Last edited 11-07-20
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“Double-Meaning Prophesier,” Shakespeare’s Historical Background
(Plato, Crito, 48a)
Beati estis cum maledixerint vobis et persecuti vos fuerint et dixerint omne malum adversum vos, mentientes, proper Me. Gaudete et exultate, quoniam merces vestra copiosa est in caelis, sic enim persecuti sunt prophetas qui fuerunt ante vos.
In nine places out of ten in which I find his awful name mentioned, it is with some epithet of “wild,” “irregular,” “pure child of nature,” etc., etc., etc. […] if false, it is a dangerous falsehood; for it affords a refuge to secret self-conceit, enables a vain man at once to escape his reader’s indignation by general swoln panegyrics on Shakespeare, merely by his ipse dixit, to treat what he has not intellect enough to comprehend, or soul to feel, as contemptible; without assuming any reason, or referring his opinion to any demonstrated principle… I grieve that every late voluminous edition of his works would enable me to substantiate the present charge with a variety of facts one tenth of which would of themselves exhaust the time allotted me. Every critic, who has or has not made a collection of black letter books, in itself a useful and respectable amusement, puts on the seven-league boots of self-opinion and strides at once from an illustrator into a supreme judge, and blind and deaf, fills his three-ounce phial at the waters of the Niagara – and determines positively the greatness of the cataract to be neither more nor less than his three-ounce phial has been able to receive.
(Coleridge, Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius, 1808)
If America has not yet found any great writers, we should not look elsewhere for reasons; literary genius does not thrive without freedom of thought, and there is no freedom of thought in America.
(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, Part II, Ch. VI, 1840)
In some sense it may be said that this glorious Elizabethan era with its Shakespeare, as the outcome and flowering of all which had preceded it, is itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. The Christian Faith, which was the theme of Dante’s song, had produced this practical life which Shakespeare was to sing – for religion then, as it now and always is, was the soul of Practice; the primary vital fact in men’s life.
And remark here, as rather curious, that Middle-Age Catholicism was abolished, so far as Acts of Parliament could abolish it, before Shakespeare, the noblest product of it, made his appearance. He did make his appearance nevertheless. Nature at her own time, with Catholicism or what else might be necessary, sent him forth; taking small thoughts of Acts of Parliament. King-Henrys, Queen-Elizabeths go their way; and Nature too goes hers.
(Thomas Carlyle, Lectures on Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, 1841)
…this Papist [Robert Persons, a Jesuit] and his poet, of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning and the other ever falsifying the truth.
(John Speed, Histoire of Great Britaine, 1611)
England between Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation: the historical evidence
In his Lectures on Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), Thomas Carlyle discusses the “Hero as Poet” with reference to Shakespeare’s Catholic inspiration: “In some sense it may be said that this glorious Elizabethan era with its Shakespeare, as the outcome and flowering of all which had preceded it, is itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. The Christian Faith, which was the theme of Dante’s song, had produced this practical life which Shakespeare was to sing – for religion then, as it now and always is, was the soul of Practice; the primary vital fact in men’s life.” His words were prophetic of the current developments in Shakespeare studies: “And remark here, as rather curious, that Middle-Age Catholicism was abolished, so far as Acts of Parliament could abolish it, before Shakespeare, the noblest product of it, made his appearance. He did make his appearance nevertheless. Nature at her own time, with Catholicism or what else might be necessary, sent him forth; taking small thoughts of Acts of Parliament. King-Henrys, Queen-Elizabeths go their way; and Nature too goes hers.” Carlyle acknowledged that Shakespeare was the product of the Catholic culture of the previous centuries, when all public discourse would revolve around Scripture, from politics to public sermons, from education to entertainment. An inheritance, a legacy and a tradition of fifteen centuries cannot be eliminated in a couple of generations – hence the political theory of the divine right of kings still influenced James I, who was in fact one of its most prominent embodiments; hence the liturgical theater of the Mystery and Passion Plays was even more popular than the Greek and Roman classics; hence the religious art of Giotto was the school for the Renaissance masters Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raffaello; hence the divinely inspired poetry of authors like Dante and Petrarch was the model for all subsequent European literature. As Kim Hall writes in her much-admired critical edition of Othello, “religion was the dominant means by which early moderns understood and ordered their world.”[lxxii]
Religion was not only a matter of private worship, but its primary socio-political role was to ground and justify temporal power, as well as to order the relationships among classes and individuals within society. Shakespeare’s monarch, King James I, presented himself as a Christian monarch and defended the principle of the divine right of kings in The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1599). Not unlike Spanish monarchs and German Emperors, James shared the common understanding of political power as an extension of the apostolic succession established by Christ when He founded His universal Catholic Church upon Simon, renaming him with his Roman Latin name of Peter, from Lat. petra, “rock” or “stone,” symbolizing the foundation of Christ’s mystical Body in the Church of Rome: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” (Mt 16:17-19) And as an absolutist monarch, King James understood his political writings as a way to lay down the law. Hence Christianity features prominently in all his political essays as a means to promote an image of himself as a God-fearing monarch, strong, responsible and morally sound, and therefore worthy of power. In Basilikon Doron, whose 1603 London edition understandably enjoyed enormous success, James devoted ample space to describe a Christian monarch’s duties toward God: to love and fear the Omnipotent as the source of all power and authority; to study Scripture and pray, giving thanks to God for His bountiful gifts. Of course, because the monarch was the head of the state, his example was meant to serve as a model of behavior for all his subjects.
King James’ non-explicitly political publications, both scholarly and poetic, also testify to the crucial role that religion performed in society. In his poem The Lepanto (1591) – which will be discussed in the context of Shakespeare’s Othello (Chapter Two) – James celebrates the unexpected Christian victory over the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a decisive moment for Europe and one of the most important battles in history.[lxxiii] James significantly represents the Christian victory as willed by God: in the opening section of the poem, the Father sends the Archangel Gabriel to the city of Venice with the mission to “put into their minds/ To take revenge of wrongs the Turks/ have done in sundry kinds” (vv. 90-92). As Holinshed records in his Chronicles (1577), one of Shakespeare’s main historical sources, the Christian victory at Lepanto was greeted with enormous enthusiasm in London: “there were bonfires made through the City, with banqueting and great rejoicing, as good cause there was, for a victory of so great importance, to the whole state of the Christian common wealth” (4.262).[lxxiv]
Christianity as the legitimation of political power was clearly of capital importance to the English monarch, who commissioned “a more exact Translation of the holy Scriptures in the English Tongue” so that “the Church of England shall reap good fruit thereby.” James was praised by the translators for being “the principal Mover and Author of the work,” as well as “the wonder of the world” for his “zeal… toward the house of God” which “doth not slack or go backward, but is more and more kindled, manifesting itself abroad in the farthest parts of Christendom, by writing in defense of the Truth… and every day at home, by religious and learned discourse, by frequenting the house of God, by hearing the Word preached, by cherishing the Teachers thereof, by caring for the Church, as a most tender and loving nursing Father.”[lxxv]
Among James’s writings “in defense of the Truth,” perhaps the most prominent is his Daemonologie, in forme of a Dialogue, divided into three Bookes (1597), where he discusses the main principles of Christian demonology, purportedly from a new Anglican perspective, but in fact restating the orthodox Catholic condemnation of magic and superstition. James’ essay only differentiates itself from orthodoxy in negating that exorcism is a means to fight demonic agency in human life. Indeed, without any intellectual tradition to refer to apart from the previous fifteen centuries of Catholic scholarship, James had to follow the prominent Catholic intellectual Jean Bodin (De la Démonomanie des Sorciers, 1580); as well as the Dominicans Krämer and Sprenger, whose Malleus Maleficarum (1486) would become in the centuries to follow the most influential text for the trial and punishment of many actual practitioners of sorcery (Rev 22:15), and the persecution and martyrdom of many more innocent victims.[lxxvi] As noted by Giovanna Silvani (1997) in her commented edition of the Daemonologie,[lxxvii] the book had a remarkable influence on contemporary English culture, contributing to popularize orthodox Catholic theology regarding superstition which considers “ghosts” and “apparitions” as the work of Satan and his demonic legions, e.g. in the following passage from the first chapter of the third book:
“PHILOMATHES – And what meanes then these kindes of spirites, when they appeare in the shaddow of a person newlie dead, or to die, to his friendes?
EPISTEMON – When they appeare upon that occasion, they are called Wraithes in our language. Amongst the Gentiles the Deuill used that much, to make them beleeue that it was some good spirite that appeared to them then, either to forewarne them of the death of their friend; or else to discouer unto them, the will of the defunct… And this way hee easily deceiued the Gentiles, because they knew not God: And to the same effect it is, that he now appears in that maner to some ignorant Christians. For he dare not so illude anie that knoweth that, neither can the spirite of the defunct returne to his friend, or yet an Angell use such forms.”
In Chapter Three we will see how Shakespeare’s Hamlet confirms these important concepts. If the ghostly apparition is not in fact a restless soul from Purgatory but a demon, then Prince Hamlet enters the Satanic pact by renouncing his free-will to follow an evil spirit disguised as an “angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). In a time when religious knowledge and religious allegiance were literally matters of life or death, the political weight of King James’ writings – here in particular his Daemonologie – cannot be overestimated. Besides popularizing Catholic orthodoxy on superstition and the practice of magic, the Daemonologie was the king’s political statement on what he did not allow in his reign and what he was going to persecute.
It is a well-known fact, for instance, that charges were brought against the “North Berwick witches” for trying to “sink the ship carrying James to Denmark to meet with his future bride, and also the ship bringing Anne to England. […] At the same time that women and men were being accused in Scotland of trying to prevent the union of James and Anne, similar accusations were being made in Denmark… A woman named Anna Koldings was interrogated, and under the fear of greater tortures was compelled to give the names of five other women, one of them being the wife of the burgomaster of Copenhagen.”[lxxviii] And God only knows what happened to the wife of the burgomaster of Copenhagen.
King James’ paranoia – or rather his strategy to eliminate political rivals – included the Earl of Bothwell, Francis Steward, who was suspected to be behind the North Berwick witches: “[Margaret] Murray and [Montague] Summers both believed that Bothwell played the part of the Devil at the Sabbath meetings of the witches, and it is true that in later years during his exile, Bothwell kept the reputation of being a powerful magician.”[lxxix] It is clear that King James’ accusations of sorcery were a threatening political reality for all his subjects. Because it was a matter of life and death to know what “displeased” the monarch, it is not surprising that the Daemonologie enjoyed a great success. From a historical perspective the book contributed to making the tragedy of Hamlet much less of a mystery for Renaissance audiences than it is for people living in the secularized society of the 21st century, which like Hamlet has “wipe[d] away” “from the table of [its] memory” “[a]ll saws of books, all forms, all pressures past” (I, v, 98-100) both in terms of Scriptural knowledge and of “osmotic knowledge” (Ranald, 1987).
Christianity was a matter of life or death in Renaissance England and Europe. In the 1530-s, King Henry VIII (1509-1547) rejected Rome’s authority concerning his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and instituted a new Church of England with himself as its head. All the taxes due to the Catholic Church were abolished and more than six hundred Catholic monasteries, with landed property and real estate, were expropriated in order to finance the English Crown and its emerging Empire. Politically as well as financially, the institution of an independent national church was the most profitable move. At Henry’s death in 1547, the Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour, and after him John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, held power on behalf of Edward, Henry’s ten-year-old son who later reigned as Edward VI (1547-1553). Important administrative changes took place in these years: acts of parliament were passed in 1549 and 1551 imposing religious uniformity; the clergy were allowed to marry; two Acts of Uniformity in 1549 and 1552 prescribed Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer as the only legitimate form of prayer; while reformed services replaced the Catholic Mass with its central rite of Transubstantiation and Eucharist. The politics of terror against Catholic “recusants” and “Papists” – including spying, false accusations, expropriation, imprisonment, torture and murder for treason by hanging and disembowelment – also started in this period. Despite or perhaps because of terror, the many English citizens who chose to remain faithful to the established, orthodox Catholic religion managed to give witness to their faith with heroic courage. The direction of religious persecution was reversed during the short reign of Mary I (1553-1558) and, after she was beheaded, finally reestablished by the last of the Tudors, Elizabeth I (1558-1603) as well as by the first of the Stuarts, James VI & I (1603-1625). It was during Elizabeth’s reign that the foundations of the Church of England were secured, “Protestant in all places of authority, but Catholic in sympathy among large sections of the lesser clergy and the people.”[lxxx]
As Christopher Devlin remarks in Hamlet’s Divinity (1963), the Reformation was from its inception accompanied by a propagandist version of history manufactured by writers such as Pierre Bayle (1550), John Foxe (1570) and John Speed (1611) – who interestingly accused Shakespeare of being a Papist – so that “by Shakespeare’s time there was already a Protestant version of England’s past which was rapidly gaining ground.”[lxxxi] This version of history has now come to be seen as basically flawed, and contemporary historiography proposes a more realistic view of the Reformation as a slow process, mainly imposed from above and generally very painful for the vast majority of the population. As Beauregard remarks in his Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays (2008), “The notion that the late medieval Church was corrupt and unpopular, that its clergy were ignorant, and that the Reformation was welcomed by the general populace and rapidly accomplished, has been rejected. It has been replaced by a notion of it as reluctantly accepted by the populace and imposed by Elizabeth and her minions. In other words, in place of a Reformation that was ‘fast’ and ‘from below,’ we now have a Reformation that was ‘slow’ and imposed ‘from above.’ In specific terms, this means that the Reformation did not begin to establish itself in most areas until 1580 and after.”[lxxxii] It is therefore not surprising that “English audiences were still Catholic or well disposed toward Catholicism.”[lxxxiii]
Beauregard, who discerns “positive evidence of Catholic theology” in Shakespeare, also remarks that – except for direct allusions to the Name of God and to contemporary religious controversies – ethics became mandatory in theatrical representations, so that “the formal purpose and the moral images of drama still carried considerable theological force.”[lxxxiv] To this purpose Beauregard quotes from the 1572 injunction of the Queen’s Privy Council, ordering London officials to allow “such plays, entreludes, comedies, and tragedies as maye tende to represse vyce and extol vertwe.”[lxxxv] The values that were used “to repress vice and extol virtue” included “theological notions of sin, repentance, providential order, natural law, an afterlife” as well as concepts of “Purgatory, penitential satisfaction, pilgrimage, and religious life.”[lxxxvi] All of these theological themes and more are represented in Shakespeare’s plays in a way that modern secular theater perhaps would not tolerate, but “such was not the case in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.”[lxxxvii] In Elizabethan and Jacobean England religion was a matter of life and death. But it is equally true that after fifteen centuries of Catholic scholarship and tradition, there was ample correspondence between Catholicism and Protestantism in terms of theological doctrines, which allowed writers a margin of freedom. This, in addition to the fact that some tolerance was to be expected from theater supervisors, allowed Shakespeare to circumvent censorship and express his art through linguistic ambiguity, irony and virtuoso polysemy.
