Shakespeare's Secret Faith

A literary sleuth unmasks looks at the Bard’s Catholicity. This is the second of two parts.

(photo: Wikipedia)

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — When the archbishop of Canterbury recently broke his church’s long silence and acknowledged that William Shakespeare was probably a Catholic, it was a moment of quiet satisfaction for Father Peter Milward, the author who began researching this subject a half century ago.

“I think the archbishop of Canterbury got his ideas from my book,” suggested Father Milward, a soft-spoken, seemingly ageless Jesuit academic who taught English literature at Sophia University in Tokyo and used his off hours to investigate the subject from every angle, producing several key works.

Father Milward is best known for several books: Shakespeare’s Religious Background (1973) and two volumes of Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age and the Jacobean Age in 1977 and 1978.

Vice chairman of the Renaissance Institute of Sophia, Father Milward is editor of Renaissance Monographs and the first director of the university library’s Renaissance Centre.

“Shakespeare and the identity of England in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods has long interested scholars,” said British Benedictine scholar Abbot Aidan Bellenger of Downside Abbey, author of numerous works on Church history. “The weight of opinion has placed Protestantism and Shakespeare in close proximity. Shakespeare studies have thus been shaken up by the gently spoken Jesuit, Father Peter Milward. In a series of thought-provoking and insightful literary studies, he has challenged the orthodoxies of the established Shakespeare scholar and has provided an alternative Shakespeare — profoundly Catholic and truly English.”

“To be a Catholic in Elizabethan England has often been seen as being a stranger in one’s own country,” he said. “Father Milward’s great achievement has been to bring Shakespeare’s Catholicism into the mainstream of national identity. It may be [that] to be truly Catholic in the age of Shakespeare was to be truly English.”

Born in London in 1925, Father Milward began his undergraduate studies in 1950 at Campion Hall, Oxford University. He started as a classics scholar, then switched to English literature after his Jesuit superiors directed him to prepare to teach that subject at the order’s Sophia University. He arrived in Japan in 1954, was ordained six years later, and has remained there ever since, passing on his passionate interest in Shakespeare to successive generations of Japanese students.

From his undergraduate days, Father Milward found himself grappling with Shakespeare’s distinctly Catholic sensibility, brilliantly disguised to shield the dramatist from extreme penalties imposed by the crown, in the wake of King Henry VIII’s tragic break from Rome.

Key Themes

Father Milward began to explore the complex religious controversies of Shakespeare’s day and suspected that the playwright employed rich themes and word play to move beyond the plays’ surface reality to the truth of things. In this way, the Bard could protect himself and his legacy from the crown’s aggressive persecution of Catholic “traitors” — known as “recusants.”

“When a country that was almost entirely Catholic is forced to take on a new religion in just 50 years, it gives people a bad conscience. They are forced to say that they believe what they don’t believe. Shakespeare wrote about that,” noted Father Milward.

The priest was recently in the United States to give a keynote address at the Portsmouth Institute’s “The Catholic Shakespeare,”  a conference held at Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island that attracted British and American Shakespeare scholars.

Macbeth seems to be about Scotland in the 11th century, but Shakespeare uses the story of Macbeth to convey the reality of Elizabethan England,” said Father Milward.

“Shakespeare argues against ‘seeming’ — what we see with our eyes and ears. Behind the ‘seeming’ is a contradictory reality. In the case of Hamlet, he seems to be in mourning for his father, but he’s actually in mourning for his mother, who has sinned by committing adultery with her husband’s brother.”

Rather than limit the search for clues to a specific play, Father Milward stresses that the repetition of key themes, like exile and disinheritance, throughout the Shakespearean canon offers a more coherent moral and theological vision and thus a stronger case for Shakespeare’s Catholic beliefs and loyalties.

Passion Play

At the Portsmouth Institute conference, the Jesuit encouraged his audience to look at “all the plays together, for the light they have to shed on one another. For the dramatist is always repeating himself in one way or another, as he asks himself in Sonnet 76, “Why write I still all one ever the same?”

He suggested that Othello, Macbeth and King Lear constitute a kind of “passion play” — “three plays of disinheritance which cut across the traditional division of comedies, histories and tragedies and across the reigns of Elizabeth Tudor and James Stuart.”

Shakespeare introduces the theme of disinheritance, in part, to mark the brutal rupture from the continuity of Catholic tradition that followed King Henry’s VIII’s break with Rome. It also underscores the practical consequences of the crown’s anti-Catholic policies for individual believers, who were forced off their lands as punishment for refusing to acknowledge the king as the head of the Church.

Yet, in Father Milward’s view, the playwright’s sympathies are not with the recusants alone. The tragedies also explore the fatal moral blindness of rulers, who learn too late that they have placed their trust in lying sycophants. In Shakespeare’s day, venal, self-promoting public officials prosecuted the anti-Catholic campaign of terror — and feathered their own nest along the way.

King Lear, for example, “is punished for having ... relied on the flattery of his false daughters and for having ... ‘but slenderly known himself.’ He has to grow in self-knowledge in the school of adversity,” notes Father Milward. “Sweet are the uses of adversity” (according to the title of a chapter in Thomas à Kempis’ classic The Imitation of Christ).”

Father Milward regrets that the Bard’s rich moral and theological perspective often gets short shrift in modern theatrical productions.

In past decades, both ecumenical sensitivities and a hostile secular mindset have raised barriers to scholarly research on the religious concerns and convictions of Shakespeare.

“Ecumenical sensitivities have been an issue for a long time,” acknowledged Lady Clare Asquith, the author of the bestselling 2005 work Shadowplay: the Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.

Asquith credits Father Milward’s Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age and the Jacobean Age with providing valuable context for her research. But when she commenced her own investigation, one bishop told her, “Don’t rake up embers.” Speculation about a Catholic Shakespeare “was thought to be indelicate and unecumenical,” she said.

‘Don’t Want Him Christian’

The archbishop of Canterbury’s public statement marks a sea change in Anglican opinion, while secular elites may continue to shrug off the Bard’s religious beliefs.

“With the collapse of the Anglican Church, secular society doesn’t care if Shakespeare was Protestant or Catholic. They don’t want him to be Christian,” Asquith contended.

Abbot Bellenger offers a more diplomatic gloss on the evolving situation: “Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and a distinguished theologian, as well as a friend of the English Benedictines, has become a powerful supporter of the Catholic Shakespeare.”

“The archbishop,” said Abbot Bellenger, in an email following the Portsmouth Institute conference, “realizes that in Elizabethan and Jacobean England being a Catholic was a positive and intelligent option for anyone with a wide vision and an internationalist outlook.’”

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