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 @

The Hot Topic

Fr. Peter Milward gives a glimps into the fascinating history of the scholarship on the question of Shakespeare and the Catholic Faith.

The Hot Topic - Shakespeare as Catholic


Peter Milward, SJ

Early Recognition

   It all began, as I see it, with John Henry Newman.  In his Idea of a University he included a special lecture on “Literature”, in which he recognized English literature as basically Protestant, while admitting one notable exception.  Shakespeare, he says, “has so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able, without extravagance, to claim him as their own”.  If we ask which particular Catholic he may have had in mind, the obvious answer would be the Shakespeare scholar Richard Simpson, who had followed Newman himself into the Catholic Church, though he became something of a thorn in Newman’s side in connection with a Catholic magazine he was editing called The Rambler.  Anyhow, Simpson made extensive notes on the Catholic affinities he found in Shakespeare’s life and plays, and these were put together in book form by a priest of the London Oratory, Fr. Henry Sebastian Bowden, in 1899 under the title of The Religion of Shakespeare.

   Then we may mention Newman’s great successor as a convert from the Anglican to the Catholic Church in the following century, G.K. Chesterton, who expressed his opinion, “That Shakespeare was a Catholic is a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true”.  Here his choice of the words, “convergent common sense”, betrays the influence of Newman’s Grammar of Assent, in which the author lays special emphasis on the proof from a convergence of independent probabilities as leading to certitude in the matter of faith.  Here, too, we may wonder if, like Newman, being no Shakespeare scholar, Chesterton was relying for his opinion on a scholar of his acquaintance comparable to Richard Simpson.  And here, too, we have the answer in Clara Longworth, Comtesse de Chambrun, whose book on Shakespeare Actor-Poet (1927) he reviewed the following year, and who also adopts the “Catholic hypothesis” of Shakespeare’s plays – as later she went on to develop it more fully, in Shakespeare Rediscovered (1938

   The next scholar to defend this hypothesis was, interestingly, not a Catholic but a Presbyterian minister, John Henry de Groot, who published his study of The Shakespeares and “The Old Faith” in 1946.  In it he basically follows the thesis of the Jesuit Fr. Herbert Thurston proposed in a article for The Dublin Review under the title “A Controverted Shakespeare Document” (1923), namely the so-called “Spiritual Testament” drawn up by St. Charles Borromeo and distributed by the first Jesuits to return to England on missionary activity, Fr. Robert Persons and St. Edmund Campion.  He also expresses his indebtedness to Professor Oscar Campbell, a Catholic and subsequent editor of The Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966), for having suggested the thesis, which concerns not so much the religious allegiance of the dramatist himself as the background of his formation previous to the drama.  Another author to whom he expresses his indebtedness is, interestingly, the above-mentioned Comtesse de Chambrun for her Shakespeare Rediscovered (1938).  His book was more recently republished, with a Postscript, by Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

Mutschmann and Wentersdorf

   The next milestone in what I call “the Shakespeare hypothesis” was an extensive coverage of all the arguments for Shakespeare’s Catholicism both in his biography and in his plays by two German scholars, Heinrich Mutschmann and Karl Wentersdorf, in a book entitled in its English translation Shakespeare and Catholicism (1952).  It was this book – if I may turn to an autobiographical vein, which will (I fear) become increasingly evident in this article – which first introduced me to “the Catholic hypothesis” soon after my arrival in Japan in 1954.  I had already been subjected to a thorough study of Shakespeare’s plays during my undergraduate course at Oxford University in the preceding years, and I had duly felt something of that “convergent common sense” mentioned by Chesterton in his book on Chaucer (1932), and so when I had the opportunity of reading this study by Mutschmann and Wentersdorf I was ready to be convinced, with what is called in Catholic theology (though not by Newman) “pius credulitatis affectus”.  This has, I may add, deeply entered into my whole approach to Shakespeare ever since, though it is by no means “pious” or “affective” but notable for its meticulous Germanic scholarship.

