The Catholic Bard

Shakespeare & the ‘Old Religion'

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...

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About the Author

Clare Asquith is the author of Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (Public Affairs).