Was Shakespeare a Catholic?
Talk by Ed Matyjaszek to the IoW Catholic History Society.
The year is 1583. The day is October 25th. This, if our young and unfortunate protagonist had known, is an iconic day in English History, and given the subject of our talk, English Theatre too. Firstly, it is the date of the battle of Agincourt in 1415, that great but not unique victory of English arms against overwhelmingly superior odds.
“For he today that sheds his blood with me” King Harry is made to say
Shall be my brother: be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap, whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day”
Some of you may indeed remember the 1944 film of this play, Henry V, where Laurence Olivier spoke those words to lift the spirits of a nation at war. And it was the same Olivier who on this day, again, October 25th but now in 1976, 400 years from when the first commercial theatre in England was opened in Shoreditch, in 1576, and where Shakespeare we are told as a young apprentice held horses for the gentlemen who came to see the plays, stepped out onto the stage named after him and spoke words of thanks as part of the official opening of our own National Theatre.
Now John Somerville, for that is the name of our young man, may well have thought he would lift spirits too when he walked out that day in 1583. But it proved fatal to him.
There is an irony here for had he had known it, October 25th, as many of you will certainly remember, used to be the feast day of what are known in the Catholic Church as the 40 Martyrs – 40 of the men and women executed in the 16th & 17th centuries for upholding their understanding of the Christian faith. For John Somerville walked out that day declaring his intent to kill the tyrant that he felt was oppressing his people, his community, his country. Probably unbalanced of mind, he set out, publicly proclaiming the fact, to assassinate his most Sovereign Lady, Crowned Head of the Realm, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Elizabeth 1st.
He was clearly not bringing to mind that:
Not all the water in the rude rough sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.
For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown.
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel. Then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.
Well it was probably not the angels that apprehended our young man but their earthly judicial equivalents. His young wife Margaret was also taken. And the state machinery swung into operation to check and eliminate any of his family who might be implicated in the attempt or tainted by it. For 1583 was only 2 years after the very public death of Edmund Campion – numbered among those 40 martyrs just mentioned – who was the first of the missionaries of the disciplined Jesuit Order to arrive in England, as part of the deliberate policy of the exiles of Catholic England to sustain and support the faith that believed the papacy was, under God, the head of the church on earth, not their Sovereign Lady & Queen Elizabeth, nor her younger half-brother Edward nor her father Henry, both kings before her, all of whose claim to this governorship of the church these English Catholics could not, would not accept. Obstinate breed!
It was this non-acceptance that Elizabeth and her ministers had tried to overcome from the beginning of her reign in 1558. The hope was that Catholic belief and practice would just die out with the dying out of the priests and the places of worship and the forms of prayer and devotion that her legislation banned. As the thorough listings in the injunctions of 1559 spell it out, a year after she came to the throne, churchwardens were required in every parish to deliver inventories of “vestments and copes and other ornaments, plate books and especially of grails, couchers, legends, processionals, hymnals, manuals and suchlike.” As for these “monuments of superstition”, Commissioners were to search out “any that keep in their houses undefaced” such monuments and images “and do adore them, especially such as have been set up in churches, chapels, or oratories”.
All images, altars, holy-water stoups (were to be) removed and destroyed, especially representations of the Assumption of the Virgin and the like. Rosary beads, Latin primers, pictures, crucifixes, statues – all were to go.
“What must the King do now? Must he submit?
The King shall do it. Must he be deposed?
The King shall be contented. Must he lose
The name of King ? A God’s name, let it go.”
The angels did not help Richard very much then, either, facing the iron will and steel of the future Henry IV, father of the victor at Agincourt. Richard goes on, a lament that John Somerville might have found comforting.
“I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little, little grave…………….
Well, John Somerville might have found that comforting, but it would have done him no good, nor Richard if he had been living in 1583. For beads, carved saints, the pilgrimages that palmers went on were all now forbidden by law. Nor would these times have been much use to Henry V at the end of the battle of Agincourt when his victory was assured –
But with this acknowledgement; that God fought for us.
Captain Fluellen replies: Yes my conscience, he did us great good.
To which Henry says:
“Do we all holy rites:
Let there be sung Non Nobis and Te Deum,
The dead with charity enclosed with clay:
And then to Callice, and to England then
Where ne’er from France arrived more happy men.
They would not have been very happy coming back in 1583 if they had sung the Te Deum. Such hymns were now illegal. Books of Latin service had been banned.
And sentiments such as this, later, from The Winter’s Tale, would have received short shrift from the state’s investigators. .
“..but we came
To see the statue of our queen; your gallery
Have we pass’d through, not without much content
In many singularities, but we saw not
That which my daughter came to look upon,
The statue of her mother.”
The government was right of course. Just how dangerous these relics of the old faith were is shown in 1569 at the Northern Rising, the most serious popular rebellion against Elizabeth’s religious policy, for altar-stones and holy-water stoups were unearthed from burial, from quarries and places of concealment, and set up again in Durham Cathedral and parish churches as a focus of devotion, and of course resistance. The uprising was ruthlessly suppressed.
This was the situation in which John Somerville set out, clearly pent-up with rage, and absolved by the papal bull of 1570, that had excommunicated Elizabeth, from fealty to his Queen – a bull or pronouncement that it was treason to publish in England.
The government, even in this case of a clearly unstable young man, could not take a chance. Mary Queen of Scots, Catholic, and the cousin of Elizabeth and so in line to the English throne, and imprisoned in England since 1568, acted as a permanent focus of disaffected Catholic hopes. If the people should rise again, if the Spanish should come, if Mary should escape imprisonment – who might not rally to her side? After all only 25 years had passed since the country was catholic under Elizabeth’s older sister Mary; so many prisons were having to be built or places commandeered to house these obstinate recusants – from a Latin word to refuse – who would not, could not conform. Modern estimates of those imprisoned or fled into exile range from 30,000 to 50,000. The government had reason to be worried. Even finding enough prisons to house them was a major headache for the government. What a curious contemporary echo! And now with this new organised disciplined supply of seminarian priests, armed with the clarity and rigour from the council of Trent that had just finished its deliberations in 1563, the Catholic Church in England was clearly not going to lie down and die.
