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Was Shakespeare a Catholic? Should We Care?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Oct 10, 2008

The long-running debate over whether William Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic has heated up again recently in the Catholic press. Some months ago I pointed readers to what I regard as the finest summary of the state of the argument in Robert Miola’s “Shakespeare’s Religion”, which appeared in the May 2008 issue of First Things. Few critics are as balanced as Miola in their assessment of the evidence for and against. Most people seem to care very passionately about the answer. In my mind, the most intriguing question is, “Why?”

Also in 2008, Ignatius Press published Joseph Pearce’s The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome, a book which attempts to prove Shakespeare’s Catholicism. The thesis is both sweeping and enthusiastic, but the more cautious Miola responds to Pearce’s flamboyance by almost gleefully poking holes in his argument (see the review, “Thy Canonized Bones”, in the August-September issue of First Things). You can sample Pearce’s argument without reading his entire book if you can locate his essay in the October issue of The Catholic World Report, “Shakespeare’s Shocking Catholicism”. (Unfortunately, this essay is not presently available online.)

Why Argue?

One can understand why inquiring religious minds want to know the answer. William Shakespeare was a fabulously brilliant playwright, perhaps the best to have ever written in any language. His work was composed in sixteenth century England shortly after Catholicism had been suppressed. As England’s leading man of letters (still wildly popular today), Shakespeare has understandably been claimed as “one of us” by nearly every succeeding generation. Throughout modern history, the English Protestant establishment has been eager to identify Shakespeare as a symbol of the greatness of both nation and empire. For their part, English Catholics, who naturally believe Catholicism is far more conducive to greatness in the arts, have claimed their country’s greatest dramatist as proof of their own point of view.

Nor are these claims and counter-claims confined to the Catholic-Protestant conflict within which Shakespeare himself worked. It seems that ownership of such an awesome prodigy must be claimed by every new group: agnostics, atheists, secularists, gays. All worldviews and lifestyles, along with the ideologies and theories of literary criticism which accompany them, eventually seek to “prove” that Shakespeare was a prophet of their own cause. Everyone wants to be associated with the great. Everyone feels vindicated by the association.

There is also the endless fascination with the sheer mystery of it all. We have Shakespeare’s writings but almost nothing else. Critics wish to unlock the secrets of his life in order to better reveal the secrets of his plays. Any historian who can prove something definitive about Shakespeare would have his career made—and many have tried. Most of us are fascinated by details of the lives of notable personages and, in the end, everybody really does love a mystery. Again, most of us are somewhat like the assembled suspects in the drawing room: Each of us has a vested interest in the outcome.

But Should We Care?

Whether we should care about Shakespeare’s religion is another matter. Because it is a fundamental tenet of Catholicism that nature is good and that grace perfects nature (rather than repudiating or obliterating it), Catholics quite rightly see their religion as something highly conducive to rich human achievement. Since the Catholic Faith was one of the primary formative influences on Western civilization, there is ample empirical evidence to support this view. But at the same time, artistic genius is not conferred by a particular religion; it is a direct gift of God, and we find it among men and women of all places, times and religious beliefs. The combination of artistic genius with the formative power of a great culture is both more rare and more potent, but an artist may well benefit from the formative power of his culture without sharing all of the beliefs common to it.

Here is another consideration: One of the qualities of great art is its ability to touch us deeply “where we are”. Thus we tend to see in it precisely that aspect of ourselves which has been touched. In certain important ways, great works of art—like great evangelists—become all things to all men, inspiring in us a sense of wonder and beauty which, in each of us, is necessarily filtered in different ways. For this reason, it is extremely difficult to completely classify a great work of art, to pin it down, to exhaust its meaning. Even more slippery is the biographical fallacy, the tendency to read back into the life of the artist what we see in his work, as if what we see in his portrayals and dramatizations must inevitably be an essential feature of his own personality. To the contrary, the greater the artist the more surprising he will be in his ability to capture and convey that which he does not himself fully possess.

So there is a dark side to all this wrangling over Shakespeare’s religion, this insistence on claiming that the greatest of all dramatists must be “just like us”. There is a certain pride which insists that such monumental creativity could come only from the values we hold dear; there is a certain partisanship which insists that the greatest and the best must always be on our side. Otherwise they cannot be the greatest and the best, which in Shakespeare’s case is almost unthinkable. We seek instinctively, with little regard for either truth or grace, to use the genius of another to validate ourselves. Instead, we would do very well to remember that there is only one worthwhile validation, and it consists not in conforming another to ourselves, but in conforming ourselves to Another.

So Was He Catholic?

I am subject to the same temptation. I would prefer that William Shakespeare really believed that the Catholic view of the universe was the only view that ultimately explains the nature of things. And I like to think that the very depth and richness of that worldview, combined with the cleansing of his soul through the power of Jesus Christ, made Shakespeare into a far better poet and playwright than would otherwise have been the case. Certainly the times in which he lived make all this a distinct and even likely possibility. But while there are suggestive hints of various kinds along these lines, there is also evidence that points the other way, and in any case there does not appear to be enough evidence of any kind to induce certainty. Robert Miola (wisely, I think) cites an instructive aphorism: “Dante was a Catholic; Milton was a Protestant; Shakespeare was a dramatist.” Very likely, this is all we can prove, and the central fact that Shakespeare was such an excellent dramatist suggests why it has been so difficult to establish his own beliefs from his plays.

So what is my own answer? I think the sum total of the evidence suggests that Shakespeare at least possessed significant Catholic sensibilities, in the depth of his heart, where they could not get him into too much trouble. We may never be able to say more, and part of the reason is certainly to be found in another cautionary aphorism of my own: “Thomas More was a martyr; John Fisher was a martyr; William Shakespeare was…a dramatist.”

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