Shakespeare and … Catholicism

The perceived importance of Roman Catholicism to Shakespeare’s works has derived largely from the possibility that Shakespeare himself, or his family, had sympathies with the Catholic faith. This theory is of long standing: at the end of his notes on Shakespeare’s life (written between 1688 and 1708), the Gloucestershire vicar Reverend Richard Davies affirms “He died a papist.” This statement has encouraged the construction of biographical narratives that look again at Shakespeare’s family, account for his “lost years” between his Stratford-upon-Avon childhood and his acting career in London, and have suggested potential readings for several of his plays. In Samuel Schoenbaum’s words, “it marks the starting-point for a tortuous debate nourished by few facts and an abundance of inferences.”

John Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was born six years after Elizabeth came to the throne, and so at the historical moment when the “Elizabethan settlement” of a Protestant orthodoxy was being established. Throughout his life, Protestantism was England’s official religion, attendance at Church of England ceremonies was mandatory, and adherence to Roman Catholicism was penalized. In a string of high-profile cases, Catholic sympathizers were found of guilty of conspiracies against the queen’s life, and executed. Despite this, there is ample evidence of strong sympathy for the Roman Catholic church in many areas of England throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Among those who may have remained loyal to the Catholic church was Shakespeare’s father John. In 1592 he was listed as an obstinate recusant, that is, someone who did not attend church services – however, he was specifically identified as not attending “for feare of process for debt” (i.e. to avoid being served legal papers) rather than for doctrinal reasons. More compelling is a document that Stratford poet and historian John Jordan offered to The Gentleman’s Magazine in June 1784 that he boasted to be the “Spiritual Last Will and Testament” of John Shakespeare. It was, he claimed, found on 27 April 1757, by a master bricklayer named Joseph Moseley whie retiling the Shakespeare house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, then owned by Thomas Hart, a descendant of Shakespeare’s sister Joan. Between the rafters and the tiles, he found a document of six small leaves stitched together, which he passed to Jordan, who transcribed it into his notebook. The document was a “writing of protestation,” a declaration of faith in fourteen articles, following a model by St Charles Borromeo, the cardinal archbishop of Milan, and apparently disseminated to the Catholic faithful in England by Jesuit missionaries. In these articles, the testator identifies himself as “an unworthy member of the holy Catholic religion,” asks for extreme unction, appoints the Blessed Virgin Mary as his chief executrix, and asks for the (illegal) celebration of the Catholic mass by those who survive him.

The Gentleman’s Magazine declined to publish it, believing it spurious, and doubts have remained as to its authenticity to this day. Jordan’s account of its discovery, and his dealings with it, changed several times in the telling. By the time the original was sent to Edmond Malone in 1789, its first page was missing; the document has now disappeared completely, so its ink or paper watermark cannot be subjected to modern dating techniques. Most recently, even the standard account that Jesuits distributed these documents in the late sixteenth century as come under attack. Whatever the case, all this evidence relates only to John Shakespeare, but has been allowed to ground the case for his son’s possible Catholicism.

The lost years

Over the past decades, a great deal of attention has been paid to the possibility that Shakespeare spent his “lost years” as part of a Catholic circle. The seventeenth-century biographer John Aubrey noted that William Beeston, son of Christopher Beeston of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, told him that Shakespeare “had been in his younger yeares a Schoolmaster in the Countrey.” The most popular location for this vague “Countrey” is now Lancashire.

The case for the Lancashire connection centers on a will dated 3 August 1581 in which Alexander Hoghton of Lea Hall near Preston, Lancashire, named a “William Shakeshafte” as residing at Hoghton Tower. Hoghton asks for Sir Thomas Hesketh “to be frendlye unto Foke Gyllome & William Shakshafte nowe dwellynge with me & eyther to take theym unto his servyce and or els to helpe theym to some good mayster”. This sentence comes immediately after Hoghton makes arrangements for his brother Thomas Hoghton, that “all my instrumentes belonginge to mewsyckes, & all maner of playe clothes yf he be mynded to keppe & doe keppe players,” suggesting that “Shakshafte” may have a link to players. If, however, Thomas Hoghton “wyll not and keppe & mayntene players” then Hesketh “shall have the same instrumentes & playe clothes.” Sir Thomas Hesketh was twice arrested as a disaffected papist in 1581 and 1584; he is also known to have patronized an acting troupe. The “good mayster” that Hesketh is encouraged to “helpe” the servants to is thought to be Henry, 4th earl of Derby (1532-1593), or his son, Ferdinando Lord Strange (c.1559-1594), and indeed “Sir Thomas Hesketh plaiers” are recorded in the earl of Derby’s household book for 1587. What ths theory provides is a plausible trajectory for Shakespeare’s eventual move to London, since we know that Lord Strange’s Men acted in some of Shakespeare’s early plays–the sequence would then have Shakespeare moving from Hoghton to Hesketh or Derby to Strange’s Men.

Other links between Shakespeare and Lancashire’s Catholic circles have been noted. John Cottom, a Catholic schoolmaster in Stratford from 1579 to 1581, was a neighbor of the Hoghton family; his younger brother was a Catholic priest who was executed alongside Edmund Campion. Thomas Savage, a trustee for Shakespeare and his colleagues when they bought the Globe in 1599, came from the Lancashire village of Rufford. In 1599, John Weever included a sonnet dedicated “Ad Gulielmum Shakespeare” (in Shakespeare’s distinctive sonnet style) in his Epigrammes, which he dedicated to Sir Richard Hoghton, Alexander Hoghton’s nephew and successor. All these facts, it is suggested, link Shakespeare with a very particular region in Lancashire between Hoghton Tower and Knowsley, the seat of the earls of Derby.