The government knew it could count on London and many towns, especially where the memory of Queen Mary’s – Bloody Mary’s – horrific burning of heretics had created for the Protestant Reform its own genuine and inspiring martyrology, as enshrined in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, commanded to be kept with the English Bible in parish churches; but it could not count on the country and its deep recesses of centuries of devotion; it could count on Cambridge but not Oxford, where Campion had dazzled only 15 years before the Queen herself with his eloquence; it could count on the Fen country but not the South West, or Cornwall, or Warwickshire or the Northern counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire; it could count on the merchants, funding the sea-trips that became the arteries of commerce and eventually of the empire; that made London the commercial capital and all of us the beneficiaries of its pre-eminence even today with the wealth that it brings; yes, the government could count on all this, but the nobles; the landowners; the great families with their wealth and estates? Yes, the government had reason to be worried; to be fearful; to be suspicious. The first words Sir Francis Drake spoke on his return from voyaging round the world in 1580 had been as to the Queen’s welfare: “Is the Queen well? Is she safe?” Her ministers would stop at nothing to protect and ensure her, and their, survival.
Can you blame them? Treason carried the most severe penalty.
As the Bishop of Carlisle said to the face of Bolingbroke in Richard II:
If you crown him, let me prophesy
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act.
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound.
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be called
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you rear this house against this house
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth!
So John Somerville alone was not enough. His family, his kin – who knew? Who helped? Who might harbour similar ambitions? He was married? What was her name? Her maiden name? Oh yes, we know them. So they came for one of the great families of Warwickshire, an area well known for harbouring recusants. Latimer, the reformer and earlier Bishop of Worcester had said that Stratford lay at the “blind end” of his diocese. As one of his colleagues said of Warwickshire “great Parishes and market towns are utterly destitute of God’s Word”. A later Bishop in 1577, John Whitgift, whom we will encounter again, complained that in the area around Stratford he could find no informers on recusants. It appeared this ungodly pocket would yield nothing to his investigations. He would undoubtedly have had no patience with the sentiment expressed by a later imaginary resident of the Forest nearby who was heard to say:
“If ever you have looked on better days,
If ever been where bells have knolled to church,
If ever sat at any good man’s feast,
If ever from your eyelids wiped a tear,
And know what ’tis to pity and be pitied,
Let gentleness my strong enforcement be”
Pity was a fine thing, but not to be shown to treasonous subjects. All should just obey the laws that enforced attendance at church. Now originally the fine for recusants had been 1 shilling every week. The wages of a craftsmen at that time were about 10p per day. But after the Campion debacle, and the arrival of the trained, organised seminarian priests, the first of whom to give his life, St Cuthbert Mayne, had preceded Campion, being executed at Launceston in Cornwall in 1577, the government had raised the stakes and enforced more rigorously the fine of £20. Failure to keep up payments would lead to confiscation of land. Ordinary men or women could hardly afford it.
But this way the great estates could be hit, that harboured these priests among their servants and tutors and labourers. In the years before the Armada of 1588 that was the climactic event of this whole period, it is estimated £ 45,000 had been raised from these fines. A colossal aid to the Treasury of the time amounting to many millions in today’s money.
But John Somerville had given the government carte blanche to take out such a family. So by his marriage to Margaret, he led the powers of the state straight to the Ardens of Warwickshire. John Arden, head of the family was taken; tried and hanged, cut down alive, his stomach ripped open, his entrails and heart torn out – the heart of a traitor the hangman would cry as he held it up for the watching public to see. This was the ferocious penalty, to be hung, drawn and quartered. His limbs were hacked into 4 and scattered, his bloody head stuck on a spike and left to rot at Southwark so that all who passed over London Bridge would see and take note of the fate of traitors, of Catholics. His wife was found guilty of treason but pardoned. Somerville hanged himself in Newgate, his head joining John Arden’s at London Bridge. The Arden family was quite simply decapitated.
We do not know if the government visited Stratford itself, the nearest town to the Arden lands, near where that impious traitor Campion had lodged during his progress through England 2 years before. We do not know how far the government extended its search into all the relatives and kith and kin of the Ardens. They were so many. Why, the forest in the area had the same name. The Forest of Arden. Even the trees were not above suspicion.
Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall we see
But winter and rough weather.
Well in 1583 the enemies were far more than that.
But we do not know if they came knocking at Henley Street in Stratford, where a respected glover, one time Bailiff, effectively Mayor of the town, called John Shakespeare lived, with his 8 children of whom 3 died in childhood, and his wife, Mary, Mary Arden of Wilmcote, of gentle birth. What we do know is that his son, William, 19 years old, just married the year before and with his first child Susanna, born in May of that year that was to be so fateful for her distant cousins, so probably still in her cot or cradle, “mewing and puking” no doubt in her mother’s arms; not yet along with the twins Judith & Hamnet born 2 years later in 1585, “whining” with satchel, “And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school”. There will be plenty of those in Ryde next week when term re-starts.
But what we do know is that their father, who wrote those words in one of his plays, As You Like It, that was set in that very Forest of Arden, also wrote in one of his early plays on English History, the history that he above all gave the words to celebrate, words that when in the mouth of such as Olivier could rouse and stiffen a nation to step “Once more unto the breach” as they did on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 “Once more, Or close up the wall with our English dead”, what we do know is that the same William Shakespeare gave to one of the minor roles of a gentleman of Warwickshire in the play we now know as Henry VI Part 3, the name of his distant kinsman by marriage, Sir John Somerville.
