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Of both Milton and Shakespeare it was stated after their deaths, upon Protestant authority, that they had professed Catholicism. In Milton's case (though the allegation was made and printed in the lifetime of contemporaries, and though it pretended to rest upon the testimony of Judge Christopher Milton, his brother, who did become a Catholic) the statement is certainly untrue (see The Month, Jan., 1909, pp. 1-13 and 92-93). This emphasizes the need of caution — the more so that Shakespeare at least had been dead more than seventy years when Archdeacon R. Davies (d. 1708) wrote in his supplementary notes to the biographical collections of the Rev. W. Fulman that the dramatist had a monument at Stratford, adding the words: "He dyed a Papyst". Davies, an Anglican clergyman, could have had no conceivable motive for misrepresenting the matter in these private notes and as he lived in the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire he may be echoing a local tradition. To this must be added the fact that independent evidence establishes a strong presumption that John Shakespeare, the poet's father, was or had been a Catholic. His wife Mary Arden, the poet's mother, undoubtedly belonged to a family that remained conspicuously Catholic throughout the reign of Elizabeth. John Shakespeare had held municipal office in Stratford-on-Avon during Mary's reign at a time when it seems agreed that Protestants were rigorously excluded from such posts. It is also certain that in 1592 John Shakespeare was presented as a recusant, though classified among those "recusants heretofore presented who were thought to forbear coming to church for fear of process of debt". Though indications are not lacking that John Shakespeare was in very reduced circumstances, it is also quite possible that his alleged poverty was only assumed to cloak his conscientious scruples.
A document, supposed to have been found about 1750 under the tiles of a house in Stratford which had once been John Shakespeare's, professes to be the spiritual testament of the said John Shakespeare, and assuming it to be authentic it would clearly prove him to have been a Catholic. The document, which was at first unhesitatingly accepted as genuine by Malone, is considered by most modern Shakespeare scholars to be a fabrication of J. Jordan who sent it to Malone (Lee, Life of William Shakespeare, London, 1908, p. 302). It is certainly not entirely a forgery (see The Month, Nov., 1911), and it produces in part a form of spiritual testament attributed to St. Charles Borromeo. Moreover, there is good evidence that a paper of this kind was really found. Such testaments were undoubtedly common among Catholics in the sixteenth century. Jordan had no particular motive for forging a very long, dreary, and tedious profession of Catholicism, only remotely connected with the poet; and although it has been said that John Shakespeare could not write (Lee, J.W. Gray, and C.C. Stopes maintain the contrary), it is quite conceivable that a priest or some other Catholic friend drafted the document for him, a copy of which was meant to be laid with him in his grave. All this goes to show that the dramatist in his youth must have been brought up in a very Catholic atmosphere, and indeed the history of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators (the Catesbys lived at Bushwood Park in Stratford parish) shows that the neighbourhood was regarded as quite a hotbed of recusancy.
On the other hand many serious difficulties stand in the way of believing that William Shakespeare could have been in any sense a staunch adherent of the old religion. To begin with, his own daughters were not only baptized in the parish church as their father had been, but were undoubtedly brought up as Protestants, the elder, Mrs. Hall, being apparently rather Puritan in her sympathies. Again Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of the parish church, though it is admitted that no argument can be deduced from this as to the creed he professed (Lee, op. cit., p. 220). More significant are such facts as that in 1608 he stood godfather to a child of Henry Walker, as shown by the parish register, that in 1614 he entertained a preacher at his house "the New Place", the expense being apparently borne by the municipality, that he was very familiar with the Bible in a Protestant version, that the various legatees and executors of his will cannot in any way be identified as Catholics, and also that he seems to have remained on terms of undiminished intimacy with Ben Johnson, despite the latter's exceptionally disgraceful apostasy from the Catholic Faith which he had for a time embraced. To these considerations must now be added the fact recently brought to light by the researches of Dr. Wallace of Nebraska, that Shakespeare during his residence in London lived for at least six years (1598-1604) at the house of Christopher Mountjoy, a refugee French Huguenot, who maintained close relations with the French Protestant Church in London (Harper's Magazine, March, 1910, pp. 489-510). Taking these facts in connection with the loose morality of the Sonnets, of Venus and Adonis, etc. and of passages in the play, not to speak of sundry vague hints preserved by tradition of the poet's rather dissolute morals, the conclusion seems certain that, even if Shakespeare's sympathies were with the Catholics, he made little or no attempt to live up to his convictions. For such a man it is intrinsically possible and even likely that, finding himself face to face with death, he may have profited by the happy incident of the presence of some priest in Stratford to be reconciled with the Church before the end came. Thus Archdeacon Davies's statement that "he dyed a Papyst" is by no means incredible, but it would obviously be foolish to build too much upon an unverifiable tradition of this kind. The point must remain forever uncertain.
