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A New Biography Offers New Facts About the Bard’s Life and Faith
BY FATHER ANDREAS KRAMARZ, LC
Is Prince William, the current heir to the British
throne, a direct descendant of William Shakespeare? Prince William’s mother is
the late Diana Spencer, whose family can be traced to Baron William Spencer of
Wormleighton, who, in 1615, was married to Penelope, who was the (illegitimate)
child of Elizabeth Vernon and … William Shakespeare, according to a new book.
none other than Shakespeare was Penelope’s father is only one of the many
breathtaking disclosures found in a new biography of William Shakespeare,
issued last October in an updated English translation by Chaucer Press,
London/England (ISBN 1904449557).
a column for the Register (May 2006) about new proof regarding the hypothesis
that Shakespeare was an underground Catholic (titled “The Shakespeare Code”), I
quoted Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, professor of English literature and
cultural studies at the University of Mainz, Germany.
book I referred to most was The Hidden
Existence of William Shakespeare: Poet and Rebel in the Catholic Underground, written in 2001 in German and never translated
into English. Now, Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s extensive biography of the English
poet is available for the English reader under the title The Life and Times of William Shakespeare.
impressive bibliophile volume contains 420 atlas-size pages and 195
mostly-color photos and illustrations. Its extensive chronological outline of
Shakespeare’s life includes valuable historical background information, but
above all a very detailed exposé of what recent research has revealed about the
author shares step by step the result of meticulous studies of historical
documents, pieces of art and Shakespeare’s own works.
instance, through 17 pages, Hammerschmidt-Hummel unveils how the mysterious
“Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets can be identified with Elizabeth Vernon,
who married Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, although she was
textual hints in the sonnets and historical data, the author has discovered in
the Portrait of Countess Elizabeth on her right elbow the face of a man, a
hidden hint by the (unknown) painter “at the presence of a lover.” His facial
features have been identified by a German criminologist “as identical with
those of William Shakespeare.”
an analysis shows that the woman in this portrait is identical with another
painting called The Persian
Lady, which has written on it the
text of a sonnet.
and literary analysis has revealed that it must have been written by William
Shakespeare,” she writes, “turning out to be the hitherto missing final sonnet
of the ‘Dark Lady’ sequence.” And this would then identify Shakespeare as her
(unhappy) lover, Penelope his daughter, and Prince William his descendant.
from these and many other surprising discoveries, the whole work provides an
abundance of material to substantiate the theory that Shakespeare was and
remained a Catholic throughout his life, a fact that offers “conclusive answers
to many of the unresolved problems of the Bard’s life” and allows “unexpected
insights into Shakespeare’s plays,” she writes.
Miola, professor of English at Loyola College in Maryland, states in his
article “Shakespeare’s Religion” (May 2008 issue of First Things):
“The evidence for Shakespeare’s biographical Catholicity presents nothing like
proof but only intriguing possibility.”
Miola illustrates plenty of Catholic tendencies within Shakespeare’s works, he
is reluctant to admit the substantial historical evidence.
less credit is given to this cause by Alan Jacobs, professor of English at
Wheaton College. In a spirited article titled “The Code Breakers,” published in
the August/September 2006 issue of First
Things, Jacobs takes a critical
stand regarding my own previous Register article.
he cannot be blamed for not having actually read the Catholic Underground book by Hammerschmidt-Hummel in German, this should not lead him to
assume that she is offering little more evidence about Shakespeare’s
Catholicity than some obscure “codes” á la Dan Brown in his works.
ridicules some examples of naive “code-breaking” attempts in Harry Potter or
the Bible, and rightly so.
Insinuating, however, that
Hammerschmidt-Hummel is among those who are falling into a “ceaseless
over-reading of trivia” and lacking true understanding that “is achievable only
by years, even decades, of scrupulous attentiveness to work after work after
work,” and those who “tell us that we don’t need to read carefully or think
hard or labor for years on end” — this would not do justice to the scholarship
she has shown in her present work.
Shakespeare biography is a fruit of a decade of research of labors,” she
reports in the afterword.
careful review of her study will certainly come across hypotheses and theories,
but the weight of the arguments as a whole, “applying interdisciplinary
research methods from fields including medicine, physics, botany, criminology,
architecture, history of art, archaeology, paleography, jurisprudence,
theology, historiography, linguistics, and cultural and literary studies,” lead
to conclusions that can’t be dismissed. Its many small pieces make up a mosaic.