Against this Lancaster theory, skeptical scholars have noted that “Shakeshafte” was a common name in the Preston area, and that no known variant on Shakespeare’s name approximates to “Shakeshafte;” and that the bequest made to Shakeshafte suggests an older or more valued servant than Shakespeare would have been at seventeen, recently entered into Hoghton’s service.

If Lancashire seems unlikely, then there are also possible Catholic acquaintances closer to home. In Henry VI Part Three, as the earl of Warwick receives news reports while defending the walls of Coventry, he asks one messenger, “Say Somervile, what says my loving son?” (5.1.7). Somervile–a name that does not occur in Shakespeare’s sources–was a Warwickshire surname that was in the 1580s newly infamous through the recusant Catholic and alleged traitor John Somerville, who had been found dead in his Newgate cell while awaiting trial for treason in 1583. Could it be possible that the reference is a fleeting criticism of the fate of John Somerville?

The Evidence of the Plays

Whereas Christopher Marlowe [ed.] physically attacks and humiliates Catholic priests and even the pope in his plays, Shakespeare generally shies away from such displays of partisan religion. In the drama set in pre-Reformation England, little is made directly of the characters’ religion. The one play that depends on a Catholic setting–the Vienna of Measure for Measure, with its convent life and confessor-duke–refuses to laud or condemn any of its Catholic elements, as warring critical interpretations continue to testify. Malvolio is glancingly identified as “a kind of puritan” (2.3.140) in Twelfth Night, but Maria clarifies that he is really nothing but a “time-server” (2.3.148): her complaint is not doctrinal. Even in the play that deals specifically with the English Reformation, Henry VIII or All is True, both Catholic and Protestant figures are depicted as spanning the range of human strength and frailties.

The one real site of contention comes in Shakespeare’s depiction of Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, executed during the reign of Henry V and adopted by Henrician Reformers as a proto-Protestant martyr. It has long been known that the chararcter we know as Sir John Falstaff was originally called Oldcastle, but Shakespeare changed the name, possibly to avoid the displeasure of the present Lord Cobham, William Brooke, the Lord Chamberlain. Contemporaries knew Shakespeare’s Falstaff to be Oldcastle, however, and not all were happy to see the Protestant hero travestied as a “pampered glutton” as the authors of the 1599 play Sir John Oldcastle put it. In 1611, the historian John Speed attacked a recent comment by Father Robert Persons (writing as N.D.), that painted Oldcastle as “a Ruffian, a Rober, and a Rebell” and mocked that “his authority [was] taken from the Stage-plaiers.” If we assume that he was referring to Shakespeare’s plays, then the comment that follows throws interesting light on Shakespeare: “his slanderous report being only grounded from this Papist and his Poet, of the like conscience for lies, the one euer faining, and the other euer falsifying the truth.”

While Speed is here clearly critical of Shakespeare (if indeed Shakespeare it is), and links his “faining” to that of Persons, it must be said that he does not identify Shakespeare as a “papist.” Still, as Gary Taylor argues, “the possibility that Shakespeare deliberately lampooned Oldcastle can hardly be denied.”

More nuanced readings have been led by Stephen Greenblatt’s analysis of the role of residual ritual Catholic elements in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. Most particularly, he has tracked the persistence of ideas of purgatory – abandoned by the Church of England, but still very much in evidence in Hamlet, where Hamlet’s father claims he is “Doom’d for a certain time to walk the night, | And for the day confin’d to fast in fires, | Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature | Are burnt and purg’d away” (1.5.10-13).

More controversially, Shakespeare has been openly identified as not simply a Catholic sympathizer, but an apologist and even activist. Scholars such as Peter Milward and Richard Wilson have identified “secret” Catholic subtexts in his plays. In a popular book, Clare Asquith has argued that Shakespeare deliberately wrote into his plays his “hidden politics and coded politics” in a Catholic (and especially Jesuit) allegory in which, for example, “dark” stood for the “the ‘dark’ new religion, associated with black print and sober dress” and while “fair” was a “coded attribute on Catholicism, taken from the stress placed by Catholics on outward beauty.” Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel forwards perhaps the most strenuously active Catholic Shakespeare: she presents him as being sent abroad to be trained at the English College at Rheims using a variety of aliases; and sees the 1613 purchase of the Blackfrairs Gatehouse as an arrangement by the Catholic underground, to benefit priests and sympathizers.

As literary critics pay increasing attention to the once neglected world of English Catholics under Protestantism, we can expect the debate to continue.


Dutton, Richard, Alison Findlay and Richard Wilson eds, Region, religion and patronage: Lancastrian Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Dutton, Richard, Alison Findlay and Richard Wilson eds. Theatre and religion : Lancastrian Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Honigmann, E.A.J. Shakespeare the “lost years”. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985; 2nd edition, 1998.

Schoenbaum, S. Shakespeare’s Lives, new edn. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Milward, Peter. The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays. Tokyo: Renaissance Institute, Sophia University, 1997.

Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare: studies in theatre, religion, and resistance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: