The Quest for Shakespeare: the Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome
© 2008 Joseph Pearce
Although April 23rd is, historically, the feast of England’s patron saint George, it is also the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. 2016 marks the 400th year since England’s most famous author went to his grave, and in way of honoring him I read Joseph Pearce’s The Quest for Shakespeare. I’ve heard Pearce speak on Shakespeare before, rebutting arguments that other personalities wrote the plays and that Shakespeare is just given credit for them, like Homer. I’d assume Quest would follow the same tack, which it does in its introductory chapter, but the real heart of Quest is Pearce’s case for Shakespeare being Catholic. Although there’s no direct evidence, Pearce argues that the Bard’s loyalties can be inferred from various connections and relationships.
Shakespeare’s religion isn’t just interesting trivia: he lived in the age of Elizabeth, when Henry VIII’s divorce from Rome was visiting the land with terror and blood. As covered in Come Rack! Come Rope! and Faith and Treason, those who did not attend Anglican services were fined heavily, and Catholic priests were brutally executed. After the Pope’s bull declaring Elizabeth an unlawful monarch, Catholicism had the same ring as treason. Shakespeare’s father and daughter were both listed and fined as ‘recusants’, establishing the Shakespeare family as Catholic, if not William himself. His close associations with other Catholics, like a hanged Jesuit priest named Southwell, and the Arden family who were damned in the Somerset plot, throw a Roman light on him, as does his purchase and maintenance of a house used for hiding priests and performing illegal Masses. That last was compelling for me, especially when combined with the fact that he went out of his way to engage a crypto-Catholic priest to perform his wedding ceremony.
Pearce’s underlying argument is that Shakespeare is not some empty vessel to be filled with the values of his critics, but a man in his own flesh whose values shaped his work. He writes that if Shakespeare were Catholic, this would give the plays a certain moral tone, and closes the book with two appending sections which offer a guide to the moral interpretation of Shakespeare, and an example of it in “King Lear”. Though Pearce flirts with seeing his own desires in Shakespeare himself, he errs on the side of caution more often than not. He does have a marked enthusiasm for the central idea, at one point speculating that the lack of information about Shakespeare’s early life in London might indicate that he was living a quiet moral life free of scandal. Well, perhaps, but presumably Anglicans are just as capable of living quiet, moral lives free of scandal. Even if there were an overt Christian theme in the plays, that wouldn’t necessitate an overt Catholic theme. At best in “King Lear” there are characters complaining about the times they lived in, but if someone isn’t complaining you’re not in the real world, you’re in the first version of the Matrix, the one that failed because no one believed in it.
Although too little is known about Shakespeare’s life to declare his beliefs or politics with surety — and interpreting plays is tricky, as anyone can read anything into them — the amount of connections suggests that even if Shakespeare wasn’t an observant Catholic himself, his sense of drama and justice would be influenced by the spectre of his friends being persecuted and even killed by the court…and that is an aspect wholly missed by every teacher on Shakespeare I’ve ever had.