The image of the writer as a lay priest – a “priest of eternal imagination,” as Joyce would say – is also in Jeffrey Knapp’s Shakespeare’s Tribe. Church, Nation and Theater in Renaissance England (2002). Knapp argues that “Shakespeare’s Tribe,” the people of the theater, reinvented and refashioned themselves into “a kind of ministry,” acting prudently and undercover since “[f]ear of church and state repression generated caution.”[lxxxviii] They would use their art “to support the cause of true religion” and mediate contents relevant to contemporary society, providing an example of how to maintain one’s identity in times of terror. Also Peter Milward observes that Shakespeare expresses his opinions “in disguise, at a remove from his real meaning”[lxxxix] like the Duke Vincentio, a figura of the artist, in Measure for Measure: “His giving out were of an infinite distance/ from his true-meant design.” (I, iv, 53-44) The same concern for indirectness is expressed by Lance – a pun on the author’s surname Shake-spear – in Two Gentlemen of Verona, as he announces: “Thou shalt never get such a secret from me but by parable” (II, v, 34-35). Due to the tragic circumstances of his time, also Shakespeare had to become a “double-meaning prophesier” (All’s Well That Ends Well IV, iii, 102-103) as the title of this chapter.
Knapp remarks that “English theology and ecclesiology shaped the drama at a fundamental level,” aiding the institutionalization of theater and the professionalization of players and playwrights as a “community of practitioners.”[xc] He also discusses some of the literary historians who argued for “the centrality of religion to the study of Renaissance drama,” like Donna Hamilton, Huston Diehl, Bryan Crockett, Claire McEachern, Kristen Pole, and Ramie Targoff. All these scholars “have provided an indispensible corrective to the historiographical blind spots of political and anthropological critics alike” by questioning the “secularist biases of modern criticism.” Nevertheless, their position still portrays “Renaissance playwrights as ‘Christian’ only cognitively or subliminally, rather than purposively and devotionally. Not even this compelling revisionism, in other words, allows the possibility that Renaissance plays may have been intended and received as contributions to the cause of true religion.”[xci] But as Donna Hamilton remarked, it is very unlikely “that the popular drama of a religiously saturated culture could, by a secular miracle, have extricated itself from the theocentric orientation informing the discourses of politics, gender, social order, and history at the time.”[xcii]
“This Papist and his poet,” Catholicism in Shakespeare: the biographical evidence
One of the most naïve scholarly clichés in Shakespeare studies is the one concerning the paucity of information about Shakespeare’s life: it is in fact true that we know quite a lot.
As Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor point out in their 1988 edition of the Complete Works for Oxford University Press, “[o]ne of the ungrounded myths about Shakespeare is that all we know about his life could be written on the back of a postage stamp.”[xciii] On the contrary, there is a wealth of information about Warwickshire’s and Lancashire’s society; about Shakespeare’s mother and father; his extended family and relatives; about the intellectual accomplishments and heroic sacrifice of his cousin, the Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell; about his family’s and his own financial management, purchases, mortgages and debts; as well as official documents marking significant moments in his life and the life of his family: such as the record of sacraments taken or missed at the local parish and, most importantly, John Shakespeare’s Spiritual Testament, which his son devoutly quoted in what would become his most celebrated play, Hamlet.
From all these records a cohesive picture emerges of the human and political network to which Shakespeare belonged, and most scholars now agree that all the evidence we possess points to a continuity of Catholicism in the Shakespeare family. As Greenblatt remarks, Shakespeare “was probably brought up in a Roman Catholic household in a time of official suspicion and persecution of recusancy” and he was “haunted by the spirit of his Catholic father.”[xciv] The scholars who discussed Catholicism in Shakespeare are numerous, and here we can only reference a few: George Wilkes, Roy Battenhouse, Christopher Devlin, Peter Milward, David Beauregard, Frank Brownlow, Gary Taylor, E. A. J. Honigmann, Eric Sams, Patrick Collinson, Ian Wilson, Margarita Stocker, Dympna Callaghan, Antonia Fraser, Richard Wilson and Ruben Espinosa, among others, all contend that Shakespeare’s Catholicism was a source of inspiration for his art. [xcv] This work is not only an original synthesis of their arguments, but intends to add a new perspective with Christian Catholic Demonology.
Because of its far-reaching implications, there is still great political resistance to the idea that Shakespeare might have been inspired by Catholicism not only “cognitively or subliminally,” but also “purposively and devotionally,” as Knapp suggests – the idea, in other words, that Shakespeare’s “Renaissance plays may have been intended and received as contributions to the cause of true religion.”[xcvi] In Secret Shakespeare (2004), Richard Wilson writes that “one of the most naïve myths of literary biography… is that of the dramatist as a hero of Protestant England and favorite of the Queen.” Wilson argues that the idea of “the playwright as an Anglican spokesman” is a mystification: “[t]he construction of a Shakespeare in love with Protestant empire serves the ideological function of annexing the plays to the dominant Anglo-Saxon discourses.”[xcvii] Wilson cites the work of Alison Shell to the effect that “opposition to the recovery of Elizabethan recusant culture arises in the contemporary academy from some very impure motives: ‘Responses to current Catholicism seem to determine whether one welcomes or shuns it as a subject for historical enquiry… When non-Catholics consider early modern Catholicism, their attitude is inevitably colored by their views on Catholicism now.’”[xcviii]
To appreciate the depth and complexity of Shakespeare’s art it is therefore necessary to respect the author, allowing him to be himself, inherently different and other than our contemporary atheistic, materialistic society. In Shakespeare After Theory (1999), David Kastan commented that the “recent critical models of historical engagement with Shakespeare” – the Marxist ideology that sustains new historicism and cultural materialism – “seem to some too overtly self-interested… significant more as records of our present needs and anxieties than as reconstructions of those of Shakespeare’s time.” Following in the wake of Frye’s scholarship on the necessity to avoid anachronistic projections, Kastan remarks that our understanding of Shakespeare must begin “with the recognition of his difference from us,” for “only then can we be sure that what we hear are his concerns, rather than the projections of our own.”[xcix] This fundamental attitude of respect for “the author as the other” should be kept in mind in the following discussion on the biographical evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholic background.
All historians and critics agree that the place of Shakespeare’s birth, Stratford in Warwickshire, was a renowned center of Catholic recusancy.[c] Patrick Collinson describes the region as “essentially a Catholic stronghold down to the middle of the sixteenth century;”[ci] Antonia Fraser speaks of it as “the town at the center of the recusant map of England;”[cii] and according to John E. Neale, Shakespeare’s Stratford was a “bastion of middle-class church papists, encircled by Calvinist landowners such as the Lucys and Grevilles.”[ciii]
During the 1570-s and the 1580-s, in particular, Warwickshire was the center of fervent Catholicism with the arrival of seminary priests from Douai – funded and helped, among others, by the Hoghton family, who also supported Shakespeare. Edmund Spenser, who in 1576-77 was residing in Lancashire near Hoghton, commented that Catholic priests had to face a “long and dangerous travel… knowing peril of death awaited them, and no reward or riches were to be found.”[civ] The 1580 Jesuit mission was particularly important, since it included Fr. Edmund Campion, who later became a martyr; and Jesuit priest and pamphleteer Robert Persons,[cv] who provided Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, with the copy of the Catholic Spiritual Testament drawn by St Carlo Borromeo. The religious atmosphere in the region explains why Shakespeare’s schoolmasters at the Stratford grammar school were Catholic: Simon Hunt “went on to become a Jesuit;” John Cottom “was the brother of Thomas Cottom, a Catholic priest who was arraigned and executed in 1582 with the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion;” and the third schoolmaster, Thomas Jerkins, “had likely been tutored in rhetoric by Campion at St. John’s College, whose founder had strong Catholic sympathies.” After being awarded a fellowship at St. John’s, Jerkins left without taking orders, “an action which suggests Roman Catholic sympathies.”[cvi] All these unsung and unknown martyrs willingly gave witness to their faith and gained immortality through persecution.
In discussing the religious background of Shakespeare’s parents and extended family, most critics limit their focus to his father, John – which generates a lot of controversy, because the abundant evidence of his Catholic faith is usually dismissed with “lofty scorn” by those who have a vested interest in presenting Shakespeare as a prophet of state religion and teleologically as a mouthpiece of the emerging British empire. As Richard Wilson remarks about the turn in Reformation and post-Reformation historiography:
“It cannot be chance that the sharpest ridicule of the “Catholic turn” in Shakespeare studies comes from modernist specialists who insist that “the details available can be made to point in different directions,”[cvii] so that it would be impossible to construct any analysis which puts the author into his cultural space… As the “details” of history dismissed with such lofty scorn include Campion’s minutely documented mission, the anti-Catholic terror, Essex’s Revolt and the Gunpowder Plot, it is not hard to see that the reason the idea of the Bard’s invisibility persists is that those literary mystifiers who depend upon it remain oblivious to the revolution in post-Reformation historiography which has transformed the ways in which Shakespeare’s texts, and textual remains, now need to be read. The rediscovery of English Counterreformation provides a context for locating the dramatist’s legendary inaccessibility.”[cviii]
Truthful biographical research should instead focus on the fact that for the generation of Shakespeare’s grandparents, i.e. Mary Arden’s parents, born between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century, it would have been inconceivable to marry their beloved daughter to a Protestant, thus condemning her to perpetual unhappiness. Indeed, the Ardens of Park Hall were one of the most respected aristocratic Catholic families in the region. Their ancestors had received landed property from William the Conqueror, and their origins could be traced back to the period before the Norman Conquest – which also goes to deconstruct the academic fraud of William Shakespeare’s allegedly “bought” nobility. Such slander should first of all call attention to the fact that William Shakespeare had to face many enemies during his lifetime, as he tried to protect himself and his family by virtue of what Joyce defined as “silence, exile and cunning.”
Mary Arden was the favorite daughter of her father Robert and upon her marriage with John Shakespeare she was bequeathed – like King Lear’s beloved daughter Cordelia – his most valuable possession, the Wilmcote estate. This fact tells us that Robert Arden must have been pleased with John Shakespeare as his son-in-law, in spite of the fact that he was of yeoman stock, while Mary belonged to the gentry. This would not have been possible if John, besides coming from a lower social class, had also been a Protestant. In fact, the opposite was the case: Robert was pleased with John as a serious suitor and a Catholic in good standing, and he must have felt secure entrusting him with the care of his most cherished daughter, allowing her to enjoy respect and freedom of conscience for all her married life.
As Christopher Devlin points out, the Arden household “became a headquarters of the Counter-Reformation during Shakespeare’s teenage years.”[cix] In 1583 Edward Arden, the head of the Arden family “was implicated in one of the most disgustingly bogus plots of the period […] a shameless attempt by Leicester to extirpate his family. Lucy sat on the Commission which indicted him for high treason. The trial was shifted to London, probably on account of his popularity. He was executed a Tyburn, a martyr in everything but the title.”[cx] The son-in-law of Edward Arden, John Somerville – hence the bogus name “Somerville Plot” – was also accused and arrested: he was tortured on the rack and died while he was at the Tower of London. The persecution of the Arden family continued during the 1580s and 1590s,[cxi] also at the hands of the local “Puritan” magistrate Sir Thomas Lucy.[cxii]
Perhaps the most prominent of Shakespeare’s relatives was his cousin, the Jesuit Robert Southwell (1561-1595), author of An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie (1591) addressed to the Christian Queen Elizabeth – which will be discussed comparatively with Beccaria’s treatise Dei Delitti e delle Pene. Due to anti-Catholic censorship, Southwell’s volume of poems, Saint Peter’s Complaint, was published posthumously in 1616 and out of the country, being dedicated to William with the salutation “To my worthy good cousin, Master W. S.”[cxiii]
The abominable death of Robert Southwell, his martyrdom under the pious and innocent virgin Queen Elizabeth – he was imprisoned, tortured, hung and disemboweled like a traitor – and the scandalous hypocrisy that surrounded the persecution of Catholics in general and his family in particular, must have exerted a powerful influence on Shakespeare’s mind as a young man.[cxiv] Learned in the Scriptures, he must have perceived a strong similarity between the tragedy of Robert Southwell butchered by an allegedly Christian monarch, and the Passion of Jesus Christ murdered at the hands of the Pharisees. In a culture saturated with references to the Logos and typological reading of Scriptures, Shakespeare must have felt that the pattern of Israel persecuted by Egypt’s Pharaoh was repeated in the tragic fate of English Catholics, living in a tyrannical political regime of terror and propaganda, forcibly converted to the “true faith” – or else dispossessed, incarcerated, tortured, hung and disemboweled in the name of Christian charity.
In the revisionist version of history provided by Reformation historiography, this immense burden of human suffering – and guilt – is systematically denied or belittled.[cxv] As Anthony Nuttall writes, “[w]hen John Carey published his John Donne: Life, Mind and Art in 1983, he painted a vivid picture of the anti-Catholic terror. Some historians thought he overplayed the grand guignol. One said, ‘John is like the fat boy in Pickwick – “I wants [sic] to make your flesh creep.”’ But a certain distinguished historian of the reign of Elizabeth said to me, ‘I was shaken by Carey’s book. We historians are fond of saying that the persecution of Catholics was fitful and inefficient, but Carey makes one see the real horror.’”[cxvi] In his historical and biographical discussion of John Donne, Carey offers a detailed description of the conditions in which English Catholics had to live:
“The financial incentives to join the Church of England were strong. By a statute of 1585, Catholics who refused to attend Anglican service were liable to a fine of £20 a month. An average parish schoolmaster’s salary at the time, it’s worth reminding ourselves, was £20 a year.
Offenders who found themselves unable to pay were to have all their goods and two-thirds of their land confiscated… The anti-Catholic legislation also made it high-treason for any Jesuit or seminary priest to be within the Queen’s dominions, and felony for any lay person to relive or receive him. In effect, this meant that it was felony to practice Catholic religion. […]
New prisons were established at Wisbech, Ely and Reading, all filled with Catholics. […] In the common prisons, Catholics were victimized. The felons incarcerated with them were encouraged to abuse them… John Gerald, the English Jesuit, reports that when his manservant was captured and shut up in Bridewall he was given barely sufficient food to keep body and soul together. His cell was tiny, bed-less, and crawling with vermin, so that he had to sleep perched on the window ledge.
The gaolers left his excrement in the cell in an uncovered pile, and the stink was suffocating. In these conditions, he waited to be called out and examined under torture. The poet and martyr Robert Southwell also testifies to the systematic starvation of Catholic prisoners… Some of the tortures employed on Catholic suspects were so vile that Southwell cannot bring himself to speak of them [cf. An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie; it is worth remembering that the Queen alone had the power to enforce those tortures] but the ones he does describes are fearful enough. Prisoners were deprived of sleep, until they lost the use of their reason; they were disjointed on the rack; they were rolled up into balls by machinery “and soe Crushed, that the bloud sprowted out at divers parts of their bodies.” […]
The number of Catholics actually executed was, by the standards of twentieth century atrocities, quite small. Between the passing of the new anti-Catholic legislation in 1585 and the end of Elizabeth’s reign, a hundred priests and fifty-three lay persons, including two women, were put to death. The method used to dispatch the victims amounted, however, in many cases to makeshift vivisection, so it atoned, in terms of spectator interest, for its relative rarity.