Shakespeare’s Religious Background

   So far as I am aware, it was I who may claim to have marked the next milestone with my study of Shakespeare’s Religious Background, which was brought out by three publishers simultaneously in 1973, Sidgwick & Jackson in London, the Indiana University Press in Bloomington, Indiana, and the Hokuseido Press in Tokyo.  Later, when it fell out of print in those places, it was taken up by the Loyola University Press in Chicago in 1985.  While making use of my above-mentioned predecessors in this field, it was my aim to concentrate not on the biography or the Catholic elements in Shakespeare’s background, but on the various religious elements of Catholic tradition, Protestant reform, and certain libertine or atheistic currents of his age, considering what use the dramatist makes of them – while incidentally revealing something of his own personal commitment.  Subsequently, two “Catholic” biographies were published more or less making use of my book with due acknowledgments, one by the Catholic actor Robert Speaight, Shakespeare, the Man and His Achievement (1977), and another by the Catholic historian Ian Wilson, Shakespeare, the Evidence (1993).  Among all the biographies of the Bard that have been coming out at the rate of one substantial book a year, I would say that this by Ian Wilson is easily the best, at least from a Catholic point of view – and the only one that (in my opinion) does anything like justice to that viewpoint.

   From then onwards my own approach to “the Catholic hypothesis” took two forms, one a more detailed study of the religious controversies that chiefly characterizes the religious background of the plays, and the other a study of the extent to which the Bible enters into the meaning of the plays over and above the generally recognized frequency of Biblical echoes and allusions.  For the former I spent many summers during my ordinary tasks as teacher of English literature at Sophia University going through an immense bibliography of contemporary printed books on the controversies at the Huntington Library, California, as a result of which (with some assistance from the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the British Library, London) I published my Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age in 1977 (covering 630 published items in a reign of 45 years) and my Religious Controversies of the Jacobean Age in 1978 (covering 764 published items in a reign of only 22 years).  Almost at once they became standard books of reference in their respective periods, since I was opening up comparatively virgin territory in them – as was recognized by Professor Geoffrey Elton in the Introduction he kindly contributed to the first volume.  As for the Biblical echoes and allusions, I concentrated on the so-called “four great tragedies” as defined by A.C. Bradley and soon published my monograph on Biblical Influence in the Great Tragedies by the Renaissance Institute, Tokyo in 1985, and reprinted by the Indiana University Press under the altered title of Biblical Influences in Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies in 1987.  In this field I was following in the footsteps of C. Wordsworth’s Shakespeare’s Knowledge and Use of the Bible (1864), T. Carter’s Shakespeare and Holy Scripture (1905), and R. Noble’s Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge (1935), but whereas they were chiefly interested in pointing out the various Biblical echoes and allusions in the plays and identifying the version used by Shakespeare, my interest lay in the extent to which all these and many other echoes and allusions enter into and deeply influence the thematic content of the plays.  In doing so I was flying in the face of much Shakespearian scholarship, which cannot but admit most of the echoes and allusions but refuses to recognize any deeper impact on the meaning of the plays.  Such a refusal, notoriously initiated by another Presbyterian minister, Professor Roland Mushat Frye, with his book on Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (1963), was followed by another scholar working in the same field, Naseeb Shaheen, in his three volumes on Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Tragedies (which came out in the same year 1987 as the reprint of my book by the Indiana University Press), Shakespeare’s History Plays (1989) and Shakespeare’s Comedies (1993).  As a result, his books have become the standard references on this subject, while my single book has been cold-shouldered as too subjective and “sectarian”.

