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Shakespeare's Religion

In 1559, five years before Shakespeare's birth, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement finally severed the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church after decades of uncertainty. In the ensuing years, extreme pressure was placed on England's Catholics to convert to the Protestant Church of England, and recusancy laws made Catholicism illegal. Some historians maintain that in Shakespeare's lifetime there was a substantial and widespread quiet resistance to the newly imposed faith. Some scholars, using both historical and literary evidence, have argued that Shakespeare was one of these recusants, but this cannot be proven absolutely.

There is evidence that members of Shakespeare's family were recusant Catholics. The strongest evidence is a tract professing secret Catholicism signed by John Shakespeare, father of the poet. The tract was found in the rafters of Shakespeare's birthplace in the 18th century, and was seen and described by the reputable scholar Edmond Malone. However, the tract has since been lost, and its authenticity cannot therefore be proven. John Shakespeare was also listed as one who did not attend church services, but this was "for feare of processe for Debtte", according to the commissioners, not because he was a recusant. Then again, avoiding creditors may have merely been a convenient pretext for a recusant's avoidance of the established church's services.

Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was a member of a conspicuous and determinedly Catholic family in Warwickshire. In 1606, William's daughter Susanna was listed as one of the residents of Stratford refusing to take Holy Communion, which may suggest Catholic sympathies.[30] Archdeacon Richard Davies, an 18th century Anglican cleric, allegedly wrote of Shakespeare: "He dyed a Papyst". Four of the six schoolmasters at the grammar school during Shakespeare's youth were Catholic sympathisers, and Simon Hunt, likely one of Shakespeare’s teachers, later became a Jesuit.

While none of this evidence proves Shakespeare's own Catholic sympathies, one historian, Clare Asquith, has claimed that those sympathies are detectable in his writing. Asquith claims that Shakespeare uses terms such as "high" when referring to Catholic characters and "low" when referring to Protestants (the terms refer to their altars) and "light" or "fair" to refer to Catholic and "dark" to refer to Protestant, a reference to certain clerical garbs. Asquith also detects in Shakespeare's work the use of a simple code used by the Jesuit underground in England which took the form of a mercantile terminology wherein priests were 'merchants' and souls were 'jewels', the people pursuing them were 'creditors', and the Tyburn gallows where the members of the underground died was called 'the place of much trading'. The Jesuit underground used this code so their correspondences looked like innocuous commercial letters, and Asquith claims that Shakespeare also used this code.

Needless to say, Shakespeare’s Catholicism is by no means universally accepted. The Catholic Encyclopedia questions not only his Catholicism, but whether "Shakespeare was not infected with the atheism, which... was rampant in the more cultured society of the Elizabethan age." Stephen Greenblatt, of Harvard, suspects Catholic sympathies of some kind or another in Shakespeare and his family but considers the writer to be a less than pious person with essentially worldly motives. An increasing number of scholars do look to matters biographical and evidence from Shakespeare’s work such as the placement of young Hamlet as a student at Wittenberg while old Hamlet’s ghost is in purgatory, the sympathetic view of religious life ("thrice blessed"), scholastic theology in The Phoenix and the Turtle, and sympathetic allusions to martyred English Jesuit St. Edmund Campion in Twelfth Night and many other matters as suggestive of a Catholic worldview. However, these may have been continuations of old literary conventions rather than determined Catholicism just as the Robin Hood ballads continued to have friars in them after the Reformation.

On the other hand, the Porter's speech in Macbeth has been read by some as a criticism of the equivocation of Father Henry Garnet after it became topical in 1606 due to his execution.


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