Shakespeare's religion

Shakespeare's religion

Over the years, there have been a number of speculations about the religious beliefs of William Shakespeare. While little direct evidence exists, circumstantial evidence suggests that Shakespeare's family had Catholic sympathies and that he himself was Catholic, though there is disagreement over whether he in fact was.

hakespeare's family

In 1559, five years before Shakespeare's birth, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement finally severed the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. In the ensuing years, extreme pressure was placed on England's Catholics to convert to the Protestant Church of England, and recusancy laws made Catholicism illegal. Some historians maintain that in Shakespeare's lifetime there was a substantial and widespread quiet resistance to the newly imposed faith. ["The Shakespeares and ‘the Old Faith’" (1946) by John Henry de Groot; "Die Verborgene Existenz Des William Shakespeare: Dichter Und Rebell Im Katholischen Untergrund" (2001) by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel; [] "Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare" (2005) by Clare Asquith.] Some scholars, using both historical and literary evidence, have argued that Shakespeare was one of these recusants. [] Richard Wilson, "Shakespeare and the Jesuits:New connections supporting the theory of the lost Catholic years in Lancashire," "Times Literary Supplement", 12/19/1997, pp. 11-13]

Some scholars claim that there is evidence that members of Shakespeare's family were recusant Catholics. The strongest evidence is a tract professing secret Catholicism signed by John Shakespeare, father of the poet. The tract was found in the 18th century in the rafters of a house which had once been John Shakespeare's, and was seen and described by the reputable scholar Edmond Malone. Malone later changed his mind and declared that he thought the tract was a forgery. Although the tract document itself has been lost, 20th century evidence has linked Malone's reported wording of the tract definitively to a testament written by Charles Borromeo and circulated by Edmund Campion, copies of which still exist in Italian and English. [] Holden, Anthony, "William Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Genius," Little, Brown, 2000] John Shakespeare was also listed as one who did not attend church services, but this was "for feare of processe for Debtte", according to the commissioners, not because he was a recusant. [Mutschmann, H. and Wentersdorf, K., "Shakespeare and Catholicism", Sheed and Ward: New York, 1952, p. 401.] Then again, avoiding creditors may have merely been a convenient pretext for a recusant's avoidance of the established church's services.

Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was a member of a conspicuous and determinedly Catholic family in Warwickshire. [] Peter Ackroyd, "Shakespeare: The Biography". Doubleday, 2005. p. 29] In 1606, William's daughter Susannah was listed as one of the residents of Stratford refusing to take Holy Communion in a Protestant service, which may suggest Catholic sympathies. [] Peter Ackroyd, "Shakespeare: The Biography". Doubleday, 2005. p. 451] It may, however, also be a sign of Puritan sympathies; Susannah's sister Judith was, according to some statements, of a Puritanical bent. [Catholic Encyclopedia,] Archdeacon Richard Davies, an 18th century Anglican cleric, allegedly wrote of Shakespeare: "He dyed a Papyst". [ [ The Religion of Shakespeare] Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM. (Accessed Dec. 23, 2005.)]

Shakespeare's schooling

Four of the six schoolmasters at the grammar school during Shakespeare's youth, King’s New School in Stratford, were Catholic sympathisers, [] Peter Ackroyd, "Shakespeare: The Biography". Doubleday, 2005. pp. 63–64 ] and Simon Hunt, who was likely to have been one of Shakespeare’s teachers, later became a Jesuit. [ [ Hammerschmidt-Hummel, H., "The most important subject that can possibly be": A Reply to E. A. J. Honigmann, "Connotations", 2002-3] ] Thomas Jenkins, who succeeded Hunt as teacher in the grammar school, was a student of Edmund Campion at St. John's College, Oxford. Jenkins's successor at the grammar school in 1579, John Cottam, was the brother of Jesuit priest Thomas Cottam. A fellow grammar school pupil with Shakespeare, Robert Debdale, joined the Jesuits at Douai and was later executed in England for Catholic proselytising along with Thomas Cottam. [] Peter Ackroyd, "Shakespeare: The Biography". Doubleday, 2005, p. 64]

Lost years

John Aubrey reported that Shakespeare had been a country schoolmaster, [Schoenbaum, "Compact", 110–11.] a tale augmented in the 20th century with the theory that his employer might have been Alexander Hoghton of Lancashire, [] Edward T. Oakes, "Shakespeare’s Millennium," "First Things," December, 1999] a prominent Catholic landowner who left money in his will to a certain "William Shakeshafte", referencing theatrical costumes and paraphernalia. [Honigmann E. A. J. (1999). "Shakespeare: The Lost Years." Revised Edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1. ISBN 0719054257; Wells, "Oxford Shakespeare", xvii.] Shakespeare's grandfather Richard had also once used the name Shakeshafte. Ackroyd adds that study of the marginal notes in the Hoghton family copy of Edward Hall's "Chronicles", an important source for Shakespeare's early histories, shows that they were in "probability" in Shakespeare's writing. [cite book
last =Ackroyd
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authorlink = Peter Ackroyd
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title =Shakespeare the Biography
publisher =Chatto and Windus
date =2005
location =London
pages = p 76
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Possible Catholic wedding

