The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1354  Monday 2 August 1999.

From:           Clifford Stetner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Friday, 30 Jul 1999 09:29:25 -0400
Subject: 10.1333 Re: Hoghton Tower Controversy
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.1333 Re: Hoghton Tower Controversy

David N. Beauregard wrote:

>There are three possible profiles for WS. 1) that he conformed to the
>"Church of
>England," 2) that he was a Roman Catholic, a "church papist" who may
>have attended services but did not partake of communion, and 3) that he
>was an indifferent secularist.

How is it possible to rule out: 4) that he was a radical Protestant in
the tradition of Edward VI, 5) that he was an atheist, 5) that he was a
Satanist, 7) that he advocated a form of Anglicanism that did not become
established, 8) that he took communion?

>The first profile runs aground on the evidence of the theology in
>Prospero's epilogue (see my article in
>Renascence 1997), the theology of grace in All's Well (forthcoming
>article in Renascence), and the positive portraits of nuns and friars >in
>Measure for Measure (Protestant dramatists would have portrayed >Isabella
>and the Duke as vice figures).

Until I read your article, I must suppose that an exiled Milanese would
probably not be a conforming Anglican, and, therefore, Prospero's
theology is Prospero's and not demonstrably Shakespeare's.

>...The third profile is also difficult to swallow in light of the >theology
>of the plays, with notions
>of sin, providence, penance, and so on.

It seems to me that an agnostic in an era of religious upheaval might
undergo intense anxiety concerning these issues, and they might be
expected to find their way into his art.

>That leaves the second profile,
>which accords with the theology in the plays and with the fact that
>Shakespeare appears to come from outside the "golden triangle," the >area
>inside Oxford, Cambridge and London, intellectually as well as
>geographically. I wish someone would make a case for an "Anglican"
>Shakespeare. The only evidence I can find is the harsh treatment of >Joan
>of Arc in the Henry VI play, the possibly symbolic communion table in
>the Tempest, and a few satiric remarks about nuns and monks.

I don't see why a Catholic should be capable of sarcasm towards nuns any
less than an atheist or Anglican could find something good to say about
them, I would call your attention to the seventh profile.  Within the
Anglican community there was a wide range of approaches to Reformation:
from Puritans who would strip the churches of all images and rituals, to
conservatives who would retain all of Catholicism, simply shifting
sovereignty from Roman Pope to English monarch.  To call Shakespeare
Catholic is not to say, merely, that he retains a belief in Purgatory,
but that he advocates a repeal of the schism with Rome (involving a
return of church lands bestowed on the new English gentry, subjection to
the enemy States of Spain and France, Spanish marriages for Elizabeth I
and princess Elizabeth, and a wholesale violation of the new spirit of
English nationalism which Shakespeare seems to me passionately to

>I would add that the Roman Catholic Lancastrian profile raises lots of
>new questions. How was Shakespeare able to put on plays like Measure for
>Measure in a Protestant context.

I tend to follow the view that MM is anti-Puritan, but I don't see it as
necessarily anti-Protestant given the vaguely defined doctrines of
Anglicanism alluded to above.

>But other evidence suggests that
>censorship was not all that stringent apart from seditious matter,

In your defense: sedition and recusancy were practically synonymous.

>...But nonetheless to the
>dispassionate observer it appears to be the most plausible profile and
>it opens new avenues of opportunity for reinterpretation of the Bard.

I differ (although I agree with Greenblatt on many other points).  The
circle of Shakespeare's patron Southampton were not only Anglicans, they
were champions of the Reformation.  Southampton's connection with the
Essex rebellion allies Shakespeare with political outsiders from the
left (although I believe there were Catholics in the Essex circle).
Shakespeare's poetic project seems to me to continue (with variations)
the nationalist and therefore Protestant aspirations of poets like
Sidney and Spenser.  The history plays attest to the cultivation of a
Tudor myth calculated to bestow the authority of head of the Church on
Elizabeth, and, I believe that this project can be detected throughout
Shakespeare's canon.

Elizabeth attempted a policy of inclusion, and Shakespeare is vastly
inclusive of all the religious ideas of his time.  The acknowledgement
of the validity of ideas construable as Catholic in no way qualifies as

The Catholic Spaniard Aragon chooses to have all he deserves in the
silver casket.  He believes as all good Catholics that salvation is
attainable through good works.  Aragon's fate illustrates that only
fools claim to deserve God's grace (even through confession, communion,
or pilgrimage).  Bassanio knows that man must throw himself on the mercy
of God.  Like a good Reformation Protestant, he has only his faith in
the treasure that is hidden in the leaden casket.  A true Christian must
give and hazard rather than get and get.  If he gets, it is only through
the grace of a God who is subject to no obligations to human concepts of

Perhaps I am prejudiced by romantic notions of genius, but I tend to
believe that a mind like Shakespeare's, while sympathizing with all
manifestations of human struggle and passion, although he might defend
the positions of his patrons be they Catholic Lancastrians or Protestant
courtiers, would remain independent of cultural ideologies.

Clifford Stetner
C.W. Post College

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