And so finally, by a long detour through his times and his beloved County of Warwickshire, through many quotes that may give a flavour of his knowledge, his detailed knowledge of the old faith, his willingness to refer – albeit in the context of plays – to things proscribed and banned by the government of the day, and with what evidence there is still to come, we arrive at the subject of tonight’s talk. In that riven, bitter, divided, and utterly glorious age of the emergence of England on the world stage, with her navies, her empire, her language, her soldiers and what has always been taken as her chief glory – the greatest dramatist, perhaps the greatest poet that has ever lived and written – was this same William Shakespeare a member of that hounded, persecuted and tortured community, the English Catholic Church? Did he remain one throughout his life? Did he “die a papist” as Richard Davies, Archdeacon of Coventry at the end of the 17th century reported, a zealous Anglican so with nothing to gain from relaying the report, that he may well have picked up from the family or in the area, as descendants of Shakespeare’s sister Joan lived until well into the 18th century in the family house in Henley Street even though his direct line died with his grand-daughter Elizabeth in 1670. And even more, was he an active and committed member of the recusant community? And is the ambiguity, the invisibility of the man not just an intriguing mystery but the very clue to his person and his plays, at one level – that he needed to obscure his tracks and cloud his intentions, lest he too end up with his head not carved in a bust in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford where you can see it to this day, and on the frontispiece of his 37 plays collected in the 1st folio of 1623, but stuck ignominiously and shamefully on the end of spike for all the world to see and deride?
That is what we will try and address tonight. And I will be honest at the outset – I will wear “my heart upon my sleeve”. There is no proof. There is evidence, abundant evidence – but all circumstantial, and often conflicting. There are documents, more than one might think. But nothing conclusive.
I was myself trained in law though I hope I have not become
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances”
though I must admit just after Christmas & New Year I feel more as if I am playing in the
“Last scene of all
In second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
No, I will be an advocate. I am going to be tonight prosecuting and defending. You are the judge and the jury. I will present my evidence and with Shylock say
“What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong” in presenting it.
But you may echo his opponent Portia and say to his plea of justice
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”
An echo perhaps of the proscribed doctrine of faith and good works, rather than justification by faith alone, the central tenet of the reformers Luther & Calvin?
Change justice to facts and documents, and for mercy engage your imaginations, and you have the balance of what has to be the full tale of Shakespeare’s religion, whatever it might be, between what the documents will tell us and what our imaginations, that his own words have so enriched, can fill in behind.
And I have sketched in the background to his times and place and family at such length, which I hope it has not “been tedious to go o’er” because it is crucial to understand what he grew up with both privately and in his times; and because this is solid evidence, though circumstantial, and so will allow I hope a balanced assessment.
Be not afeard. This night is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about thine ears, and sometimes voices
That if ye then had waked after long sleep
Will make you sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methinks will open and show riches
Ready to drop upon you, that when you wake
You’ll cry to dream again
But then that is a poem – mere words. Insubstantial. After all “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” Heard as soon as uttered and gone with the hearing. But look what words can do. To return to our modern parallel, when England under threat in 1940, alone in the world, found its heart and its voice:
“What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions…..” and when that battle was won, again against overwhelmingly superior odds, it was justly said
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”
We can hear an echo of the lines that preceded our earlier quote from Harry the King to his comrades at Agincourt:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
By words you can bind a nation in a common endeavour.
But then this itself echoes an earlier word that Shakespeare would have read at school, and after, and would have heard in the parish church every Sunday from the newly authorized English bibles:
Many are called; few are chosen.
The English language is an echo chamber of remembrance; and so much of its furnishings and decoration are from this man’s pen. So it does matter what he was, in so far as any sober assessment can gauge. For he is our national poet. And so can tell us what we are. And what our language, and our country is. But that is leaping ahead and we must not, like Macbeth at the point of fatal decision, look for one fact or document that
“Might be the be-all and the end-all here”
…upon this bank and shoal of time” and so
“..jump the tale to come”.
No, we must return to where he began, in the haunted, fearful, defiant Warwickshire of Shakespeare’s Catholic youth.
Yes, Catholic youth. That I would argue in my presentation of the evidence we can say, with some confidence.
Firstly, the facts in swift summary that are beyond dispute:
He was born in 1564 of John & Mary Shakespeare, their 3rd child. His older sister Joan
“while greasy Joan doth keel the pot?” the older sister would of course help in the house while the younger children crawled about the kitchen, looking up – that William never helps, such a dreamer! Greasy Joan indeed! Joan was born in 1558 so John & Mary would have married prior to that, and so in Mary’s reign. Parish records in Stratford did not start properly until 1558 so there is no record of their marriage. But what we do know is that John, born in 1530, and so brought up a catholic as all were then – two of his family had been nuns at nearby Wroxall – spelt as is our island Wroxall curiously enough – so it was quite a devout catholic family that bred vocations, John rose through municipal office during Mary’s reign, where no Protestant could hold any office much as became the case later with Elizabeth and Catholics – this is the tragedy of the whole period; whatever the faith, gentleness and patience suffered in this clash of inflexible belief systems – and eventually became an aldermen in 1565, and then bailiff, effectively Mayor of Stratford, from 1568 to 1571. It was the highest civic office in the town.
“Queen Mab! What’s she?
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman”
Is that, from Mercutio’s speech in Romeo & Juliet, an actual memory?
It’s a sweet thought and possible window into Shakespeare’s childhood.
John Shakespeare was also very successful as a glover, and Shakespeare, far from just, as an 18th century townsman had it, “warbling his native woodnotes wild” was the son of the most prominent Stratford citizen. He was indelibly middle class, and indeed on his mother’s side of gentle stock.
It is noticeable too that in marrying Ann Hathaway in 1582 at the age of 18 he was marrying another well-established Stratford family. Ann Hathaway’s “Cottage” is nothing of the kind. It is nearer a substantial farm house, with status in the area.
And Mary Arden of course was from a staunchly Catholic family. So Shakespeare could well have grown up in a household of the traditional faith, though again, looking at the evidence, with baptisms of all the children in the parish church, no records of recusancy or fines at this point, with John Shakespeare whitewashing the old images in the guild chapel as part of his official duties of eradicating all traces of the old faith, the picture is one of conformity. Though remember, baptism was and is valid under either rubric, so in itself not too troubling of conscience.
There is nothing so far to alter the accepted picture of Shakespeare growing up as Professor AL Rowse in his biography published in 1963 has it, as an “orthodox conforming member of the church into which he had been baptised, was brought up and married, in which his children were reared and in whose arms he at length was buried.”
This has been for centuries the conventional view, still current. That ever replete fount of wisdom, the Ladybird books, in a 1981 edition, state that his era was
“…….a bloody time. People were used to violence , bloodshed and death and this was reflected in the plays of the age particularly in Shakespeare’s great tragedies.”
