The Shakespeare (Catholic) Code

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Bard, 400 Years Later

Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare
Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare (photo: Public domain/Wikipedia)

LONDON — Britain is seeing a month of special events marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, April 23. In London, the Globe Theatre — reconstructed some years ago near its original site by the Thames — is the focus of much of this; and in addition, there are great celebrations in Stratford upon Avon, a nationwide tour of a spectacular 700-cast production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and presentations at the British Library, the British Film Institute and the Royal Festival Hall. And, of course, his plays are being staged everywhere.

Bristol is offering The Merry Wives of Windsor and Hamlet, together with a new play, The Herbal Bed, about Shakespeare’s daughter. The Glyndebourne opera house in Sussex has a new production based on Much Ado About Nothing. In a concerning twist, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will present a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which everyone will appear to be drunk, and the Reverse Shakespeare Company has a new take on the plays, in which every part is played by a member of the opposite sex.

Among the merriment, what is a Catholic take on the Bard?

Recent scholarship on Shakespeare has focused some attention on his religious beliefs. At the time he was writing his plays, Catholicism was outlawed, and attendance at the new state church, the Church of England, was compulsory.

But large numbers of people still adhered to Catholic beliefs, whether or not they paid their official dues to the state religion. Shakespeare was baptized in an Anglican church in April 1564, some 30 years after Henry VIII broke with Rome.

Throughout his life, religion was a cause of bitter dispute, harsh penalties and attempts at state coercion in Britain: It made sense for a playwright to seek his own safety by remaining within the law.

But there are undoubtedly hints of Catholicism in his plays. A central theme in Hamlet is that the Prince’s father was murdered with “no shriving time allowed” — i.e., before he had any chance to go to confession and receive absolution. It is a concept that only a Catholic would really grasp and understand.

In Twelfth Night, the character Malvolio is essentially a bore, which was how many of the Protestants of that era were seen by a populace still largely adhering to Catholic ideas. In Romeo and Juliet, the only character of real goodness and kindness is a Catholic priest, the friar. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are oblique references to Christmas — the donkey, the rustics (shepherds) and their contrast with the ducal court (three kings) — and this probably reflects the tradition in which plays about the Christmas Nativity were traditionally presented in midsummer (for John the Baptist’s birthday) to echo with midwinter (Christ’s birthday).

In 2005, Clare Asquith published Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, which argues that Shakespeare’s plays are full of hidden allusions to the cruel policies of Elizabeth I and the bravery of the English-Catholic recusants and their priests.

In a lecture to the Catholic Writer’s Guild in London, Asquith said that she had first pondered this possibility when living in Moscow — her husband was then serving as a diplomat at the British Embassy — and discovered how Russian dissidents made use of coded expressions and allusions when seeking to oppose the Soviet regime. She argues that, for example, Theseus’ speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when he mentions a long season of the moon and laments it “withering out a young man’s revenue,” is a reference to Elizabeth I’s long reign and how cruel and tedious it seemed to Catholics longing for some relief from her penal laws; bitter references by clowns to “the pit” in another play are a way of telling the audience that men such as Edmund Campion (recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint) are held in a hideous dungeon in the Tower of London.

All that can be said for certain is that Shakespeare’s words, still as popular today as they have been consistently for 400 years, seem to link us to our past — and that this fact alone tends to open up bonds with Catholicism, the faith that has shaped British history.


Joanna Bogle writes from London.