When the Babington Plot, which had been known about and fomented almost from the first by government agents, was “discovered” in 1586, instructions, to which the Queen was a party, were given to the hangman that “for more terror” the young men responsible should be disemboweled alive. […]
The fate of John Rigby, killed in 1600 under the Act of Persuasions, which made it high treason to embrace the Roman religion, exemplifies this. After he had been hanged, Rigby was cut down so quickly that he stood upright “like a man a little amazed,” till the executioners threw him to the ground. He was heard to pronounce distinctly, “God forgive you. Jesus receive my soul,” whereupon a bystander put his foot on his throat to prevent him from speaking any more [i.e. an instance of true Christian charity].
Other bystanders held his arms and legs while an executioner cut off his genitals and took out his bowels. When he reached up inside Rigby to extract his heart, his victim was “yet so strong that he thrust the men from him who held his arms.” Confronted with judicial proceedings of this kind, English Catholics felt not only pity and terror, but isolation. Their fellow countrymen were not simply indifferent: they rejoiced at the Catholics’ discomfiture.”[cxvii]
Focus: “[John Rigby] was heard to pronounce distinctly: ‘God forgive you. Jesus receive my soul,’ whereupon a bystander put his foot on his throat to prevent him speaking any more. Other bystanders held his arms and legs while an executioner cut off his genitals and took out his bowels.” After suffocating the sacred word of forgiveness, the executioner cut off his genitals, ripped open his belly, and extracted his inner organs: including his beating heart, Aztec-like. As Richard Wilson points out, “John Carey’s study of Donne describes… the tragedy of an entire generation of Elizabethan writers born into families which had prospered until 1558 under the Catholic Mary… This book is therefore about how Shakespeare’s muteness on the persecution of his family and friends relates to the conditions in which he wrote.”[cxviii]
For the vast majority of English Catholics living in the second half of the 16th century, political loyalty to the state was never questioned, since – as Robert Southwell also remarked in his Supplication (1591) – public politics and private faith were conceived as completely separate. And yet “recusants” had the painful realization that their faith made them aliens in their own country and nation – the object of suspicion, spying and abuse. Three of Shakespeare’s close relatives were falsely accused, incarcerated, tortured and murdered: Edward Arden, John Somerville and Robert Southwell – indeed Wilson writes that in the 1590-s, Shakespeare’s Warwickshire cousins were “decimated for their alleged treason.”[cxix] In the revisionist version of Anglo-American history, Shakespeare figures as a marionette, the mouthpiece of the emerging British Empire. But nothing seems farther from the truth: the experience of tyranny, injustice and oppression, the ruthless persecution of Catholics, was the most traumatic as well as the most significant event in Shakespeare’s life, against which he had to fight with all the weapons he had: a magnanimous heart, powerful intellect, courage, culture, and a pen as sharp as a two-edged sword. We would be very naïve to assume that this devastating experience did not have any influence on the creator of the tragedies and history plays; on the creator of plays such as Measure for Measure, against the hypocrisy of political corruption, and The Merchant of Venice with the brilliant character of Portia the Advocate – a very successful figura Mariae whose words of wisdom are a warning for all tyrants:
“The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
(The Merchant of Venice IV, i, 181-194)
Through the words of Portia, his most successful female character, Shakespeare reminds all human beings, but especially those in power, 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” (195-199), where the Catholic theological reference to the deeds of mercy should not pass unnoticed, as per Jeremiah: “I, the Lord, explore the mind and test the heart,/ Giving to all according to their ways,/ According to the fruit of their deeds. [cf. Jer 32:19; 1 Sm 16:7, Eccl 12:14]. A partridge that broods but does not hatch are those who acquire wealth unjustly;/ In midlife it will desert them;/ In the end they are only fools. [cf. Prv 13:11; Lk 12:20]”
After the life-changing experience of persecution, expropriation, torture and murder of three close relatives – Edward Arden, John Somerville and Robert Southwell – Portia’s powerful words stand as an enduring accusation before the law of God and man.
The standard punishment for all “political traitors” was hanging and disembowelment, i.e. for patriots and martyrs like the Jesuit Robert Southwell – Shakespeare’s own cousin – who had the honesty and the courage to address an “humble supplication” to the Christian Queen, remarking that there exists a great distinction between private faith – which is a matter of personal conscience – and the public political loyalty due to one’s monarch. Let us never forget that this distinction is now one of the basic principles of all Western democracies. The separation between the private and public sphere of citizenship is at the core of all democratic constitutions. Two-hundred years after the martyrdom of Robert Southwell and many other innocent victims, the political philosopher Cesare Beccaria published his treatise Dei Delitti e delle Pene (1764), a key work of the European Enlightenment, and a source of inspiration for the American Constitution. Beccaria’s epoch-making treatise was important for more than one reason. Apart from his condemnation of torture and the death penalty, Beccaria argued for a necessary correspondence between guilt and punishment, i.e. the fact that punishment must not exceed the gravity of the crime committed. This principle is now at the basis of all systems of democratic retributive justice in the West. Also in this light we can see how completely opposite to the Spirit of Life, Truth and Justice Southwell’s execution actually was.
In their analysis, both Carey and Wilson focus on the fact that for all Catholic poets born in the Reformation period – names of the caliber of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and John Donne – the traumatic experience of political tyranny and religious persecution was the defining life-event. In a very important way, their art represented a creative way out of terror and repression: a way to overcome death with Life, falsehood with Truth, envy and hatred with true Christian charity and forgiveness, as we see in the immortal art of Shakespeare.
With political persecution came a vast array of criminal activities such as spying, intimidation, blackmail and false accusations, which the government justified as “legitimate” for reasons of state security, i.e. it was an expedient way for the state to replenish its coffers with the money confiscated from the Catholic population. The system of spying – “inspired by Burghley and led by Topcliffe”[cxx] – generated a climate of suspicion and division among citizens, now unsure which neighbor to trust or to avoid for fear of persecution: “Spies, some of them renegade priests and Catholics, gave the authorities advance warning about where masses were to be celebrated. Catholic households were commonly raided… In their private life, Catholics were inevitable a prey to blackmail and intimidation. They could not claim redress for personal injuries, or retrieve money owed to them.”[cxxi] The data carefully collected by Carey should constantly be kept in mind when reading Shakespeare, whose mindset was shaped by such institutionalized terror. The concepts employed by Carey in his study of John Donne are valid for all the authors and artists who were part of that historical reality: “Some readers may ask what all this has to do with Donne’s poetry, but I imagine they will be few. It would be as reasonable to demand what the Nazi persecution of the Jews has to do with a young Jewish writer in Germany in the 1930-s. Donne [and Shakespeare before him] was born into a terror, and formed by it.”[cxxii]
Which is why, as Richard Wilson insightfully remarks, “Shakespeare’s faith is like… his own Blackfriars property, with its secret passageways and priest-holes built to defy the grandest Inquisitions.”[cxxiii]
If the Ardens were one of the most ancient Catholic families in England, on his father’s side Shakespeare was also firmly established in Catholicism. John Shakespeare was a wealthy businessman at least until the 1570-s, when he began to experience some financial troubles after the passing of edicts instigating the persecution of Catholics. After 1576, he suddenly ceased to attend Stratford Corporation meetings, until he was finally removed from the corporation itself.[cxxiv] Later, in 1592, he was reported for “obstinately” refusing to “resort to the church,” pleading “fear of process of debt.”[cxxv] The report itself, as noted by F. W. Brownlow (1989), was nothing but a list of recusant Catholics, drawn by a Protestant commission headed by Thomas Lucy, who had received by the government the order to ascertain the religious conformity of Warwickshire “with a special eye to Jesuits, priests and recusants, for not coming monthlie to the churche, according to her Majestie’s lawes.”[cxxvi]
John Shakespeare’s Spiritual Testament was recovered at the end of the 18th century in the house of his descendants, the Harts – in the same house of Henley Street where William was born and raised by his family. As Devlin remarks, “Malone, the great eighteenth-century Shakespearean, pronounced it genuine… But no one else supported him and the document was neglected for a hundred years. The truth was that Victorian Protestant England simply could not swallow it.”[cxxvii] The Testament was a prayer as well as a testimony of faith, which had been formulated by the Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, and enjoyed great popularity at the end of the 16th century. It was brought to England by the numerous Jesuit missions of the 1570-s and 1580-s, and John Shakespeare likely received it by Fr. Persons[cxxviii] and his missionary brothers Campion and Sherwin. As a prayer, it was intended for frequent recitation with the family, so that young William must have heard his father read it over and over again: “The devout person who will make use of this spiritual writing, for the good of his soul let him read or hear it often… And when he shall fall sick, let him renew by reading, or hearing read, this Testament in presence of others.”[cxxix] The Testament is certainly genuine, and the fact that Shakespeare quotes it in what would become his most famous play, Hamlet, confirms its relevance. The first to notice the relation between John Shakespeare’s last will and his son’s masterpiece was George Wilkes in his 1882 Shakespeare from an American Point of View when referring to the lingering presence of the father in the life of the son, both in reality and in William’s realistic mimesis. At the same time, Wilkes did not indicate a precise linguistic reference in Hamlet. In the opening section of the Testament – reproduced from Wilkes and quoted at length in the endnote – we read:
“Section I. In the name of God, the Father, Sonne, and Holy Ghost, the most holy and blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, the holy hosts of archangels, angels, patriarchs, prophets, evangelists, apostles, saints, martyrs, and all the celestial court and company of heaven; I, John Shakespeare, an unworthy member of the Catholic religion, being at this, my present writing, in perfect health of body, and sound mind, memory, and understanding, but calling to mind the uncertainty of life and certainty of death, and that I may be possibly cut off in the blossom of my sins, and called to render an account of all my transgressions, externally and internally, and that I may be unprepared for the dreadful trial either by sacrament, penance, fasting, or prayer, or any other purgation whatever, do, in the holy presence above specified, of my own free and voluntary accord, make and ordain this, my last spiritual will, testament, confession, protestation, and confession of faith, hoping hereby to receive pardon for all my sins and offences…” [cxxx]
The expressions “cut off in the blossom of my sins” and “called to render an account of my transgressions” are quoted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act I, scene v), in the ghost’s first speech to the Prince:
“Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.”
(Hamlet I, v, 74-79, italics added)
Remarkably, the precise quote “cut off in the blossom of my sins” appears in Hamlet in the same context of spiritual accountability and preparation for death by virtue of the Catholic Sacraments of Penance (Confession) and Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction). In this context John Shakespeare enumerates “sacrament, penance, fasting, or prayer, or any other purgation whatever;” while the ghost counts the forms of spiritual assistance he did not receive at the moment of death: “Unhouseled, dis-appointed, unaneled,/ No reck’ning made.” As Wilkes suggested, it is an intelligent and correct intuition to see that John’s often-repeated words of faith remained inscribed in his son’s “memory,” as he worked and held “a seat” in the “distracted” London Globe:
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records…
And thy commandment alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, yes, by heaven.”
(Hamlet I, v, 95-104)
The meta-reference to his contemporary theater life leaves no doubt that Shakespeare intended to infuse a strong autobiographical dimension into this scene. But at the same time, the experience of political persecution compelled him to acquire the ability to express himself as a “double-meaning prophesier,” saying the truth in a covert and coded way. For this reason, the literary exegesis of this and other complex passages from Hamlet will be developed in Chapter Three; but it is helpful to introduce it here in connection with the figure of the ghost. Why does Shakespeare create the mimesis of a demonic apparition speaking the words of his father? Does this mean that the ghost may truly be a soul from Purgatory and speak the truth? Or does this mean that Shakespeare secretly hated his Catholic father?
There is no reason to assume that Shakespeare hated any one of his family members, when all his writings are predicated on the need to forgive. The first important reason why Shakespeare generally blends good and evil, also in the representation of the ghost, is because Shakespeare is a realistic writer, his art being “the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” (Hamlet III, ii, 22-24) It is a fact of reality that good and evil are often combined, as Christ explains in the parable of the weeds among the wheat. As the Master of the house, God sowed good wheat in his field; but Satan, the enemy, sowed weeds – which the Master commands his servants to leave until harvest time:
“His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Mt 13:24-30)
The second important reason why Shakespeare chose to have a demon speak with the words of his father is – once again – because Shakespeare is a realistic writer. Like Iago in Othello (Chapter Two), this is exactly what demons and demonic human beings do, i.e. mixing truth and untruth in order to lead astray the naïve and create a situation of chaos and violence. Satan thrives through lies, calumnies and slander: as Christ warns us, Satan was “from the beginning” a “murderer” and a “father of lies” (Jn 8:44), and his demonic and human slaves behave in the same way (Chapter Two).
Even so, eventually all human beings must die – and it is significant that when John Shakespeare died in 1601 he was buried on September 8, when the Catholic Church celebrates the Birth of the Blessed Virgin – a last eloquent statement of loyalty from a persecuted family who could not proclaim their faith openly, but only give silent witness to God through their life-long resistance, the heavy cross they carried in their daily lives, work, and death.
From our perspective, the legacy of the Spiritual Testament is priceless. In a time of tyranny, terror and persecution, when attending mass could cost people all their possessions as well as their life, reciting this profession of faith daily could in a certain sense replace more important Sacraments that persecution made it impossible to receive; it had the power to keep the family united in the face of worldly corruption; and it could infuse a sense of personal identity attached to the memory of one’s forefathers – as it is represented in the victorious war campaign of Henry V, one of the greatest figurae of the artist, the successful Catholic Prince who stands in sharp contrast with our beloved and “distracted” Hamlet.
Having been raised by devout Catholic parents, in a town and region which was one of the centers of Catholic resistance, and having personally experienced the political persecution against his family, Shakespeare maintained his living faith tied to the awe and affection for his noble ancestry. In an epoch in which faith was essential, respecting the Catholicism of his ancestors also meant respecting his own identity, his own pride as a man with strong bonds to his family roots and household. Shakespeare petitioned for a coat of arms both in order to protect his descendants, and in recognition of the fact that his mother’s family was part of the most ancient nobility of the country. What compelled him was not so much ambition [cxxxi] as a concern for his family’s future, the desire to all that was in his power to secure their wellbeing in a time of political turmoil.
