Ever since a seventeenth-century Protestant clergyman, Richard Davies, remarked that “William Shakespeare dyed a papist,” Shakespeare’s religion has been a thorny subject for scholars and biographers. Protestant England would much rather he had not died a papist. Three hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, English Catholics were still viewed as a fifth column liable to join forces with the country’s enemies at a moment’s notice. Even today, England’s entry into the European Union is portrayed in some quarters as a Vatican plot to reclaim England for Catholic Christendom.
Until recently the English nation was viewed as incontrovertibly Protestant, and, of course, so was the national poet. Favorite schoolboy quotations stressed his solidarity with the Elizabethan nation-state. The patriotic concluding speeches of King John and Henry VIII, the battle cry of the “reformed” military hero, Henry V, the support throughout Shakespeare’s works for authority and the rule of law all identified the playwright as a staunch Protestant Englishman. “Naught shall make us rue,” as the Bastard says at the end of King John, “If England to herself do rest but true.”
But what was England’s “self,” exactly—to what should she rest “true”? These lines have always been read in the light of the play’s depiction of the proud reunion of the country after the divisions created by the pope’s mischievous interdict of the English king—supposedly a parallel to the country’s antipapal solidarity in the face of the similar interdict of Elizabeth (1533–1603). Yet in the play the Bastard’s lines actually celebrate the moment England submits to the authority of the papal deputy and resumes relations with Rome.
What are we to make of this kind of ambiguity, which is so typical of Shakespeare? Many scholars see it as evidence of his political and religious neutrality. Still, there is another possible explanation, one that politically oppressed audiences such as those in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe would readily understand.
During my years in Moscow as the wife of a British diplomat, I was introduced to the double-speak of subversive drama, an ingenious method designed to circumvent the Communist censor. Minute alterations to plays by classical authors enabled dissidents to communicate with their audience about contemporary politics. The result gave initiates an enjoyable sense of complicity, but was innocent enough to hoodwink the authorities. I began to wonder whether the many incongruities in the apparently apolitical works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries indicated that they were playing the same dangerous game.
So long as Shakespeare was seen as a pillar of the establishment, no one dreamed of looking for coded meanings in his work. Today the characteristic ambiguity of his writing is beginning to take on a new significance. Since the Second World War, England has become less certain of her Protestant identity. “Is This the Death of Protestant England?” asked one apprehensive headline in the wake of the blanket coverage by the English media of the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Historians no longer feel obliged to perpetuate the orthodox “Whig” view of England’s history, and have been re-examining the nature of Protestantism in Shakespeare’s day. Influential books such as Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars conclude that the embrace of Protestantism was largely reluctant. This is a revolutionary position. As presented by Protestant historians, England welcomed the Reformation. Henry VIII’s (1491–1547) quarrel with the pope and dissolution of the monasteries constituted a break with the superstitious past. Reformers swept away the obscurantist ceremonies and the humiliating subservience to Rome and gave the country a national church, the Protestant work ethic, the Bible in English. They released a new spirit of intellectual inquiry and national self-confidence which was to be embodied some seventy years later in the works of Shakespeare.
Recent research has resurrected a wider and darker picture, however. Fresh evidence from parish records and wills, from neglected manuscripts and archives, and from the writings of exiles indicates that Shakespeare lived in an age of silent, sullen resistance to the imposed new order. In spite of penal legislation and horrific executions, Catholics remained in the majority through 1600, conforming under duress, not out of conviction. Elizabeth’s undermanned national church was still a raw, uncomfortable compromise. On a religious level it satisfied few, and was implemented by force and subterfuge. Catholics were not the only casualties. Humanists and scholars of all persuasions were alienated by the narrow Bible-based ideology imposed at Oxford and Cambridge. Protestants themselves suffered. Those who objected to state control of religion were efficiently eradicated in a McCarthyite purge led by the archbishop of Canterbury. By the time Shakespeare began to write, in the late 1580s, there was a widely held view across the political spectrum that the English Reformation had been a destructive failure. It had been hijacked, and had become the vehicle for the ambitions of a corrupt, power-hungry elite led by two powerful royal advisers, the father-and-son team William and Robert Cecil. Shakespeare’s biographers now give full weight to material sidelined by earlier scholars. There were many Catholics among his family, friends, and neighbors, all of whom suffered under the crippling new laws. The current consensus is that his childhood was deeply imbued with the “old religion,” and that as an adolescent he may well have been involved in the 1580 Jesuit mission led by the charismatic Edmund Campion.
