The Case for Catholic Shakespeare 

Unlike the conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare was really the more educated Earl of Oxford, the rival Christopher Marlowe, or the polymath Francis Bacon, the story of the Catholic Shakespeare is now a mainstream if not a consensus view among scholars. Stretched to the edge of credulity, using arguments and speculations from scholars both Catholic and secular, it would go something like this:

He was born on the feast day of England’s patron, St. George, April 23, 1564, and baptized for the record by an Anglican curate in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in the English Midlands, a hotbed of Roman Catholic resistance to the insecure Protestant Elizabethan Settlement of 1559. Surreptitiously baptized in the Old Faith, he was catechized by an old Benedictine Monk named Dom Thomas Cottam. His mother Mary hailed from the Catholic Ardens, a member of which was executed for treasonous threats against the heretic queen, and his father John was fined as a Catholic recusant and signed a last will and testament pledging loyalty to the Catholic faith. William’s schoolmasters included one Catholic, Simon Hunt, who later studied at the English seminary in Douai, France and became a Jesuit, and another Catholic, John Cottam, whose Jesuit brother Thomas was executed with Edmund Campion for treason. William himself studied at both Douai and the English College in Rome under code names. Recommended by John Cottam, he served as tutor in the great Catholic English home of Thomas Hoghton, who in turn recommended him for further employment in tutoring, which in Catholic homes included play acting, and bequeathed him theater equipment in his will under the transparent alias of William Shakeshafte. He was hurriedly married at a parish that was not his pregnant bride Anne Hathaway’s, Temple Grafton, by the stubborn old Catholic priest formerly of Stratford, John Firth.

Well placed by now in the Catholic underground, he joined a theater company whose patron was the notorious Catholic Lord Chamberlain. When he needed financial support for a stage threatened by Puritans, he found it from another rich shadow Catholic, the Earl of Southhampton, who barely escaped execution during the rebellion of Essex, who hinted at tolerance for Catholics in exchange for support. William named his two daughters after Jewish heroines from the scriptures Protestants removed from the canon as the Apocropha, Judith and Susanna, the latter of which, like her grandfather, was also fined for recusancy. William bought a London home from a confiscated Dominican monastery infamous for smuggling priests, the Blackfriar’s Gatehouse. Cared for and given last rites by another English Benedictine, David Baker (Fr. Augustine), he died, in the words of his first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, “a papyst,” on his birthday in 1616, from a fever contracted by that great Catholic pastime, excessive drinking at a daughter’s funeral, with his fellow dramaturge, the abjuring Catholic convert Ben Jonson. Thus, conceived, baptized, educated, married, employed, patronized, befriended, anointed, toasted, and buried by Catholics and as a Catholic, William Shakespeare, in what one scholar has jokingly called “baptism by association,” may have been a lifelong recusant Catholic dramatist in a repressive Protestant land.

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“May have been” is the correct modal auxiliary, for every one of the associations above is circumstantial and controversial. The predicate indicative above overstates the evidence in every claim. For example, John Shakespeare was indeed fined for recusancy, but the list on which he appears suggests that he may have avoided it in order to avoid prosecution for debt, not because he was a principled Catholic refusing to attend the Church of England Lord’s Supper, as required of English Catholics by Pius V under the pain of excommunication. As Mayor of Stratford, he probably oversaw the iconoclastic whitewashing of the Last Judgment mural in Holy Trinity. Moreover, his Catholic last will and testament may have been a forgery, even though it matches up word-for-word with the authentic English translation of the document written in Italian by St. Carlos Borromeo, because the original has disappeared, the provenance was through a notorious swindler, and the Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone changed his mind about its authenticity but died before he could publish why. While Susanna was fined for recusancy, she married a Protestant doctor. Family Catholicism may have indeed run through Shakespeare’s heart and loins, therefore, but it doesn’t prove the allegiance of his heart.

The play’s the thing, however, wherein we might catch the conscience of the dramatic king, after taking caution and remembering that plays are the fictional work of a silent persona (but also the expression of a thinking being). Thirty-eight plays (and one hundred and fifty sonnets and four narrative poems) are shot-through with sympathetic Catholic field identification markings: to name only a few, condign grace, religious orders, faithful Catholics (Catherine of Aragon), hostility to Puritans (the Lollard Oldcastle renamed as Falstaff, Malvolio, Angelo), purgatory, pilgrimage (though a suspect term about a banned practice, it has thirty one-mentions), holy water, the cult of saints, intercessory prayer, and full sacramentality.

Consider these textual facts: Item, ten Franciscan characters appear in the canon, three generations after they were executed and banned from England by Henry VIII, all favorably portrayed, often serving as key agents in resolving plot and thematic conflicts, never mocked as his fellow Elizabethan writers almost always did; Item, the plays betray a strong catechetical familiarity with and approval of Catholic doctrinal distinctions, such as contrition, satisfaction, penance, absolution, and the practice of auricular confession, which was ridiculed by the Church of England’s “Book of Homilies” and “Apology” as vain “whisperings” and out-and-out “deception,” making at least plausible the speculation of Shakespeare’s seminary training, proposing an answer to the lost years of his biography, and offering an alternative source of his vast erudition to the snobbish charge of the anti-Stratfordians that a country bumpkin couldn’t have been so articulate; Item, Hamlet’s dead father’s ghost, appearing on stage not long after Shakespeare’s own father had died and resembling closely in name Shakespeare’s recently deceased son Hamnet, laments that he has been exiled from purgatory (a taboo term) because he was deprived of two of the three sacraments that the Church of England had repudiated as sacraments (Confession and Last Rites) and one that it had weakened as a sacrament (Eucharist characterized as the Lord’s Supper): “Unhousel’d (no reception of the Eucharist), disappointed (no preparation made for contrition), unanel’d (not anointed with holy oil) / No reck’ning made” (no examination of conscience) (1.5.77-78). These three sacraments have not only been denied; each missing part is detailed in longing remembrance of a negated tradition.