Among the biographical information evidencing Shakespeare’s Catholic faith, very few sources mention the fact that he did not receive “communion” within the reformed Church of England: “Examination of the communion rolls of the parish of St. Saviour in Southwark, carefully kept during the period Shakespeare lived there, revealed that the poet did not take communion in the Church of England, a fact suggesting that like his father and daughter he did not conform.”[cxxxii] Also relevant is the much-maligned fact that Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway received their marriage license only six months prior to the birth of their first daughter, Susanna, in May 1583. As Christopher Devlin and M. D. H. Parker have suggested, there is no reason to assume that they had broken their vows and consummated their marriage before the ceremony.[cxxxiii] Parker highlights the fact that there was a Marian priest at Temple Grafton, John First, who may have celebrated the Catholic rite, since he “had escaped deprivation owning to age, harmlessness and the well-known shortage of new men,” and like “Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, [he was] interested in the art of healing, being able to cure sick birds.”[cxxxiv]
Recent scholarship has focused on the so-called lost years of Shakespeare’s biography, discussing the idea that he may have been employed as a schoolmaster at the Catholic household of the Hoghtons in Lancashire, with whom John Cottam, schoolmaster at Stratford from 1579 to 1581, had family and economic ties. This possibility was first discussed by Oliver Baker (1937) and supported among others by E. K. Chambers (1944), Peter Milward (1973), Ernst Honigmann (1985) and Richard Wilson (2004).[cxxxv] At Hoghton Tower, William went by the name of “Shakeshafte,” a variant previously used by his grandfather Richard and which served him as a nom de guerre, as it was the custom with recusant Catholics at the time. In a similar way, soldiers would receive a new name for their mission: “Parsons became Doleman; Campion, Hastings; and Debdale, Palmer: the name of the grandfather he is thought to have shared with Shakespeare.”[cxxxvi] To confirm this observation, “Shakeshafte” disappeared immediately after Alexander Hoghton, the head of the family, bequeathed his property in 1581. John Cottam and William Shakeshafte were named his legatees, and his neighbor Sir Thomas Hesketh was invited “to be friendly unto Fulke Gillam and William Shakeshafte now dwelling with me; and either take them into his service or help them to some good master.”[cxxxvii]
According to Honigmann, Sir Hesketh employed Gillam, but he probably recommended Shakeshafte to the Stanleys, and it was through them that Shakespeare began his career in London around the year 1590. When Shakespeare appeared in London, it was with pro-Catholic patrons: Lord Strange first, and then the young Earl of Southampton. And after coming back to Stratford toward the end of his life, for the considerable price of £140 he bought Blackfriars Gatehouse, frequently visited by Jesuits – at least three times: in 1561, 1598 and 1605. “With its secret passageways and priest-holes built to defy the grandest Inquisitions,”[cxxxviii] Blackfriars was a renowned safe haven for Catholics, located as it was near the palace of the French Ambassador. David Beauregard remarks that, given the high price paid for such an ancient structure, it is very unlikely that Shakespeare bought it as an investment: rather, this strategic purchase was his own way to help the cause of freedom of conscience, offering refuge and protection to Catholics in London. Shakespeare placed Blackfriars in Catholic hands with John Robison and his wife, and his own daughter Susanna carried on the tenancy until 1639.
After Shakespeare’s death in 1616, Richard Davies, Vicar of Sapperton and later Archdeacon of Coventry, recorded the testimony of surviving witnesses attesting that Shakespeare “dyed a Papist” (MS. Oxf. 31577). Devlin remarks that this authoritative evidence “has been indignantly rejected. But it is good evidence; and we have the cautious but firm and fair conclusion of Sir E. K. Chambers that there is no valid reason for rejecting it.”[cxxxix]
The controversy surrounding the theatrical representation of John Oldcastle as Falstaff in the Henry plays is another instance of Shakespeare’s Catholic sympathies. The author casts his ironic critique of Falstaff precisely within the context of Demonology. Hence in I Henry IV Prince Harry portrays Falstaff as a Satanic influence: “There is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man… Why dost thou converse with… that reverend Vice, that grey Iniquity, that father Ruffian, that Vanity in years? […] That villainous, abominable misleader of youth, Oldcastle; that old white-bearded Satan.” (II, v, 452-468) Oldcastle – “an old fat man,” a coward, unrepentant thief, and an alleged critic – is said to have entered the Satanic Pact, selling his soul cheaply in exchange for food and drink, exactly like Marlowe’s Faustus:
“Edward Poins. Good morrow, sweet Hal. What says Monsieur Remorse? What says Sir John Sack and Sugar? Jack! How agrees the devil and thee about thy soul, that thou soldest him on Good-Friday last for a cup of Madeira and a cold capon’s leg?
Prince Harry. Sir John stands to his word, the devil shall have his bargain; for he was never yet a breaker of proverbs: he will give the devil his due.
Edward Poins. Then art thou damned for keeping thy word with the devil.
Prince Harry. Else he had been damned for cozening the devil.” (I Henry IV I, ii, 111-121)
Shakespeare’s portrayal of Falstaff and the controversy it generated were discussed by Christopher Devlin in Hamlet’s Divinity. Devlin also focuses on the fact that few scholars ever mention how “Shakespeare was seriously accused in his lifetime of being a pro-Catholic propagandist.”[cxl] John Speed, the Protestant historian of the 1611 Histoire of Great Britaine, accused Shakespeare of being the “Papist” poet of Robert Persons, a Jesuit Father and pamphleteer: “this Papist and his poet, of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning and the other ever falsifying the truth.”[cxli] The textual evidence that is usually, conveniently erased in this context is the fact that Shakespeare’s derisive representation of Falstaff – as an old and overweight “white-bearded Satan” who corrupts the youth and misquotes Scripture – was too destructive for the authorities, who at the time were even trying to anoint him as the first martyr of the reformed faith. But that became almost impossible after Shakespeare’s hilarious mimesis. Commoners coming from the theater would not believe such mystification anymore, and Speed “found his picture of Oldcastle blown to pieces by rude laughter.”[cxlii] Devlin records the attempts of the Protestant establishment to remedy the damage done by Shakespeare’s infamous portrayal of the “white-bearded Satan”:
Shakespeare chose to represent his Oldcastle as a hoary old hypocrite who quotes the Geneva Bible almost every second line; but then he enters into the fun of the thing and makes him a parody of his hypocrisy, and fills him with an irresistible zest for life until he becomes the glorious unregenerate whom Englishmen are so fond of in fancy – and so stern against in fact.
Queen Elizabeth, we are told, laughed as heartily as anybody. But there were politicians close to the Government who did not find this travesty of Foxe’s first martyr at all funny. In the next year a smug and vindictive Protestant play inspired by Lord Cobham, Cecil’s brother-in-law appeared. Written mainly by the Government spy, Anthony Munday, it presented Oldcastle as the saintly victim of immoral priests and monks. But it was quite futile. The damage was done. There would be no Martyrs Memorial to Oldcastle.[cxliii]
John Speed did his best to rescue the version of history fabricated by Bayle and Fox in his Book of Martyrs – in which Oldcastle was hailed as a “morning star of the Reformation” – and he vented his resentment against Robert Persons accusing him of displaying Oldcastle as “a Ruffian, a Robber, and a Rebel.” Significantly, Speed also acknowledged the fact that Shakespeare’s art seemed to him in complete accordance with Persons’ Jesuit theology: “And his [Persons’] authority, taken from the stage-players, is more befitting the pen of his slanderous report than the credit of the judicious, being only grounded from this Papist and his poet, of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning and the other ever falsifying the truth.”[cxliv]
Persecution and immortality: an introduction to the textual evidence
To form an idea of the current scholarship on Catholicism in Shakespeare, a good introduction is Roy Battenhouse’s Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension (1994).[cxlv] In this section and in the following two chapters we are going to analyze some of the textual evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholic influence and inspiration, especially the references that have not yet been discussed by previous scholarship. But it is clear that such a brief essay can only focus on a few themes in Shakespeare’s vast canon, selected because of their importance, e.g. in Chapter Three we will discuss the importance of the Scriptural record of Saul and David in order to illuminate the relationship between King Claudius and Hamlet.
Scriptural references in Shakespeare are pervasive and fully interpretable in light of Catholic theology, including typology and prefiguration as hermeneutic keys whose validity is established by Christ as He gave witness to John the Baptist (Mt 11:7-15). As remarked by Jeffrey Knapp (2002), Renaissance authors employ the vehicle of art and theater to refer to contemporary socio-political events and support the cause of true religion. This also implies offering an artistic mimesis within the context of Salvation History as it is represented in Scripture, and believed and practiced through rational faith. A number of Scriptural references are to the Passion of Christ and His betrayal at the hands of His people. This theme is especially important for the tragedies and history plays, which describe betrayal and fratricide on a large, socio-political scale in the context of the civil wars and the wars of succession.
Another source of Shakespeare’s Catholic inspiration is the Blessed Virgin as a model of femininity, a poetical muse of innocence and virtue, and a dispenser of salvation and healing. Also inspirational for Shakespeare was the life-parable of Catholic saints and martyrs, models of human behavior, e.g. St Joan of Arc as the martyred warrior Cordelia in King Lear; St Agatha as Marina, escaping safe and sound from the brothel in Pericles; Saints Crispin and Crispian in Henry V; St Joseph as Pericles in his courtship of Princess Thaisa with the device of a “withered branch, that’s only green at the top” (Pericles, scene 6, v. 47), just to mention a few.
The presence of Catholic sacramentals and prayers in the tragedies has never been discussed, e.g. the Scapular of Mount Carmel in Macbeth and St Gertrude’s prayer for the liberation of the souls in Purgatory in Hamlet (Chapter Three). Important references to the Expiating Church of Purgatory and to the doctrine of indulgences are found both in Hamlet and in The Tempest, and in this section we are going to see the Scriptural basis for both.
Especially in the tragedies, e.g. Hamlet and Macbeth, the recurring critique against political iniquity and social injustice is contextualized by Shakespeare with references to the Messianic times of the Great Tribulation, Christ’s defeat of the Antichrist and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Also in our analysis of Hamlet (Chapter Three) we will discuss Shakespeare’s indebtedness to the medieval theatrical tradition of the Mystery and Passion plays; as well as the author’s inscription in the tradition of the Biblical sublime, as discussed by Erich Auerbach in Mimesis (Chapter Seven, ‘Adam and Eve’).
To his loyal friend Horatio, at the beginning of the action, Hamlet portrays his father thus: “A was a man. Take him for all in all” (I, ii, 186). From a natural perspective, the Prince offers here the image of a most human human being in whom good and evil realistically coexist, as in King Harry’s “The King is but a man, as I am” (Henry V IV, i, 101). The qualities and flaws of a nobleman are aptly summarized in Polonius’ description of Laertes as the perfect courtier, after the Renaissance model set by Baldassarre Castiglione. Laertes’ flaws – “drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling, drabbing” – may seem “the taints of liberty,” “the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind” and the “savageness of unreclaimèd blood.” (Hamlet II, i, 33-35) After giving his paternal approval to all of the above, in this scene with Reynaldo, Polonius comically adds: “you may go so far” (Hamlet II, i, 22-24) – and we will never know whether, on his part, Hamlet’s father respected this reasonable limit or went beyond…
But from a supernatural perspective, the meaning of the expression “all in all” refers to a higher, theological level that is at the same time existential, having do with the essential role of John Shakespeare’s Catholic faith – the faith of our fathers – in the life of his son, as an artist and as a human being. In describing Hamlet’s father, Shakespeare also describes his own identity in terms of his origin, both as a classical and as a Christian concept. The Scriptural referent of the expression “all in all” is found in the Pauline Letters, and it must be considered in the larger context where it appears, in Ephesians:
“Brother and Sisters: I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one Body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord; one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:1-7)
In this extraordinary passage, “one faith and one baptism” refers to Peter’s universal mandate as God’s Vicar on earth as in Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Simon, symbolically renamed with his Roman Latin name Peter, is the head of God’s universal Catholic Church, while schism and heresy are condemned in the exhortation “to preserve the unity of Spirit… one Body and one Spirit.” It is quite significantly with a reference to Paul, who was later made “a prisoner” like the persecuted English Catholics, that Shakespeare presents King Hamlet as “all in all” – a fallible human being of catholic faith.
The core meaning of the universal Catholic faith is charity toward God and neighbor, cf. the Golden Rule (Mt 7:12); the Greatest Commandment (Mt 22:34-40); the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). This is also summarized in the same passage from the Ephesians: “live… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love.” This is crucial, and it is also very important to remark how, after studying in Wittenberg, obviously associated with Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517), Hamlet remembers his Paul only partially, with defective “m’m’ry.” And indeed, the same passage, if remembered correctly, would instruct him not to take violent vengeance but to “bear” and to forgive with “humility and gentleness” – as Paul repeats in Romans: “Bless those who persecute you… Do not repay anyone evil for evil… do not look for revenge … for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rm 12:14-19, cf. Lv19:18; Dt 32:35-41; Mt 5:39; 1 Cor 6:6-7; Heb 10:30). This is the divine Law of forgiveness, and from the point of view of human law, in Chapter Three we will discuss a more civilized alternative to murder described in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, which Hamlet also erases from his memory.
Another meaning of Shakespeare’s “all in all” is found in the theological doctrine of adequatio, describing how the infinite God bends down to reach the infinite nothingness of human beings – first of all in the Incarnation of Christ, who “though he was in the form of God” (Phil 2:6), emptied Himself to take human form (Is 53:3-11; Jn 1:14; Phil 2:6-8); and then in the constant communion – Eucharist as well as communication by virtue of the Holy Spirit – between God and His creatures. The concept of adequatio explains how, out of mad love for rebellious humankind, the infinite God – who can hold the finite created universe in the palm of His Hand – recreates Himself in a grain of wheat (Jn 12:24) and a particle of bread in order to save us from ourselves. As Paul writes, “our Lord Jesus Christ… for your sake became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9). What Paul writes of himself in the first Letter to the Corinthians is true especially for God: “[a]lthough I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so as to win over as many as possible.” (1 Cor 9:19)
This is also the deep theological meaning of Shakespeare’s famous Epilogue in Henry V, in which both the warrior King Harry and Shakespeare as the author owe their success to the One, the only “bending Author” – “Thus far with rough and all-unable pen/ Our bending author hath pursued the story” (Epilogue, 1-2). Henry V is especially significant in Shakespeare’s canon because the protagonist King Harry is the antithesis of Prince Hamlet as the perfectly successful Catholic monarch or prince – and “prince” is of course a reference to Machiavelli’s Renaissance treatise Il Principe (1532). King Harry has knowledge of both good and evil – the “God of battles” (Henry V IV, i, 286) and Falstaff’s Satanic Pact (1 Henry IV I, ii, 111-121) – which is absolutely necessary for his successful political rule. In the Epilogue to Henry V, Shakespeare as the human author humbly and realistically defines himself as an “all-unable pen,” an instrument in the hands of the divine “original Author” (Wis 13:5) who alone is the “bending Author” – both because God is moved to compassion to stoop down to human nothingness, and because only God is able to bend all evil to good in His providential plan for the redemption of fallen humanity: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rm 8:28) Most importantly for Shakespeare as a poet, the theological concept of adequatio, the image of God as the “bending Author” who communicates Himself as “all in all” to all of His creatures, is also found in the prophetic poetry of King David’s Psalms:
“I waited, waited for the Lord;
Who bent down and heard my cry [cf. Lam 3:15]
Drew me out of the pit of destruction,
Out of the mud of the swamp
Set my feet upon rock [Peter]
Steadied my steps
And put a new song in my mouth,
A hymn to our God.
