Was Shakespeare Part of a Covert Catholic Resistance Movement?

New book suggests that in Elizabethan England, the Bard’s works communicated secret codes.

Statue of Shakespeare (1872) in Central Park, New York, by John Quincy Adams Ward
Statue of Shakespeare (1872) in Central Park, New York, by John Quincy Adams Ward (photo: Public domain)

The debate over whether William Shakespeare was a Catholic, the nature of his religious beliefs and their relationship to his work has reignited with the publication of a new book, Shakespeare and the Resistance: The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion and the Poems That Challenged Tudor Tyranny (PublicAffairs) by Clare Asquith.

Building upon her 2005 work Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (PublicAffairs), Asquith both develops and nuances some of the recent scholarship on Shakespeare’s Catholicism, positioning Shakespeare and his writings at the heart of a covert resistance movement.

As Asquith told the Register: “My book attempts to sidestep the simplistic and misleading modern image of a ‘Catholic Shakespeare’ by focusing on the nature of religious opposition under Elizabeth and demonstrating that unless the detailed history of this movement is understood, the nature of Catholicism at that period, and the two works that made Shakespeare’s name in his lifetime — the narrative poems — are totally inaccessible to modern readers.”


Poetry and Politics

Asquith’s thesis hinges on Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece.

Written in 1594, the poem comes early in Shakespeare’s career and was written for his aristocratic patron, the Earl of Southampton. Its subject matter is the rape by Tarquin, son of the king of Rome, of Lucrece, the faithful wife of Collatine, a Roman nobleman.

This crime, which took place in 509 B.C., provoked a revolution that brought about the first Roman republic. Drawing on Ovid’s account, Shakespeare referenced the episode in several of his plays, notably Cymbeline.

Asquith proposes that within The Rape of Lucrece there is more than a poetic rendering of the tragic story. Speaking to the Register, she said: “Lucrece, who commits suicide after submitting to rape by the king’s son Tarquin, represents the soul of England, in all its vicissitudes: Lucrece’s dead body is finally portrayed as ‘a late-sacked island’ surrounded by two divided streams of blood — black and red (the suffering, often martyred, division between traditional and reformist [religion]).”

Over the years, many scholars have read much into the works of Shakespeare, uncovering what they see as the many socio-political readings possibly inscribed in or applicable to his works.

Asquith goes further, though, than proposing an ahistorical textual analysis: “Lucrece appeared in 1594. The fact that this year was the 60th anniversary of Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy is significant. The poem is a long retrospective of the act’s dire impact on England, starting with Wolsey’s inadvertent revelation of the accessibility of the wealth of the monasteries to unscrupulous predators, including the king; using an otherwise bewildering account of the fall of Troy to illustrate the subsequent social collapse of England; and ending with current hopes that a champion — very like the Earl of Essex — would emerge to lead the people against a corrupt and oppressive regime.”


Enter Essex

The Earl of Essex proves a crucial figure to Asquith’s thesis. The traditional image of Essex presents an irresponsible and ambitious royal court favorite. Asquith maintains that this is misleading. In researching her book, Asquith says she found a very different figure emerging:

“Essex was a serious statesman who was almost universally popular for a reason: He championed an end to corruption, a secure Scottish succession and — a surprise even to many modern historians — religious toleration. Puritans and Catholics — including the Earl of Southampton — all supported Essex, who they hoped would end the increasingly stringent oppression of conscience under the Cecil administration.” (William Cecil, first baron of Burghley, was chief adviser to Queen Elizabeth at the time.)

Asquith positions Shakespeare’s work within this political movement. “My book shows Shakespeare, early in Essex’s career, passionately supporting Essex’s ‘ecumenical’ manifesto in these poems.” And she points out that the later works and their tone coincided “with the plunge in the mood of [Shakespeare’s] work into cynicism and despair after 1604, when James VI dramatically reneged on the promises of toleration Essex had worked for.”

Another Shakespeare scholar, Joseph Pearce, agrees with many of the ideas found in Asquith’s new book.

“It should not surprise us that the poem should have a Catholic dimension,” he told the Register. Like Asquith, he points out that The Rape of Lucrece was written for the Earl of Southampton and that Southampton was Essex’s closest friend and follower. History also recounts how Southampton narrowly escaped execution after Essex rebelled. Citing the historian and literary critic Hugh Ross Williamson, Pearce says many scholars have been intrigued by these connections.


The Southwell Connection

Pearce posits yet another possibility. At the time of The Rape of Lucrece’s composition, the future martyr-saint Robert Southwell was being tortured in prison. Pointing out that Shakespeare knew Southwell before the latter’s imprisonment, Pearce says: “The Rape of Lucrece was probably written as a direct response to an appeal by Southwell, that Shakespeare use his talent in the service of Catholic truth.”

As Pearce says: “The poem might even have been written in part as a means of consoling the doomed priest. A year after the poem’s composition, Southwell would be put to slow and gruesome death for the crime of being a Jesuit priest in Queen Elizabeth’s religiously intolerant England.”

Pearce goes on to state that many critics have highlighted the textual similarities between Southwell’s poetry and Shakespeare’s: “John W. Hales, in his preface to T.H. Ward’s English Poets, comments on how curiously reminiscent Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece is to Southwell’s St. Peter’s Complaint, or Peter’s Plaint, and Christopher Devlin, in his life of Southwell, expends several pages comparing parallel passages from each of the works to highlight the similarities. He concludes with the opinion that Shakespeare’s poem had been influenced directly by Southwell’s.”