Few scholars, though, entertain the possibility that Shakespeare retained Catholic beliefs throughout his working life. In a recent letter to the London Tablet, Richard Wilson, author of Secret Shakespeare and a leading proponent of the Campion connection, maintains that Shakespeare was ultimately “repelled” by the extremism of the Jesuit-led mission to England. Michael Wood (In Search of Shakespeare) believes that by 1600, “his mind was too open, his habit of empathy too deep-rooted, to side with one view any more.” In his bestselling Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt takes the same line: Shakespeare’s mind was too free, speculative, and wide-ranging to be confined by the prescriptive dogma of the Catholic Church. It appears that the Protestant Shakespeare is being replaced by a secular one.
For centuries, though, Catholics, however unscholarly, have had an unwitting advantage over many Shakespearean critics. They possess part of the key to a forgotten form of coded writing familiar to the dissident intelligentsia of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Acquaintance with Catholic idiom, history, and liturgy offers a glimpse of something momentous hidden beneath the familiar words, encouraging an alert reader to look beyond the familiar fabric of the work and discover a second layer below. Once detected, the concealed dimension is so distinct and coherent that there is no danger of reading in a subjective meaning. A clear political message emerges, one that Shakespeare, like an Eastern European dissident, deliberately injected into his work using signals designed to alert those who remembered the practices of the old religion while avoiding unwelcome attention from those who did not.
Shakespeare has always been seen as a writer capable of unparalleled precision of thought and language who could be—and often was—unaccountably discursive. Dr. Johnson censured him for failing to observe the classical unities, and for pursuing the “fatal Cleopatra” of wordplay at the expense of coherence. To dissidents, though, these patches of apparently loose writing had a purpose. Rather like hollow sounds discovered by those tapping a wall in the search for a hidden chamber, they would once have attracted immediate scrutiny from certain readers and spectators.
A typical instance of Shakespearean digression occurs at the end of The Merchant of Venice. Because of its lyrical beauty, most of us fail to notice that the strangely brief final act is almost completely extraneous to the plot. I have chosen this example because it will ring bells with Catholics who have attended the Easter Triduum. Among the highlights of the liturgy are certain distinctive elements: the Easter moon; the veneration of the Cross; solemn music in the open air; a single candle; the repeated refrain “This is the night.” All these are reminders of key stages in the three days of symbolic ceremony when the church celebrates the entry of light into a darkened world as she reenacts the events of Christ’s Last Supper, Passion, and Resurrection.
Once central to Christendom, these ceremonies were banned at the time of the Reformation and, at least among Protestants in Northern Europe and much of North America, are now largely unknown. So from the seventeenth century onward only Catholics would be likely to notice that exactly the same combination of elements are puzzlingly present in this final act—moonlight, a single candle dispelling the darkness, music, the repeated phrase “in such a night,” kneeling at holy crosses. Anyone who has lectured on Shakespeare and Catholicism will know that this unexpected parallel is pointed out frequently if tentatively by Catholics in the audience.
The links between the Easter liturgy and The Merchant of Venice are striking. The opening love-duet between Lorenzo and Jessica in Act V repeats the phrase “in such a night” eight times: exactly the same number that the phrase “this is the night” is repeated in the great Easter hymn, the “Exultet.” Like the Easter Vigil, the action ends at dawn and takes place on a night when the moon is full. Music of a distinctly spiritual kind induces meditations on the power of harmony to touch the immortal soul. The heroine, Portia, about to arrive home, is reported to be kneeling at holy crosses in the company of a hermit. When she enters, she is struck by the distant effect of a light burning in her hall: “How far that little candle throws his beams! / So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Trite though these words are, they express the theological symbolism of the Paschal candle.
The echoes continue throughout the act. The Easter Vigil describes the stars as the “lights of heaven”; so does Shakespeare. The “Exultet” celebrates the “night on which heaven is wedded to earth”; Shakespeare’s is a night when the lovers Lorenzo and Jessica celebrate a daring elopement and the newlywed Portia prays for “happy wedlock hours.” This is the night, according to the “Exultet,” when the Jews escaped from captivity; in such a night, says the Christian Lorenzo, in order to marry him the Jewish Jessica escaped from her jealous father, Shylock. One of the most memorable phrases from the Good Friday reading of St John’s Passion, ecce homo, is recalled in a deliberately superfluous phrase, “this is the man,” a reference deepened in the exchange that follows: “You should in all sense be much bound to him....for as I hear, he was much bound for you.”
Are these simply nostalgic echoes of the old religion? Or are they, as some critics suggest, instances of outdated spiritual language being recycled for secular purposes? A close look at the play suggests something more unexpected and startling, indicating an underlying artistic unity of which even eighteenth-century critics like Johnson would have approved.
