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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: April ::
Study Day in Stratford
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0213  Thursday, 10 April 2008

From: 		Hardy M. Cook <
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Date: 		Thursday, April 10, 2008
Subject: 	Study Day in Stratford

Last week, Dr. Robert Bearman, recently retired as Senior Archivist at 
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-on-Avon, announced a study day 
that would be held at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon on 
26 June 2008. The subject of this study day will be to examine the 
historical evidence on which the claims that young William Shakespeare 
was reared in a staunchly Catholic environment are based.

Interestingly, Dr. Bearman just published a short piece in _Shakespeare 
at the centre_ (VOL 7 ISSUE 02 / 2007) on the subject.

"Shakespeare and Catholicism"

There is a long tradition that, despite the upheavals of the 
Reformation, Shakespeare and his family remained loyal to the Catholic 
faith. But for Shakespeare himself this was still a difficult case to 
make: in default of historical evidence, resort was made to possible 
Catholic inferences in his plays, such as the ghost in Hamlet.  And so 
for many years - whilst historians generally continued to regard the 
Reformation as a 'good thing' - the 'Catholic connection' remained a 
decidedly minority interest and made little impact on Shakespearian 
biography.  However, historians no longer see the establishment of 
Protestantism as part of an inevitable process or one that commanded 
enthusiastic popular support.  Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh and others 
have done enough to convince most of us that the Reformation was really 
a 'top-down' process, the effects of which remained alien to large 
sections of the population well into Elizabeth's reign.

In the wake of this new interpretation, the likelihood that the 
Shakespeares were reluctant converts to, if not determined opponents of, 
the new regime could now be promoted as more likely.  More than that, in 
fact, for in the space of ten years, we have been told that 
Shakespeare's father, John, was kept firm in the old faith through a 
meeting with the Jesuit, Edmund Campion, that he was certainly the 
possessor of a copy of a Catholic 'spiritual testament' which he hid in 
the roof of his house, that he sent his son William to spend some time 
in the household of a noted Lancashire Catholic, and that his financial 
difficulties were the result of his adherence to Catholicism.  Not every 
recent Shakespearian biographer has championed all these theories 
simultaneously but, to a greater or lesser degree, they have found their 
way into the writings of Richard Wilson, Anthony Holden, Park Honan, 
Peter Ackroyd, Stephen Greenblatt, Michael Wood and, most recently, Rene 
Weis.

However, not only does this edifice rest on evidence which does not bear 
scrutiny, it is also bolstered up by statements which are at best 
misleading or at worst fabrication.   A group of historians is therefore 
now working to clear the ground so that issues of Shakespearian 
biography can be re-assessed, this time more soberly.  I tried to set 
the ball rolling in articles which questioned the Lancashire connection, 
the genuineness of the 'Spiritual Testament', and the theory that John 
Shakespeare's difficulties stemmed from his religious beliefs.  In a 
major contribution to the new edition of The Reckoned Expense, Peter 
Davidson and Thomas McCoog have established that the argument in favour 
of alleged links between John Shakespeare and Edmund Campion is 
completely without foundation and has cast a formidable blanket of doubt 
over the idea that Campion was in any case pedalling copies of the 
'Spiritual Testament'.  Glyn Parry, in the latest issue of the 
Shakespeare Yearbook, has convincingly questioned the evidence for John 
Shakespeare's recusancy and has uncovered further material, to be 
published shortly, which deals a further blow to the Lancashire 
connection.  Finally, Michael Winstanley, who has undertaken detailed 
research into the Stratford schoolmaster and Lancashire man, John 
Cottam, challenges the view that he was a closet Catholic and that he 
arranged for Shakespeare's transfer to a sympathetic Lancashire 
household. This too is shortly to be published.


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