The Shakespeare Code

“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 English College in Rome. On April 16, 1585, a Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordienses (William, Secretary of Stratford) signed his name on arriving to the college. Was this the same William who was born in Stratford-on-Avon?

Shakespeare would have been 21 at the time. Similar entries are to be found in 1587 and 1589. Remarkably, these three visits in Rome coincide with the so-called seven “lost years” in Shakespeare’s official biography. It also coincides with the dates that English Catholics in exile met in Rome with their leaders Robert Parsons and William Allen to develop new strategies of resistance in the Protestant England of Queen Elizabeth I.

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 Rheims, France, in 1578. Perhaps not coincidentally, Rheims figures as a place of study in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Hammerschmidt claims that the young Shakespeare, on reaching college age in 1578, would have gone to study there.

Rheims was then the only English Catholic college, and represented the normal route for other English Catholics who desired to study humanities. This education there would have provided him with all necessary requisites for his later career in poetry.

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 in Lancashire under the name Shakeshafte, which had already been used by his grandfather. At that time, the place where he taught was a Catholic stronghold or even, as Richard Wilson writes in the Times Literary Supplement (Dec. 19, 1997), “nothing less than the secret college and headquarters of the English Counter Reformation,” equipped with a big library and dedicated to an intense apologetic work against the Anglican “heretics.”

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 Stratford. What would he have been doing in Rome three years later, then, in order to have signed the college’s guestbook?

Hammerschmidt proposes that Shakespeare’s sudden departure from England may have been triggered by the embroilment of the Arden-Somerville family — his mother’s family — in a Catholic conspiracy. He may have feared that his own membership in a Catholic secret organization could have brought him into trouble, and might have preferred to disappear for a while.

Only in 1592 does the historical record definitively resume as Shakespeare again surfaces in London at the beginning of his illustrious career.

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 London.

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 more to Rome? In October 1613, the presumed pseudonym Ricardus Stratfordus appears on the college’s guestbook — “Richard” was the name of Shakespeare’s paternal grandfather and also of the last of his brothers, buried in Stratford in February 1613.

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 London society held their most-esteemed poet.

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 College of Humanities

in Cheshire, Connecticut.

‘Tearing Us Apart’ book cover, with authors Alexandra DeSanctis and Ryan T. Anderson

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