Versed in Controversy

Publishing The Quest for Shakespeare (Ignatius Press, 2008) a few years after Asquith’s Shadowplay, where these notions of cryptic resistance and lament were first posited, Pearce maintains: “The apparent allegory of his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece testified, albeit somewhat cryptically, to the view that Queen Elizabeth was not the victim of violence but the predatory perpetrator of it.” Here, he says, the rape spoken of was none other than “the rape of England and the death of the martyrs.”

Asquith is at pains to stress her latest work is not simply another book on Shakespeare’s alleged Catholicism.

Instead, she sees it as a fresh exploration of Shakespeare’s works within a context where political and religious debate is omnipresent but necessarily coded due to the threat of imprisonment or death for any beliefs that did not subscribe to those of the established church. She sees the exposure and elucidation of this inherent contemporary “code” as the most “central and controversial aspect” of her recent research, namely that Shakespeare’s “works contain a consistent secondary level of meaning, which was religio-political.”

This reading of the poem, Asquith says, has not attracted widespread attention for a reason: “Because of decades of censorship, this secondary level was concealed. But contemporary audiences and readers, from the court and monarch to ordinary people, expected literature to contain such a level [of meaning], and critics acknowledge it [to be present] in the works of many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.”


English and/or Catholic?

So is this latest research on The Rape of Lucrece and the alleged code within it moving us any closer to a definitive position on Shakespeare’s religious beliefs?

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, a Shakespeare scholar, has written Shakeshafte, a play about Shakespeare’s faith where the Bard appears on stage with his contemporary and Catholic martyr Edmund Campion, speculating on questions of religion, tradition and art.

Speaking to the Register, Williams feels that there is something to the growing idea that Shakespeare was a Catholic. He says: “I think it highly probable that his family background was Catholic. I think it quite probable that he had some contact with the Jesuit mission as a young man.”

While convinced that some of the evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism is strong, Williams is “less convinced that he was a conscious supporter of the recusant cause throughout his career.” Instead, Williams told the Register, he sees Shakespeare as “an unenthusiastic conformist in religion in adult life (no fines for non-attendance at the parish church, but no generous legacies to his parish church either!), and some texts in the plays might suggest strong sympathies with a reformed rather than recusant position. …”

Williams, like Asquith, however, does see a certain Catholic sensibility in Shakespeare’s works.

“He does give insightful and sympathetic pictures of religious life from time to time (Measure for Measure has no satire or mockery of the religious vocation as such),” he said, “and I have a hunch that the language of Cymbeline implies that he was sympathetic to some of the vague ideas about reunion with Rome around in the first decade of the 17th century.”

But Williams does not feel the evidence is strong enough to be definitive: “The full-blown picture of him as a systematic Catholic apologist is not one I find persuasive.” With regard to a tradition around Shakespeare’s deathbed reconciliation to the Church, Williams is likewise cautious: It “is not impossible, but the evidence is very slight.”

Clare Asquith thinks differently. As regards the nature of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, Asquith sees her latest work making a further contribution in nuancing and complicating our understanding of the Bard’s faith.

“Insofar as Lucrece, in particular, denounces the iconoclasm and the loss of the monasteries, Shakespeare could have been a Lutheran (they were pro images and for the Real Presence,” she said, “unlike the new Calvinist English church) and more loosely English Protestant (even reformers were against the dissolution [of the monasteries]). But certain aspects of the poems reveal, definitively, I would say, that at this stage he was an English Catholic, covert of course, longing for a return to the pre-Reformation national consensus on religion. …”

It is for this reason that she suggests, “Shakespeare takes great pains to identify Lucrece with the sacred attributes of the old Church, including the Real Presence. When Lucrece dies, so does the country. The poem is extremely critical of the English church hierarchy, both Catholic and Protestant, who utterly fail to safeguard the country’s spiritual life.”


The Bard’s Catholic Stage

Unlike Rowan Williams, who sees Shakespeare’s initial Catholicism as “highly probable” but proposes that he became a reluctant conformist, Asquith is convinced that Shakespeare “remained Catholic throughout his life.”

She points to the reference by “the Protestant propagandist, John Speed, in 1611, to Shakespeare as a fellow Catholic propagandist of the Jesuit Robert Parsons (‘this papist and his poet, of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning, and the other ever falsifying the truth’).”

Speed’s comment was made just at a time, Asquith says, “when English anti-Catholicism flared up still more violently after the assassination of [the French Protestant King] Henry IV [in 1610], and James I rapidly cracking down on Catholics, rejecting a liberal archbishop of Canterbury (Lancelot Andrews) in favor of a hard-liner (George Abbott).”

It was this final set of circumstances that Asquith sees as killing the political and religious hopes embedded in The Rape of Lucrece and in the Bard’s later works. As Asquith says, it is “interesting that Shakespeare’s retirement followed so quickly after that.”

Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.

This piece was updated on Dec. 21.

Nicolas Poussin, “Sts. Peter and John Healing the Lame Man,” 1655 — “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” ... He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the Temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.” [Acts 3:6, 8].

No Reason for Being Sad

“For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God who created him, but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in his happiness.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 21)