Many shall look in awe and they shall trust in the Lord.” (Ps 40:2-4, italics added)
The warrior-king and poet-prophet David receives his immortal song from God, a song for the glorification of His sacred Name. Also in this case, as in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, the theological concept of adequatio is enclosed in the frame of reference of God’s universal Church grounded on the rock of Peter: “set my feet upon rock.” In David, the omnipotent God “bent down” to hear his cry and put “a new song” in his mouth: the gift of sublime, immortal poetry springing from the gift of true faith.
Hamlet’s “all in all” is only one of the numerous references to Catholicism in the play. From internal clues, we know that the tragedy is set approximately between a hundred and fifty and two hundred years before the time it was first represented – in a pre-Reformation continental Europe, and at a time when Italian was already the fashionable language of culture. Indeed Hamlet’s rewriting of The Murder of Gonzago in his The Mousetrap (III, ii, 226) takes inspiration from an original play “writ in choice Italian” (250-251), after the prestige of the Tre Corone, the Three Crowns: Dante (1265-1321), Petrarch (1304-1374) and Boccaccio (1313-1375).
Hamlet as a tragedy therefore is set in a not-too distant past but – as discussed by Jeffrey Knapp (2002) in the context of Renaissance Theater – it addresses crucial contemporary problems and events. The play clearly presents Catholicism as the official religion of the Danish state, e.g. the lamentation of the ghost: “Thus was I… Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,/ Unhouseled, dis-appointed, unaneled,/ No reck’ning made…” (I, v, 74-78)
In a context of betrayal, regicide, fratricide, injustice and political usurpation, it is not surprising to find references to the Diet of Worms (1521) and to the Act of Uniformity (1549-59) against a background of Scriptural apocalyptic themes. The Diet of Worms (Reichstag zu Worms, 1521) was the first of a series of imperial congregations (Ger. Reichstag, “parliament”) of the German elective princes to mark the diffusion of Luther’s doctrines, first in Germany and then in the rest of Europe. The other two diets were Augsburg in 1530 and Regensburg in 1541. Financially as well as politically, the German princes were very interested in Luther’s ideas. As Geoffrey Barraclough remarks, their financial and political interests went in a completely different direction away from Rome and to a certain extent from the Emperor himself, who at the time was Charles V Habsburg (1500-1558): “Between 1212 and 1250, sacrificed by Frederick [Frederick II, 1215-50] to the exigencies of Italy, Germany took a road which differentiated its history for centuries to come… from that of England and France. Its destinies passed out of the hands of the monarchy into the control of a princely aristocracy, whose horizons rarely extended beyond the boundaries of their own territories, and whose policy showed scant respect for the common interests and traditions of the German people.”[cxlvi] The German Emperor was elected by seven German princes, four secular and three ecclesiastical, but his temporal power had to receive the divine legitimation from the Vicar of God, the Catholic Roman Pope. Evidently, there was a delicate balance of powers between all parties involved – Pope, Emperor and German princes:
“The absent and besieged emperor (Frederick II, 1215-50) gave the German princes a free hand in shaping German political life, and their petty interests became supreme. In 1356 the imperial Golden Bull officially recognized their autonomy. This agreement, issued by Emperor Charles IV (1347-78), repudiated direct papal involvement in imperial elections and restricted the election of the emperor to seven electoral states: four secular – the Palatinate, Saxony, Brandenburg and Bohemia – which were recognized as autonomous political dynasties; and three ecclesiastical – the archbishoprics of Mainz, Trier and Cologne. Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519) further strengthened the German princes…” [cxlvii]
Neither the German princes, nor the German Emperor wanted to support Catholic Rome with taxes and privileges. If the four secular German princes were already well reformed before the Reformation, Charles V had to keep face and profess himself a loyal servant of Rome in order to receive the royal legitimation from Pope Clement VII (Bologna, 1530). In fact, the Emperor aspired to unify his vast possessions in Italy, in the north and in the south, neutralizing the Pontifical States with its unwanted taxes. A prized possession was the Republic of Venice, the Queen of the Mediterranean (Chapter Two) – by far the richest commercial city as well as the most powerful bulwark against the Turkish Empire, one of Charles’ main political enemies. But “decadent” Venice always belonged to the Pope.
In 1527 the Emperor showed the direction of his politics with the Sack of Rome. He hired an army of religiously reformed mercenaries, the Lanzi, who were so appalled and scandalized by Catholic corruption that they murdered as many people as they could; stole their property; violated women, including convent nuns;[cxlviii] desecrated all churches including the universal treasury of Saint Peter; stole consecrated precious vessels and canonical apparel; damaged all palaces except those belonging to the families in league with the Emperor; and with their infectious diseases they decimated the population of Rome – which went from 85,000 to little more than 40,000: “The splendid metropolis of Leo X with its 85,000 inhabitants brusquely decreased to the scale of a small city, with little more than half of the populace.”[cxlix]
It is our duty to understand the author and his audience in their socio-political and cultural context. Hence when Shakespeare has a “convocation of politic worms” (IV, iii, 21) devour the corpse of the awkward spy Polonius, we should realize the memories of devastation with which the Diet of Worms and the ensuing events were connected in the mind of contemporary spectators. With knowledge of Scripture – which Shakespeare could take for granted in his times, but we cannot take for granted in ours – the reference to Matthew 24 is easily recognizable in this scene dealing with a macabre gathering of scavengers: “Where is Polonius?” (Hamlet IV, iii, 32) How are we going to find the cadaver? “Up the stairs into the lobby” you are going to “nose” him – answers Hamlet – describing the “progress” of a king in the “guts of a beggar” with a realistic reflection on the leveling power of death.
In the 16th century, when Scriptural literacy was common and indeed necessary, this scene would have been recognized as an echo of the Apocalypse of Matthew (Chapters 24-25). In particular, Shakespeare’s text echoes Christ’s prophetic sentence: “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Mt 24:28). Like John’s Apocalypse, the Apocalypse of Matthew deals with the sequence of events that will lead to the establishment of the City of God on earth: the Great Apostasy, the Great Tribulation, Christ’s Second Coming in Glory, His defeat of the Antichrist and his subjects – the corpse and the vultures – and the establishment of God’s Kingdom, after which another thousand years of history will elapse before the Final Judgment (Rev 20). As we read in the prophets, with the establishment of the City of God on earth, “Every valley shall be lifted up,/ Every mountain and hill made low” (Is 40:4); the lion and the lamb will browse together “with a little child to guide them” (Is 11:6) and sovereignty will rest solely with God: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us, upon his shoulders dominion rests… His dominion is vast and forever peaceful.” (Is 9:5-6)
The connection between the Diet of Worms and the Great Apostasy is repeated in the final scene of Hamlet’s duel – a tragically paradoxical duel – with Laertes. The King’s poisoned cup holds a “union,” a poisoned pearl: “The King’s shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath/ And in the cup a union shall he throw/ Richer than that which four successive kings/ In Denmark’s crown have worn.” (Hamlet V, ii, 218-221) The pearl is a Scriptural symbol for the Kingdom of God (Mt 13:45-46); for the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and the community of the elect; and in particular for the Virgin Mother of God and of the Church as the Ark of the New Covenant.
But Claudius’ pearl is not holy – it is poisoned, which turns the cup into a Chalice of Passion for the victims, and the Cup of God’s Wrath for the perpetrators (cf. Jer 25, Rev 14). In this reversed symbolism, the “union” is in fact a schism and a poison that causes both spiritual and physical death. There is an important link between Claudius’s “union” and the Act of Uniformity passed by Edward VI in 1549, strengthened in a more overtly Protestant direction in 1552 by the same monarch, and confirmed by Elizabeth I in 1559. In the eyes of many, Elizabeth was usurping the authority of the legitimate Vicar of God by having herself appointed “Supreme Governor of the Church of England” with the Elizabethan Religious Settlement (1558-1559), of which the Act of Uniformity was part. It was the first Act to mandate that every English subject attend the Protestant service on Sunday, and to allow only one form of legal worship in England, with harsh punishments for all the non-compliant – including fines; the loss of public post for clerics; dispossession of one’s wealth and landed property to be “donated” to the Crown; life-long incarceration with all imaginable and unimaginable abuses, etc. These are indeed the “bonds of shismacy.” Hence the image of the poisonous pearl, in sharp contrast with the Biblical symbol for the Kingdom of Heaven: “The kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (Mt 13:45-46)
The content of this Act was mostly repealed in the 19th and 20th centuries in consideration of the principle of religious freedom and freedom of conscience; and the bloody suppression of the popular rebellions that ensued – in Lancashire, Cornwall and the South West of England – was condemned by members of the Anglican Church like the Bishop of Truro (2007).
It is also important to notice Claudius’s remark on the number of previous kings connected with the pearl, four – a completely gratuitous remark in the moment of highest tension in the play. Shakespeare’s mention of four monarchs involved with the poisonous union is also an indication of his keen political sense and historical judgment: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I and James I. After the scene of the poisoned cup, the other recurrence of the word “union” in Hamlet is inserted in a context that points to Claudius as an “incestuous, murderous, damned” king – “Here, thou, incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,/ Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?” (V, ii, 277-278) In the same way, Henry VIII initiated a religious schism that murdered and damaged thousands of people physically, and many more spiritually; he was also suspected to have married his illegitimate daughter Ann Boleyn, which caused his minister Thomas More to reject his association at the cost of his life. We may not be off the mark to see Shakespeare’s Claudius in this scene as a reference to Henry VIII as the “incestuous, murderous, damned” king who started the schism and is seen dying of his own poison, in an anticipated contrapasso.
Many observers and critics supported the idea that Anne was the fruit of an affair between Henry and Elizabeth Boleyn. The historical and literary evidence denouncing the incest is strong but usually dismissed as coming from a Catholic perspective – while Protestant or Marxist versions of history are seen as perfectly legitimate. In fact, religious denomination has nothing to do with the facts; but it is certainly true that the re-writing of history is in the interests of those who profit from building the myth of a monolithically Protestant British Empire. To indicate a few names of some importance supporting this viewpoint – without considering, that is, the widespread popular opposition to the king’s second marriage – we can remember: the scholars Nicholas Harpsfield, William Rastell and Nicholas Sander; the lawyer of Queen Mary I, Adam Blackwood; the Vicar of Isleworth, John Hale; Elizabeth Amadas, wife of the royal goldsmith and one of the many mistresses of the king, who said that “the king had kept both the mother and the daughter;” Sir George Throckmorton reporting a private conversation with the monarch; and Fr. William Peto who actually had the courage to reprimand Henry publicly, in a sermon preached before the king himself on Easter Day 1532 – after which he warned Henry that there was a widespread rumor in the general population to the effect that the king had had an affair with Anne’s sister as well as her mother.[cl]
On his part, Shakespeare portrayed Henry’s incest in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. In the opening scene, the tyrant-king Antiochus tries to murder Pericles after he discovers the incestuous affair between the king and his daughter. Shakespeare’s anachronistic references to Machiavelli’s The Prince (I, i, 135-147; 205-209), a treatise on political rule and corruption, “a book of all that monarchs do,” support a contemporary political interpretation:
“Pericles. Great King,
few love to hear the sins they love to act.
‘Twould braid yourself too near for me to tell it.
Who has a book of all that monarchs do,
He’s more secure to keep it shut than shown,
For vice repeated, like the wandering wind,
Blows dust in others’ eyes to spread itself…
Kings are the earth’s gods; in vice their law is their will;
And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove does ill?”
(Pericles, Prince of Tyre I, i, 135-147)
King Antiochus’s plot to murder of Pericles (I, i, 193-214) is likewise framed in the context of contemporary politics with a reference to Machiavelli’s image of the prudent archers, (Il Principe, VI). Also notice the chilling reference to the severed heads – one of Henry VIII’s favorite pastimes; and the anachronism of the “pistol” in a play which appears to be set in the historical period of the Church Fathers and St Augustine, between the 4th and the 7th century AD:
“Antiochus. Thaliart… for your faithfulness
We will advance you, Thaliart. Behold,
Here’s poison, and here’s gold.
We hate the Prince of Tyre, and thou must kill him.
It fits thee not to ask the reason. Why?
Because we bid it. Say, is it done?
Thaliart. My lord, ‘tis done […]
Antiochus. As thou wilt live, fly after; like an arrow
Shot from a well-experienced archer hits the
The mark his eye doth level at, so thou
Never return unless it be to say
‘Your majesty, Prince Pericles is dead.’
Thaliart. If I can get him in my pistol’s length
I’ll make him sure enough. Farewell, your highness.
Antiochus. Thaliart, adieu. [Exit Thaliart]
Till Pericles be dead
My heart can lend no succour to my head. [Exit]
[The heads are concealed]”
The contemporary references to Machiavelli, the anachronism of the “pistol,” and the collection of severed heads indicate that the incestuous and murderous king Antiochus in Pericles refers to the contemporary reality of Henry VIII, and for the reasons discussed above, the same symbolism is found in Hamlet. Indeed, Henry VIII is egregiously portrayed in both fictional tyrants, Claudius and Antiochus, two incarnations of terror who decree the death of the innocent in order to maintain their political power. In Antiochus’ words is the echo of all tyrants: “He hath found the meaning, for the which we mean/To have his head. He must not live/ To trumpet forth my infamy, nor tell the world/ Antiochus doth sin in such a loathed manner,/ And therefore instantly the Prince must die/ For by his fall my honour must keep high.” (Pericles I, i, 186-191); “We hate the Prince of Tyre, and thou must kill him./ It fits thee not to ask the reason. Why?/ Because we bid it.” (Pericles I, i, 196-198)
The faith of our fathers: Richard II, 3 Henry VI, and Henry V
In the tradition of medieval Mystery and Passion plays (Chapter Three), Passion scenes abound in Shakespeare’s canon. Hence for instance, Hamlet’s poisoned chalice in the duel scene mirrors Christ’s bitter Chalice of the Passion; Desdemona’s sacrifice has the power to redeem Othello, forcing him to repentance, an examination of conscience, and a salvific declaration of faith in Christ before his self-execution; and Lear’s lament over the death of his loving daughter Cordelia has rightly been compared to Michelangelo’s Pietà (1475-1564). In this context, we should analyze the Passion scene we find in Richard II (Act I, scene iii) in which father and son are tragically separated by civil war – which is a fitting metaphor for religious schism and the ensuing persecution:
“John of Gaunt. I thank my liege, that in regard of me
He shortens four years of my son’s exile […]
King Richard II. Thy son is banished upon good advice,
Whereto thy tongue a party verdict gave.
Why at our justice seem’st thou then to lour?
John of Gaunt. Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.
You urged me as a judge; but I had rather
You would have bid me argue like a father.
O, had it been a stranger, not my child,
To smooth his fault I should have been more mild:
A partial slander sought I to avoid,
And in the sentence my own life destroy’d.