As regards the internal evidence of the plays and poems, no fair appreciation of the arguments advanced by Simpson, Bowden, and others can ignore the strong leaven of Catholic feeling conspicuous in the works as a whole. Detailed discussion would be impossible here. The question is complicated by the doubt whether certain more Protestant passages have any right to be regarded as the authentic work of Shakespeare. For example, there is a general consensus of opinion that the greater part of the fifth act of "Henry VIII" is not his. Similarly in "King John" any hasty references drawn from the anti-papal tone of certain speeches must be discounted by a comparison between the impression left by the finished play as it came from the hands of the dramatist and the virulent prejudice manifest in the older drama of "The Troublesome Reign of King John", which Shakespeare transformed. On the other hand the type of such characters as Friar Lawrence or of the friar in "Much Ado About Nothing", of Henry V, of Katherine of Aragon, and of others, as well as the whole ethos of "Measure for Measure", with numberless casual allusions, all speak eloquently for the Catholic tone of the poet's mind (see, for example, the references to purgatory and the last sacraments in "Hamlet", Act I, sc. 5).
Neither can any serious arguments to show that Shakespeare knew nothing of Catholicism be drawn from the fact that in "Romeo and Juliet" he speaks of "evening Mass". Simpson and others have quoted examples of the practice of occasionally saying Mass in the afternoon, one of the places where this was wont to happen being curiously enough Verona itself, the scene of the play. The real difficulty against Simpson's thesis comes rather from the doubt whether Shakespeare was not infected with the atheism, which, as we know from the testimony of writers as opposite in spirit as Thomas Nashe and Father Persons, was rampant in the more cultured society of the Elizabethan age. Such a doubting or sceptical attitude of mind, as multitudes of examples prove in our own day, is by no means inconsistent with a true appreciation of the beauty of Catholicism, and even apart from this it would surely not be surprising that such a man as Shakespeare should think sympathetically and even tenderly of the creed in which his father and mother had been brought up, a creed to which they probably adhered at least in their hearts. The fact in any case remains that the number of Shakespearean utterances expressive of a fundamental doubt in the Divine economy of the world seems to go beyond the requirements of his dramatic purpose and these are constantly put into the mouths of characters with whom the poet is evidently in sympathy. A conspicuous example is the speech of Prospero in "The Tempest", probably the latest of the plays, ending with the words:
"We are such Stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep".
Whether the true Shakespeare speaks here no one can ever tell, but even if it were so, such moods pass and are not irreconcilable with faith in God when the soul is thrown back upon herself by the near advent of suffering or death. A well-known example is afforded by the case of Littré.
The most serious and original contribution made from a Catholic point of view to the question of Shakespeare's religious opinions is by Richard Simpson in The Rambler (July, 1854 and March, April, and May, 1858). A volume rounded on the materials printed and manuscript accumulated by Simpson was afterwards published by Father H.S. Bowden, The Religion of Shakespeare (London, 1899). In the present writer's judgment, the evidence in favour of the poet's Catholicity is unduly pressed by both of these investigators and the difficulties too lightly dismissed, but on the other hand Simpson's thesis certainly deserves more careful examination than it has usually received, even from the few who have noticed his arguments, for example from Canon Beeching in vol. X of the Stratford Town edition of the Works of Shakespeare. (Stratford, 1907).
See also: Lilly, Studies in Religion and Literature (London, 1904), 1-30: Collins, Studies in Shakespeare (London, 1904); Gildea in Amer. Cath. Quart. Rev. (Philadelphia, 1900); Baumgartner in Kirchenlexikon (Freiburg, 1899); Hager, Die Grosse Shakespeares (Freiburg, 1878), Spanier, Der Papistö Shakespeare in Hamlet (Trier, 1890); Raich, Shakespeareæs Stellung zur kat. Kirche (Mainz, 1884); Carter, Shakespeare Puritan and Recusant (Edinburgh, 1897); Downing, God in Shakespeare (London, 1901); Holland, Shakespeareæs Unbelief (Boston, 1884) Irwin, Shakespeare's Religious Belief in Overland Monthly (San Francisco, Aug. and Sept., 1875); Pope, Shakespeare the Great Dramatic Demonstrator of Catholic Faith (Washington, 1902); Robertson, Religion of Shakespeare (London, 1877); Schuler, Shakespeareæs Confession in Katholische Flugschriften (No 134); Wilkes, Shakespeare from an American Point of View (New York, 1877): Countermine, The Religious Belief of Shakespeare (New York, 1906), a booklet of no value; Rio, William Shakespeare (Paris, 1864); Mahon in Edinburgh Review (Jan. 1866); Thurston in Month (May, 1882; Nov., 1911); Boswin, The Religion of Shakespeare (Trichinopoly, 1899); Roffe, Real Religion of Shakespeare (London, 1872).
APA citation. (1912). The Religion of Shakespeare. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13748c.htm
MLA citation. "The Religion of Shakespeare." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13748c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Nicolette Ormsbee.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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