Was Shakespeare a Catholic?

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William Shakespeare, the celebrated English playwright, was born in 1564 and died in 1616, just at the age 52. Fourth centenary celebrations of his literary life and demise make critical minds to probe into his personal life.

Was William Shakespeare a Catholic or a devoted Protestant? It was a time of religious turmoil when William Shakespeare wrote his plays. Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, suggested that the playwright ‘probably had a Catholic background’. But how is history going to interpret this?

Jesuit historian, Thomas McCoog looks at this historic and literary matter and tries to come to a suitable solution. He has put a lot of time and hard work on this literary and historical quest to determine Shakespeare’s religious identity – including a claim that he visited the Venerable English College in Rome – and he has put forward a serious question how much would be gained by settling this matter conclusively.

Shakespeare the playwright

Shakespeare is one of the greatest English literary savants who is renowned as the English playwright and poet whose body of works is considered the greatest in history of English literature. The Renaissance period saw many literary people who sowed the seeds of knowledge everywhere through their critical works. William Shakespeare is one of the most celebrated authors of English during the Elizabethan period. It was a time of new ideas and new learning. The whole world was opening up. People were travelling and in particular the English were in search of new lands and new ideologies. Shakespeare’s plays were dominating the English stage far and wide.

A hidden star of faith

Although William Shakespeare has authored a lot of dramas and poetical works and is known as the world’s greatest playwright, only a limited knowledge of his personal life is known to the world. What is known to the world about his personal life is got from church records, land titles, court records, wills, marriage certificates, his tombstone and the written opinions of others. Particularly, very little is known about young Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is said to be born on April 23, 1564 and was baptized on April 26, 1564. At the age of eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, an older woman who was twenty six at the time. Roughly four years later sometime in 1586, Shakespeare left Stratford for London in search of his fortune. In London he could have literary access since there was already an established community of playwrights. He was successful there to be named as one of the more senior members of the Lord Chamberlain’s men, an acting company that performed frequently before court.

Was Shakespeare a devoted Catholic?

The period of W. Shakespeare in England was anti- Catholic. England became Protestant after Henry VIII had broken with Rome in the 1530’s when he was not permitted to marry Anne Boleyn while his former wife was still alive. Roman Catholicism came to be known as “old faith”. Many Catholics, who stubbornly remained loyal to the “old faith”, were persecuted. The rift between royalist Protestants and orthodox Catholics was so great that the Catholics could not profess their faith publicly.

The most notorious Catholic-tracker in Elizabeth’s service was Richard Topcliffe, who maintained a torturous hunting after the Catholics. He captured them and subjected them to excruciating agonies. One of those captives was Robert Southwell (1561-1595), a Jesuit priest and poet who lived and moved in England’s Catholic underground. Southwell was a critic of Shakespeare who was urging all Elizabethan writers to focus on religious themes glorifying God rather than working on worldly themes. Public executions of Catholics frightened recusants, causing most of the Catholics to exercise their faith only in secret.

There are strong evidences that in spite of all these persecutions, William’s parents John and Mary remained Catholics in secret and practiced Catholicism devotedly. This suggests that William Shakespeare grew up inculcated with Catholic teachings and was deeply rooted in Catholic faith. 

Many of the Sonnets and passages of Shakespeare’s plays hint his deep devotion and faith to Catholicism. Though due to the political situations he could not profess his faith in Catholicism outwardly, there are strong evidences internally and externally that in heart he was a strong Catholic.

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