Claiming Shakespeare

When Joseph Pearce’s epically titled The Quest for Shakespeare was released from Ignatius Press earlier this year, the Catholic blogosphere erupted with reports that William Shakespeare was finally, 400 years after the fact, proud to be papist. Although early modernists (a.k.a. Renaissance scholars) have been pondering Shakespeare’s possible relationship with the Romish Church for decades now, the conversation appears to be reaching a critical mass, trickling down to the level of popular imagination — and undergraduate studies. In an instance of public-relations hyperbole, for example, Thomas More College boasted just this week that its intrepid undergraduates “explored the newest and most controversial interpretation of Shakespeare’s writings” by learning about Shakespeare’s alleged Catholicism at a recent conference.
Something of a Johnny-come-lately to the Shakespeare-as-Catholic debate, Pearce’s latest offering intended to draft the Bard into the ranks of his Literary Converts. While Pearce’s work on self-acknowledged Catholic authors like J. R. R. Tolkien is often enjoyable and inspiring, his tendency to seek out and appropriate less obviously Catholic figures to the team makes the scholar in me uneasy. Pearce himself anticipated a backlash to his Shakespearean studies from the liberal academy:
I expect that the arguments in my book will receive a negative reaction from the secular academy which is desperately trying to hang on to its own woefully distorted reading of Shakespeare and his works. Unfortunately for these secular fundamentalist misreaders of the Bard, the facts are solidly on the side of those who claim that Shakespeare was a Catholic. I expect to see these “scholars” squirming uncomfortably on the spike of objectivity!
Although to a degree justified, Pearce’s invectives against academia give the impression that he is more interested in Catholic polemic than scholarship, and in inspiring undergraduates to resist indoctrination rather than negotiate with other points of view. This is simply identity politics, and it is a great way to poison a healthy conversation.
The secular reaction notwithstanding, contrary voices have sprung up among Catholic scholars expressing their skepticism for Pearce’s enthusiastic arguments and modus operandi. Take, for example, the literary critical catfight between Pearce and Professor Robert Miola of Loyola University, Baltimore, that appears in the Letters section of the current December issue of First Things. Reacting to Miola’s rather vitriolic review of his book, Pearce accuses Miola of a series of logical fallacies, to which Miola responds by alleging scholarly sloppiness on Pearce’s part.
In an article for Catholic Culture, Jeff Mirus expressed suspicion regarding Shakespeare’s Catholicism, relying heavily on Miola’s work. Miola has helped to advance the discussion of Catholicism within the Ivory Tower (he has recently edited a scholarly anthology of Catholic writing in Renaissance England); he is no “secular fundamentalist misreader of the Bard,” and he readily points out Catholic moments in the Shakespearean corpus (his take on the “Catholic question” in First Things is well worth a read). Nevertheless, he also makes clear that Shakespeare’s personal faith is far from certain.
Building on Miola, Mirus moves beyond the unanswerable question of what Shakespeare believed in order to consider why the Catholic blogosphere got so fired up about the possibility of posthumously registering Shakespeare in the Knights of Columbus. He writes:
It seems that ownership of such an awesome prodigy must be claimed by every new group: agnostics, atheists, secularists, gays. All worldviews and lifestyles, along with the ideologies and theories of literary criticism which accompany them, eventually seek to “prove” that Shakespeare was a prophet of their own cause. Everyone wants to be associated with the great. Everyone feels vindicated by the association.
For Mirus, we might feel better about our Catholicism knowing that someone the world considers a genius approves of our identity by electing to join us. We feel that we aren’t the blockheaded lemmings Bill Maher paints us as because we (might) have written Hamlet.
This may be true on an emotional level, but the stakes are higher than this: What’s really at stake is education, because Shakespeare is taught nearly universally. Despite Shakespeare’s own efforts to remain tantalizingly unbiased, ideologues from all corners perpetually exploit the man in the ruffled collar as a candy coating for their pet ideologies, a Trojan horse by which to sneak their own values into the classroom.
This is precisely why movement secularists and queer theorists are so eager to claim him. You can’t teach Shakespeare’s love sonnets without explaining that the vast majority of them appear to be written to a boy, which means you have to devote a lesson plan to queer theory. To ignore the homoeroticism running through the early sonnets is simply an injustice to the poems. Aye, there’s the rub: It is tempting to label Shakespeare as a Catholic in order to justify countervailing lesson plans devoted to the Eucharist, purgatory, martyrdom, and other papist favorites.
What is at stake is not merely Shakespeare, but the ideologies that we impart to our students through Shakespeare. To assert Shakespeare’s faith as a means of evangelizing smells like trying to beat the “secular fundamentalists” at their own game — and it looks like bad scholarship. We can be more responsible than this. We can bring Catholicism into the classroom without transforming literature into a theology lesson.
Shakespearean religion is a valid academic question, and Miola notes that almost half of all scholarly articles addressing Shakespeare and Catholicism have appeared in the last decade. But if our goal is to keep religious issues alive in the discourse community of early modern literature, then perhaps Shakespeare’s religion is more powerful as a timeless question than as a determined fact.

Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.


  • Peter Freeman

    Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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