Shakespeare: Closet Catholic?

The Portsmouth Abbey conference considers clues of ‘papist’ playwright theory.

Engraving of William Shakespeare from the First Folio of year 1623
Engraving of William Shakespeare from the First Folio of year 1623 (photo: Shutterstock)

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — The archbishop of Canterbury recently broke his church’s long silence on the religious beliefs of England’s foremost playwright — William Shakespeare.

During a presentation at the Hay Festival held in May in Britain, Rowan Williams lobbed his bombshell about the Bard: “I think he probably had a Catholic background and a lot of Catholic friends and associates.”

Archbishop Williams speculated that Shakespeare the man “wasn’t a saint.”

“How much he believed in it, or what he did about it, I don’t quite know,” he said. “He wasn’t a very nice man in many ways — it’s always very shocking, that. The late Shakespeare was hoarding grain and buying up property in Stratford — it was not terribly attractive.”

Shortly after the archbishop delivered his judgment, a well-credentialed group of Shakespeare scholars convened “across the pond” to address the matter in more detail. Jesuits, Benedictines and other American and British scholars gathered June 10-12 at the Portsmouth Institute, a summer conference held at the Benedictine Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island.

Unlike the archbishop of Canterbury, these scholars were not primarily concerned with the Bard’s personal piety. They focused on the way he employed his genius to uphold religious and moral truths — while offering a veiled critique of a ruthless English monarchy that violently uprooted the Catholic faith during the 16th century, destroying monasteries and persecuting Catholics.

Scholars like Jesuit Father Peter Milward, a professor of English Literature at Japan’s Sophia University for most of his priestly life, have labored for decades to penetrate Shakespeare’s cleverly disguised critique of the monarchy’s near-totalitarian effort to identify and suppress Catholic resistance.

Father Milward, who delivered the conference’s keynote address, contended there was enough evidence to establish that Shakespeare was a Catholic. Some scholars, however, merely proposed that his plays provided rich commentary on the religious controversies of his day. 

“What Shakespeare sees in all his plays, above all in King Lear, as the major source of his dramatic inspiration, is the agony of Christ in the sufferings of his fellow Catholics in Elizabethan England,” stated Father Milward. “In such terms, we may recognize Lear not just as a ‘morality everyman,’ nor just as [in his own words] ‘every inch a king,’ but as king of England, not unlike Henry VIII in his rejection of Rome and the faith of Catholic Christendom.”

Henry VIII

Shakespeare lived in a land reeling from the consequences of Henry VIII’s break from Rome, the scholars noted during the proceedings at the Portsmouth Institute. The destruction of England’s Catholic monasteries, the disinheritance and exile of many Catholics, and the martyrdom of countless priests reverberated in the nation’s collective conscience and imagination.

In 1534, after Henry assumed his position as the head of the Church of England, he approved a strategy for suppressing the monasteries and extracting their considerable wealth. 

Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded first by his son, Edward VI, and followed by his Catholic daughter, Mary Tudor, who gave the Church a brief reprieve. But, in 1558, her successor, Elizabeth I, expanded the anti-papist policies of her father, solidifying the rupture with Catholic tradition.

Abbot Aidan Bellenger of Downside Abbey in England, a Cambridge-educated author of works on English religious orders, reminded the conference participants of the wide-ranging impact of Henry’s suppression of the monasteries, observing that the “blasted heath” evoked in Macbeth as “barren and storm-tossed can be taken as a paradigm for a society without hope.”

The Benedictine scholar noted the deep irony of images and dialogue that convey a nostalgia for better days.

“Melancholy thoughts on a departed greatness may seem inappropriate for an Elizabethan ‘Golden Age,’ but the eventual confusion, the life-and-death debates on religious matters, and the precarious identity of what it meant to be English were as important as swashbuckling nationalism and a newfound ‘national’ religion in the world of Shakespeare,” noted the abbot.

“Around every corner, in every village, scattered across the landscape was the unmistakeable detritus of an abandoned world. The end of the monastic order sounded the death knell of Catholic England,” he added.

The Recusants

For centuries, theatrical producers ignored the tumultuous religious controversies of Shakespeare’s time. 

The 1992 historical work by Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, is credited with prompting a new appreciation for the vitality of English Catholicism before the dissolution of the monasteries, and that is stirring fresh insights into the past.

“The current production of Macbeth in London’s West End is staged in a ruined church, and this seems to be a very suitable setting for the Scottish play, which presents such a broken and disturbed world in which the weird sisters equivocate and ghostly apparitions float in the background,” noted Abbot Bellenger.

The destruction of the monasteries marked an era of anti-Catholic persecution, not only for religious orders, but also for once powerful laymen known as “recusants.”
They refused to renounce their beliefs and incurred heavy fines. In some cases, they were divested of their lands and even forced into a kind of internal exile.

Several scholars at the Portsmouth conference used the plight of the English recusants as a prism through which to interpret the subtext of Shakespeare’s plays.

Lady Clare Asquith, author of the 2005 work Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, which argues that he was a recusant, suggested that As You Like It — one of his most popular romantic comedies — was inspired by the actual experience of recusant Sir Rowland Stanley of Hooton. Stanley was a nobleman with land near modern Liverpool. Another member of the extended Stanley family, said Asquith, was probably Shakespeare’s first patron.

She noted that several of Sir Rowland’s sons “were Jesuits, and his heir, Sir William Stanley, was the most notorious and dangerous traitor of the day. He had been a celebrated general in Queen Elizabeth’s army in the Low Countries who had defected to the Spanish and throughout the 1590s had been expected to lead an Irish or Spanish invasion force against his own country.”

As You Like It is dated about 1599, around the time of Sir Rowland’s third marriage, and the play explores the theological importance of matrimony. Asquith suggested that “old Sir Rowland’s family concerns, including his son’s sensational defection, were central to Shakespeare’s adaptation of Thomas Lodge’s well-known pastoral novel.”

As You Like It features virtuous noble men and women forced into exile by evil but powerful men who violate the rights of those under their care. Fleeing to the Forest of Arden, Rosalind — the play’s chief heroine — experiences the kind of internal exile that transformed the family life of actual recusants. Initially, Rosalind’s experience is painful and confusing. But, in time, her shared suffering becomes an opportunity for deepened moral reflection and the exercise of virtue.

“Summing up the many religious conversions and awakenings that have happened in the forest,” Asquith concluded, one character in the play “paraphrases Christ’s words about converted sinners: ‘Then is there mirth in heaven/When earthly things made even/Atone together.’”

Indeed, for all the desolation that pervades the tragedies, and the disturbing reversals of fortune that distinguish many of the comedies, the conference participants remarked on the themes of Christian hope and reconciliation embedded in the Bard’s plays.

The archbishop of Canterbury may be correct in his judgment that the Bard was no saint.  But the sense of hope conveyed in his plays would seem to offer further evidence of his secret commitment to dangerous beliefs. During an epoch of persecution, the Catholic faith in England endured, protected, in part, through the inexplicable miracle of Shakespeare’s literary genius. 

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryand.