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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/The Religion of Shakespeare
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Celestino Sfondrati Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 13
The Religion of Shakespeare
by Herbert Thurston Shamanism
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 "recusant
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 "even
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
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 Littr.
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 =93Papist Shakespeare in
Hamlet (Trier, 1890); Raich, Shakespeares Stellung zur kat. Kirche (Mainz, 1884);
Carter, Shakespeare Puritan and Recusant (Edinburgh, 1897); Downing, God in
Shakespeare (London, 1901); Holland, Shakespeares 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 (Wash
1902); Robertson, Religion of Shakespeare (London, 1877); Schuler, Shakespeares
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 (P
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).
Herbert Thurston.
Celestino SfondratiShamanism
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