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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: June ::
Shakespeare -- a Catholic Priest?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0594  Thursday, 25 June 1998.

From:           Lee Gibson <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 Jun 1998 23:26:03 -0500 (CDT)
Subject:        Shakespeare -- a Catholic Priest?


Here's a new one.

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Did Shakespeare want to be a Catholic priest?

By Nikkla Gibson

HOGHTON TOWER, England (Reuters) - But for a twist of fate William
Shakespeare might have been a Roman Catholic priest and spy in danger of
being hanged, drawn and quartered, rather than applauded, by Protestant
England's Queen Elizabeth I.

This is the theory of Richard Wilson who, with aristocrat Sir Bernard de
Hoghton, plans to spend $32 million turning a stately home in
northwestern England into a research and performance center for
Shakespeare.

Wilson, professor of Renaissance studies at Lancaster University,
believes Hoghton Tower was once used as a "Jesuit clearinghouse" from
where young men would travel abroad to become priests, and that
16-year-old Shakespeare went there after being recruited by missionary
Edmund Campion.

For de Hoghton, owner of the hilltop manor and holder of England's
second-oldest baronetcy, this theory builds on a family legend that a
young man called Shakeshafte, who in 1580 worked for one of his
ancestors as a tutor cum player, was in fact the Bard.

"If Shakespeare was Shakeshafte, he was a member of a household which
was for six months, it seems, nothing less than the secret college and
headquarters of the English Counter Reformation," Wilson said.

He believes Campion's itinerary provides the "smoking gun" for his
theory that Shakespeare planned to study abroad at a Catholic seminary,
possibly Douai in France founded by the de Hoghtons, as part of the
program of Catholic resistance.

CATASTROPHE SPARED BARD

"There is this extraordinary but logical connection between the most
Catholic town in the Midlands (Stratford) and the great center for
Catholic patronage at Hoghton," Wilson said. "If it was his (Campion's)
mission which took his converts north, it was also his catastrophe which
spared the playwright the penalties of priesthood."

Campion was arrested, tortured for the names of all who had helped or
been persuaded by him and then hanged on Dec. 1, 1581, by which time
Alexander de Houghton had dispersed his estate and recommended
Shakeshafte to another patron.

"Even as the master of Hoghton Tower helped his servants to new
identities, in the Tower of London Campion was being tortured for their
names," Wilson said.

He said this period in Shakespeare's life left an indelible mark on the
Protestant court's darling as he took upon himself the evasiveness and
secrecy of the Catholic world that is apparent in his plays.

"My theory is what makes Shakespeare different is he never offers us a
utopian ending-his plays continue to mystify us-and this is related to
Catholic secrecy," Wilson said. "Shakespeare's characters will not
reveal their inner truth and there is an endless mystery to his plays
which is very near to Campion's world."

NOT A NEW THEORY

Hoghton Tower's Shakespeare connection is not a new theory. Ernst
Honigmann, a retired professor of English at Newcastle University,
suggested as much 10 years ago. But Wilson's theory has spawned a wave
of enthusiasm to create a northern center for Shakespeare and
Renaissance studies.

Wilson and Sir Bernard de Hoghton envisage hosting seminars in the
house, which has views of the Irish Sea and the Pennine mountain range.
Stage plays would be held in a 800-seat theater to be built in an
adjacent cliff-face, while the 17th-century Great Barn would become
extra performance space.

"My dream is that this will become a great world research center for the
study of Renaissance drama where education at all levels could take
place and where actors and scholars will work side-by-side to make this
a unique project," Wilson said.

It is hoped most of the cost will be funded by the National Lottery and
that Hoghton Tower will host an annual festival of plays, including a
specially commissioned modern piece. Wilson said Arthur Miller was lined
up to write the first.

Although other scholars support the idea of a Shakespeare center in the
north, saying it would loosen the traditional stranglehold of London and
Stratford, they say the theory, like all theories about the Bard's lost
years, is controversial.

"It would be wonderful to know what Shakespeare was doing as a young
man, but the point is we just do not know," said Eamon Duffy, professor
of English at Magdalene College, Cambridge University.

Professor Kiernan Ryan, head of English at Royal Holloway College of the
University of London, said Shakespeare's life is simply a huge, colorful
set of myths.

"But I do not think it does any harm to have one more, especially when
it can provide a cultural center in another part of England that has
hitherto been starved," he said.
 

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