When, years ago, I majored in English at college, the thought that Shakespeare was a Catholic was ventured by no one. The claim that Shakespeare was mixed up with the Catholic underground would have seemed as implausible to me as the idea that he was under Communist Party discipline.
In those days, Shakespeare was either identified with the despairing Gloucester, or he was the supreme agnostic postulated by Matthew Arnold’s poem “Shakespeare”: “Others abide our question. Thou art free.”
All that began to change in the 1970s. A pioneer was Peter Milward, SJ, whose work may have been discounted because he was a Jesuit. But secular scholars began biographical work that proved persuasive. By 2001, Jeffrey Knapp at Berkeley could declare the consensus to be that Shakespeare was raised a Catholic.
But did he continue as a Catholic in his creative prime? There is a new openness to that question, too. Richard Wilson, a professor of Renaissance Studies at Lancaster who was honored by the British Academy in 2006, has found much evidence of Catholic belief in the plays. In a recent essay in First Things, Robert Miola has argued that Catholicism “functions as a potent fund of myth, ritual, and assumption” in Shakespeare’s plays, but Miola declines to draw from such evidence any conclusion about what the poet personally believed. Clare Asquith has made a Catholic allegorical reading of the plays (see “The Catholic Bard,” Commonweal, June 17, 2005), a reading that is most persuasive when it illuminates problem plays like Titus Andronicus (the stupidest play ever written, according to T. S. Eliot). Asquith reads that play as an allegory reflecting the horrors of religious warfare, with Catholic intolerance generating Protestant cruelty. Finally, Velma Richmond has interpreted the magic realism of the late plays (Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest) as the product of the poet’s Catholic frame of mind. None of these interpretations has won general acceptance.
These writers do not speak from within the Shakespeare establishment that unofficially determines what is orthodox in Shakespeare criticism. But from within the establishment, Gary Taylor, co-editor of the current Oxford edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, has declared that “the hypothesis that he was a Catholic will, I believe, account for all the relevant facts in both the biographical and the literary record.” But this was not Taylor’s last word. In the collection Religion and Theatre, edited by Richard Dutton, Taylor disavowed the consequences of his conclusion. Shakespeare’s religion, he maintained, is irrelevant because it is undetectable in the plays. This judgment puts the issue plainly: Does Shakespeare’s Catholicism make a difference?
After the two and a half centuries of Shakespeare criticism that began in the eighteenth century, almost everything that could be discovered about the Bard—his family, his teachers, his schoolmates, his publishers, his performers, his stages, and his sources—has been presented, debated, and evaluated. His works have been subjected to even more thorough scrutiny. The range of meaning of every word in the texts has been commented on. Every likely reference to his contemporaries has been marked, every historical and literary allusion recorded. And his religion makes no difference? Shakespeare lived in an age of intense religious controversy. As Brad Gregory has demonstrated in Salvation at Stake, Protestants under Mary died as martyrs for their faith; under Henry VIII, Edward, Elizabeth, and James, Catholics were martyred for theirs. In Shakespeare’s time, Jesuits and the secular priests educated at Douai entered England at risk of their lives in order to bring English Catholics the sacraments and keep the faith alive. Shakespeare’s range of empathy was extraordinary. Could he, as a Catholic, have been unmindful of, or indifferent to, the horrors of the persecution and the heroism of those who volunteered to be missionaries and face execution? And if he was not ignorant or indifferent, wouldn’t something of what he wrote be charged with his knowledge, his sympathy, his identification with the victims?
An obvious danger in interpreting Shakespeare is to read into him one’s own beliefs, whatever they are. But one shouldn’t try to avoid this risk by ignoring all evidence of belief. If Shakespeare wasn’t a Catholic, he must have been a Protestant or an agnostic or an atheist or something. A reader seeking to understand what Shakespeare wrote needs to know the vantage point from which he saw the world. To suppose that everything about Shakespeare matters except his religion is the last resort of a lazy kind of secularism. As the old Protestant prejudices fall away and the secular citadel crumbles, the study of Shakespeare ought to be open to new assessments of the Bard’s deepest commitments.