Was He or Wasn't He?

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...

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About the Author

John T. Noonan, Jr., judge of the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, is the author of The Lustre of Our Country (University of California Press).