One of the first results of applying the new version of English Reformation history to sixteenth-century literature is the discovery that it was common practice to use coded language to plead the cause of toleration with the queen. A delusion of Elizabethan Catholics, carefully fostered by the regime, was that the queen was secretly in favor of their cause. The private masques and entertainments at the great houses she visited on her journeys around the country were full of skilfully contrived political messages, sponsored by Catholic gentry who knew that Elizabeth prided herself on her skill in decoding allegory. The messages were all of course deniable; to plead openly for religious toleration was fatal. The unfortunate Richard Shelley died in prison merely for presenting a written appeal to the queen, and it is unlikely that she ever read one of the most direct and eloquent pieces of Elizabethan prose, A Humble Supplication written by Robert Southwell, a Jesuit missionary on the run from her ubiquitous spy service. But she certainly saw the plays of Shakespeare’s predecessor, the court dramatist John Lyly, who specialized in allegorical pleas for toleration, describing one of his plays as a Trojan horse—a gift with a dangerous message. Read with the revisionist understanding of Elizabethan history in mind, it emerges that The Merchant of Venice, written in the mid-1590s, is in the same mold; it deploys ravishing language, a gripping story, a flattering central role, partly to entertain but also to persuade the queen to look mercifully on her suffering subjects and lift the ban on their native religion.
Only in the light of a plea to the queen does the strange last act of the drama make artistic sense. The key to discovering its inner meaning is to revisit the play with the revised history and the Catholic background in mind, and to bring a resolutely literal, crossword mentality to the text, staying constantly on the alert for puns, hidden allusions, and oblique wordplay—the approach that sixteenth-century readers, the queen above all, brought to literature. Seen in this light, the play’s many digressions double as wittily accurate topical references.
First, a trail of allusions suggests that the clever, beautiful, much-courted Portia would have been understood as a flattering portrait of the queen, and that the plot contains an ingeniously coded dramatization of Elizabeth’s dilemma as the ruler of a country torn by bitter religious conflicts. Shakespearean scholars Peter Milward and John Klause point out that the Jewish/Christian feud in The Merchant of Venice has unmistakable parallels with the Puritan/Catholic feud dividing Shakespeare’s England. The Venetian usurer, Shylock, has close affinities with London’s Puritan money lenders, known as “Christian Jews.” These would have been more familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences than Jews themselves, who had been banned from England. Like Shylock, these godly capitalists were steeped in the language and thinking of the Old Testament, and like him were derided by many as hypocrites who condemned worldliness yet amassed worldly goods. And they were vengeful. “Puritan” Protestants loathed Catholics not simply because they represented the antichrist, but because Catholics had persecuted them so brutally during the previous reign of Mary Tudor (1553–58). Quoting Old Testament precedents, Shylock uses the law to exact savage revenge on his enemy. In the same way, Puritan priest hunters and their sponsors levied charges of treachery against Catholic priests, who were accordingly hanged, drawn, and quartered. The young Jesuit Robert Southwell, a widely admired poet, died in this way in February 1595, after three years of torture at the hands of his Puritan captor, Richard Topcliffe.
In The Merchant of Venice, through sheer intellectual brilliance, tempered by compassion, Portia solves the impasse between the vengeful Shylock and the contemptuous Antonio. This, Shakespeare suggests, is what the equally shrewd and merciful Elizabeth can do for her country. At the end of the play he goes further. He attempts to awaken Elizabeth to the true significance of the religion her Protestant churchmen dismissed as “popish trish-trash.” Stealthily, he attempts to reconcile her to the Catholicism she would have remembered from her childhood, invoking lost ceremonies that not only embodied the beauty and theological depths of the banned liturgy, but also the annual occasion during the Easter Vigil where converts were officially welcomed into the church.
Act V takes the form of a single extended scene, a meditative coda to the play, ending with a brief flurry of action as true identities are revealed all round. Portia’s household “ceremoniously” prepares a musical welcome for her as she journeys back from her courtroom triumph, penitentially kneeling and praying at wayside crosses. The aim of her servants is to guide her home: “Wake Diana with a hymn! / With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear. / And draw her home with music.”
Their aim coincides with Shakespeare’s designs on Elizabeth. The allusion to the virginal Diana evokes the moon-goddess who was the queen’s most popular allegorical identity. When Portia finally appears on stage, the nighttime impact of candle and music take her by surprise. “Music!...Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day”; “How far that little candle throws his beams.” She apprehends her own household as if for the first time, transfigured by the occasion. It holds a beauty she was previously unaware of: “How many things by season seasoned are / To their right praise and true perfection!” These lines typify Shakespeare’s “cryptic crossword” technique: the emphasis on “season,” the pun on “right,” the quietly incongruous word “praise” all pick up the previous allusions to the Good Friday veneration of the cross and the Holy Saturday “Exultet,” and place the scene firmly in the context of the Easter liturgy.
