Did William Shakespeare Die a Papist?

In the ongoing enterprise to reveal the mysterious person behind the prized poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), some scholars are focusing on his religious upbringing and beliefs. Some say Shakespeare was once intent on training as a priest at a seminary in northern France at Douai where a college had been established for English Catholics.

In his lifetime, English priests could train only on the continent in Flanders or France. Some guess the arrest and horrific execution of the Jesuit missionary Father Edmund Campion persuaded the young Shakespeare to change course.

Considering the persecution during the Elizabethan era, a Catholic Shakespeare might have buried external displays of faith, never openly declaring Catholic attachment. To be a Catholic in Elizabethan England was to be a marked target.

Despite the anti-Catholic bias that pervaded Shakespeare's world, literary experts continue to discover expressions in his writings of Catholic faith and sympathy for those suffering under the anti-Catholic reign of Queen Elizabeth and King James I. Scholars are also marshalling historical evidence that suggests Shakespeare was in fact allied to England's “old faith” — that of the Catholic Church.

To set the stage, remember why the Catholic Church in England was suppressed: In 1533 Henry VIII broke from Catholicism in order to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, declaring himself head of the Church of England. His divorce from Rome sparked religious turmoil and intolerance that lasted for years and drove the Catholic Church to operate more or less underground from the year 1550. With the coronation of Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth I, on Jan. 15, 1559, an era of severe Catholic persecution began.

Just months after being crowned, Elizabeth I issued a repressive law called the Act of Uniformity. This legislation sounded the death knell for English Catholics.

The government levied severe punishments and fines against those who resisted the new Protestant Church of England. The aim of the strict fines was to impoverish the Catholic loyalists. To remain Catholic or attempt to proselytize for the old faith was treasonous and punishable by violent execution.

The government attempted to stamp out Catholicism, the faith of the land for generations in times past, by brute force. Having been born just five years after Elizabeth I became queen, Shakespeare's life spanned all of her reign whose chief ambition was to eradicate the Catholic faith. Interestingly, Shakespeare stands out as one of the notable poets of his age who chose not to eulogize Elizabeth I upon her death.

Mounting evidence shows that Shakespeare was probably Catholic. At any rate, several Shakespeare scholars, including Peter Milward in Shakespeare's Religious Background and Ian Wilson in Shakespeare: The Evidence, substantiated his family's Catholicism as historical fact. His parents were raised in a time when Catholicism was the faith of England. Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, descended from a staunch Catholic family, and his father, John Shakespeare, was listed as a Catholic recusant (a recusant was any person who refused to attend England's state church services).

St. Charles Borromeo's testament, Last Will of the Soul, a Catholic treatise the English Jesuit martyrs (including St. Edmund Campion) circulated at the time, was later discovered in the rafters of John Shakespeare's house.

The will of Shakespeare's grandfather, Robert Arden, is further proof of the Shakespeare family's Catholicity. In it, he declares his resolute Catholic beliefs. There were even Catholic religious among Shakespeare's ancestors: two aunts were nuns, one a prioress at the Benedictine convent at Wroxall. There is much evidence to support that Shakespeare descended from a devout Catholic family whose religion had a marked effect on the aspiring author.

Shakespeare researcher Carol Curt Enos has recently compiled a compelling thesis in the book Shakespeare and the Catholic Religion that asserts priests shared surnames with actors and playwrights, suggesting a connection between the theater world and the Catholic underground. Likewise, The Hidden Existence of William Shakespeare by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel analyzes the connections between Shakespeare and the Catholic underground. Both authors independently reached similar conclusions regarding the strong possibility of Shakespeare's Catholic faith.

A marvelous new documentary, “In Search of Shakespeare,” which broadcast in four parts on PBS, says Shakespeare was probably Catholic. The film's writer and presenter, Michael Wood, looks at the four stages of Shakespeare's life in an untraditional TV documentary. Wood also compiled all of his findings in his book Shakespeare. Not remotely pedantic, the documentary combines the drama and intrigue of the day with flair and even a bit of funk. An unexpected techno beat — which is annoying at first — strangely unites the Elizabethan past to the present and sharpens the story's realism.

