Was Shakespeare Roman Catholic?

For several years, Shakespeare scholars have speculated on whether William Shakespeare had been a closeted Catholic. The Rev. David Beauregard, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches Shakespeare at the seminary of St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine in Boston, has published a new book, Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays“, that makes the case that Shakespeare was indeed Catholic:

“My case isn’t based on documentary evidence,” Beauregard acknowledged in a recent interview. Religion back then was a matter of don’t ask don’t tell. The Church of England was the state denomination; what devout Catholics thought and did privately was their business, but Elizabeth I demanded public fealty to the church she headed and was prepared to punish, even brutalize dissidents. In 1581, she made a martyr out of Jesuit priest Edmund Campion.

Biographical detail of any kind about Shakespeare is scant, but a now-lost Catholic document found in the 18th century suggested that Shakespeare’s father, John, was a loyal Catholic, and an Anglican clergyman, the 17th-century cleric Richard Davies, wrote that the great playwright “died a Papist.”

With Shakespeare’s life shrouded in murkiness, scholars must probe the sprawling thicket of his writing for evidence of his religious views. A chat with Beauregard to sample a few bits of his research is to beam back to high school or college English classes.

He’ll remind you that in “Hamlet,” the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father tells his son that he is in purgatory, a Catholic concept. Or that an earlier play, “King John,” portrays its titular character, who feuded with the pope and, said Beauregard, was a hero to Protestants, as an evil tyrant who dies violently. True, there are antipapal lines in the play, one of several examples in Shakespearean works in which he mocks Catholic figures. But Beauregard said the diatribes are in keeping with John’s character, as a rebel against Rome.

Isabella, a novice nun in “Measure for Measure,” is a model of virtue, a break with Protestant dramatists who depicted Catholic religious as sinners, said Beauregard. (It’s telling, he adds, that Shakespeare made Isabella a novice; an earlier play on which “Measure for Measure” was partly based portrayed Isabella as a secular woman.) In “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Helena cures the sick king, attributing her success to “inspired merit” – “a very Catholic phrase,” Beauregard said.

Not every scholar is persuaded:

They don’t convince Stephen Greenblatt, professor of Renaissance literature at Harvard, a Shakespeare scholar, and an author of several books on the Bard. In an e-mail, Greenblatt notes Shakespeare’s family and its Catholic ties, but said: “I think throughout his life, he drew upon this experience of the outlawed faith. He was, in this and in other ways, a specialist at recycling damaged or discarded institutional goods. But I do not myself believe that the adult Shakespeare was a pious Catholic or Protestant.”

Read it all here.

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