This little book does not mention religion once. So Shakespeare reflects his age except for the one issue that dominates it? Possibly. And of course no play of Shakespeare deals directly with a religious matter. So. That settles it. Well, not exactly. No play was allowed by the authorities to deal with a religious matter, because it was so divisive a subject. The Massacre of Paris by Shakespeare’s contemporary and would be rival had he not died young in 1593, Christopher Marlowe, dealt with history in France. Marlowe’s play Dr Faustus was set in Germany. So the appearance of John Somerville as a native of Warwickshire in Henry VI is just coincidence? Quite possibly. After all, many of his characters have names of people in Warwickshire. Fluellen for instance, and Bardolph from the history plays are taken from William Fluellen and George Bardolph, both Stratford men. We know that because they are recorded in official lists. Curiously, the official lists they occur in are those that give the names of known Catholic recusants. Well, he had to pick someone. And there were still lots of Catholics around. You couldn’t walk down the High Street without bumping into some of them. Precisely. That proves nothing. Very true. It could all just be an endless series of coincidences. I can tell you now, we may grow tired of these “coincidences” before the night is out.
But a good summary of the standard view of Shakespeare is still to to be found, for instance in Bill Bryson’s biography published just last year. I quote:
“It is impossible to say how religious Shakespeare was or if he was at all. From what little is known, and whatever their private thoughts may have been, it is certainly the case from their marriages, christenings and so on that John Shakespeare and William gave every appearance of being dutiful if not necessarily pious Protestants.”
Not inaccurate, at this point. We would have to overlook the Warwickshire background, the antipathy of episcopal visitations for those ungodly country folk, these recusancy lists. But Bryson’s bland and somewhat dismissive statement does, as the years go on, start to fall apart.
For John Shakespeare’s ascent to Stratford’s Town Hall, had, in the late 1570s, started to go into reverse. This is what we know for certain.
In 1571 he finishes his term as Mayor, and is appointed High Alderman & Deputy Mayor. In 1572, he is down in Westminster to represent Stratford at the law courts. In 1575 he buys 2 houses in Stratford. And so on. Without doubt one of Stratford’s most publicly minded citizens. Then in 1577 he abruptly leaves the borough council, a finable offence. He had been on the council for 13 years. He only ever appears there once more before his death in 1601. That is 24 years of absence. He was excused the fines, and was still kept on the list of aldermen for 10 years.
It could have been illness, economic loss – he sold off a lot of his and his wife’s inherited lands in 1578. His fellow councillors put up with this benignly. Clearly no local animosity was felt. What had happened? Should he have borrowed his son’s words?
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least –
But he did keep his friends. It could not just have been debt. He stands surety for bail later on for a friend and in 1587 pays a £ 20 fine. And he was only 47. He lived another 24 years. It could hardly have been a case of
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon these boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang
A line that has always been taken as referring to the ruined monasteries after the Henrician dissolution of the 1530s after his break with Rome – but is that the clue perhaps? It could not have been that heinous as all his aldermanic brethren stood with him.
Remember Whitgift’s remark that no informers could be found in this gentle neck of the woods, Under the Greenwod Tree.
What had changed? Well, one thing we do know is that in 1576 a grand ecclesiastical commission was set up by the privy council to investigate the religious affairs of the nation. Remember , with the foundation of what became Douai seminary in 1568, and the first execution of a seminary priest Cuthbert Mayne in 1577, Catholic response to the legislation of uniformity had moved up a gear to put it mildly. And then in 1577 Whitgift became Bishop of Worcester – Stratford lay in its diocese. He made a religious visitation to Stratford in 1577. He would have needed the help of Stratford councillors.
Now John Shakespeare had whitewashed the old pictures in 1563 (though it was known this was easily reversible) in the town’s guild chapel. He was among men who later in 1592 were listed as staying away from church services, possibly the records say for fear of being arrested for debt. He was a known recusant therefore, probably long before the official listing of 1592. So far so good. And indeed the disposal of property in these years may be because of debt. Some argue his son William did not go to University because of financial problems. There is even a very recent theory that John sold the lands for petty cash to finance William’s education abroad – he would have finished at Stratford Grammar School if he did go there – it is likely but there were no records kept – at 14, in 1578, though boys could stay until 16. But if you inspect the property deals, many of them were deals with relatives, with reversion to John Shakespeare later. In other words, much as nowadays one would put a house in a wife’s name say, to sequester it from legal claims, as an asset in case a business went bust, John Shakespeare was disposing of his property with the right to reclaim it later. It was a recognised tactic of recusants. I am told French families did this also at the time of the French Revolution, for very much the same motives. Why, I have even read – perish the thought! – that political parties like to raise money as loans that they cannot receive in cash. Laundering the money is only a modern term – the practice is very old.
Was the urgency of this due to the increasingly heavy fines being levied for recusancy that could lead to impoverishment? Or was it debt? Or something else?
But then a discovery in the 18th century, since lost, of a document called a Spiritual Testament, links John Shakespeare directly to Edmund Campion’s visit to Warwickshire on his way to Lancashire in 1581. It was drawn up by Charles Borromeo Bishop of Milan, whom Campion is known to have visited on his way to England in 1580. It gives a testament as to intention and belief in fourteen articles amounting to a profession of the Roman Catholic faith, a “Last Will of the Soul, made in health for the Christian to secure himself from the temptation of the devil at the hour of death”.
Item IV: I, John Shakespeare, do protest that I will also pass out of this life, armed with the last sacrament of extreme unction: the which if through any let or hindrance I shall not be able to have, I do now also for that time demand and crave the same.”
It is a spiritual insurance policy in a way, making clear the intent of the bearer. Rather, in a more prosaic way, at the front of a diary such as this for instance, it might state “I am a Catholic; in case of illness or accident please call a priest”. A prosaic modern equivalent, but the same idea.
Item 1 acknowledged the possibility of being “cut off in the blossom of my sins”, so much a danger not just for plague, the original cause of its being issued, but if apprehended and then denied any access to the sacraments, as John Arden was.
It was very popular. Campion had to order 3 or 4000 more from Rome when the stock he carried from Milan ran out “for many persons desire to have them”.
