Joseph Pearce on Shakespeare the Catholic

William Shakespeare remains the most controversial and challenging writer in English literature almost four centuries after his death.

Most readers and theater-goers ignore the controversies and simply fall in love with the poetry, language, characters and drama.

In the academic world, however, Shakespeare has become a kind of dark mirror in which people see whatever they want, turning him into a Marxist social critic, proto-feminist, womanizer or swooning homosexual.

Meanwhile, the most obvious answer, given what we know about Shakespeare’s time and family, was largely ignored: his Catholicism. Thanks to a series of books and articles over the past decade, it has become one of the most controversial aspects of modern Shakespeare studies.

Joseph Pearce has made a specialty of exploring Catholic literary lives in such books as Literary Converts, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, Tolkien: Man and Myth and many others. He is writer-in-residence and professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Florida, co-editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, and editor-in-chief of Ave Maria’s Sapientia Press.

In Pearce’s latest book, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome (Ignatius Press), he puts the greatest writer of all under the microscope, building a careful case for a Catholic Shakespeare.

In your new book, you lay out all the available evidence and come to the conclusion that Shakespeare was a faithful Catholic. What inspired you to start down this road?

Actually, I began as a skeptic who believed that there was insufficient evidence to show that Shakespeare was a Catholic. I felt that those who claimed that he was a believing Catholic were guilty of mere wishful thinking.

There came a point, however, at which one piece of evidence after another made me reconsider my skeptical stance. It’s like missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

There comes a time when you have enough pieces to recognize the whole picture, even though some of the pieces are still missing. At this point, I became sufficiently intrigued by the whole question to embark on a period of intense research on the subject. My book is the fruit of that research.

Although you muster an impressive circumstantial case, there’s no “smoking gun,” such as Shakespeare’s name on a list of suspected Catholics. Do you think the circumstantial case is enough to convince the skeptics among Shakespeare scholars?

The onus is on secular scholars to show any other feasible conclusion, based upon the abundance of evidence, much of which is documentary and not merely circumstantial. The documentary, circumstantial and textual evidence, taken together, forms a case for the Bard’s Catholicism that is effectively undeniable.

Such evidence certainly outweighs any evidence suggesting that Shakespeare was a Protestant or an atheist.

Put it this way: If the evidence is placed before a jury of reasonably-minded people, the case would be considered proven beyond any reasonable doubt. We cannot be absolutely certain, but we can be certain enough to come to a definitive conclusion.

Why do you think academics are reluctant to embrace a Catholic Shakespeare?

If academics accept Shakespeare’s Catholicism, it forces them to admit that their reading of his works is wrong. He is not what they think he is or say he is; and the plays do not say what they think they say. In short, they will have to admit that they were wrong.

Honest academics will consider the evidence meticulously and will see the truth to be found in it, but most academics are slaves to relativism and other ideologies that will prevent them from questioning their dogmatic prejudices.

To misquote Shakespeare himself, there is something rotten in the state of the academy. It will not see the truth staring it in the face because it does not want to see it.

The modern academy is blinded by its own prejudice. Nonetheless, the evidence will not be denied indefinitely, and eventually the facts will prevail.

How is Catholic Shakespeare criticism any different from feminist, Marxist or so-called “queer theory”? Isn’t the “text” itself open to a variety of interpretations?

A text is not a magical thing that can reflect the prejudices of all those who look into it, like some narcissistic mirror. It is the incarnation of the personhood of the author.

The more that we understand the person who created a work, the more we will understand the objectivity of the truth that emerges from the work itself. Anyone can read a work subjectively, but a true critic seeks to read it objectively.

If Shakespeare is a Catholic it is as absurd to claim that he is a campaigner for homosexual rights who hates Christianity, as it would be to claim that Virginia Woolf’s novels are really Catholic attacks on feminism and homosexuality. Such criticism should not be taken seriously.

Can you give us an example of a play that is fundamentally changed by viewing it through a particularly Catholic lens?

Quite frankly, the knowledge that Shakespeare is a Catholic forces us to look at all of his plays from a radically different perspective. If the Bard of Avon was a defiant Catholic in very anti-Catholic times, it discredits most modern and postmodern readings of his plays.

If Shakespeare is a Catholic he is ipso facto not any of the things that the modern academy seem to want him to be. He is not a postmodern nihilist, nor is he a secular fundamentalist or an atheist or an anti-Christian iconoclast or a proto-feminist, nor is he an advocate of homosexuality.

He is, on the contrary, a tradition-oriented Christian moralist whose works represent a sublime response and riposte to these various modern and postmodern errors.

If Shakespeare is a Catholic, as all the historical evidence suggests that he is, we should expect to find expressions of that Catholicism in his plays and should be looking for them.

In my next book, the follow-up volume to The Quest for Shakespeare, I will be looking for the solid and astounding evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism in the plots of his plays. I have studied plays such as Hamlet, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice from this perspective, and I’m truly astonished by the abundance of Catholic philosophy and theology that emerges from these plays.

It is difficult to summarize this Catholic dimension in a few words. Shakespeare defies being reduced to sound bites. Suffice it to say that we see in characters such as Cordelia, Hamlet and Portia aspects of Catholic truth revealed sublimely, and we see in the dilemmas faced by these characters a reflection of the predicament in which Catholics found themselves in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

How is the work of historians like Eamon Duffy, whose research is radically changing our understanding of the English Reformation, impacting Shakespeare studies?

The work of historians is crucial to understanding literary works. We need to know what people believed and the nature of the cultures in which they lived in order to understand the works that they wrote.

You cannot understand Shakespeare objectively without understanding Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Therefore, the more that we know about this period the more we will know about the works that emerged from this turbulent time in English history.

And what is true of our knowledge of history is true of our knowledge of theology and philosophy. If we know nothing about the theological and philosophical debates that were part of the intellectual backdrop to Shakespeare’s times, we will know nothing about the theology and philosophy that is manifest in Shakespeare’s works.

Ignorance of theology and philosophy represents an ignorance of Shakespeare.

In May of 2009, EWTN will begin running The Quest for Shakespeare. Can you tell us a little bit about the show?

It’s a 13-part series based upon my book. I’m very excited by it. We’ve filmed it already and it includes some great acting by Kevin O’Brien and the actors of the Theater of the Word Incorporated. I’m the narrator, the “talking head,” so to speak, but the excitement of the series is encapsulated by the great performances by these actors.

What does it mean for Catholics if William Shakespeare is “one of us”?

It means that one of the greatest writers who ever lived, perhaps the greatest writer who ever lived, is expressing timeless Christian verities to an age very much in need of them.

Shakespeare is taught and read all over the world. If we can show that his works are Catholic, we will be evangelizing the world through the powerful witness of the most powerful playwright in the history of Christendom.

Thomas McDonald is based in

Medford, New Jersey.