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.

No Catholic sympathizer would lightly speak openly of his loyalty to the Old Faith.

And yet if Catholicism had ruled his heart, this great writer surely couldn’t have helped but write about it. Judge Noonan accepts this on prima facie grounds, and after detailing the circumstances of the “precarious community” of persecuted underground Catholics, he admits into evidence scattered Catholic “markers” where Shakespeare did not bite his tongue: “a mermaid on a dolphin’s back” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.150), which pays reckless tribute to Elizabeth’s Catholic rival, Mary Queen of Scots; a laudatory presentation of Thomas More in the play that bears his name (allowing that Shakespeare did in fact have a hand in its composition); the longing references to the banished Catholic language of praying for the dead, purgatory, confession, and liturgical reminiscences in Hamlet, composed after his son’s and father’s deaths, including precise Latin phrases (“Hic et ubique?” 1.5.158) as well as translations from Catholic Latin prayers (possibly lifted from Catholic missals or liturgies smuggled into England on the orders of William’s exiled neighbor, Cardinal William Allen); and the strongest marker of all, “Love’s Martyr” (1601), a puzzling allegorical lyric that is surely a coded paean to Anne Line, the Catholic convert executed that year at Tyburn for operating a house of refuge for Catholic priests. 

Noonan’s hermeneutic is partially “negative,” as he calls it; he shows why secular interpretations fail to explain lines that a religious approach does explain. In this manner he prosecutes the “spiritual sonnets” patiently, in his book’s opening section, with a nearly line-by-line commentary. Though written over a long period, these poems were not published until 1609, the year before Shakespeare wrote his most overtly Catholic drama, The Winter’s Tale—in which a statue of a falsely accused queen, Hermione, who was thought to have died, “resurrects” on stage, in a miracle that would have seemed idolatrous to Protestant eyes. The result of Noonan’s commentary is a Catholic Shakespeare in the vein of Erasmus, Cervantes, and Montaigne—in other words, “no fanatic ready to fire a train of gunpowder” like Guy Fawkes of 1605, and “no choirboy always in tune with the choir,” but rather a “critical Catholic,” possessing a “mind in religious matters...attentive, observant, complex, active” and “an alert awareness of the arrogance and abuses of authority, the danger of dogmatic hatred or odium theologicum, the cruelty and the foolishness of religious persecution.” Above all, Noonan’s Shakespeare was a “great humanist” who stood “in sharp contrast to those who might polemically be termed the ultras,” religious ideologues full of “invincible certainties” and “aggressively eager to assert their superiority.”

Such characterizations make clear that rare indeed is even the irenic literary critic who remains above the fray. In prior works, Judge Noonan—a superb historian of moral theology who served as a lay peritus to Paul VI’s commission on contraception—famously showed that Catholic thought evolved over time, particularly on such questions as usury and contraception. In much the same way, his Shakespeare evolves as well; and in his amateur’s brief, the judge—who unlike some Catholic Shakespeare–thesis critics would not be accused of being an “ultra” Catholic—may also have in mind those “ultras” of his own day. Noonan scolds those “who hold that any deviation, jot or tittle, from Roman rule disqualifies a believer from being a Catholic,” and reminds readers that “even the Inquisition did not pretend to judge hearts.” In contrast, he asserts, Shakespeare’s poetry showed “the triumph” not of doctrine but “of love.”  

Another poet hangs over the Shakespeare of this book, exerting a palpable “anxiety of influence”—yet Noonan shows that it is not Christopher Marlowe