The document was found in 1757 in the rafters of the family home in Henley Street, when Thomas Hart, a direct descendant of Joan Hart, William’s elder sister, was having the roof retiled. It was passed on to Edmund Malone, a Shakespeare scholar, who first thought it was original and published it in 1790 as an appendix to his edition of Shakespeare’s collected works. Then he thought it might be a forgery. The original has been lost so we have no chance of forensic tests using modern technology.
It would have been an utterly crucial document bearing on our subject. For it would have proved that Shakespeare, 17 when Campion passed through Warwickshire, staying at the house of one, Sir William Catesby, whose son Robert was one of the ring-leaders of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 – this part of Warwickshire, sir, seems honey-combed with sedition, does it not? – it would prove that Shakespeare was most emphatically brought up a catholic by his recusant father and Arden mother. This does not determine his own religion of course, but it makes very clear the circumstances of his upbringing and formation.
I must now wear my lawyer’s hat and ask as to this being a forgery – Cui bono? For whose good? Who profits from it? Though to counter Mercutio I hope this does not make me drum my “lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees”. But why forge it? And who? And what for? And why bother since it has hidden in the rafters and only discovered by workmen? A forgery is done for gain, for a reason. No money passed hands it appears when it was discovered. The head workman in 1757 a Joseph Moseley was attested to be “very honest, sober and industrious”. Of course Shakespeare relics were worth something. But , the house was still in the hands of Shakespeare’s family in 1757 when it was discovered, descendants of his sister? Of course without accompanying evidence as to its veracity, it is as one says in law “unsupported”.
But then in 1923 an Italian document with the same wording was found. And in 1966 – this is where the issue is not closed as discoveries keep being made, some of the most sensational in only the last few years as we will come to – an English Translation of Borromeo’s testament emerged, to corroborate John Shakespeare’s.
For whose benefit would a forgery be made? Who put it in the rafters? If it was meant to be hid, it certainly did its job as nobody knew it was there. After all it had lain undisturbed for 180 years. Family heirlooms are rarely left so long. And we are a long way off a Catholic document being of use to anyone. The penal laws were still in force, and Bishop Challoner was still having to say Mass in secret. The finger points at an antiquarian John Jordan, who passed it to Malone, but the workmen, Thomas Hart, a Stratford Aldermen had all seen it. Some of them must have been alive in 1790 when it was published by Malone. They could have cried foul if it was altered from what they had seen. And finally, if Jordan forged it I ask, members of the jury, where was his original? Did he dream it all up or did he have a copy of the testament from which he forged one by John Shakespeare? But it was not until 1923 that the Italian version emerged from the bowels of the British Museum, and 1966 that the English translation was found. To forge something you need an original. But Jordan was the 4th person to handle it. At that point, can you really forge something with so many prior witnesses?
On the balance of evidence, it is very hard to doubt its authenticity, though the document no longer survives. But if it is real, than the whole picture changes.
For John Shakespeare had made his choice. He was staying by the old faith. Also, recusancy incurred fines, loss of property. The previous catholic Mayor of Stratford, Clopton, had given up and gone abroad rather than abjure his faith. But a document linked to Campion, so connected with a priest, could bring the same penalty as overtook his wife’s kinsmen. Campion was arrested in 1581; all those in contact with him must have looked to anything that incriminated them. It would be shameful to destroy such a testament. One’s eternal fate may depend on it. So hide it, hide it, hide it. In fact it was so well hidden it was neither found nor its existence suspected for 180 years. On the balance of the facts, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I think we can convict John Shakespeare of catholic sympathies, nay more, of being an impious and ungodly consorter of priests and papistical prelates, and so to be condemned to be hung, drawn and quartered.
But 2 more things. And this is now William, not John. In 1596 Shakespeare – for his recusant father, off the town council for 20 years now – secured a coat of arms, applied for in 1568 and never pursued. It was granted. This is commonly known. What is less well known is that William also applied to the College of Heralds for the right to bear the arms of Arden impaled with their own. This was hardly a repudiation of his parents.
One of the most remarked on characteristics of Shakespeare is how he maintained and retained his Warwickshire connections throughout his life. He never bought a London property despite living and working there for 20 odd years, until he bought the gatehouse at Blackfriars near the end of his life. We will come to that purchase later. He finally bought the “big house” in town, New Place, in 1597.
He was by this time both successful in his writing career and well off. He continued to accumulate property and land in Stratford and the surrounds until the end of his life. He left a tidy estate. Scribbling verses in an impoverished garret was clearly not Shakespeare’s idea -or experience – of a writing career!
Well, that is as far as documents will take us, and I have gone into this at length for 2 reasons: firstly, it is the clearest tangible evidence of the faith of his family; and secondly also illustrates so well the confused, ambiguous trail of documents and surrounding evidence concerning Shakespeare, and how matters are still coming to light. You will have to stand by your google in the years ahead if you wish to keep up with this!
But I did say there were 2 more things. The Coat of Arms is the first. Here is the second.
In 1601 John Shakespeare died, at the ripe age for those times of over 70. He presumably had the standard burial, and there is no account of his dying a papist, as there is of his son. In 1603 a pirated edition of perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous play Hamlet, came out. It obviously had been performed before then, so presumably was written around 1601, 2, 3. Pirated editions of Henry V from which we have heard tonight came out in 1600 and Merry Wives of Windsor in 1602, a commission from the Queen herself we are told, as she wanted to see Shakespeare’s most famous creation to date, Sir John Falstaff, the “false father” to Prince Hal, “in love”.
Nay answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
Long live the King.
They are pacing the battlements at Elsinore – Has this thing appeared again tonight?
I have seen nothing.
Look, where it comes again.
In the same figure, like the King that’s dead.
Speak to it Horatio.
It was about to speak when the cock crew.
Then it started, like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard
The cock that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and still-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and at his warning,
Whether in sea, or fire, in earth, or air,
Th’extravagant, and erring spirit hies
To his confine; and of the truth herein
The present object makes probation.
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say, that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then (they say) no spirit can walk abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm:
So hallow’d and so gracious is that time.