The writer's marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582 may have been officiated, amongst other candidates, by John Frith [Schoenbaum, S. (1987) Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. p.87] in the town of Temple Grafton a few miles from Stratford. In 1586 the crown named Frith, who maintained the appearance of Protestantism, as a Roman Catholic priest [ [ William marries Anne Hathaway] In Search of Shakespeare, P.B.S. (MayaVision International 2003)] . Some surmise Shakespeare wed in Temple Grafton rather than the Protestant Church in Stratford in order for his wedding to be performed as a Catholic sacrament. He was thought to have rushed his marriage ceremony, Anne was 3 months pregnant. [ [ William marries Anne Hathaway] In Search of Shakespeare, P.B.S. (MayaVision International 2003)]

Catholic sympathies

While none of this evidence proves Shakespeare's own Catholic sympathies, the historian, Clare Asquith and the literary scholar Peter Milward [Peter Milward, "The Catholicism of Shakespeare's Plays". Tokyo: Renaissance Institute, Sophia University, 1997; reprinted Southampton: Saint Austin Press, 1997. ISBN 1901157105.] [Peter Milward, "Shakespeare the Papist". Ann Arbor, MI: Sapientia Press, 2005. ISBN 193258921X.] are among those who have claimed that such sympathies are detectable in his writing. Asquith claims that Shakespeare uses terms such as "high" when referring to Catholic characters and "low" when referring to Protestants (the terms refer to their altars) and "light" or "fair" to refer to Catholic and "dark" to refer to Protestant, a reference to certain clerical garbs. Asquith also detects in Shakespeare's work the use of a simple code used by the Jesuit underground in England which took the form of a mercantile terminology wherein priests were 'merchants' and souls were 'jewels', those pursuing them were 'creditors', and the Tyburn gallows where the members of the underground died was called 'the place of much trading'. [] "Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare" (2005) by Clare Asquith.] The Jesuit underground used this code so their correspondences looked like innocuous commercial letters, and Asquith claims that Shakespeare also used this code.

Needless to say, Shakespeare’s Catholicism is by no means universally accepted. The 1914 edition of the "Catholic Encyclopedia" questioned not only his Catholicism, but whether "Shakespeare was not infected with the atheism, which... was rampant in the more cultured society of the Elizabethan age." [ [ The Religion of Shakespeare] Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM. (Accessed Dec. 23, 2005.)] Stephen Greenblatt suspects Catholic sympathies of some kind or another in Shakespeare and his family but considers the writer to be a less than pious person with essentially worldly motives. ["Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare" by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, pages 156-165.] An increasing number of scholars do look to matters biographical and evidence from Shakespeare’s work such as the placement of young Hamlet as a student at Wittenberg while old Hamlet’s ghost is in purgatory, [] Edward T. Oakes, "The Age of Shakespeare, Shakespeare The Trial of Man," "First Things," June/July, 2004] the sympathetic view of religious life ("thrice blessed"), scholastic theology in "The Phoenix and the Turtle", and sympathetic allusions to martyred English Jesuit St. Edmund Campion in "Twelfth Night" [ [ "Allusions to Edmund Campion in Twelfth Night"] by C. Richard Desper, Elizabethan Review, Spring/Summer 1995.] and many other matters as suggestive of a Catholic worldview. More recently it has been suggested that Shakespeare was simply playing upon an English Catholic tradition, rather than being actually being Catholic, and was utilizing the symbolic nature of Catholic ceremony to embellish his own theatre. [cite book|last=Groves|first=Beatrice|title=Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare, 1592-1604|publisher=Oxford University Press|location=Oxford, England|date=2007|pages=pp 4-6|isbn=0199208980]

Greenblatt concedes that the "equivocator" arriving at the gate of hell in the Porter's speech in "Macbeth" is probably a reference to the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet who had been executed in 1606. [cite book
last =Greenblatt
first =Stephen
authorlink =Stephen Greenblatt
coauthors =
title =Will in the World How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
publisher =Jonathan Cape
date =2004
location =London
pages =p338
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id =ISBN 0-224-06276X
] He argues, however, that Shakespeare probably included the allusion for the sake of topicality, trusting that his audience would have heard of Garnet's pamphlet on equivocation rather than any hidden sympathy for the man or his cause — indeed the portrait is not a sympathetic one. Shakespeare may have also been aware of the "equivocation" concept which appeared as the subject of a 1583 tract by Queen Elizabeth's chief councillor Lord Burghley as well as the 1584 Doctrine of Equivocation by the Spanish prelate Martin Azpilcueta that was disseminated across Europe and into England in the 1590s. [ Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare By Another Name," 2005, pp. 402-403]

Notes and references

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