The austerity of her journey and the nighttime ceremony of her arrival have a profound effect on Portia. They remind her that she is subject to a greater power; her response recalls the lesson of the Paschal candle. “Let me give light,” she says, “but let me be not light.” She is awed and humbled. In lines that gracefully recall the language of the Easter blessing of water, Shakespeare relates this newfound humility to the correct relationship of a secular monarch to God, the true king. “A substitute shines brightly as a king / Until a king be by, and then his state / Empties itself, as doth an inland brook / Into the main of waters.” Elizabeth was criticized for usurping the spiritual authority of the church, and was fond of describing herself as God’s deputy on earth; here Shakespeare reminds her of the limitations of her power. His prevailing tone is persuasive. In the final lines he conveys the admiration and gratitude due to a mistress who “drops manna in the way / Of starved people.” The language evokes the return of the Mass, the one thing Catholics most longed for.
Did Elizabeth respond to this plea? It seems not. The plays Shakespeare wrote over the next few years are models of political correctness: it looks as if the court dramatist was cautioned, and his work suspiciously scrutinized. Even so, he managed to smuggle through artful disclaimers which would have meant nothing to the censor but which again opened out a second layer of meaning for dissident onlookers. Another of these covert references gives a second glimpse of the way Shakespeare deliberately planted markers in apparently rambling patches of dialogue in order to give a sharply political dimension to his plays.
In the first scene of Much Ado About Nothing, written not long after The Merchant of Venice, Benedick is being teased for his misogyny. As it is so often in Shakespeare, the banter is bafflingly obscure. In fact, the teasing conceals a skein of allusions associating Benedick with the thousands of “don’t knows” who were beginning to regret their conformity to the state religion, and to reconsider the merits of revived, Counter-Reformation Catholicism.
One joke is particularly puzzling. If Benedick ever does fall in love, laugh his friends, he will sign a letter on “the sixth of July.” Benedick is stung. “Mock not, mock not,” he reproves, “ere you flout old ends any further, examine your consciences.” Like the language of the liturgy, July 6 meant nothing to Protestants at the time, and nothing either to modern textual commentators. But to Elizabethan Catholics it was a highly significant date. It was on July 6 that Henry VIII executed Sir Thomas More, his former chancellor, for refusing to acknowledge the monarch as the supreme head of the church in England. More had become the model for “recusant” English Catholics, ready to face destitution, imprisonment, exile, or death for their religion. The significance of the date was deepened for Catholics when the young Edward VI, Henry VIII’s fervently Protestant son, also died on July 6-clearly a judgment on his heretic father. This is why Benedick puts a stop to the banter. His friends have gone too far. Mock not old ends he says—the deaths of Thomas More and Edward are not a laughing matter—and his parting shot “examine your consciences” is a reminder of the case of conscience which drove More to the scaffold. From this moment on, Benedick’s behavior—and the hidden identity of Beatrice—would have been of consuming interest to dissident audiences.
The Easter liturgy in The Merchant of Venice and the death of Thomas More in Much Ado are only two of the many markers in Shakespeare that have been neglected over the centuries because they depend for their impact on a history largely overlooked until now. They represent more than the lingering resonance of the old religion. They can be compared to the PULL HERE tabs on modern packaging, highlighting accessible entry points to Shakespeare’s masterpieces, revealing a series of topical linings exquisitely tailored to fit the great universal plays. And these entry points lead to a second discovery: Shakespeare was not dealing in vague topical parallels. He developed a series of code words that remain the same throughout his work and give the reader unerring compass bearings to the hidden dramas. These simple code words, some of them shared by fellow writers, include terms for Protestantism, Catholicism, England, the queen, the Reformation, the Catholic powers abroad, the underground resistance. They provide the basis for a range of more fleeting topical allusions, many of them brilliantly ingenious, some of them intensely poignant.
Shakespeare’s published work is prefaced by hints that a hidden layer is there, waiting to be discovered. “Read him therefore; and again and again,” urge the actors, Heming and Condell, in the preface to the First Folio. They advise those who do not catch on to the wit that lies “hid” in the plays to consult Shakespeare’s friends, the Catholic or crypto-Catholic poets who supply the series of literary tributes that follow the preface. Those who do catch on should act as “guides” to others. But, as persecution continued and Catholicism was gradually eliminated from English public life, it seems that generations of potential guides kept silent about what they knew. And gradually, as the full political context was forgotten, so was the existence of the code.
Four hundred years later, things have changed. Now that England’s anti-Catholicism is on the wane and American scholars in particular are beginning to take a searching interest in the history of early modern England, the moment has come for Catholicism to reevaluate its stormy sixteenth-century past, and for Shakespeare’s hidden work to receive the attention it deserves.
This essay is adapted from Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, published by Public Affairs. Copyright © 2005 by Clare Asquith.