Now this is odd stuff to write. Let me read out to you the 22nd of the 39 Articles of the Church of England, drawn up in 1571 when Shakespeare was 7 years old, from the Book of Common Prayer, still valid.
It is headed “Of Purgatory”
The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as of Images and Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.
The extravagant and erring spirit hies to his confine? Yes, but Shakespeare was writing about a time when this was valid. So it is correct in its context. True. So you can draw no conclusion from that. Fair enough.
Then Hamlet meets the Ghost, his father.
Angels and ministers of grace defend us. Tell
Why thy canoniz’d bones hearsed in death
Have burst their cerements, why the sepulchre
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurned
Hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again.
The Ghost finally speaks:
I am thy father’s spirit
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night ;
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away.
Are burn’t and purg’d away…………..
Then the tale of his murder – Murder most foul – by his brother unfolds.
Thus was I, sleeping by a brother’s hand,
Of Life, of crown, and Queen, at once dispatched;
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin….
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin
What a wonderful Shakespearean metaphor – to contrast blossom which is of life and goodness, with sin which is of pain and death. Typical of his poetry. That wonderful conjunction of the natural and the human. Except it is not his phrase. It comes from the Last Will, and Testament of John Shakespeare as delivered to him by that minister of grace, the late lamented martyr to our faith, Edmund Campion.
I will stop there; well I will stop the detailed examination there. Believe me, if we had time and you the ears I could keep you here all night and could
….a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood
Make thy two eyes like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotty and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
But we only have a certain time and cannot linger, even if we wished, until
..the morn in russet mantle clad
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.
I cannot deal tonight with the will of Alexander Houghton of Lancashire, who left £ 2 as an annuity to a William Shakeshafte, and commended him to Thomas Hesketh as worthy of employ at his family seat in Rufford nearby. Nor of the local legend that he lived at Hoghton – listen to this on an e-mail yesterday from a poetry colleague of mine with whom I have never discussed this but sent on a round robin e-mail the little flyer for this talk – “How I wish I could come to your Shakespeare evening. I grew up in Lancashire in a village called Hoghton and the local legend was that Shakespeare had spent some of his ‘missing years’ there, posing as a tutor to the De Hoghton family of Hoghton Tower, a wonderful old house that I visited often.” Nor how one of the trustees for the leashold on the Globe Theatre that Shakespeare’s company built and owned – 3000 could sit there for a performance, more than the population of Stratford itself which was only about 2000 in Shakespeare’s day – was called Thomas Savage, came from Rufford and was related to the Hesketh family. Nor of the acting company who are known to have performed early plays of Shakespeare, that of Lord Strange, a crypto-catholic; nor of how Shakespeare’s patron and dedicatee of his immensely popular narrative poems The Earl of Southampton was from a family noted for its staunch Catholicism.
Nor of how in 20 plus years of living in London, where it was obligatory to attend church, he only lodged and never lived, and no entry can be found in any parish record of his attendance; of how the only property he bought in London, the gatehouse of the old Blackfriars was later found to have passageways and was known to be a safe house for catholic priests hiding in London; nor how his enigmatic poem The Phoenix & The Turtle (turtle dove) has recently been identified as possibly about Anne Line and her husband, for he died after they lived in “married chastity” as the poem says, and she was executed for harbouring Catholic Priests in 1601 the same year the poem was written; nor how alone of all the poets of the time he never composed a eulogy for Gloriana, Elizabeth 1st, when she died in 1603; nor how his name never appeared in the list of actors after 1607 – he was only 43 – whn the repression following the failed Gunpoweder plot was tightening the state’s screws on all catholics; nor how his beloved daughter’s name appeared on the recusancy returns for Stratford in 1606 when this tightening took place and communion had to be received in the established church; nor how of the 4 schoolmasters at the Grammar School in his childhood and boyhood, 3 had catholic connections; one Simon Hunt left to train at Douai, the next Thomas Jenkyns had been taught by Edmund Campion in the latter’s Oxford days at St John’s College; the next one, John Cottam had a younger brother Thomas who was a Jesuit priest; one of Shakespeare’s classmates Robert Debdale, from Shottery where Ann Hathaway came from, left England to become a priest. Thomas Cottam accompanied Campion to Lancashire and may have been the link with there and Stratford. Both Cottam and Debdale were executed for their faith. Busy little school, wasn’t it? And who appointed all the schoolmasters? Why of course the worshipful aldermen of whom the head and mayor was – John Shakespeare. Need I go on? But I will. Recently, research by a German scholar from Mainz with the resounding name of Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel has found 3 perhaps 4 entries in the pilgrims register at the hospice of the English College in Rome for the years 1585, 1587 and 1589, part of Shakespeare’s “Lost Years”. The entry, in code reads Gulielmus Clerku Stratfordiensus. Shakespeare of course knew Latin. Ben Jonson tartly commented he had “little Latin and less Greek” but it is known that the level of Latin & Greek taught at Stratford Grammar School was of the kind that would have sent you flying into Oxford or Cambridge nowadays, probably with a scholarship.
She advances the astonishing theory in a book only just out in an English translation last year – this is how fast the whole field is moving – that John Shakespeare sold his lands in 1577-78 to fund William’s education abroad when he left school at 14; it is even speculated he was one of the young men earmarked by staunch catholic families for entry into the overseas seminary, hence his despatch to the remote catholic stronghold of Lancashire to the Hoghton family; the legend he was a schoolmaster in the country could be ancillary to this; note how in an early play Love Labour’s Lost a group of young witty men withdraw from the world to take vows of chastity – the comedy is how they do not keep the charms of the fair sex at bay – shades of Ann Hathaway?; Clare Asquith in her recent book Shadowplay makes perhaps an even more startling claim, backed up by an analysis of the coded language of the time that gave reference in writings to catholic ideas and sympathies, that he wrote plays specifically for the persecuted Catholic community; priests were known to hide as players in acting companies.