Thi s is not a petitio
principii (that one only finds
what one has previously decided to find) work.
his critique, Jacobs refers to only one of the historical arguments that I had
reported in my article. Here he justly points out an error. Of course, William
was not taught in Latin school by the Catholic Simon Hunt “for seven years” as
could be read in my text, but when he was 7 years old.
then Jacobs speculates that Shakespeare may have been educated by a different
shows in her new biography that the other Hunt was recorded living in Stratford
at the end of the 16th century and cannot have been the Latin teacher Hunt. The
names of the grammar school teachers are documented, and Hunt was substituted
in 1575 by Thomas Jenkins (a Protestant), precisely when he left in 1575 (not
1578, as Jacobs writes) in order to become a Jesuit priest (and later
penitentiary in the Vatican).
is also the matter of the mention of Rheims in The Taming of the Shrew. Hammerschmidt-Hummel offers historical arguments to suggest that
Shakespeare studied at the English Jesuit College there. The historical
argument lead her to read meaning in the reference in the play, not vice versa.
particular, it should be noticed that an education in Rheims would have been
the perfect stimulus and preparation for a future dramatist. Jesuit Drama was a
program of theater developed for educational and evangelical purposes famous at
the time. We find many resemblances to Jesuit Drama in Shakespeare’s own work,
something which “previous Shakespeare biographers have overlooked” but has been
agreed upon by Robert Miola in his recent essay.
finally points out that “Shakespeare’s King John articulates the church-state disputes of the 13th
century in curiously anachronistic and distinctively Anglican terms.” In a
later chapter of her Shakespeare biography, Hammerschmidt-Hummel discusses King John
and offers a detailed analysis of how the text, on the other hand, has parted
ways with its anti-Catholic model The
Troublesome Raigne. King John tones down the Protestant tendencies of its source
material and mirrors the situation of Elizabeth I and the conscience problems
of the English Catholics of Shakespeare’s time.
is interesting that Jacobs accuses the “code breakers” of “supposing something
to be true that there is simply no reason even to suspect is true” and then
looking “for any evidence that might be construed as supportive of that
supposal while resolutely ignoring any evidence that might be construed as
refuting that supposal.”
Doesn’t it sound like a
contradiction when a few paragraphs later, Jacob himself concedes that there
are “good reasons, biographical and even textual, to suspect that Shakespeare
was a Catholic”?
then he enumerates data about the Catholic environment and relatives among
which Shakespeare grew up. He will be pleased to find much more of these good
reasons in The Life
one “textual reason” Jacobs himself quotes and seems to consider acceptable
(or, at least, as he writes, “telling”), is from Hamlet with a reference to
purgatory. There are many more, as Hammerschmidt-Hummel and Robert Miola can
if there are any “codes” or hidden messages in Shakespeare’s works, the fact
that they are often overlooked (or interpreted in contradictory ways) is not an
argument against them.
makes a code a code is precisely that it cannot be easily detected, and the
ambiguity of a text reveals rather the genius of the codemaker. Literary texts,
especially if fictional and written in a time of religious warfare, in
themselves are certainly not sufficient for knowing what the author really
if Shakespeare were a Catholic, this would be
reflected in some way in his work, be it intentionally (encoded) or not. And if his
works contain elements and passages that can best (or better) be understood by
supposing that the writer was Catholic, why not admit them as an additional
clue that he actually was?
makes the following comment at the Anglican blog TitusOneNine:
Da Vinci Code, the Gospel of
Judas, and the new
Shakespeare-was-a-closet-Catholic books all demonstrate just how eager readers
are to believe in secret meanings. I am always amazed at how ready people are
to accept claims that every single reader of the most-read books in history —
every artist, every scholar — has managed to miss the real truth … until today.
Give me a break.”
granted. During the break, Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s new Shakespeare
biography might make for very profitable reading.
Legionary Father Andreas Kramarz
teaches at the Legion of Christ’s
Novitiate and College of Humanities
in Cheshire, Connecticut.
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