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Was Shakespeare a closet Catholic?

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was an enigmatic writer. But was he secretly keeping the Catholic faith in Elizabethan England? Author David Kastan provides a review of the evidence that should be the first port of call for anyone interested in the subject.

A Will to Believe by David Kastan (OUP Oxford)

- Review by Andrew Hadfield, The Irish Times

Shakespeare's confessional allegiance has been investigated with ever increasing vigour in the past two decades. There are now sophisticated ways to explore and compare early modern texts that promise to tell us more about what people thought, believed and shared.

As David Kastan points out in his pithy, elegant and eminently sensible overview, the question of Shakespeare's possible Catholicism was raised so frequently in the popular press that it managed to quieten speculation that the man from Stratford was really the earl of Oxford.

But no definite conclusion has been reached.

When Shakespeare lamented the 'bare ruined choirs' of the destroyed monasteries in sonnet 73 he was not necessarily signalling his opposition to Henry VIII's brutal reforms or secretly recording his sympathy for the Catholic underground. Rather, he was expressing his dismay at the fracturing of late-medieval Christendom, a traumatic division that horrified Catholics and Protestants alike.

The Catholic taunt, 'Where was your Church before Luther?' hit at a deep-seated fear in Reformers that they were living in a brave new world in which there was no obvious traditional institution to guide them. The bull of 1570 declaring that Elizabeth I was a heretic and should be deposed by loyal Catholics dismayed many who had no desire to become Counter-Reformation terrorists and would have preferred to live in peace with their Protestant neighbours.

Shakespeare's plays are saturated in biblical imagery, but this tells us very little beyond the central role of the Bible. When Richard II compares his sufferings to those of Christ it shows that he is a deluded man with a weak understanding of his own religious identity, not that Shakespeare thought that kings were gods.

What of the evidence of personal belief, particularly the Borromeo testament found in Shakespeare's father's rafters, in which John Shakespeare declares his adherence to the 'Catholic, Roman, and Apostolic Church,' and acknowledges the divine role of the Virgin and prays for souls in Purgatory? It is not a straightforward forgery, as Victorians, certain of Shakespeare's identity as a true English patriotic Protestant, believed.

A Will to Believe is a substantial work by one of the major Shakespeareans of our time. 

Read full review: What kind of God did Shakespeare believe in? (The Irish Times)


Richard III faces fresh battle in UK court (SMH)

The era when just being Catholic was a crime (The Catholic Herald)

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