The Hot Topic

   In spite of all this literature on Shakespeare and religion – and under that more general title I might have mentioned many more studies – it is only in the last two decades that the subject of Shakespeare’s Catholic allegiance, or what I have called “the Catholic hypothesis”, has become what is widely recognized as “a hot topic”.  If I may return to the biographical aspect of the subject, the main points traditionally alleged in its favor are a) the above-mentioned “Spiritual Testament” of Shakespeare’s father John, b) the mention of his name in the recusancy returns for Stratford in the year 1592, when Catholic recusants were particularly sought by the authorities, and c) the note by the Anglican rector of Sapperton near Stratford, Richard Davies, in the late seventeenth century, that Shakespeare “died a papist”.  There was yet a fourth point recognized by many scholars since the 1930s, that William Shakespeare might well be identified as the “William Shakeshafte” mentioned in the will of a certain Catholic gentleman, Alexander Houghton, in Lancashire in 1581.  This would accord with the old saying that in his youth Shakespeare had been “a schoolmaster in the country”, and also with his Catholic allegiance up till the time of his entering upon his dramatic career, since he would not have been employed as a schoolmaster by a Catholic gentleman unless he was himself a reliable Catholic.  On this as on the other points Shakespeare’s authoritative American biographer Samuel Schoenbaum, in his Documentary Life (1975), adopted a distinctly negative attitude, which soon became the current “orthodoxy” of Shakespeare scholars, in spite of the more positive attitude of Oscar Campbell in his Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare.  In his criticism of the “Shakeshafte theory” he took me specifically to task for what I had written in my Shakespeare’s Religious Background.  Subsequently, however, that theory was strongly vindicated by the leading Shakespeare scholar E.A.J. Honigmann, in his book on Shakespeare, The ‘Lost Years’ (1986).

The Lancastrian Shakespeare

   Then, after a long gap of 13 years, a conference was organized at the University of Lancaster by three members of the English faculty, Richard Dutton, Richard Simpson and Alison Findlay, largely on the basis of the findings of Professor Honigmann, though he himself was not actually present at the conference.  Its very title, “Lancastrian Shakespeare”, implied the Catholic allegiance of Shakespeare, at least up till the beginning of his dramatic career – and Honigmann himself maintained no more than that.  It was attended by some 200 scholars, many of them among the leading Shakespearians in England and America.  One of them, Dr. Eamon Duffy, who had been largely responsible for his “revisionist” or Catholic reading of Reformation history with his book on The Stripping of the Altars (1992), was more cautious about the possibility of proving Shakespeare’s Catholic allegiance, but another, Stephen Greenblatt, well-known as leader of the Neo-Historicists, was already coming round to a recognition of Shakespeare’s probable Catholic allegiance.  As for myself, I presented a paper on “Shakespeare’s Jesuit schoolmasters”, considering how many of them had been connected as well with Lancashire as with the Society of Jesus from Edmund Campion onwards.  The proceedings of the conference were later published by the Manchester University Press in two volumes under the common title of Lancastrian Shakespeare, with the papers by Eamon Duffy, Richard Wilson and myself in the first volume on Theatre and Religion (2003).  Another paper was presented by an American scholar, Carol Enos, who was about to publish a book on Shakespeare and the Catholic Religion (2000).  Yet another was offered by the biographer Anthony Holden, who was also soon to bring out his life of William Shakespeare in the same year as the conference, devoting considerable space to “the Shakeshafte theory” (being himself a Lancastrian) but doubting (like most scholars) if the dramatist had remained a Catholic during his dramatic career.

The Stratford Conference

   The impact of this local conference on Shakespeare studies may be gauged by the fact that a similar theme was taken up at the more prestigious Shakespeare Conference in Stratford the following year, which I also attended.  A strong plea was then made by David Daniell on behalf of the traditional idea of “Shakespeare’s Protestant mind”, but he was sharply countered by the American Catholic scholar Bob Miola, who used his own paper on the seemingly inoffensive subject of “Shakespeare and Ancient Religions” for a defence of Shakespeare’s Catholic mind, while Richard Wilson came out with a strongly worded paper on Shakespeare’s less Catholic but positive hatred of Queen Elizabeth in his two long poems.  The papers were published the following year in The Shakespeare Survey (2001), with a contribution of mine on “Religion in Arden”, showing the extent to which the setting of Shakespeare’s As You Like It – both in France (at the English College of Douai under Dr. William Allen) and in England (near the poet’s home in Stratford) – admitted of a strongly Catholic interpretation.  A year later I could feel a certain continuity between this conference at Stratford and the congress of the International Shakespeare Association at Valencia in Spain in 2002.  The subject wasn’t so obviously religious, being on “Shakespeare and the Mediterranean”, but my contribution – which was also published in the subsequent proceedings – was on the related subject of “Religion in Twelfth Night”.  Still, my chief reason in mentioning it is that I was then approached by an editor of Palgrave, which had recently taken over the publishing company of Macmillans, about the possibility of contributing a book MS on “the hot topic” of Shakespeare’s Catholicism.  Naturally, I expressed my ready agreement, and it was out of this agreement that I produced my MS of Shakespeare the Papist.  Sadly, when I submitted the MS, it was not accepted, no doubt, for its lack of a detailed scholarly apparatus and bibliography, such as are commonly required in today’s academic world for a doctoral thesis.  So I had to wait till 2005 before I could bring out my book, which I regarded as the fine fruit of all I had hitherto been doing in Shakespeare studies in connection with “the Catholic hypothesis”, from the Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University in Florida.

