespeare’s loyalty, if not subservience, to the Jesuit.  What he shows in quotation after quotation, until we feel ourselves as flies beneath the wielding of his inexorable sledge-hammer, is the dependence of Shakespeare’s poetic and dramatic imagination not just on Southwell’s poetry but on all his spiritual writings – as if Southwell, and no one else, is the one main influence on his early life and work, culminating in the composition of Hamlet.  As for proof of what I have just said, I must leave my readers to read this truly remarkable book for themselves.  Here, even more thoroughly than in Jensen’s book, I felt myself confronted with the final proof I needed for “the Catholic hypothesis”, and yet at the end I felt myself let “quite quite down” by the author’s admission that (in Burns’ memorable words) “a man’s a man for all that” – that no more than his noble patron was the dramatist able to withstand the pressures from without and above on his religious allegiance.
   And yet a third, my fellow priest, Father David Beauregard, may have reservations about my listing of his Sacramental Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays as supporting the “Catholic hypothesis”.  Wisely, no doubt, he withdraws his forces from the field of biography, about which so much is nowadays called in question, and from the field of theology in general, within which Catholic and Protestant still had much in common together, to the field of sacramental theology in particular, and then from the plays as a whole to the problem plays and the last romances of Shakespeare in particular, and from within these strategic limits he may well be declared victor.  At least in his sacramental theology, at least with reference to the two sacraments of penance and matrimony which may be regarded as of special concern to the dramatist, Shakespeare may be shown to have a clearly Catholic viewpoint – though as for his religious allegiance, that may well be debated to the proverbial crack of doom.  Not that I wish to detract in any way from this book, which is excellent within its limits – no less than the other two I have mentioned – but by itself alone I can’t see it as making a substantial contribution to “the Catholic hypothesis”.

   Two other books I have now to consider as venturing more aggressively onto the more disputed biographical field of Shakespeare studies.  The first and more recent is Joseph Pearce’s Quest for Shakespeare, in which he makes no bones about challenging such representatives of the “Shakespeare establishment”, as Samuel Schoenbaum, Stanley Wells and (more recently) Ronald Bearman, to the combat.  His task, however, he conceives, despite the implication of his title, in terms not of medieval knight errantry as of modern detection, and he sees himself , as if in the shoes of Sherlock Holmes, examining each item of evidence not so much for possibility or probability as for certainty.  Only, in the field of history, where so little is certain, so much a matter of possibility or probability, I can’t help feeling he has set himself an impossible target, whereas a wiser aim might well have been that of John Henry Newman, who emphasizes in his Grammar of Assent the method of “a convergence of independent probabilities” as so many clues leading to a morally certain conclusion.  It might also have been wiser on his part, remembering that his book is to be judged by critics in the academic world, not to have antagonized them by calling them the “silly asses” of academe. (p.172)

   The other has long been accessible to those scholars who are familiar with the German language, as it was first published in Germany in 2003, though it didn’t emerge on the insular horizon of English studies till 2007, under the name of Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel and the title of The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, 1564-1616.  She, too, is no less methodical in her research on Shakespeare’s biography than Joseph Pearce, and so it would seem there must be a considerable amount of overlapping between the two books, separated as they are from each other in date of publication by only a year.  But her book is more attractive to the common reader, though not to his pocket, by the number and lavishness of its illustrations, making it an ideal addition not just to the library but no less to the coffee table.  On this book, as on the foregoing, I have not a word of criticism to add, considering how they all serve to build up the Catholic element in both the biography and the background of the Bard – an element that has been shamefully neglected by most previous “lives”, as if England suddenly became Protestant overnight with the accession of Queen Elizabeth.  Now this element, which has been recognized  by only one among recent biographers of the Bard, Ian Wilson in his Shakespeare: The Evidence. Unlocking the Mysteries of the Man and his Work  (1993), is at last coming into its own.

