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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: June ::
Re: Was Shakespeare Catholic?
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0452.  Wednesday, 7 June 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Milla Riggio <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 06 Jun 1995 11:41:35 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0450  Re: Catholic
 
(2)     From:   Zoltan Abraham <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 6 Jun 1995 08:16:45 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Catholic
 
(3)     From:   David Jackson <
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        Date:   Tueday, 06 Jun 95 14:01:26 est
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0446  Q: Was he a Catholic?
 
(4)     From:   W.L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 06 Jun 1995 22:57:51 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0450  Re: Catholic
 
(5)     From:   David Kathman <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 7 Jun 1995 00:10:31 +0100
        Subj:   Was Shakespeare Catholic?
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Milla Riggio <
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Date:           Tuesday, 06 Jun 1995 11:41:35 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 6.0450  Re: Catholic
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0450  Re: Catholic
 
The discussion of whether Shakespeare was Catholic or not could be a good and
useful one, since it impacts in some ways the plays.  What I would like to hear
if possible is informed responses to Ian Wilson's SHAKESPEARE, THE EVIDENCE:
UNLOCKING THE MYSTERIES OF THE MAN AND HIS WORK (St. Martin's Press, 1994), the
latest book to make a serious claim for the Catholic connection.  How
persuasive do you find Wilson's evidence?  And what are the implications for
the plays?
 
Hoping to hear more,
Milla Riggio
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Zoltan Abraham <
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Date:           Tuesday, 6 Jun 1995 08:16:45 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Catholic
 
One thing a professor told me about in passing is the question of Shakespeare's
marriage. From what I understand, some inconsistences (or some lack of
information) in the Anglican records could indicate that he had a secret
wedding. If he was a Catholic, he would have had to practice his faith secretly
because of the persecution, and, therefore, a Catholic marriage would have been
clandestine. Thus, apparently the records regarding his betrothal and marriage
support to the theory that he was Catholic, though they do not prove it. Can
anyone shed more light on this?
 
Zoltan A.
Seattle U.
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Jackson <
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Date:           Tueday, 06 Jun 95 14:01:26 est
Subject: 6.0446  Q: Was he a Catholic?
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0446  Q: Was he a Catholic?
 
This is from memory, but I recall reading in Levi's "Life & Times of WS" about
the debate over whether John Shakespeare's fall from prosperity in the 1570s or
80s (?) was occasioned in part by his Catholic leanings. There was a "Catholic
Testament" found in the rafters of his house in Henley Street sometime in the
late 18th century, which I believe was similar to other tracts dating back to
J.S.'s time. Apparently Mary Arden's family were Catholic, but let's face it,
so were many people in England before Henry VIII's amorous urges precipitated
the break with Rome. The 95 Theses had only been posted on the doors of
Wittenberg Cathedral 47 years before W.S.'s birth, and the dissolution of the
monasteries and the institution of the Church of England were only a few years
in the past. So, as long as you went to church (the only ones available were
the officially approved ones) and didn't publicly espouse "Papist heresies" (or
practice them in secret hidey-holes), you were probably not considered a
Catholic. I don't think there's any evidence that WS did any such thing, so he
was probably deemed a good Anglican. In any event, other than believing in
trans- as opposed to con- substantiation, I'm not sure exactly what difference
there really was. On the other hand, there seemed to be plenty of people who
felt there was enough of a difference to warrant their jeopardizing their lives
and fortunes by insisting that they were Catholic. I just don't think it was a
big deal to WS. (If it had been, he'd probably not have gotten as far as he
did, unless he kept his beliefs to himself.)
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W.L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Tuesday, 06 Jun 1995 22:57:51 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 6.0450  Re: Catholic
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0450  Re: Catholic
 
Regarding Shakespeare's religion, probably the latest discussion is in Eric
Sams's <i>The Real Shakespeare</i>. Sams favors Catholicism.  But who can
tell?  In the absence of an autobiography, we shall be left to conjecture.
 
Yours, Bill Godshalk
 
(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Kathman <
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Date:           Wednesday, 7 Jun 1995 00:10:31 +0100
Subject:        Was Shakespeare Catholic?
 