As an aside, one of the more heartening moments of the extensive documentary regards the Shakespeare sonnets that were inspired by a “lovely boy.” The case is made that these sonnets date approximate to the death of Shakespeare's son, Hamnet (who died at age 11 in August 1596). Wood asserts they are most likely written in homage to the recently deceased child. After years of contemporary academics concocting their “Shakespeare was a homosexual” brew, the idea of some of these sonnets as a loving memorial to his son restores their purity of purpose.

If to understand an artist one must understand the times in which he lived, Wood says, then one needs to understand his religion, too. And so, Wood puts floodlights on all the indications that suggest Shakespeare was Catholic. It's refreshing for Catholics used to the kind of bias in shows like the deplorable series “Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance.” “In Search of Shakespeare” is startling for its fairness.

Some of the evidence of Shakespeare's Catholic sympathies:

• Shakespeare's wedding to Anne Hathaway was conducted by a priest known for his loyalties to the rites of the Catholic Church.

• Some claim Shakespeare used the name Shakeshafte to avoid examination by the anti-papist authorities in Elizabethan England. This pseudonym might explain the years when scholars can't pin down his whereabouts.

• During the 25 years of his life in London, Shakespeare never registered in church attendance at Protestant services, even when attendance was sometimes compulsory and had to be recorded.

• After Shakespeare left London to retire in Stratford-upon-Avon, he made an unusual house purchase. He bought London's Blackfriars Gatehouse. This is peculiar since he was living miles away from London and even more peculiar in that the government had identified the residence as a Catholic safe house. Much later, it was determined there were underground tunnels that allowed for safe passage and were hidden from the authorities.

• Apart from the evidence in life, Shakespeare's Catholic leanings appear in his writings. As recently as April 2003, new analysis of what was once considered Shakespeare's most enigmatic poem, “The Phoenix and Turtle,” suggests it might be a memorial poem commemorating the death of Catholic martyr Anne Line (see Times Literary Supplement, April 2003). This woman was executed for her Catholic faith at Tyburn in 1601.

• Some scholars believe Shakespeare gave voice to his own ongoing conflict between a physical or intellectual resistance to the religious persecution in “Hamlet”:

To be or not to be, that is the question:

Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune;

Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?

— Hamlet (Act III, Scene 1)

• Also in Shakespeare's “Hamlet” there is a startling reflection on the Catholic dogma of purgatory:

I am thy father's spirit;

Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes, done in my days of nature Are burnt and purg'd away.

— Ghost of Hamlet's father (Act I, Scene 5)

Certain arguments raised in opposition to Shakespeare's Catholicism mostly concern facts of civil law. For instance, some argue Shakespeare had his children baptized in a Protestant service and in so doing confirmed his Protestant stance. Suffice it to say that Catholic sacraments were outlawed in Elizabethan England and the Protestant service of baptism would still have been both sacramentally valid and a good way around the system for those who feared government spies and reprisals. In my opinion, any judgment of Shakespeare's religion that hinges on the state requirements of the day doesn't persuade.

A Catholic Shakespeare would have walked a tightrope during the clash of Catholicism and the Protestant rebellion against the Church.

He would have been ever conscious of the religion of his youth, now outlawed in his adulthood. Unlike his contemporary Christopher Marlow, a wild and restless man who courted disaster and died young, Shakespeare seemed to have solved the fine balance between art and life through a sheer shrewdness that was necessary for survival.

Yet will the urban legend that surfaced in the Cotswolds in the late 17th century that Shakespeare had “dyed a papiste” ever be verifiable? Is the question of Shakespeare's Catholicism forever inconclusive? Well, you will certainly have the truth revealed if you die a “papist” and obtain heaven yourself.

Jennifer Roche writes from New York.

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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