   On this biographical approach to Shakespeare, however, I do have a general word of criticism to add, which applies as well to Joseph Pearce as to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel and even to Ian Wilson, namely that it is all external, a matter of mere evidence, while omitting what is essential to “the man and his work”, what is most Shakespearean to Shakespeare, his dramatic genius.  It is on this further approach that I now come to mention three more books that deal not so much with the biographical as with the literary aspect of Shakespeare – with the Catholicity of his mind, about which we can (I claim) achieve certainty, rather than the Catholicity of his allegiance, which is always open to debate.  The first of these books is also, appropriately, by a lady, Lady Clare Asquith, who published her work in 2005 under the enigmatic title of Shadowplay and the clarifying sub-title of The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.  In other words, she is looking from the man to his work, or from the mask to the man hidden in his work.  What she came to realize, from life with her diplomat husband behind the Iron Curtain, and what scholars living and writing in the freedom of the West have uniformly failed to realize, is that Shakespeare was writing under similar conditions – those of a police state infested with spies and informers, in which there was no freedom to express one’s opinion, least of all on matters of politics and religion.  From her viewpoint  “civilised literature”, not least that of Shakespeare’s time, “was coded by its very nature”, and “the real key to the code lies in the rediscovery of the ‘forgotten’ history of early modern England” (xvi).

   Interestingly, it was coincidentally in the same summer of 2005 that I published my own book on more or less the same subject and with more or less the same literary approach to Shakespeare under the more aggressive, if not sensational, title of Shakespeare the Papist.  I should say at once that I had no idea of a hidden code such as Clare Asquith finds in all the plays, but I rather looked to three layers of meaning in them – the first and more obvious one being the layer of plot and character, which is in conformity with the “secular” characteristic of Elizabethan drama, whereas the second is the hidden “religious” layer of meaning implied in the many Biblical echoes and allusions, and then there is a third or “topical” layer of reference to the religious situation of Elizabethan England.  It is precisely in this third layer that one may recognize the Catholic heart of the dramatist and the well-spring of his dramatic genius – in all his plays, but in some more than others, especially in those that deal with the theme of “disinheritance”, leading through Richard II by way of As You Like It to the great dramatic masterpiece of King Lear.  So for me there was no need of a hidden “code” but only of a hidden layer of meaning, as implied in Hamlet’s complaint, “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!” (i.2) and in the characterization of Duke Vincentio, “His givings out were of an infinite distance from his true-meant design.” (i.4)  In my pursuit of this hidden layer I go through all the plays in chronological order from first to last, gathering together the leaves I had left scattered in my earlier study of Shakespeare’s Religious Background (1973).  So my study wasn’t entirely literary, any more than it was biographical, but I also aimed at presenting the plays in the light of their religious background – on the basis of my other studies of The Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age (1977) and the Jacobean Age (1978) – a presentation which I flattered myself had never been made before, owing to the lack of interest in those controversies among literary scholars.

   Whereas most of the preceding books have been undertaken independently of each other, for all the appearance they may show of a hidden conspiracy, the most recent of the books I now have to mention, so far from being independent, is professedly dependent on the combined works of Clare Asquith (to whom the book is appropriately dedicated) and myself (from whom the book derives its Foreword).  The author, John Waterfield, makes no attempt to conceal his indebtedness to our two books, though in themselves (as I have stated) they are independent of each other.  I might add that the enigma of his title, The Heart of His Mystery, was taken from a suggestion of mine about using Hamlet’s words to his spying classmates from Wittenberg – with the implication that the enigma of Shakespeare’s plays is only to be found in his Catholic heart.  On the other hand, I would disclaim any responsibility for the somewhat unwieldy sub-title, Shakespeare and the Catholic Faith in England under Elizabeth and James.  Why, then, it might be asked, bring out yet another book on Shakespeare’s plays which is so admittedly dependent on our two previous books, after an interval of only four years?  The answer to this obvious question is partly to be found in the 666 pages, and partly in the leisurely manner in which the author proceeds from play to play providing his comments not only on the hidden codes or layers of religious meaning but also on the humanity of the dramatist.  As Hamlet says of Claudius, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (ii.2)  And I’ve already quoted the saying of Burns, “A man’s a man for all that.”   After all, too much emphasis on religion may well seem one-sided, even if it is necessary in the circumstances of today’s scholarship, but it must be accompanied – as Harold Bloom has wisely emphasized – with attention to humanity.  And this is what Waterfield does, with special reference (like his above-mentioned  mentor) to Hamlet the thinker and Falstaff the liver, not to mention Antony and Cleopatra, all of whom he regards as somehow Catholic in their celebration of life – though on these points I would venture to disagree with him.