Open Lectures in Japan

   Meanwhile, in the remote backwater of Japan I had been giving series of open lectures on Shakespeare for the Renaissance Institute, taking a different subject for each year and then publishing the proceedings in a series of “Renaissance Monographs” of some 150-200 pages each.  I have already mentioned my Biblical Influence on the Great Tragedies (1985), which had followed a more general survey of Biblical Themes in Shakespeare (1975).  This was in turn followed by a collection of “Catholic” essays entitled Shakespeare’s Other Dimension (1987), which was taken up by the Edwin Mellen Press under the altered title of The Mediaeval Dimension of Shakespeare’s Plays (1993).  Then in 1997 I came (as we often say nowadays, if in another context) “out of the closet” with a book openly proclaiming my allegiance to Shakespeare’s presumed allegiance, under the title of The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays (1997), taking not all the plays but only seven of those more widely known in Japan.  This was followed for the new millennium with a book appropriately (I thought), if sensationally, entitled Shakespeare’s Apocalypse (2000).  These two books, with a third (on a more general survey of Western culture, centring on Shakespeare) entitled The Simplicity of the West (1998), were all taken up for joint publication with The Saint Austin Press in London.  They were followed by two monographs on what I called Shakespeare’s Meta-drama, one devoted to Hamlet and Macbeth, and the other to Othello and King Lear (2003), on the understanding that they were to be published together as a single volume by that Press, only they had sadly fallen on hard times and the Renaissance Institute had “to go it alone”.  Anyhow, they came in useful for a Symposium organized by Professor Beatrice Batson at Wheaton College, Illinois, where I was invited to give the keynote address on “Shakespeare’s Meta-drama”. The proceedings were published under the title of Shakespeare’s Christianity by Baylor University Press in 2006.  At the same time, in commemoration of my 50 years in Japan, I brought out an extra volume on The Plays and the Exercises – A Hidden Source of Shakespeare’s Inspiration? (2002).  Yet another series of open lectures provided me with the material for Shakespeare’s World of Learning (2006).  Then, when I wasn’t providing the material for these monographs, I invited my learned friend in England, Tom Merriam, who had already contributed an essay on Henry VIII to the above-mentioned Shakespeare Survey, to submit two scholarly studies on the authorship problem in Henry VIII (2005) and King John (2007), dealing with basic problems facing the Catholic interpretation of the history plays.
BBC “In Search of Shakespeare”

   Of far greater importance in terms of their impact on the contemporary world of learning was a series of four broadcast talks given by Michael Wood on the British BBC in 2003, under the title “In Search of Shakespeare”, in which he paid full attention to the Catholic affinities of the Bard and the probability of his sojourn among Lancashire Catholics according to the “Shakeshafte theory”.  In his preparation for the talks he had come all the way from his home in London to interview me on the subject near my brothers’ home in Wimbledon.  The talks were subsequently published under the same title, In Search of Shakespeare, and with this combination of TV and publication they must have reached a wider public than anything this “hot topic” had achieved so far – though he couldn’t bring himself to admit that Shakespeare remained fully Catholic throughout his career.  About the same time I was contributing a series of review essays on various books concerning Shakespeare and “the Catholic hypothesis”, including this by Michael Wood, for an academic review published at Boston College in America entitled Religion and the Arts and edited by Dennis Taylor.  One of the issues (Vol.7, 2003) was specially devoted to the topic of “Shakespeare and the Reformation”, and use was made of its rich contents for a book, edited by Dennis Taylor and David Beauregard, entitled Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England and published by the Fordham University Press in 2003.  It was actually dedicated to me for my pioneering activities in this field, and I was invited to write a review essay on the volume for the issue of 2004 (Vol.8).