Alas, I looked when some of you should say,
I was too strict to make mine own away;
But you gave leave to my unwilling tongue
Against my will to do myself this wrong.” (Richard II I, iii, 209-235)
In this highly symbolic scene, the theological and the personal levels tend to overlap as it often happens in Shakespeare, in the autobiographical scholarly tradition of St Paul and St Augustine. At the personal level, John of Gaunt represents John Shakespeare, the merchant of gloves – Fr. gaunt, “glove” – who was tragically separated from his son due to the persecution of the local Protestant landowners, as discussed in the biographical context. At the same time, Gaunt also represents William Shakespeare, who for the same reason was later separated from his beloved son Hamnet. Together with the personal and self-referential meaning, there is also the theological reference to God the Father separated from His divine Son by the universal tragedy of the fall of man – “Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour,” as in the original sin – in atonement for which Christ became the Innocent Victim for the salvation of humanity.
In this exceptional scene, God the Father is represented not only as a humanized Person, since Christ is the “Son of Man,” but as a suffering Person, tragically suffering for the infinite pain endured by His Son, with whom He is One in the Spirit. In Salvation History, that pattern of self-sacrifice must repeat itself over and over again in human life (Chapter Two), as Paul writes: “that I may gain Christ… depending on faith to know Him and the power of His Resurrection, and the sharing of His sufferings by being conformed to His death” (Phil 3:9-10); “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His Body, which is the Church.” (Col 1:24). In order to act in conformity to Christ’s death and share in His Resurrection, the living Logos must be assimilated and lived, as explained by Ezekiel: “’As for you, son of man, obey Me when I speak to you: be not rebellious like this house of rebellion, but open your mouth and eat what I shall give you.’ […] a written scroll… covered with writing front and back, and written on it was: ‘Lamentation and wailing and woe!’ He said to me: ‘Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth and He gave me the scroll to eat… and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.” (Ez 2:6-9; 3:1-3)
The same coexistence of interpretive levels and the same concept of a personal, humanized God we find in Henry V, in the famous scene of the king’s reconnoiter in his own camp, disguised under the cloak of one of his subjects, during the night before the decisive battle of Agincourt against the French. King Harry addresses the complaints of a soldier by the name of Williams, in the plural – the artist being “all in all in all” of his characters, as suggested by Joyce (Scylla and Charybdis) – and confides him that “the King is but a man, as I am.” (IV, i, 101) In the same dialogue, King Harry interprets his proper role of absolute monarch according to the divine right of kings, and he explains that the sovereign is responsible for the political part of the war but not for the abuses of free-will and the guilty conscience of his subjects, as God is not responsible for man’s original sin, which was also a result of an abuse of free-will:
“The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant, for they purpose not their deaths when they purpose their services… Then if they die unprovided, no more is the King guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for which they are now visited. Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed: wash every more out of his conscience. And dying so, death is to him an advantage.” (IV, i, 154-179)
Henry V is Shakespeare’s most successful monarch, and it is not accidental that he is also a Catholic Prince who in his Lehrjare has developed essential knowledge of good and evil, of how God’s Providence is able to turn human evil into good – “There is some soul of goodness in things evil… Thus may we gather honey from the weed and make a moral of the devil himself” (Henry V IV, i, 4-12) As a Catholic Prince, he acknowledges the essential role of the Sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction – “if they die unprovided” – exactly as we read in the Spiritual Testament of John Shakespeare and in the ghost’s speech to Hamlet. Henry’s knowledge encourages him to beseech the God of Hosts for success in battle, since God alone is omnipotent and can yield power to human beings: “O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts.” (IV, i, 286)
Hence Henry pleads for success, begging God not to avenge his father‘s guilt upon himself, as per the Mosaic Law in the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God… You shall not have other gods beside Me… For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestor’s wickedness on the children of those who hate Me, down to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex 20:2-5) As Nehemiah prayed to God – “Remember this in my favor, O God!” (Neh 13:30-31) – Harry “reminds” God of all the good works and acts of charity he has accomplished to deserve God’s Mercy:
“Five hundred poor have I in yearly pay
Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
Toward heaven to pardon blood.
And I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do,
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penance comes after ill,
(Henry V IV, i, 295-301)
Henry’s prayer is heard: despite being in foreign territory and outnumbered by the enemy, he obtains a complete victory at Agincourt that he wisely ascribes not to “our strength” but to God’s omnipotence – unlike Herod Agrippa (10 BC – 44 AD), struck down by God and “eaten by worms” “because he did not ascribe the honor to God” (Acts 12: 20-24):
“Montjoy. The day is yours.
King Harry. Praisèd be God, and not our strength, for it.
What is this castle called that stands hard by?
Montjoy. They call it Agincourt.
King Harry. Then call we this the field of Agincourt,
Fought on the day of Crispin Crispian.
Fluellen. Your grandfather of famous memory, an’t please your majesty,
and your great-uncle Edward the Plack Prince of Wales,
as I have read in the chronicles, fought a most prave pattle here in France.
King Harry. They did, Fluellen.
Fluellen. Your majesty says very true. If your majesties is remembered of it,
the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow,
wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps, which your majesty knows
to this hour is an honourable badge of the service. And I do believe
your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day.
King Harry. I wear it for a memorable honour,
For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.” (IV, vii, 84-103)
In this scene and in the next, notice some important references to the Catholic faith of John Shakespeare: the king ascribes military victory to God and to the intercession of saints of the Church Triumphant like St Crispin and St Crispian; the twin saints are patrons of tanners and glove-makers like Shakespeare’s father; the king plays a practical joke on both Fluellen and Williams – “What’s in a name” – having Fluellen wear Williams’ glove on his hat, so as to provoke Williams’ challenge: “My liege, this was my glove” (IV, viii, 29).
Praising Catholic saints under political tyranny and at the risk of religious persecution is an unmistakable sign of loyalty to the old established religion, the faith of our fathers. For Shakespeare as the author, a symbol of the Catholic faith of his father is having one of his characters wear a glove on his hat – John Shakespeare was the glove-maker, and now the glove belongs to “Williams.” As Ben Jonson wrote: “Look how the father’s face/ Liues in his issues, euen so, the race/ Of Shakespeare’s minde, and manners brightly shines/ In his well torned and true-filed lines:/ In each of which he seems to shake a Lance,/ As brandished at the eyes of Ignorance.” (To the Memory of My Beloved the Author William Shakespeare: And What He hath Left Us, First Folio, 1623)
As we have seen, Passion scenes abound in Shakespeare and it is interesting to notice that very often they are associated with a bloody napkin or handkerchief that is reminiscent of the Sindone (Holy Shroud), the Mandylion or the Veronica, bearing the imprint of the martyred Divine Image (Col 1:15)
Perhaps the most striking Passion scene comes from 3 Henry VI (Act 1, scene 4), when Queen Margaret takes her revenge on the Duke of York, who plotted to overthrow the legitimate but weak King Henry VI, successor to Henry V.[cli] York was indeed a traitor and deserved punishment – but a regular execution is not sufficient to placate the enraged Queen: before killing him, she wants to torture and drive him to madness by showing him a napkin soaked with the blood of his murdered son Rutland: “where is your darling Rutland?/ Look, York, I stained this napkin with the blood/ that valiant Clifford with his rapier’s point/ Made issue from the bosom of thy boy […] Why are thou patient, man? Thou shouldst be mad,/ And I, to make thee mad, do mock thee thus” (3 Henry VI I, iv, 79-82; 90-91). At the sight of the blood-soaked napkin, York of course breaks into tears, thus mingling blood and water as in the Passion of Christ. The scene is reminiscent of the piercing of the bosom of Christ, from which blood and water issued for the salvation (blood) and purification (water) of mankind.
Not content with this “abominable” act (I, iv, 134), Queen Margaret re-enacts other scenes from Christ’s Passion, namely the crowing with thorns and the mocking of the soldiers, while York is tied to a column as in the scourging at the pillar: “York cannot speak unless he wear a crown. (To her men) A crown for York, and, lords, bow low to him. (She puts a paper crown on York’s head)/ Ay, marry, sir, now looks he like a king.” (I, iv, 94-97) The scene is so moving that even her men are touched in spite of themselves – hence Northumberland admits: “Beshrew me, but his passions move me so/ That hardly can I check my eyes from tears.” (I, iv, 151-152, italics added). A crucial passage is when York calls Queen Margaret a “tiger” of “Hyrcania” (I, iv, 138 and 156), which in medieval bestiaries was associated with the devil. This is quite significant, also because the only other occurrence of a “Hyrcanian beast” in Shakespeare is in the symbolic Pyrrhus passage in Hamlet (II, ii, 453 ff.) as the Prince speaks with the players, indirectly expressing his fear to become another such savage murderer. The dynamic is the same: Shakespeare shows that even victims – a dispossessed Queen 3 Henry VI and a dispossessed Prince in Hamlet – can turn into savage beasts if they are driven by a desire for revenge, which is a prerogative of God: “’Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ says the Lord.” (Rm 12:19)
Immediately after this remarkable Passion scene in 3 Henry VI, we have a double mimesis of Christ’s Passion in the image of a son killing a father (II, v, 55-78) and of a father killing a son (II, v, 79-93) – both unknowingly and unintentionally – while fighting for different factions in a country torn apart by a deadly civil war: “O, pity, God, this miserable age!/ What stratagems, how fell, how butcherly,/ Erroneous, mutinous and unnatural,/ this deadly quarrel daily doth beget!” (II, v, 88-91) With reference to the current political events, the bloody civil war becomes a clear symbol for the Protestant schism that divided the country, tore entire families apart and lacerated the physical bodies of hundreds of martyrs – a “deadly quarrel” “[e]rroneous, mutinous and unnatural” decided and commanded from above – as the son laments over his father’s corpse: “From London by the King I was pressed forth… Pardon me God, I knew not what I did;/ and pardon father, I knew not thee.” (3 Henry VI II, v, 67-70)
More Passions scenes – one tragic, the other two tragicomic – are found in The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – where the napkin or handkerchief still functions a symbol of the Holy Shroud or Mandylion. In The Winter’s Tale, the loyal servant Antigonus is torn to pieces by a bear, and the shepherd’s son gives witness to his death by showing King Leontes and his court the blood-stained handkerchief testifying to Antigonus’ martyrdom: “He [Antigonus] was torn to pieces with a bear. This avouches the shepherd’s son, which has not only his innocence, which seems much, to justify him, but a handkerchief and rings of his, that Paulina knows” (V, ii, 61-66).
Again, in As You Like It, Orlando misses his appointment to woo Rosalind in order to save his traitor brother Oliver, asleep under a tree in the forest of Ardennes. He saves him even twice, first from a snake coiling around his neck, and later by a hungry lioness that tears “some flesh away” from his arm, causing him to bleed and stain the handkerchief (IV, iii, 148). In this moving scene, the betrayed brother Orlando forgives the betrayer Oliver and converts him by his example of human compassion. “Kindness, nobler even than revenge” (IV, iii, 129) accomplishes the miracle that finally unites the two brothers in the name of godly mercy. At the sight of the blood-stained napkin, Rosalind faints, thus revealing her identity and her love for Orlando.
Finally, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the main action involving the four young lovers is mirrored in the tragicomedy of the “mechanicals’” who impersonate Pyramus and Thisbe – a story that is tragic per se but tragicomic in its amateurish rendition.[clii] Also in this play within a play, Thisbe’s blood-stained mantle is mistaken for a sure sign of her death.
All these instances of Passion scenes work well to illustrate Shakespeare’s Catholic influence and inspiration, but perhaps the best example of the Shroud and Mandylion we find in Othello, the subject of Chapter Two. Desdemona’s marriage sheets, stained with her virginal blood and testifying to her virginity, also become her funeral shroud – “If I do die before thee, prithee shroud me/ In one of these same sheets” (IV, iii, 22-23). While the cursed handkerchief, decorated with strawberries that look like drops of blood, becomes the object of one Aristotelian peripeteia, or reversal of fortune, and one anagnorisis, or final recognition.
The Blessed Virgin, the saints, and the veil of classical myth
Figurae Mariae and references to the Blessed Virgin are numerous in Shakespeare’s canon. Mary is a paragon of femininity, a poetic inspiration of innocence and virtue, and a donor of godly mercy, healing and salvation. She is the model for some of the most successful characters in Shakespeare: the “advocates” Isabella (Measure for Measure) and Portia (The Merchant of Venice), whose hand and fortune can only be won by choosing heavy lead over gold, the ruler of this world; the despised doctor’s daughter Helen (All’s Well that Ends Well); the dispossessed King Prospero’s daughter, Miranda (The Tempest); the abandoned and betrayed Marina, “Thou that begett’st him that did thee beget” (Pericles scene 21, v. 183); the slandered innocents Queen Hermione and Princess Perdita (The Winter’s Tale), Hero (Much Ado about Nothing), Imogen (Cymbeline) and Desdemona in Othello (Chapter Two). Perhaps due to the tragedy of his extended family, the theme of the slandered innocent was particularly dear to Shakespeare, who named his first daughter Susanna. References to God’s Virgin Mother, whose devotion was officially abolished by the reformed religion, are often given by the author under the veil of classical myth, e.g. Diana in Pericles (scene 22), after the established example of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the classical and Christian traditions converge, e.g. God is often alluded to as Jove and the Blessed Virgin as Diana.
The religious schism tried to suppress, eliminate and even outlaw the veneration of the Virgin Mother of God. But apart from the fact that devotion for Mary’s Advocacy was ingrained in people’s hearts, Her authoritative model had a tremendous influence not only on artistic mimesis, since She was the paragon for any female character; but also on political and religious discourse, with the displacement and appropriation of Her power and divine attributes by Elizabeth I. As Espinosa remarks, “we would be hard pressed to believe that the swift erasure of the physical markers of the cult of the Virgin Mary in post-Reformation England translated into an equally precipitous erasure of that Marian influence from England’s cultural psyche.”[cliii]
Christianity revolves around the mystery of God’s Incarnation, which revolves around the mystery of the Virgin – Her preservation from the original sin; the perfection of all her faculties: will, memory, intellect, wisdom; Her complete obedience to God’s Will; Her Fiat of acceptance to face a destiny of suffering; Her Life within the Trinity as the beloved Daughter of the Father, the Virgin Mother of the Son, and the Mystical Spouse of the Spirit. From a theological perspective, erasing the Virgin was not only “an onerous undertaking,” but quite impossible without changing the significance of Christianity itself. And in fact, in pre- and post-Reformation Christianity, “the Virgin Mary remained.”[cliv]
Mary’s “religious and gendered influence” was vast and profound in Shakespeare’s culture, and deeply embedded in his text. Considering the interconnectedness of the theological and theatrical discourses at the time, Her powerful roles and attributes constituted the model and paragon for every female character – either positively and successfully like Portia; or negatively and abominably like Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure, Mistress Quickly in the Henry plays and the Bawd in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
Among the numerous Marian symbols employed in literature and in the arts, we remember: the Holy Tabernacle; the Arc of the New Covenant; the glorious Woman of the Apocalypse clothed with the sun, standing on the moon and crowned with a diadem of stars; the Mystical Rose; Gate of Heaven; the Ladder to God, as in the maxim Ad Jesum per Mariam; the Morning Star, which is the meaning of the name Miriam; also the rainbow is one of Her symbols, representing a renewed peace between Heaven and earth. But Mary – the wisest, bravest and strongest of creatures – is also symbolically depicted in Solomon’s Song of Songs as a “tower of strength” and a powerful “army” deployed for battle. She defeats the mad pride of Satan through everything that he is not – through humility, purity, self-sacrifice and obedience. Her chosen prayer is a Christological prayer, describing Christ’s Life, Passion and Resurrection. Mary elected the Rosary as the humblest, hence the most powerful weapon for human beings in the battle against God’s enemy, as in the Battle of Lepanto (Chapter Two).
