Shakespeare and the Catholic question
by Glen Cascino
Some Washington area subscribers told me of your existence and suggested I enter the Shakespeare debate, on the somewhat groundless theory that I am knowledgeable in the “Identity of Shakespeare” debates. Maybe I am a johnny-come-lately here, but the standard Oxfordian/Stratfordian angle doesn’t often factor in an alternative thesis that may satisfy the points of both parties and may be of special interest to your readers—The “Shakespeare was Catholic” argument.
Since I am borrowing heavily from the scholars in this field, I might as well name them—John Henry DeGroot,” The Shakespeares and the Old Faith,” Ian Wilson, “Shakespeare: The Evidence,” E.A.G. Honigmann, “Shakespeare: The Lost Years,” and Peter Milward, S.J, “Was Shakespeare Catholic?” The general thesis is that William Shakespeare (of Stratford) had a rather large number of connections to the Catholic Recusants of the Elizabethan period (including his father and his daughter.) He himself may well have been a practicing Catholic for all or part of his life. His father’s Catholicism is evidenced by an unmistakably Catholic will found secreted in the ancestral home in the 18th century and the succession of Elizabethan Stratford schoolmasters who had Catholic sympathies might be indicative of his own formation as a youth. Many believe that Shakespeare disappeared from Stratford society only to “reappear,” however briefly, in Lancashire, where he was associated with a noble family running what amounted to a clandestine seminary for the Jesuits. From there, he became enamored of the theatre, got cold feet about a vocation, and eventually made his way to London. The rest is, as they say, “history.”
Clearly, if Shakespeare was a Catholic, he in effect would have had to hide that fact. Even if he evolved into a “church Catholic” (i.e., outwardly conformed) he would still have had plenty of reason in Elizabethan England to lie low. Perhaps this explains the paucity of evidence (i.e., the lack of a paper trail) about him, and the strangeness of the evidence that does exist (the cryptic memorial in Stratford church, the vague will, etc.) Why call extra attention to yourself when you were already writing plays referencing purgatory as if this was an every day occurrence?
I write without benefit of reading either Charlton Ogburn or Joe Sobran, though I am acquainted with their basic points. While there are some striking connections between Oxford’s life story and elements of Shakespeare’s plays, I have often wondered why this constitutes “evidence” of his authorship. Could not Shakespeare of Stratford have been party to court gossip in which details pertaining to Oxford were well known? Oxford’s life does indeed sound like excellent material for a play or two; this does not mean he wrote them. For all I know, Oxford and Shakespeare knew each other and might have collaborated with each other to the degree allowed by their respective stations. The fact that we don’t have a piece of paper showing this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
I will not go into the detail of the Catholic allusions in Shakespeare’s plays, which were rather remarkable for their time. I will not go into his ownership of a “mass house” in central London or the fact that Catholics may frequently have authored two wills, one “official” and one unofficial in which their true wishes were known. I will also not dwell on the fact that the Stratford grammar school provided more than enough classical training for a budding natural genius, which we may safely assume young Shakespeare to have been. But I do argue here that there is ample evidence to see Shakespeare of Stratford in this light in hopes of buttressing his claims against the Oxfordians. Shakespeare was not a rudely-educated country bumpkin, but the well-off son of a respected merchant who was educated far beyond the norm of his time. He lived during the time of the Counter-reformation in a region notoriously conservative regarding matters religious. You do the math.
As a parting point, I would also caution readers from the 21st century against evaluating 16th century people by our own standards. Late Medievals did not particularly think it important to scribble down autobiographical notes about themselves for posterity. Even if they did, the fact is that very few of those writings would have survived into the modern era. Fires happen, documents fall into ruin, things get lost and people wishing to avoid being hung, drawn and quartered don’t advertise themselves. While this may disappoint modern day detectives, it is a fact that every honest historian will admit. Let the “paucity” of evidence about Shakespeare stand and let his genius be recognized for just what it was: a unique gift of God.