   Two other books of mine I have left till the end, as being (though it is I who say so) of less importance than the others.  Anyhow, they are less noticed than the others, and so I wish to take this opportunity of drawing attention to them, commissioned as they have been for “The Sapientia Classics” and divided as they are – as in the division of my books on The Religious Controversies – between Elizabethan Shakespeare and Jacobean Shakespeare.  Since I had already published my Shakespeare the Papist  from the same publisher (no other than Joseph Pearce), I tried to avoid too obvious an emphasis on the religion of Shakespeare, but I found the subject all but unavoidable.  At least, I aimed at offering simple textbooks on these two aspects or stages of Shakespeare’s dramatic career, showing the comedies as more characteristic of the former stage and the tragedies as more characteristic of the latter stage.  Above all, what I emphasize in the latter volume, whose title I wished to alter to Shakespeare’s Jacobean Heroines, is the importance of his characterization of heroines as “Mary-figures”.  All through the plays, from The Comedy of Errors onwards, the ideal heroines are characterized in terms of grace, with evident echoes of the angel’s greeting (according to the Catholic Rheims version), “Hail, full of grace!”  But it is in the Jacobean plays that this configuration of the heroine with the Virgin Mary becomes most evident – once we recognize a division among them that (so far as I know) has been unnoticed by any other scholar, namely that of three fours.  The first four includes Desdemona and Cordelia, Isabella and Helena, while the last four includes Marina and Imogen, Perdita and Miranda – whereas the four intervening plays from Macbeth to Coriolanus are lacking in an ideal heroine, and in Timon of Athens there is no heroine at all.  And it is precisely in this characterization of his ideal heroines that Shakespeare comes (I would say) closest to revealing what is hidden in his Catholic heart.  Lastly, to these companion volumes I would like to add mention of a third, published in the same year (2007) by Family Publications, Oxford, under the title The English Reformation: From Tragic Reality to Dramatic Representation.  For it leads up to the “literary issue” among the five issues of the English Reformation, culminating in the drama of Shakespeare, and indicating him as the main (if enigmatic) spokesman for his age.