Espinosa recognizes figurae Mariae in characters like Portia, the advocate (The Merchant of Venice); Ophelia, the sacrificial victim (Hamlet); Isabella, unwilling to compromise her virtue and also wise enough to understand that Angelo would never keep his promise anyway (Measure for Measure); Hermione, the slandered Queen of The Winter’s Tale; Desdemona, another victim of slander, as we will see in our analysis of Othello; Cordelia, also inspired by the virgin warrior Joan of Arc (King Lear); Marina, the abandoned and betrayed daughter in Pericles, so pure and humble in her demeanor that she is able, like St Agatha, to convert sinners even in a brothel.[clv]
Here we can add Titania, the goddess who falls in love with fallen humanity represented by a donkey-man (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); Rosalind, an “androgynous angel” who proves to be stronger than both men and women (As You Like It); Helen, the physician’s daughter able to heal by virtue of her father’s knowledge and skill (All’s Well That Ends Well); Miranda, the lady marvelous to behold in her encounter with Ferdinand (The Tempest); Emilia, the chaste “priest” and “knight” of Diana (The Two Noble Kinsmen); and Imogen, another slandered innocent and the personification of fidelity and loyalty to Rome:
“Although the victor, we submit to Caesar,
And to the Roman Empire, promising
To pay our wonted tribute, from the which
We were dissuades by our wicked queen [cf. Elisabeth]
Whom heavens in justice both on her and hers
Have lead most heavy hand.” (Cymbeline V, vi, 461-466)
Many secondary female characters in the plays are also inspired by the Virgin Mother. For instance: Emilia, the mother and abbess in The Comedy of Errors; the faithful Queen Catherine in Henry VIII; the generous and enlightened Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well; Princess Thaisa in Pericles, where Pericles’ device of a “withered branch, that’s only green at the top” (scene 6, v. 47) is reminiscent of St Joseph’s blossomed branch as a sign that he is the one chosen by God to protect the Virgin and the Child. And of course, after Dante’s example, whose genius unites the classical and Christian tradition, Mary appears under cover of Greek mythology as a protection in a time of religious terror, e.g. as Diana, goddess of chastity (Pericles); Juno, queen of the gods (The Tempest); Ceres, goddess of agriculture, wheat and bread (The Tempest); Iris, goddess of the rainbow as symbol of peace between Heaven and earth (The Tempest).
This is an established literary technique dating back at least to Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he often refers to God as Jove; Christ as Apollo, and the Virgin as Athena and Diana. The expediency of employing Greek and Roman mythology to refer to an outlawed religion in times of religious persecution is immediately understandable. Interestingly in Shakespeare this technique works in both ways: on the one hand he often employs classical references as a veil for Catholic figures and themes; and on the other hand, as Robert Miola and Eric Carlson have observed, he frequently maps Catholic theology – sacraments, virtues and values – on the classical world of Greece and Rome. Hence, for example, “the Romans value oaths and relics; Diana’s servitors practice a nun’s chastity; in Ephesus a miracle occurs; authorities explain sacred writings to bewildered laity in Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale.”[clvi]
Not only is the figure of the Virgin able to cover a large spectrum of characters in Shakespeare’s theater, but Her regal attributes of majesty and power also had an important political significance. Regarding Queen Elizabeth’s appropriation of the Virgin’s royal attributes, Espinosa remarks that Mary’s “emblems and symbols” invested the earthly monarch with “specific attributes of authority.” Elizabeth’s legitimation strategy unambiguously targeted the image of the Blessed Virgin, appropriating Her attributes of virtue, power and authority in order to legitimate her weak position as the new female sovereign after her Catholic sister Mary, the first female monarch in English history. In this way, Elizabeth attempted to present herself in a role that was already familiar to her subjects – in fact, the only powerful role occupied by a woman in people’s minds, i.e. the powerful Virgin Queen of Heaven. The role of the Virgin Queen was indeed the most authoritative for Elizabeth’s aspirations. And if she certainly was not responsible for Luther’s iconoclastic attack against the Virgin, she soon realized that effacing Her visible presence would weaken Her veneration, while appropriating Her role and symbols would be the most expedient way to gain an aura of authority and legitimation in the eyes of the court, parliament, and subjects alike.
To exemplify the influence of the Virgin in Shakespeare’s art, we can briefly focus on the most brilliant female character in Shakespeare: Portia, the brilliant advocate from Venice-Padua in The Merchant of Venice, whose name (from Lat. porta, “door” or “gate”) alludes to Mary’s divine appellation as Porta Coeli. Her brave “good deed” to save the merchant Antonio shines in a world of darkness like the Biblical Light of Christ in the surrounding darkness. Her words – “That light we see is burning in my hall./ How far that little candle throws his beams,/ So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” (V, i, 89-91) – are reminiscent of John’s theology of the Logos as the Light of the world: “In the beginning was the Word… and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5) Like the Virgin is the perfection of the human race, so Portia is a synthesis of all desirable qualities – “the pink, pearl, and perfection” of both sexes: she has wisdom, intelligence, wit, beauty, courage, perseverance and magnanimity. As the Virgin is God’s appointed Paraclete for fallen humanity, Portia advocates for Antonio in the trial for his life after he has entered a most dangerous pact. Her speech on the divinity of mercy is a compendium of Christian theology, and a powerful criticism against tyranny:
“But mercy is above this sceptred sway…
It is an attribute of God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice…
In the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy.” (IV, i, 190-197)
When Shylock refuses to heed her warnings and show mercy, Portia saves Antonio through a literal interpretation of the law – the creditor must not shed any blood and must take exactly one pound of flesh: “If thou takes more/ Or less than just a pound…Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.” (IV, i, 323-329) Shylock is trapped. He who was trying to take his revenge on an innocent discovers that the pact he has signed is written in a language that he cannot interpret, and which ultimately binds him to his own defeat.
Shakespeare’s artistic freedom expressed itself in a time of terror by growing in the space between the metaphorical and the literal interpretation of the word. And indeed all his artistic renditions and “translations” of the Blessed Virgin – as a figure of virtue and perfection, an intellectual concept of divine wisdom, as well as a focus of love – were subject to the same precautionary treatment, quite clear to all who had “ears to hear.”
Macbeth and the scapular of Mount Carmel (1251)
In Macbeth (IV, iii, 154-160) a “doctor of physic” and Prince Malcolm, son of the murdered King Duncan and future monarch of Scotland, both describe the the King of England’s thaumaturgic virtue – after the Judeo-Christian tradition of the anointed Davidic-Solomonic king with thaumaturgic and prophetic powers, which was fulfilled in Christ as the King and Doctor of fallen humanity. “Such sanctity hath Heaven given to his hand,” (IV, iii, 145) that the English King has the power to heal the sick by means of a “golden stamp,” which he places “with holy prayers,” “about their necks” (Lat. scapula, “shoulder bone”). In this way he also leaves “the healing benediction” to his royal line and succession. “With this strange virtue/ He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy” (157-158), and the divine blessings that surround his person and “his throne” (159) are apparent to all. Many victims of “the evil” seek his help, “a crew of wretched souls” (142). To Macduff, Malcolm’s loyal help, who asks: “What’s the disease he means?” (147), the Prince replies: “’Tis called the evil –” (147). In the same way as in the Gospel of Luke, himself a doctor, the “evil” afflicting these “wretched souls” appears to be spiritual as well as physical, so that the victims must have recourse to the thaumaturgic power of the holy king, “full of grace” (160), and to his “most miraculous work” (148), cf. Christ’s cure of a crippled woman on the Sabbath:
He was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. And a woman was there who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit. She was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect. When Jesus saw her, He called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God. But the leader of the synagogue [was] indignant that Jesus had cured on the Sabbath… The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for the watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?” When he said this, all His adversaries were humiliated; and the whole crowd rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by Him. (Luke 13:10-17)
The “golden stamp” – which the thaumaturgic-prophetic king places “with holy prayers” on the sick, “about their necks,” in order to cure them from “the evil” – refers to the Scapular of Mount Carmel (1251), which the Head of the Carmelite Order in Cambridge, St Simon Stock, received as a divine gift from the Virgin. St. Simon had a vision of the Virgin as an answer to his prayers that She may grant a special privilege, a sign of protection, to the members of his Order. Not only did the Virgin answer his request, but with the Scapular She gave him a gift for all the faithful in the Universal Catholic Church. The Scapular is a visible sign that the person who wears it belongs to Triune God and the Virgin Mother of God according to Catholic orthodoxy. Many graces are attached to the Scapular devotion, if three conditions are met: first, wearing the Scapular at all times, except of course for serious causes; second, daily recitation of the Rosary; third, “observing chastity according to one’s station in life.” In this way the Virgin promises that “whosoever dies clothed in this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.” In other words, the Scapular is a promise of protection not only in this life, but for eternal life, with salvation.
The power of healing associated with the Scapular is first of all spiritual – God shields from maleficium (Chapter Two) directed against the victim, his family and his possessions, as Christ admonishes: “Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with Me the recompense. I will give to each according to his deeds. [..] Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the Tree of Life and enter the City through its gates. Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers [who practice maleficium] the unchaste, the murderers, the idol-worshipers, and all who love and practice deceit.” (Rev 22:12-14) We will better understand the importance of these spiritual dynamics of maleficium, curse and healing in our analysis of Othello (Chapter Two) in light of Christian Catholic Demonology.
The spiritual testament of The Tempest: “Let your indulgence set me free”
The interplay between the literal and metaphorical is crucial to appreciate the importance of another principle of Catholic theology found in Shakespeare: the doctrine of indulgences, which occupied so much of the religious debate of Reformation and Counter-reformation alike.
The Catholic orthodoxy on indulgences is expounded in the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum as well as in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope John Paul II (1994 § 1471-1479). An indulgence is defined as “the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints;” “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin;” “The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.” (§ 1471, official English translation)
From the Old to the New Testament, the Scriptural basis for the expiation for the dead and the doctrine of indulgences is found in passages such as 2 Maccabees 12:38-46 and the Gospel of Luke 16:9. In the second Book of Maccabees we read:
“Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs. But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. […] Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free of sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two-thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind. […] Thus he made atonement for the dead, that they might be absolved from their sin.”
After a bloody battle Judas Maccabeus collected “two-thousand silver drachmas,” which he sent to Jerusalem in order to have an “expiatory sacrifice” – possibly involving livestock to be offered as sacrificial victims – to atone for the sin of idolatry of some of his men, who had consequently been punished and had died on the battlefield. “Thus he made atonement for the dead, that they might be absolved from their sin.” Judas’ actions – “he acted in a very excellent and noble way” – presupposes faith in expiation in order to be admitted to God’s presence, as well as faith in the power of intercessory prayer on behalf of the dead. This is also the meaning of passages such as Luke 16:9, cf. Lk 12:33, when – after the parable of the dishonest steward praised by his master – the Logos commands: “I tell you, make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
It is important to notice that indulgences are complex prayers. They require at least two Sacraments: a complete Confession and a Communion in the Grace of God; they require prayer, especially the Christological prayer of the Rosary, the Creed and a prayer for the Papacy; but the main requisite for the validity of an indulgence is a genuine conversion, i.e. spiritual detachment from venial and mortal sin. Works of charity are also contemplated – Spiritual as well as Corporal Works of Charity, as commanded by Christ in Matthew’s Gospel (25:34-46), in order to substantiate one’s faith with actual deeds, including helping the needy, visiting the sick and freeing the captive.
In Shakespeare’s time, faith in the power of indulgences worked as a dangerous “Star of David” to identify and ghettoize Catholic recusants. Hence it is not surprising to find references to indulgences in Shakespeare’s Spiritual Testament – which was not interred, like the Spiritual Testament of his father John, but buried in the text of his greatest masterpiece Hamlet (Chapter Three) and in Prospero’s Epilogue at the end of his last masterpiece, The Tempest.
With reference to Prospero’s Epilogue, David Beauregard commented on the technical meaning of the term “indulgence” for a Renaissance audience: “[i]n the religious context of Jacobean England and the court of James I, ‘indulgence’ was obviously an important and risky word, a word fraught with powerful theological implications to which Shakespeare could not have been insensitive.”[clvii] And Stephen Greenblatt observed that in Shakespeare’s time, “indulgence” had “the specific, technical sense that it still possesses in Catholic theology: the Church’s spiritual power to remit punishment due to sin,” which meaning is “strongly reinforced”[clviii] by the reference to prayer and forgiveness:
“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 pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.” (The Tempest Epilogue, 13-20)
As remarked by Beauregard, this sublime piece of poetry powerfully condenses not only one, but four Catholic doctrines: the uncertainty of salvation; the value of intercessory prayer; the remission of sins; and of course the validity of indulgences for the living and the dead.
This is crucial to understand Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet, and in particular the complex psychology of the Prince. As in the tradition of Greek tragedy, in order to create more pathos, the audience had to know more than the protagonists themselves. In the same way, Hamlet ignores – or perhaps “wipe[s] away” from “the table of [his] memory” (I, v, 98-99) – the most basic information on the doctrine of indulgences, which on the contrary was a matter of common knowledge for Shakespeare’s audiences. Hence in his Ulysses, for instance, Joyce called the Prince “Hamlet, ou le Distrait.” What did Catholic Joyce know that contemporary audiences, like Hamlet, have wiped away from the table of their memory?
Hamlet forgets that murder is a mortal sin (Ex 20:13); that only God can take revenge for sins committed against Him (Rm 12:14-21); and that the only way to relieve the condition of souls is to pray for their liberation by virtue of holy masses and indulgences. Furthermore, no penitent soul in the Grace of God could ever compel a human being to break God’s Law – but Hamlet forgets this basic fact too, together with the significance of his mother’s name, Gertrude, in connection with St Gertrude the Great (1256-1302). The German Benedictine Abbess was a renowned saint and mystic, and her name was traditionally associated with the Prayer for the Liberation of souls from Purgatorial fire: “Eternal Father, I offer Thee the most precious Blood of Thine Divine Son, Jesus Christ, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Blessed Souls in Purgatory and for sinners everywhere: for the sinners within the Universal Church, for those in my house and within my family. Amen.” In early 17th century society, any commoner at the Globe was aware of these basic facts of religious survival; but Hamlet le Distrait erases them from his memory. How is that possible? We will discuss the multiple causes and effects of his forgetfulness in Chapter Three.