In 1611 one John Speed linked Shakespeare with Robert Persons, Campion’s Jesuit colleague on that mission of 1580 who eluded capture and was involved in the foundation of seminaries in Spain such as Valladolid, yoking them as that “petulant poet” and “malicious papist. Six of Shakespeare’s acquaintances suffered death for their faith. He never went to Oxford or Cambridge as might be expected of the intelligent gifted son of the most eminent citizen of Stratford, but then of course you had to take a religious oath – the same reason that drove John Donne away from there, brought up a catholic but finally conforming as Dean of St Paul’s in the next century. Nor have I dealt with his marriage to Ann Hathaway at Temple Grafton church, where the priest was an old one from Queen Mary’s reign, and so able to carry out the full nuptial Mass; nor of how Robert Southwell the poet and Jesuit Martyr dedicated a poem to my cousin W S – Shakespeare’s initials. Sotuhwell was The Earl of Southampton’s one time spiritual adviser. He was distantly related to the Arden family. The title “cousin” is valid. Nor how his daughter’s Susanna husband John, a Puritan Doctor, nevertheless had an entry in his note books of “treating a Catholic Priest” at Stratford. Who might have introduced the patient? It is known John Hall and Shakespeare travelled together, and clearly got on. But then Shakespeare was universally noted as being of a “gentle” disposition, a witty man, such good company. Nor how the family of Nicholas Lane in Stratford who leant money to John Shakespeare was a Catholic landowner. Nor of the recusant troop of actors who in Yorkshire about 1610 included Pericles and King Lear in the list of the plays they put on. Nor how Shakespeare bought New Place from the catholic William Underhill who was compelled to sell as a result of the vast sums of money spent on recusancy fines. Sharp dealing by our boy, or retention of a house in the faith? Did he lose his nerve seeing what happened to Campion and Southwell? Did he throw in the catholic towel, make his fortune and his name, out of filial piety get the coat of arms for his father, wench and drink in London – there is evidence in the sonnets and in anecdote – and then brought back to his senses by the love of his catholic daughter, her faith and shining love being reproduced in the magical, mesmeric characters of Marina, Miranda, Perdita of his final plays, and so on his deathbed being reconciled to his family’s faith and “dyed a papist?”
Yet against all that stands the simple single facts that Shakespeare was never listed as a recusant; never suffered from the authorities unlike so many playwrights – Marlowe was killed in a tavern with possible links to Elizabeth’s secret service, Kyd of Spanish Tragedy fame died a year after torture – not for religion but other acts. He was of course a favourite of Elizabeth who cast a blind eye on her favourites who could delight her in her beloved music and poetry – William Byrd a known catholic was one of her composers. She directly commissioned Shakespeare for The Merry Wives of Windsor. Perhaps nobody would move against him for fear of offending the Queen. But if we are looking at evidence, the title of this talk, records point to his father above all, and later to his daughter. No records, except by default, point to him.
I leave it to you judgement. You as judge and jury must decide for yourself.
A document or documents may yet emerge. In 1999 in Lancaster University over 160 scholars met to discuss this very issue. It is a very live one. As I said, keep that google entry Shakespeare a Catholic in your favourites list for who knows what yet may turn up.
At this point, the stomach of many English-speaking scholars indeed readers or listeners here will turn. Shakespeare a Catholic? Well, his father one? But….but that just cannot be. Catholics are….well….Catholics. Not really one of us.
In a way, whenever we consider Shakespeare and his religion, we are all looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
I don’t know how much my experience is similar to yours, but I did Shakespeare at school, had no view of what his religion was, pretty much would have thought as Professor Rowse did, or those lovely Ladybird books, fount of all wisdom. The issue never bothered me. I acted in Measure for Measure and Anthony & Cleopatra at college, devoured the sonnets, did wonder why in the later plays there always seem to be the redemptive love of a transcendent daughter, why so many plays had mysterious identities and what we would now call shape-shifting, noted the obsession with dynasties and succession and fathers and sons – Prince Hal and Henry IV and Falstaff, Hamlet and the Ghost, but above all thrilled to that English music that for many is the defining note of Shakespeare, and makes him the trumpet voice of our national glory:
This royal Throne of Kings, this scepter’d Isle,
This earth of Majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This Fortress built by nature for herself,
Against infection, and the hand of war:
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone, set in a silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier Lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this Realm, this England,
This Nurse, this teeming womb of Royal Kings,
Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds, as far from home,
For Christian service, and true Chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the World’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son.
Blessed Mary of course had long been identified with England as it had held a long claim to be her dowry – a place set apart, for her use alone.
It is known that at the battle of Agincourt, the actual battle cry that day was “Our Lady for her Dowry; St George and St Edward to our aid”. The famous “Cry, God for Harry England & St George” that Shakespeare gives the king is earlier, at Harfleur.
But somehow the idea of Shakespeare being Catholic was a bit peculiar. Vaguely unpatriotic and slightly embarrassing. As thought a triumphalist keenness wished to appropriate an English icon that was the property of all, reducing his universality to the small scale of a sect.
But we are looking through the wrong end of a telescope. For to be catholic still conveyed in our lifetimes – maybe still conveys and so gives rise to the irritation that many commentators feel at this question even being raised – something of the situation John Newman described in 1852 in his sermon The Second Spring, referring to the Catholics of his childhood, in the early 19th century.
“No longer the Catholic Church in the country; nay, no longer, I may say, a Catholic community, but a few adherents of the Old Religion, moving silently and sorrowfully about, as memorials of what had been…..Here a set of poor Irishmen, coming and going at harvest time, or a colony of them lodged in a miserable quarter of the vast metropolis. There, perhaps, an elderly person, seen walking in the streets, grave and solitary, and strange though noble in bearing, and said to be of a goodly family, and a “Roman Catholic”. An old-fashioned house of gloomy appearance closed in with high walls, with an iron gate, and yews, and the report attaching to it that “Roman Catholics” lived there; but who they were, and what they did, or what was meant by calling them Roman Catholics, no one could tell – though it had an unpleasant sound, and told of form and superstition.”