   Such then, as I see them, are the “five full years of the Catholic hypothesis” concerning the great Shakespeare and his plays.  But why, I may be asked, are they so many and so recent?  Putting aside all question of a “conspiracy theory”, one may point to several other years of plenty that may combine to form not just five years but a full decade following on the new millennium.  Jumping back from 2005 to 2003, one may note several significant publications in that year, especially Michael Wood’s documentary program for the BBC television in four parts, entitled “In Search of Shakespeare” and published in book form by the BBC under the same title in the same year.  Thanks to its televised presentation, it could reach a much larger audience than a mere book could, and the producer-author took a definitely pro-Catholic view at least of the dramatist’s formation in Stratford and possibly Lancashire, though not of his dramatic career.  In the same year there appeared a collection of essays, based on a previous issue of Religion and the Arts (Boston College) and edited by Dennis Taylor and David Beauregard for the Fordham University Press under the title, Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England.   In this book there was more emphasis on the Catholic side than the Protestant side of Christian culture, and, I may add, the book was kindly dedicated to me as pioneer in the up and coming field of “Shakespeare and Religion”.  Yet a third book published this year was another collection of essays, or rather papers, entitled Theatre and Religion: Lancastrian Shakespeare, edited by Richard Dutton, Alison Findlay and Richard Wilson from the Manchester University Press.  Noteworthy about this collection was its presentation of the proceedings of an important conference held at the University of Lancaster in the summer of 1999 on the subject of “Lancastrian Shakespeare” – which effectively meant “Catholic Shakespeare”, considering that the young William’s connection with Lancashire, and the Hoghton family in particular, was a Catholic one, according to the “Shakeshafte theory”.  This theory had previously been upheld by E.A.J.Honigmann against its rebuttal by Samuel Schonbaum in his book on Shakespeare, ‘the Lost Years’, published by the Manchester University Press in 1985.  My own contribution to the conference was a paper on “Shakespeare’s Jesuit Schoolmasters”, of whom two had come from Lancashire via Oxford to Stratford and both had close connections with the Jesuits, including Edmund Campion.  A possible effect of this conference was the decision to hold the following year’s biennial Stratford conference on “Shakespeare and Religions”, whose proceedings – including another contribution of mine on “Religion in Arden” – were published in the Shakespeare Survey for 2001 by the Cambridge University Press.  Also published in 2003 I might also mention my two volumes of Shakespeare’s Meta-drama, one for Hamlet and Macbeth, and the other for Othello and King Lear.  Here by “meta-drama” I meant that which lies beyond drama in the two further layers I have mentioned above of “religious” and “topical” meaning.  In this connection I was invited by Beatrice Batson of Wheaton College to deliver the keynote lecture for her Shakespeare Seminar that year, on “Meta-drama in Hamlet and Macbeth”, which was published under the general title of Shakespeare’s Christianity by the Baylor University Press in 2006.

   In this way, as we entered upon the new millennium, it seemed as if the floodgates had indeed been opened and the old taboo against the mixture of literature or drama with religion had definitely been lifted.  But for the remote cause of this opening and lifting we had to look further back to the year 1992 and the publication of Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, in that, while not even mentioning the name of Shakespeare, the author showed how far from popular the movement of Protestant reformation had been in England and how it was rather an imposition from above, from the Tudor rulers with terrible threats from the law.  Thanks to this one book, with others coming in to support the author about the same time, the whole existing Whig=Protestant interpretation of English history was turned back and Shakespeare with his plays and poems could be shown no longer as supportive of the existing “orthodoxy” of the English Church but as subversive – and that at a time when it was more according to the public mood to be subversive than otherwise.  It was therefore appropriate that Ian Wilson’s new Catholic biography of the Bard was published in the  following year – though without “conspiracy” or collaboration.  Maybe I was also riding the same wave of what was now being called “revisionism” when I published two more books, one with the unequivocal title of The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays from Saint Austin Press of London, with the Renaissance Institute of Tokyo, in 1997, and the other for the new millennium entitled Shakespeare’s Apocalypse in 2000.

