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Was Shakespeare Catholic?

By Velma Bourgeois Richmond
Continuum, 242 pages, Hardcover, $34.50


The author says in her introduction that the dominant emphasis in Shakespeare studies in recent decades has been on feminism, performance and new historicism. I don’t dispute this, nor do I take issue with her pursuit of the religious convictions and practices of William Shakespeare -- in fact, it is fascinating. But her probe into his identity might have opened one more door. I’ll return to this.

When Velma Bourgeois Richmond went looking for Shakespeare, she found, if not a closet Catholic, at least a writer with a Catholic “habit of mind.” To put this into some context, England had been in the throes of religious upheaval since the early 1500s when Henry VIII broke with Rome over his divorce and remarriage. Catholics were a persecuted sect sandwiching a five-year period when they were the persecutors under Henry’s oldest child, daughter Mary Tudor, familiarly known as “Bloody Mary.” Even under her successor, half-sister Elizabeth I, when religious fervor was somewhat more tepid, Catholics went underground and practiced their religion in secret for fear of reprisals, even death.

It is at this point that the investigation into William Shakespeare’s religious orientation begins to make sense. Quoting from a variety of sources -- historians, scholars, writers, philosophers -- from the period, she collects numerous testimonials supporting her assertion.

“Whether or not Shakespeare can be claimed as a Catholic writer, he was certainly not a Protestant one.”

“One point immediately stands clear: Shakespeare’s youthful sympathies were predominantly Roman Catholic: He would seem to have been educated in that faith.”

“ ... William Shakespeare ‘died a papist.’ ”

And the most poetic one: “Truth is forced to fly like a sacred white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other great masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth -- even though it be covertly and in snatches.”

It is in the covert and the snatches that Richmond begins to make a case for the Catholicism of Shakespeare’s family, including the fact that an Isabella Shakespeare, believed to be a relative, was prioress of Wroxhall Priory located just a few miles north of Stratford-on-Avon, and its sub-prioress, Joan Shakespeare, more certainly a relative, was executed for her faith. Shakespeare’s parents named two daughters Joan (the first one died), and in Measure for Measure, Will called his young nun Isabella.

Richmond notes that, “To have relatives who are nuns is a significant experience in a Catholic family. To have cousins who are executed and imprisoned for religious beliefs is not likely to be unnoticed.” She even hypothesizes that during the so-called “lost years,” Shakespeare might have been serving as a Catholic schoolmaster in a Catholic household far removed from London or might even have been a seminarian on the continent.

Richmond moves on to the actual plays and points out reference after reference to things Catholic. There are, of course, numerous characters who are priests or friars, references to the sacraments and various and sundry other Catholic practices, Measure for Measure, she concludes, is his “most overtly Catholic play.”

In yet another layer of argument, Richmond brings us to the Romance, a type of narrative popular in the Middle Ages and laced with Catholic themes. In some really interesting scholarship, she examines numerous plays, typically the comedies, as dramatic romances. By employing elements of the romance, she argues, Shakespeare would have been subtly revealing his religious proclivity to those astute enough to recognize it, most certainly his fellow writers and actors in the extraordinarily rich Catholic environment of the London stage where he worked for 25 years.

Being both Catholic and a bit of a Shakespeare nerd myself, I was drawn into her reasoning, deductions, inductions and interpretations and was pre-disposed to accede to most of them. Yet, sometimes I wondered if she were making too much out of too little. In other words, would Shakespeare have to have been a recusant Catholic to know and use certain Catholic symbols?

For example, how much credence does the fact that Shakespeare made much of matrimony, an institution no longer sacramentalized in Elizabethan England, deserve? Or that The Two Gentlemen of Verona deals with outlawry, that is, the condition of the church? Or how about the fact that The Tempest is about exile (again, think “the church”) on an island, “the way of entry [being] by water, which suggests Baptism as a sacrament of conversion.” These details may have been stretched beyond their usefulness.

In going to great lengths to establish a religious identity for Shakespeare, Richmond sifts and combs some tenuous minutia, yet virtually sidesteps one of the most salient aspects of the identity question.

Two schools of thought point to two completely different individuals as authors of these 40-some plays. The traditional view, the one Richmond espouses, holds that William Shakespeare, the glovemaker’s son, is the playwright. These are Stratfordians, and Richmond does acknowledge the dispute in one line that refers to some “early anti-Stratfordians.” The current anti-Stratfordians are known as Oxfordians and hold that “William Shakespeare” was either a pseudonym or a stand-in for the actual playwright, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

It is not a reviewer’s job or my intention to rewrite the book, but since we are in this business together of “looking for Shakespeare” and since Richmond did bring it up, after a fashion, it is curious, as I said, that she didn’t devote more than one throwaway line to a controversy that could be germane to her argument.

However, I found much that interested me and more evidence than not that “his patrons, like his parents and daughter and many friends and associates in the theater, link him to Catholicism.”

Judith Bromberg, a regular reviewer for NCR, teaches literature.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000