How successful Elizabeth and her ministers in the end turned out to be! But in Shakespeares’s time the reverse was the case. And it is very much the recent work of scholars such as Eamon Duffy in his great book The Stripping of the Altars published as recently as 1992, of more recent scholars such as Richard Wilson and Fr Peter Milward SJ , Clare Asquith and the German Hildegard already mentioned – all of whom I have drawn on – that can be summarised in this note in the Guardian – no great lover of religion though still a defender of civil liberties – less than 2 years ago:
“Over the past few decades, historians have re-interpreted the Protestant Reformation in England as less a broadly-based, public throwing-off of Roman Catholicism, and more an elite-led cultural revolution. A tightly knit group of politically organised Protestants, we are told, was responsible for the split from Rome. Rather than being impatient with the Catholic faith, the English people were devotees, with no enthusiasm for the new fangled Church of England.”
This is historical revisionism of the most important kind, as it touches on memory, on national memory, and thus identity.
So in a way, the patriotic sentiments of Shakespeare that became the text of empire and so, to be suggested as the sentiments of a Catholic, completely repugnant, is to impose on him the judgements of a later age. It may be that now with the lowering of the flag in Hong Kong in 1997, 500 years from 1497 when Cabot set out for Canada and began the enterprise that became known as the British Empire, now we have come back back purely to this island, Mark Anthony’s words have a peculiar resonance:
“Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life
Is to do thus – “ as he kisses his fatal Cleopatra.
But now we are at the latter end of that great arc or arch of time, we can perhaps view things more dispassionately. And what Shakespeare was hymning was not the empire to come, which took up his great hymns to England, and made them imperial trumpet blasts, but the beloved England he knew, which gave us Magna Carta, the rule of law, Parliament and our first liberties, “the title deeds of freedom” as Churchill called them, which, if we continue the speech of John of Gaunt in Richard II:
“Is now leased out, – I die pronouncing it, –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inkly blots and rotten parchment bonds;
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Was this as much a comment on his times, as on 200 years earlier? From where he wrote, he was looking back at an unbroken 1000 years of Christian history from when the Saxons were evangelised from Rome in 597. He was looking not into a certain future of power and wealth and glory and acquisition but an uncertain one of destruction and loss – the lament of those good days from As You Like it – his love for an England that he saw being lost.
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
Was he viewing glory being trampled, not superstition being overthrown?. And throughout his lifetime until the triple events – the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, the defeat of the Armada in 1588 – where note even the students at the English College in Rome cheered when they heard the news – far from being traitors the majority of catholics were caught upon the rack of twin loyalties of their church and their country, which conflict quite literally tore them apart; and then finally the catalcysmic Gunpowder Plot of 1605 that ruined not just any wild catholic hopes but any chance of a compromise or a reconciliating resolution arriving with the new King James, until these events it could well be the reformers who might be overthrown. And the old glory restored. Certainly with his portrait of Malvolio in Twelth Night, that cross-gartered gull, commonly accepted to be a portrait of a Puritan, full of his own self-importance but prey to the human feelings he scorns in others – as Sir Toby Belch says:
Dost thou think because thou art virtuous
There shall be no more cakes and ale?
I think we can perhaps propose an answer to the question was he a Protestant?
The sentiments, the language, they do not fit the often, at that time, hectoring denunciation of the “ungodly”. Remember, we are some way off from the 17th century that gave us George Herbert, and the more moderate and centralist Anglicanism of such as Launcelot Andrewes.
Look at Twelth Night again, another play of lost identities, of separated kinsmen being swept up on foreign shores, of the adoption of disguises – a perfect metaphor for the way Catholic priests would arrive in England by night, by boat, and try to slip into the population without being seen. Listen to this as Maria and the Clown try to gull Malvolio:
Nay I prithee, put on this gown and this beard; make him believe thou art Sir Topas the curate: do it quickly; I’ll call Sir Toby the whilst
Well, I’ll put it on and I will dissemble myself in it; and I would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown. I am not tall enough to become the function well, nor lean enough to be thought a good student; but to be said an honest man and a good housekeeper goes as fairly as to say a careful man and a great scholar.
And these were the exact disguises the Catholic priests adopted, as tutors, as housekeepers, who were within great scholars, and more.
And we heard how he spoke of the old things of the faith, now banned, now anathematized. And the figures – the reconciling Abbess of The Comedy of Errors; Friar Laurence of Romeo & Juliet – who if he had walked off the stage into a London street would have straight been arrested; the Duke in Measure for Measure who moves behind the scenes to bring all to a good conclusion; Kent’s farewell to King Lear –
Vex not his ghost. O let him pass, he hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer
echoing the instrument of torture that exacted such suffering but no incriminating information from his distant cousin and fellow poet Robert Southwell.
What cannot be faked is the music of all this. As the contemporary Shakespearean scholar Richard Wilson has so well put it
This Gothic theatre of dark towers, moated granges and silent convents, where statues weep in private chapels, and friars emerge from hiding places to resolve each plot.
This is precisely the world of a Catholic in his times – no other playwright writes like this or about this kind of life – the world his father and daughter lived in, and so many of his Warwickshire acquaintances and friends, a society he never severed his links with and indeed returned to throughout and at the end of his life.
So, I have tried to give you , as a man trained in law would do, the evidence.
Whether as a result of this – and there is more, far more than I have outlined in the brief compass of this talk – you place him in that world I must, in the end, leave to you.
At the end of his last play, The Tempest, Prospero, Duke of Milan – how funny! the last of our coincidences for tonight; Milan or Milan from whence his father’s Spiritual Testament came – steps forward to ask his audience’s indulgence as he calls it in this Epilogue.
Indulgence echoes of course the very abuse Luther objected to when he nailed his theses to the church door of Wittenberg Castle in 1517 and started what became known as the Reformation.
But listen carefully to what Prospero asks, in this, Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage that I hope you will permit me to make my ending too. For what it gives us is the very essence of that Christian message, that if lived without fear or favour, gives us the capacity to overcome old divisions, religious or otherwise, and so fulfil the words spoken to the scribe:
Behold, I make all things new.
I think there can be few in the world who would dissent from believing that he too, William Shakespeare, of Stratford upon Avon, in Warwickshire, England did carry out in his own way the command that follows:
And he said unto me: Write: for these words are true and faithful.
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have mine’s own,
Which is most faint: now tis true
I must be here confin’d by youvOr sent to Naples; let me not
Since I have my dukedom got ,
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare Island, by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours, my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please: now I want
Spirits to enforce, Art to enchant:
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.