   Once again, I have to repeat, this wasn’t all happening in a kind of academic vacuum, but there was a history behind it all, reaching into what Prospero calls “the dark backward and abysm of time” (The Tempest i.2).  At least in England we may see it as reaching back even to Newman’s famous Idea of a University, including a lecture on Literature in which he states of Shakespeare, that “the most illustrious amongst English writers has so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able without extravagance to claim him as their own.”  The one Catholic we can be sure he meant was his young colleague, the Shakespearian scholar who followed him into the Church of Rome, Richard Simpson, who not only published articles to this effect in the Catholic journal The Rambler, but also left notes which were subsequently collected and edited by a priest of the London Oratory, Henry Sebastian Bowden, under the title, The Religion of Shakespeare, in 1899.  Another great Catholic thinker of the succeeding age, G.K.Chesterton, also gave it as his considered opinion in his book on Chaucer (1932),“That Shakespeare was a Catholic is a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true.”  He was in his turn supported by a contemporary Catholic author, the Comtesse de Chambrun, one of whose books on Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Actor-Poet (1927) he had recently reviewed.  She went on to write a fuller life of the dramatist in 1938 entitled Shakespeare Rediscovered, but it came out two years after Chesterton’s death.  Subsequently, after World War II, two more books of importance were published on either side of the Atlantic, one a study of The Shakespeares and ‘The Old Faith’  (1946) by a Presbyterian minister in New York, John Henry de Groot, on Shakespeare’s family background – incidentally and implicitly proving that not all books on the Catholic side of this hypothesis are by Catholics with an axe to grind – and the other a remarkable survey of Shakespeare and Catholicism (1952), by two German scholars, Heinrich Mutschmann and Karl Wentersdorf, with special attention to the Catholic connections of Shakespeare’s relatives and acquaintances, as well as the Catholic references and  implications in his plays.  I may add that it was chiefly this book, which I found awaiting me on my arrival in Japan in the late summer of 1954, which inspired me with the light of “the Catholic hypothesis” as the precious clue not just to the life but also to the meaning and genius of Shakespeare, not just as dramatist but also as spokesman for the Catholic heritage of Englishmen and as witness to the ideal of Christendom.

Other Works Cited

Batson, Beatrice, Ed.  Shakespeare’s Christianity. The Protestant and Catholic Poetics of Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Hamlet.  Waco TX: Baylor University Press, 2006.
Bowden, Henry Sebastian.  The Religion of Shakespeare.  London: Burns & Oates, 1899.
Chambrun, Comtesse de (Clara Longworth). Shakespeare, Actor-Poet.  New York, Appleton,  1927.
(ibid.)                                                           Shakespeare Rediscovered.  New York, Scribner’s, 1938.
Chesterton, G.K.  Chaucer.  London: Faber & Faber, 1932.
De Groot, John Henry.  The Shakespeares and ‘The Old Faith’.  New York: King’s Crown, 1946.
Devlin, Christopher.  Life of Robert Southwell.  London: Longmans, 1956.
Duffy, Eamon.  The Stripping of the Altars.  New York: Yale University Press, 1992.
Dutton, Richard, Ed. with Alison Findlay, Richard Wilson.  Theatre and Religion, Lancastrian Shakespeare.  Manchester: University Press, 2003.
Holland, Peter, Ed.  Shakespeare Survey, No.54.  Cambridge: University Press, 2001.
Honigmann, E.A.J.  Shakespeare, The ‘Lost Years’.  Manchester: University Press, 1985.
Milward, Peter.  The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays.  London: Saint Austin’s Press, 1997.
(ibid.)              The English Reformation: From Tragic Reality to Dramatic Representation.  Oxford: Family Publications, 2007.
(ibid.)               Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age.   London: Scolar Press, 1977.
(ibid.)                Religious Controversies of the Jacobean Age.  London: Scolar Press, 1978.
(ibid.)                Shakespeare’s Apocalypse.  London: Saint Austin’s Press, 2000.
(ibid.)                Shakespeare’s Meta-drama (in two volumes).  Tokyo: Renaissance Institute, 2003.
(ibid.)                Shakespeare’s Religious Background.  London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1973.
Mutschmann, Heinrich and Karl Wentersdorf.  Shakespeare and Catholicism.  London: Sheed & Ward, 1952.
Newman, John Henry.  Idea of a University.  London: Longmans, 1873.
(ibid.)                             Grammar of Assent.  London: Burns & Oates, 1870.
Taylor, Dennis, Ed. with David N. Beauregard.  Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in  Early Modern England.  New York: Fordham University Press, 2003.
Wilson, Ian.  Shakespeare, The Evidence. Unlocking the Mysteries of the Man and His Work. London: Headline Book Publishing, 1993.
Wood, Michael.  In Search of Shakespeare.  London: BBC, 2003.