Zoltan Abraham asks whether Shakespeare was Anglican or Catholic.  Actually
there's a third choice; he could have been a Puritan, at least theoretically. I
don't think that's too likely, given the Puritans' antipathy toward the stage,
but I seem to remember that somebody has argued that Shakespeare was a Puritan,
based mostly on the marginally Puritan associations of the name Susannah, which
he gave to his first daughter, and on the Puritan leanings of Susannah's
eventual husband and Shakespeare's friend John Hall. That's a pretty tenuous
basis, especially given all the other evidence, and I don't think too many
people subscribe to the Puritan theory.  (I just found a reference for the
Puritan theory:  Thomas Carter's *Shakespeare Puritan and Recusant* (1897),
cited in Schoenbaum's *Shakespeare's Lives*)
 
Deciding whether Shakespeare was Anglican or Catholic is not a cut and dried
matter.  He himself never did anything overtly that would identify him as a
Catholic, and so the default assumption is that he was a good Anglican,
especially given his upwardly-mobile social ambitions.  (Being a known Catholic
was not the path to power in Elizabethan England.)  But respectable people have
made respectable arguments that Shakespeare may have been a closet Catholic, or
at least that he was influenced by Catholics around him. Richard Davies wrote
of Shakespeare in 1685 that "He dyed a papist", and while such a statement must
be taken with a grain of salt given that it was written 70 years after the
man's death, we cannot just dismiss it. Several of the Stratford schoolmasters
during Shakespeare's youth had Catholic leanings and/or connections.  Mack
Carter correctly points out that the family of Shakespeare's mother, Mary
Arden, was Catholic, but given the volatility of the religious situation in
mid-16th century England (with the country going from Protestant to Catholic
and back to Protestant while Mary was growing up), we can't put too much stock
in that when talking about the religion of her children.
 
In the case of Shakespeare's father, John, we have his Spiritual Testament,
found hidden in the rafters of the Birthplace on April 29, 1757, during a
renovation.  This is a very Catholic document, in which the testator (in this
case, John Shakespeare) declares himself a member of the Holy Catholic religion
and makes many other Catholic declarations.  It languished in Stratford for
nearly 30 years, at some point losing its first leaf, until it eventually made
its way to Edmond Malone, the great Shakespeare scholar.  Malone at first
pronounced the document genuine and published the text in his 1790 edition of
the plays, but later he began to have doubts.  During the 19th century the
pendulum of scholarly opinion swung to the extent that by 1900 the Spiritual
Testament was generally regarded as a forgery.  But in this century, the
pendulum has swung the other way, so that the Testament is now generally
regarded as genuine.  In 1923, a Jesuit scholar found a Spanish version of the
Testament, published in Mexico City in 1661; it had been written as a weapon in
the Counter- Reformation by Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal Archbishop of Milan,
sometime before his death in 1584.  In 1580 a team of English Jesuit
missionaries visited the Cardinal and smuggled copies of the Testament into
England --- we know this from a 1581 letter to Rome requesting three or four
thousand more of the Testaments, "for many persons desire to have them" --- but
it was not until 1966 that an early English edition of the Testament was
discovered. This was published in 1638, and corresponds virtually word for word
to the document found in the Birthplace.  (The original of John Shakespeare's
Testament has unfortunately been lost.)  So at some point, Shakespeare's father
declared himself a Catholic, albeit probably not publicly.  This must have been
sometime between 1580 and his death in 1601, but exactly when is a matter of
speculation.  He could have always been a closet Catholic, or he could have
converted on his deathbed.  Ian Wilson, in his recent book "Shakespeare: The
Evidence", suggests that John's fall from grace in the 1570s was a result of
the exposure of his Catholicism rather than financial misfortune as is commonly
believed, but this is speculation. And even if one believes that John
Shakespeare was a lifelong Catholic, this does not necessarily say anything
about his son's religious convictions; children have been known to rebel
against their parents' beliefs, both in Shakespeare's time and in ours.
 
In 1606, Shakespeare's daughter Susannah was cited for failing to receive
Anglican communion the previous Easter, as part of a crackdown on closet
Catholics in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot the previous year; about a third of
the others cited were known Catholics or Catholic sympathizers.  But her case
was dismissed when it came before a court, and the next year she married the
very Protestant John Hall.  I suppose one could argue that the marriage to Hall
was a cover for Susannah's closet Catholicism, but that seems to me to be
grasping at straws; I don't see any reason to believe that Susannah was
anything but Anglican.
 
Among the people arguing that Shakespeare was Catholic are Ian Wilson, in the
book cited above (which I reviewed on this list a few months ago), Peter
Milward in *Shakespeare's Religious Background* (1973), and going back a ways,
Richard Simpson and Henry G. Bowden in *The Religion of Shakespeare* (1899).
Most biographers tend to assume that he was Anglican, when they mention his
religion at all; among those explicitly arguing that he was Anglican are T.W.
Baldwin in *William Shakespeare's Petty School*.  Samuel Schoenbaum in his
biography is typically agnostic, but seems to lean toward the Anglican theory.
Many of the above facts are taken from chapters 5 and 6 of Schoenbaum's
*Documentary Life*.
 
There's plenty more to be said on this subject, but the above are the basics.
 
Dave Kathman

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