Was Shakespeare Catholic?

Happy Birthday to William Shakespeare, as today, April 23, is the day when the birthday of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon is recognized and celebrated (we don’t know for sure, but Shakespeare’s baptism is recorded in the Parish Register at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564). Shakespeare, the oft lauded greatest writer of the English language, in some ways like Jesus, often becomes a blank canvas upon which many theorists end up painting a self-portrait. But is there any credence to the idea that Shakespeare might have been secretly Catholic in an age of Catholic persecution in England?

The Vatican Post Office celebrated the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare with a stamp featuring art work by Czech artist Marina Richterova. (Source: Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office)

This article goes through many of the common points of “proof” that the Bard was a papist including the thesis of Shakespeare scholar Claire Asquith

“Catholic idioms and images are present throughout his work, in a forgotten world of saints and holy places. It seems we’ve been deaf to this and missed much of Shakespeare’s subtlety as a result.”

The Catholic encyclopedia is skeptical on the question:

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”. … 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. [emphasis added] … 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.

Writer Joseph Pearce, however, is pretty convinced and when asked for evidence he said:

I’d point to his purchasing of the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London in 1612, just before he retires and goes back to Stratford-Upon-Avon. This was a notorious center for recusant Catholic activity in London. [The gatehouse] had remained in Catholic hands from the dissolution of the monasteries to Shakespeare’s purchase of it 80 years later, and Shakespeare insisted that John Robinson—whose brother had left that same year to study for the priesthood at the English College in Rome—should remain as the tenant, indicating that the house would continue to be used as a center of Catholic recusant activity. There can be no real denying that Shakespeare purchased the house to remain in Catholic hands and indeed his own hands, which were Catholic.

But I think the jury is certainly still out. In this review of A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion by David Scott Kastan, the reviewer comes back to where we began:

the old cliche is true: Shakespeare was an enigmatic and ambiguous writer. His works provide as little encouragement for those eager to see him as a committed Protestant as they do for those eager to seem him as a committed Catholic.

but also gives us Kastan’s own conclusions that

Shakespeare was probably a “Parish Anglican”, a tolerant, largely habitual Christian, who recognised the “communal values of village harmony and worship and objected to the divisiveness of the godly”,

Regardless, let us raise a toast to this wonderful man made in the image and likeness of God and wish him a happy birthday and pray for his soul Requiescat in Pace or perhaps more appropriately may “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Published by Catholic Campus Ministry Asheville

A ministry of the Diocese of Charlotte, serving the Catholic communities at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College, Mars Hill University, Warren Wilson College, and UNC-Asheville.