Another poet hangs over the Shakespeare of this book, exerting a palpable “anxiety of influence”—yet Noonan shows that it is not Christopher Marlowe, as Harold Bloom claimed, but rather Shakespeare’s contemporary (and distant cousin), the Jesuit priest and martyr Robert Southwell. Noonan hears Southwell pushing Shakespeare to attempt divine poetry by wielding his own poems, “Christes Sleeping Friends” and “St. Peter’s Complaint,” which gently chide inactive Catholics in Elizabethan England. In them, Southwell observes that “still finest wits are stilling Venus Rose [Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis]” and complains that his “loving Cosen” has “spent” in “Paynim toys the sweetest vaines,” while “to Christian works, few have their talents lent.” Noonan’s story “sticks together” here; citing a fellow poet exhorting Shakespeare to stop wasting his powers on the trivial, and instead direct his verse toward religious virtue, it offers both map and motive for his religious turn in the subsequent decade. He will use his pen for the Old Faith without losing his head or his livelihood, for, unlike Southwell (who was hanged in 1595 after being convicted of high treason for his ties to Rome), he has a family to support. 

Thoroughly, patiently, and with a joyful labor of research, Noonan offers an original approach to comprehending the addressees of Shakespeare’s sonnets, long codified by interpretive convention as two beloveds: his “dark lady” adulterous mistress and his “fair young friend,” a pairing that makes Shakespeare, in the ironic phrase of Stephen Booth’s magisterial study, “almost certainly homosexual, bi-sexual, or heterosexual.” To this pair Noonan adds a schema of further addressees, all having in one way or another to do with Catholicism—ranging from Jesuit missionaries, to the Virgin Mother, to the poet’s own endangered soul, to the church itself—that breaks open the enigmas of twenty-two “spiritual sonnets.” Sometimes Noonan launches into these interpretations from words used as codes in common parlance of the day: “crow” means “Jesuit”; “canopy” refers to the banned Corpus Christi procession; “tables” specifies the Decalogue tablets; “Rose” suggests the Blessed Mother.

In other cases, Noonan admits to “stretching” language to fit his hypothesis, but even then the result can put a new gleam on poems tarnished through too much familiarity. Take, for example, the famous Sonnet 73: “That time of year thou may’st in me behold.” Noonan expands upon the “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” of line four, long held to be a reference to the ruined monasteries confiscated by the Henrician state; in his reading, this line unlocks the entire poem, whose speaker is not the aging poet to his younger friend, but rather the ancient church, dying with her English martyrs, to the poet Shakespeare. Thus the “glowing of such fire” of the third quatrain is not the poet in old age, but the church still smoldering; “that on the ashes of his youth doth lie” refers to the young Jesuit martyrs executed for its sake; and the church is “consumed with that which it was nourished by”—that is, their vivifying witness in death. 

This interpretation shows Noonan at his most extravagant, fanciful, and daring, but it doesn’t displace, to my mind, the traditional view of the aging Shakespeare asking a friend to “love that [the poet] well which thou [the friend] must leave ere long.” Yet whether or not such interpretations are correct, Noonan’s concluding judgments about Shakespeare’s orthodox beliefs in his poetry are surely closer to the playwright’s real Catholic leanings than conventional academic wisdom allows—beliefs Noonan sums up in a string of attractive paradoxes: “the soul thrives at the expense of the body’s decay; the church lives in the deaths of her members; the chastest lives are the most fruitful; the most pure virgin is the most merciful mother; the love between God and man can be constant and yet can grow; material symbols can be spiritual realities; in a piece of bread and a cup of wine God gives himself to the believer.”

Noonan glimpses the religious turn that I believe Shakespeare made in his greatest decade, from Hamlet (1600) to The Winter’s Tale (1610), a turn from tragic skepticism and yearning for lost sacraments to serene acceptance of the miraculous romance of life. “In the religious tempests of the time,” Noonan writes, quoting Sonnet 125, “in the twilight of his beloved, in the middle of the ruined remains of her beauty, in the muddle of his own life, in his own return to the ruined foundations of his faith, Shakespeare gives himself to God, ‘oblation poor, but free.’” 

Would that we all might have such a merciful judge and well-briefed advocate for our unworthy sacrifices.

Kenneth Colston, a retired literature teacher in St. Louis, has published essays on the Catholic Shakespeare in the New Criterion, First Things, the New Oxford Review, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture.

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Published in the May 4, 2018 issue: View Contents
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