The Catholic Hypothesis, 2005

   Yet another climax came with the year 2005, which saw the publication of two major studies of “the Catholic hypothesis”.  I have already mentioned my own Shakespeare the Papist, which at last saw the light of published day in the autumn of that year.  But already whatever thunder I might have had with a book all too insufficiently promoted had been stolen by Lady Clare Asquith with her impressive Shadowplay sub-titled The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.  In it she proves beyond any doubt (to my way of thinking) that there is a hidden meaning in all the plays of Shakespeare, as there must have been if he was unable to put up with the tyrannical government of Queen Elizabeth and her “cruel ministers”.  After all, the England of those days was literally run by the two Cecils, father and son, as a police state, strangely similar to the Communist countries before their break-up during the 1980s, of which she herself had personal experience with her husband when he was a diplomat there for the British government.  For her book she was able to gain much more in the way of promotion – so necessary in these days of advertisement – than I could manage.  Anyhow, as a practical outcome we were able to hold a summer school on the subject of “Shakespeare’s Secret” for some 30 members at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, organized by Stratford Caldecott, fellow of the Hall and manager of the Chesterton Centre for Catholic Life and Culture at Oxford.  It turned out to be a great success.

Summer School, Oxford

   One practical outcome of the summer school was a pilgrimage I arranged round many of the English recusant houses in the Midlands between Oxford, Stratford and Cambridge, under the expert guidance of Mr. Michael Hodgetts, and the efficient organization of Leonie Caldecott.  One notable member on the tour was the German scholar Dr. Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, who had published a fine, detailed study of The True Face of William Shakespeare from the Chaucer Press in London the previous year (of course, in English translation), and was about to publish her more important book on The Life and Times of William Shakespeare from the same publisher later on that year.  It may safely be said that she is the most outstanding proponent of “the Catholic hypothesis” in Germany, as Lady Clare Asquith is in England.  In particular, one interesting discovery she had made through her careful study of the archives at the Venerable English College in Rome is that the probable name of Shakespeare (mentioned as “from Stratford”) recurs in three years among the guests at the college, when Shakespeare might have been expected to visit Rome just before and after his dramatic career.  Also in 2007 I added two more books to my growing bibliography on “the Catholic hypothesis”, yet another from the Sapientia Press on Jacobean Shakespeare, with special emphasis on the Marian aspect of the heroines in the later plays from Desdemona onwards, and one from a new publisher of mine, Colin Mason of Family Publications, Oxford, on The English Reformation – From Tragic Reality to Dramatic Representation.

Expectation of More

   Nor is that yet an end to all these books.  Next spring I am expecting no fewer than three more, a) one my companion volume to Jacobean Shakespeare, appropriately entitled Elizabethan Shakespeare, b) a second by my publisher at the Sapentia Press, Joseph Pearce, to be entitled The Quest for Shakespeare, and supported (like Michael Wood’s book) with a TV series, and c) a third by John Klause (who contributed a fine essay on Southwell’s influence on The Merchant of Venice to the above-mentioned Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity) to be entitled Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit – meaning Southampton and Southwell.  Then I might add a fourth by a friend of mine John Waterfield, of Hereford in England, which he has already half finished under the provisional title (on analogy with Hamlet’s secret) of The Heart of Shakespeare’s Mystery.  Maybe that is a title which might well be applied to all these collected works on what I call “Shakespeare’s Catholic hypothesis”.  The one remaining problem is now whether, in view of them all, they can still (in terms of Newman’s proof from convergence of probabilities) be described as a “hypothesis”, or not rather an established conclusion.