Recent books and articles on the Catholic Shakespeare thesis—the long-circulating notion that the English language’s greatest writer was a closet “Papist,” as his first biographer wrote not long after his death—have sought evidence in both his life and in his plays. Such an approach, however much speculative fruit it might bear, confronts a twofold challenge. First is the trap of circularity. For example, is the record of Recusancy (absence from the Anglican Lord’s Supper) by Shakespeare’s father John and daughter Susannah evidence of Catholic sympathies, or is that argument made only because Shakespeare’s plays depict a number of Franciscan characters favorably? How certain can we be about what really comes first, the life or the work?
Second is the problematic attempt, amid all the masks and voices of this master shape-shifter, to locate Shakespeare himself. Who in his vast and voluble dramatis personae speaks for the playwright, and when? If Hamlet, for instance, is it the mourning dropout from Luther’s Wittenberg, contemplating suicide for his too-sullied flesh, or is it the resigned scourge seeing special providence in the fall of a sparrow? If Lear, is it the hopeful monarch reconciled to the beloved Cordelia, to whom he wakes as to a “soul in bliss,” or the bitter broken old man screaming defiant “never, never, never, never, never” with his hanged redemptrix in his arms?
Surprisingly, the Catholic Shakespeare has been mostly overlooked in the writer’s lyric poetry and specifically the sonnets, where the demands of plot and source materials fall away, and poet and speaking persona, while not identical, are less distinct from one another. Perhaps the best single treatment of the Catholic thesis in this poetry is by an unlikely but welcome hand—the late Judge John Noonan, estimable jurist and historian of moral theology, who died at ninety in April 2017. Shakespeare’s Spiritual Sonnets, Noonan’s final book, showcases a seasoned federal judge’s ability to sift out inadmissible from admissible evidence, to smell a put-up job, and to overrule an objection. The reading jury hears neither special pleading nor an ironclad case, but rather a “convergence of probabilities” suggesting “persuasive coherence.”
Noonan proceeds in a manner of argument “familiar to astrophysics, ethics, and law,” where “the story sticks together and makes sense.” In this case the story is fairly simple. Shakespeare, as Noonan portrays him, had family and friends deeply involved in the underground Catholic community in Reformation England, even as he moved in the most brilliant circles of the Protestant court. Obliquely but not infrequently in lyric poetry, he made his sympathies known; indeed, he revealed himself to be a troubled but true believer in traditional Christianity, a faithful believer who loved the Church, sought its forgiveness, and hoped for his salvation and its resurgence.
In making his case, Noonan helpfully draws from his own special juridical bailiwick to depict the state of the law regarding religion in Shakespeare’s England. Though Catholic belief itself was not illegal—heresy per se was no crime—royal decree placed heavy sanctions on Catholic conduct and speech. Anyone speaking out against the established Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer was, for a third offense, subject to life imprisonment. Anyone recusing himself from the Anglican Sunday service faced a steep fine, jail, forfeiture of property, and (if applicable) permanent banishment from practicing a profession. Anyone holding an ecclesiastical office, in particular priests and professors, had to swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch as head of the church in England, which eliminated conscientious Catholics. Indeed, more than a hundred Catholic priests were put to death for ministering the sacraments clandestinely. No Catholic sympathizer, therefore, would lightly speak openly of his loyalty to the Old Faith. Thus it is sensible to assume that, if he had been Catholic, Shakespeare would have disguised the fact.