More indicative of Catholicity is the lesser-known but even more distinctly Catholic category of love known as “created grace,” or “cooperative grace.” Without our active yes to God’s love, we can speak only of Christ’s merit, not of man’s. Without it, fasts, pilgrimages, prayer, almsgiving, and all works of mercy are in vain; without these, the treasure house of merit is bankrupt, indulgences fruitless, purgatory empty, and, to put it in the bald terms of a traditionalist Catholic mind, the mystical body of Christ starved. This distinction, defined by the Council of Trent but denied by Luther and Calvin and ignored by the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, generally divides Catholics from Protestants. Its disappearance has been a tragedy for Christendom and Western civilization: combined with the notion of deus absconditus, it has enervated human effort. As a result of cooperative grace, itself a joint activity of the Holy Spirit’s operative grace and man’s free will, man can merit an increase of sanctifying grace, add to the storehouse of love, and prove dignity. Without it, there are only lobotomies, pills, or psychiatry.

Cooperative grace is not a mere Catholic marker in Shakespeare but a constant dramaturgical dynamic. It motivates Prince Hal’s “reformation” from a Prodigal Son who must turn from Falstaffian “unyoked idleness” to get serious about servant leadership. It makes Coriolanus yield to his mother’s appeal for clemency, “no little thing” for “eyes” to “sweat compassion.” It is the “readiness is all” and “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” that Hamlet discovers, transforming him from a “rogue and peasant slave” to a prophetic and yet forgiving “scourge” of a “rotten state.” It is the unstrained “quality of mercy” that Portia proposes and Shylock rejects, the “yours” that she herself gives to her betrothed with her “ring.” In a breakthrough during a whirlwind, it is the solidarity that Lear glimpses for the least of his brothers and sisters, the “poor naked wretches” of whom he has “ta’en too little care” and on behalf of whom (a fool, a madman, an abandoned father) he will now “show the heavens more just.” It is the forgiveness that his wronged beloved daughter Cordelia, “a soul in bliss,” bestows in turn on him as she fights for the prodigal father who has betrayed her and yet proclaims that she has “no cause” for mistreating him. It is what Lear sees when she dies in his arms and he exclaims, dying himself, “Look there, look there.”

Late in his career, perhaps collaborating with a colleague, Shakespeare shows this undeniably Catholic card baldly and bravely. The Winter’s Tale is the story of a queen, Hermione, falsely accused and indirectly killed by her jealous husband, Leontes, and brought back to life by a sixteen-year period of daily prayer and fasting (and Italian artistry). Her lady in waiting has an Italian sculptor shape her image, and the glorious statue resurrects on stage as the living saintly wife, appearing first through a dream “in pure white robes/Like very sanctity” (3.3.22-23). Before her statue, Leontes overtly rejects Protestant iconoclasm: “And do not say ‘tis superstition, that/I kneel, and then implore her blessing” (5.3.43-44). “Hav[ing] performed/A saint-like sorrow,” through sixteen years of daily works of heroic penitential supererogation, Leontes is rewarded with a living, breathing beatific vision; his maligned beloved returns miraculously in a scene that extreme Reformers might have taken as utter blasphemy in a quadruple sense: a reprobate 1) sanctifies himself through 2) heroic acts of “supererogation” 3) ex opere operantis and brings an 4) idolatrous Marian image to life! For Luther and English Lutherans, fasting and other works were only private mortifications “to repress lasciviousness and lust” that might even “addle the brains and destroy natural strength,” and they certainly did not add to the treasure house of merit on which another might draw sanctification.  For Calvin and Calvinists, “do they not make void the Cross of Christ our only Redeemer?”

You have there in a single coup de théatre (metaphorical, for Hermione was never actually dead, only hidden) the undeniably Catholic mind of Shakespeare, a playwright whose entire career may be summarized as medieval Catholic drama: the early histories and comedies as morality plays depicting English history in terms of sin and the celebration of Holy Matrimony; the middle tragedies of his floruit as passion plays; and the serene late romances as miracle plays—or, as Fr. Peter Milward, S.J. has suggested, “the joyful, the sorrowful, and the glorious mysteries of the Holy Rosary.”

With Easter hope, let us say then, “William Shakespeare, pray for us!”

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Biographical Bibliography:  Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004); Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, The Life and Times of William Shakespeare: 1564-1616 (London: Chaucer Press, 2007); Anthony Holden, William Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Genius (Boston, New York, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1999); H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1952); Joseph Pearce, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008); Ian Wilson, Shakespeare: The Evidence: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Man and His Work (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); Michael Wood, Shakespeare (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

Critical Bibliography:  Claire Asquith, Shadowplay (New York: Public Affairs, 2005); David N. Beauregard, Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007); Ken Colston, “King Lear and the Catholic Drama of Four Loves and Three Households,” LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 16:3 (Fall 2013) at Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Peter Milward, The Pattern in Shakespeare’s Carpet (Hyogo, Japan: Bookway, 2012); Joseph Pearce, Through Shakespeare’s Eyes (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010); The Christian Shakespeare.


  • Kenneth Colston

    Kenneth Colston’s articles and reviews have appeared in The New Criterion; LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; First Things; New Oxford Review; St. Austin’s Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He is a retired teacher who lives in St. Louis.

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