“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state…”
What does William Shakespeare’s immortal Sonnet 29 really mean?
Was the melancholy Bard transmitting a coded message?
The hypothesis that the playwright concealed his secret Catholic identity during the years of Elizabethan persecution has long been the subject of academic daydreams.
But startling revelations in a book that is so far available only in German may take the hypothesis out of the realm of dreams.
In a previous issue of the Register (Feb. 5-11), Jennifer Roche wrote about recent textual discoveries.
Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s book The Hidden Existence of William Shakespeare: Poet and Rebel in the Catholic Underground covers recent historical discoveries.
A centerpiece in the book is a
hitherto unknown entry in the Pilgrims’ Book of the
Shakespeare would have been 21 at
the time. Similar entries are to be found in 1587 and 1589. Remarkably, these
three visits in
Scholars have long agreed that Shakespeare’s family background was staunchly Catholic, as Roche reported. Hammerschmidt now offers further details that support the thesis that Shakespeare held to the faith of his family, preferring to hide his true colors and work secretly rather than risk martyrdom.
For seven years, William was
taught at the Latin school by Simon Hunt, a Catholic. In 1575, Hunt went to the
Jesuit Collegium Anglicum
in Douay, which in turn moved to
Hammerschmidt cites a record of Shakespeare’s father John raising a major loan that year and surmises that its purpose may have been to finance these studies.
As Ernst Honigmann
points out in his book on Shakespeare’s “lost years,” William took a job as a
private tutor in 1580 in the household of Alexander Hoghton
Furthermore, Shakespeare is mentioned in Hoghton’s will. The same document, in what Hammerschmidt calls coded language, gives hints to Hoghton’s involvement in a secret organization for the protection of hiding Catholic priests.
In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne
Hathaway and took up residence at
Hammerschmidt proposes that Shakespeare’s
sudden departure from
Only in 1592 does the historical
record definitively resume as Shakespeare again surfaces in
Even then, Shakespeare may have
remained secretly linked to the Catholic resistance. Shakespeare acquired part
of the London Blackfriars building (though he himself
never lived there). The Dominican facility was riddled with hidden tunnels and
passages, and was a meeting place and refuge for persecuted priests. The
building’s purpose came to light in 1623, after Shakespeare’s death, when a
ceiling suddenly collapsed during a secret Catholic service, killing 99 of the
faithful. They were denied Church burial by the Anglican archbishop of
When Shakespeare bought this property, in the contract he gave indications that reveal, as Hammerschmidt writes, “an almost perfect arrangement of the Catholic underground: The poet contributed the lodging and the owner of the Mermaid Tavern the food provisions; a magnate of a ship secured the transportation and the business manager of Shakespeare’s company the organization. The nearby theater could provide costumes, wigs and false beards, if required.”
Shakespeare provided for the house’s upkeep even after his death.
Could he then have traveled once
As Jennifer Roche and some
Register readers already pointed out, not a few passages of Shakespeare’s work
take on fresh meaning in the light of his crypto-Catholicism and the inner
conflict of conscience occasioned by the high opinion in which
Hammerschmidt reads sonnets 29 and 66 as bemoaning the desperate situation of the Catholic population of Elizabethan England.
Curiously, X-ray research now tells us that the poet’s famous flower-portrait was painted over a beautiful picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary with her child. Does that mirror the fact that Shakespeare himself led a double life?
If Hammerschmidt’s theories are true, Shakespeare’s genius is further reflected in his ability to so discreetly reflect on Catholic issues in public, that his true intentions are revealed only to the eye of the initiated.
And Elizabeth herself, one of Shakespeare’s greatest admirers, would have been shocked to learn his real intent in writing the concluding line of Sonnet 29: “I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Legionary Father Andreas
Kramarz teaches at the
Legionaries of Christ’s Novitiate and
in Cheshire, Connecticut.