Shakespeare as Everyman, “all in all,” “the genius of humanity”
One of the most significant figurae of the author is the character of Adam in As You Like It, the old faithful servant of his master’s son, the outcast Orlando – himself a Christological figure. The fact that Shakespeare wanted to interpret this apparently secondary role on stage supports Jeffrey Knapp’s account of the quasi-liturgical significance of Renaissance Theater (2002). Every time he reenacted the role of Adam, a clear Scriptural reference to the first man, Shakespeare took upon himself the condition of the entire humanity – a tragically fallen humanity, but renewed by God’s Sacrifice in the Passion and Resurrection. Shakespeare’s Adam is faithful and offers Orlando his talents, the money he spared over a lifetime of service: “Master, go on and I will follow thee” (II, ii, 70). The talents also symbolize the author’s artistic talent understood as a gift from God, which is meant to be returned to God for the glorification of His Name:
“I have five hundred crowns./ The thrifty hire I saved under your father… Take that, and He that doth the ravens feed,/ Yea providently caters for the sparrow/ Be comfort to my age. Here is the gold./ All this I give you. Let me be your servant. […] Master, go on and I will follow thee/ To the last gasp with truth and loyalty.” (As You Like It II, ii, 39-71)
Christian typology also explains the mysterious quality of universality that has so often been attributed to Shakespeare’s sublime art. He wrote of himself, in the figure of an usurped king: “Thus play I in one person many people” (Richard II V, v, 31); then Ben Jonson: “He was not of an age, but for all time;” Pope: “He writ to the people;” Samuel Johnson: “His characters… are the genuine progeny of common humanity;” William Hazlitt: “The striking peculiarity of Shakespeare’s mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds – so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself. […] He… had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling. […] He was like the genius of humanity.”[clix]
What is exceptional about Shakespeare is not only what he managed to accomplish artistically, but also the conditions in which he had to work and operate, in a time of terror, tyranny and persecution. Like the thaumaturgic king of Macbeth, such power “hath Heaven given to his hand” (IV, iii, 145) that he is able to leave “the healing benediction” and cure the sick, so to speak. Shakespeare ‘mends by evil’ like a spiritual vaccine, expressing the truth through indirection – a master of negative sublime, showing the effects of evil in order cathartically to purge his audience from it. As Desdemona says: “God me such uses send/ Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend.” (Othello IV, iii, 104-105)
Shakespeare accomplished all this and much more in spite of tyranny and terror – “He did make his appearance nevertheless” – using just enough linguistic ambiguity not to be accused of treason and murdered like his relatives Edward Arden, John Somerville and his Jesuit cousin Robert Southwell; while at the same time preserving enough transparency and intelligibility to be heard and understood by all who have “ears to hear.” As Thomas Carlyle wrote: “The Christian Faith, which was the theme of Dante’s song, had produced this practical life of which Shakespeare was to sing – for religion then, as it now and always is, was the soul of Practice; the primary vital fact in men’s life. And remark here, as rather curious, that Middle-Age Catholicism was abolished, so far as Acts of Parliament could abolish it, before Shakespeare, the noblest product of it, made his appearance. He did make his appearance nevertheless. Nature at her own time, with Catholicism or what else might be necessary, sent him forth; taking small thoughts of Acts of Parliament. King-Henrys, Queen-Elizabeths go their way; and Nature too goes hers.” (Lectures on Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, 1841) Shakespeare was a master of indirection – as Richard Wilson remarks, “Shakespeare’s faith is like… his own Blackfriars property, with its secret passageways and priest-holes built to defy the grandest Inquisitions.”[clx]
[i] R. Levin’s essay was published in Shakespeare Left and Right, edited by Ivo Kamps. New York and London: Routledge, 1991; as well as in Professing Shakespeare Now, edited by Robert Merrix and Nicholas Ranson. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. The references included in this chapter are taken from the Routledge edition.
[ii] Ibid., 18.
[iii] Ibid., 19.
[iv] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Translated by Gerald E. Bevan, with an Introduction and Notes by Isaac Kramnick. London: Penguin, 2003, 300 ff.
[v] Ibid., 297.
[vi] Ibid., 298.
[vii] Ibid., 300.
[viii] Ibid., 299.
[ix] Ibid., 299.
[x] Ibid., 498 ff.
[xi] Ibid., 498.
[xii] Ibid., 499.
[xiii] Ibid., 499.
[xiv] Ibid., 499.
[xv] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York and London: Simon & Schuster, 1987, 397.
[xvi] Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare. Studies in Theater, Religion and Resistance. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004, 3.
[xvii] Hans-Georg Gadamer. Truth and Method. Second Edition. Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Corporation, 1989, 209-301.
[xviii] Kastan, David Scott. Shakespeare After Theory. New York and London: Routledge, 1999, 17.
[xix] Cox, John D. Seeming Knowledge. Shakespeare and Skeptical Faith. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007, xii.
[xx] Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge. In Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 4.
[xxi] Ibid., 4.
[xxii] For the current debate on the death of the humanities, see:
Alvin Kernan (The Death of Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990; What’s Happened to the Humanities. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1997; In Plato’s Cave. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); John M. Ellis (Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997); Robert Scholes (The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); Carl Woodring (Literature: An Embattled Profession. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Michael Berubé (Higher Education under Fire: Politics, Economics and the Crisis of the Humanities. Edited with Cary Nelson. New York and London: Routledge, 1995; The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies. New York: New York University Press, 1998); Andrew Delbanco (‘The Decline and Fall of Literature,’ The New York Review of Books, November 4, 1999)
[xxiii] Descartes, René. Meditationes de Prima Philosophia. Artur Buchenau, ed. Leipzig: C. Grumbach, 1913. Quotation from Meditatio III, ‘De Deo, quod existat,’ §56-58, translated by John Veitch, 1901, “for… the unity, the simplicity or inseparability of all the properties of God is one of the chief perfections I conceive him to possess. […] There remains only the inquiry as to the way in which I received this idea from God… it is not a pure production or fiction of my mind, for it is not in my power to take from or add to it; and consequently there but remains the alternative that it is innate, in the same way as is the idea of myself. And in truth, it is not to be wondered that God, at my creation, implanted this idea in me, that it might serve, as it were, for the mark of the workman impressed on his work.”
[xxiv] It is remarkable that the same conclusions – God’s existence as the perfect and benevolent Being; the existence of human dignity; the possibility of human knowledge – are arrived at by three great intellectuals of the Enlightenment: René Descartes (1596-1650), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) – as well as by the signers of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. Presenting these philosophers as “atheists” and “skeptics” is an instance of ideology and “instrumentalized reason,” as discussed by Adorno and Horkheimer (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947).
Newton was deeply inspired by his Christian faith, and spent considerable time and resources studying Sacred Scripture – The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, 1728; Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, 1733 – so much so that Biblical hermeneutics occupied him more than science and mathematics.
Pascal devoted the greatest part of the Pensées to a philosophical meditation on the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation and on its moral consequences for humanity. A father of the Enlightenment and one of the greatest mathematical geniuses in history, Pascal identifies reason with an act of the will directed towards realism. Rationality for Pascal also means accepting the in-built limitations of the human mind and its need for the transcendent as the element that gives sense to life, both individually and in the context of human society. Rationality for Pascal is seeking God: “Nothing reveals more an extreme weakness of mind than not to know the misery of a godless man. Nothing is more indicative of a bad disposition of heart than not to desire the truth of eternal promises. Nothing is more dastardly than to act with bravado before God… Finally, let them recognize that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable: those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him.” (Pensée 194) Pascal points out that even if the existence of God cannot be proven from a scientific viewpoint – i.e. apart from the four-thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition and scholarship and its impact on Western culture and the global world – it is certainly also true that God’s existence cannot be scientifically dis-proven. In other words, there is no scientific proof of the non-existence of God. Hence, Pascal exemplifies the best use of human rationality with his Wager (Pensée 233), demonstrating that it is logically best to live as if God existed. If He exists and we live following virtue, we will gain everything in terms of heavenly reward; if we live following virtue and He does not exist, we will lose nothing. But if He exists and we lived a life of sin, we will lose everything in terms of eternal damnation.
In the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, it is only by appealing to God’s superior authority that the 56 representatives in congress were able to legitimize their metaphysical claim to freedom and equality, which – as Habermas remarks concerning the “meaning-endowing” function of religion – would not be demonstrable on a purely human basis. Hence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights… And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honour.” It is essential to realize that without the logical premise of human beings having been created equal by God as the Creator – whose supreme authority surpasses the authority of human law – there would be no United States today.
In his critique of skepticism De Tocqueville writes: “There is almost no human action… that does not originate in a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of His relations with mankind, of the nature of their souls and of their duties toward their fellow men. These ideas cannot be prevented from being the common source from which all the rest flows. Men thus have an enormous interest in forming for themselves well-settled ideas about God, their soul, their general duties toward their Creator, and their fellow men. For doubt about these first points would abandon all their actions to chance and condemn them in a way to disorder and impotence. […] When religion is destroyed among people, doubt takes over the highest regions of the intellect, and it halfway paralyzes all the others. Everyone becomes used to having only confused and unstable notions about the matters that most interest his fellow men and himself. […] For myself… I am led to think that if man has no faith, he must serve; and if he is free, he must believe.” (Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part I, Ch. V, § 27-29)
[xxv] Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 2. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1987. Originally published as Theorie des Kommunikativen Handelns, Band 2: Zur Kritik der Funktionalistischen Vernunft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1981, 355.
[xxvi] Blondet, Maurizio. Gli Adelphi della dissoluzione: strategie culturali del potere iniziatico. Milano: Ares, 1994, 13.
[xxvii] Habermas, Jürgen and Ratzinger, Joseph. The Dialectics of Secularization. On Reason and Religion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press for Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006. Original German edition, Dialektik der Säkularisierung: Über Vernunft and Religion. Freiburg im Breisgau, Basel, and Vienna: Herder Verlag, 2005, 4.
[xxviii] Ibid., 41-42.
[xxix] Ibid., 45.
[xxx] “[W]e have the ethical abstinence of a post-metaphysical thinking, to which every universally obligatory concept of a good and exemplary life is foreign.” (Ibid., 43) Indeed philosophy has very much improved since the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The first ethical value on which civil society is grounded is the idea of the “identical dignity of all men,” which can only be done by translating the theological concept of “man in the image of God” into philosophical discourse: “One such translation that salvages the substance of a term is the translation of the concept of ‘man in the image of God’ into that of the identical dignity of all men that deserves unconditional respect.” (Ibid., 45)
[xxxi] Ibid., 46.
[xxxii] Ibid., 45-46.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 46, cf. “In the Peace Prize speech, entitled ‘Faith and Knowledge’ (Habermas 2003), Habermas develops the idea that the secularization hypothesis has now lost its explanatory power and that religion and the secular world always stand in reciprocal relation. […] Habermas stresses… the fact that democratic majority decisions always depend on the prior ethical convictions of their citizens. Democracy depends on moral stances which stem from pre-political sources, for example from religious ways of life.” In: Habermas, Jürgen et al. An Awareness of What Is Missing. Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010. Original German edition, Ein Bewußtsein von dem, was fehlt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2008, 6-7.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 46.
[xxxv] Joseph Ratzinger (The Dialectics of Secularization, 77-79) discusses the “pathologies of reason” in the historical context of the devastations of the 20th century – especially Nazism and Marxism – and suggests a system of checks and balances between reason and faith, in which reason must be reminded of its potential excesses, thus avoiding the hybris that makes it pathological: “We have seen that there exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a ‘controlling organ’… However, we have also seen… that there are also pathologies of reason, although mankind in general is not as conscious of this fact today. There is a hybris of reason that is no less dangerous. Indeed, bearing in mind its potential effects, it poses an even greater threat – it suffices here to think of the atomic bomb or of man as a ‘product.’ This is why reason, too, must be warned to keep within its proper limits, and it must learn a willingness to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind. If it cuts itself completely adrift and rejects this willingness to learn, this relatedness, reason becomes destructive.”
[xxxvi] Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion. Philosophical Essays. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008. Original German edition, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005, 258. Habermas discusses here how to “confront chauvinists or racists,” but his discourse applies equally well to the academic sphere, and precisely in terms of tolerance for those who, as responsible intellectuals, are able to think independently and originally. In this case, tolerance is very simply a consequence of intellectual honesty – and if human knowledge is a collaborative enterprise, tolerance is the conditio sine qua non for its realization.
[xxxvii] Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, N.J. and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1957-1990, 6.
[xxxviii] Frye, Northrop. The Great Code. The Bible and Literature. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1982, xii.
[xxxix] Ibid., xvi.
[xl] Ibid., xvii.
[xli] Ibid., xiii-xiv.
[xlii] Ibid., xix.
[xliii] Chomsky, Noam. Chomsky on Miseducation. Edited and Introduced by Donaldo Macedo. New York and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, 18-26.
[xliv] Ibid., 18.
[xlv] Ibid., 20.
[xlvi] Ibid., 16.
[xlvii] Buckely, William, F. God and Man at Yale, 50th Anniversary Edition. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002, 131.
[xlviii] Culler, Jonathan. “A Critic against the Christians,” Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 23, 1984.
[xlix] Culler, Jonathan. “Comparative Literature and the Pieties,” Profession 86 (New York: MLA, 1986): 30-32. Culler’s quotations are taken from this article.
[l] Battenhouse, Roy W. ‘Anti-Religion in Academia.’ Christianity and Literature 37, no. 1 (1987): 7-22.
[li] Kee, James ‘Postmodern Thinking and the Status of the Religious.’ Religion and Literature 22, no. 2/3 (1990): 47-60.
[lii] Ibid., 53.
[liii] Ibid., 54.
[liv] See Klee (1990: 53-54): “Measured by a Derridean standard of the postmodern, then, Culler’s attack on religion appears as a modern metaphysical gesture… For while Derrida’s thinking is hardly homogeneous, and it is certainly not yet complete, his texts have too often inspired a posture of ‘suspended ignorance.’”
[lv] Kee, James ‘Postmodern Thinking and the Status of the Religious.’ Religion and Literature 22, no. 2/3 (1990): 56.
[lvi] Ibid., 54.
[lvii] Ibid., 54-55.
[lviii] Ibid., 55. Klee includes in this part of his argument a significant reference to Gerald Bruns’s Heidegger’s Estrangements (1989), to the effect that the return of man to himself as mortal always happens within das Geviert, the quadrilateral formed by earth and sky, humans and gods: “this return… is ‘not of mortals only but of earth and sky, and the return of the gods as well’ (Estrangements, 85)”
[lix] Battenhouse remarks that “distortions are inevitable whenever a critic brings an anti-religious prejudice” to bear on authors who are foreign to it; and misreadings are bound to result when “a critic’s hostility to religious orthodoxy” is imposed not only on the authors but also on students, colleagues and readers who may have different conceptions of life and art. In relation to this topic, Battenhouse’s essay ‘The Relation of Theology to Literary Criticism’ (Journal of Bible and Religion 13, no. 1, 1945: 16-43. Oxford University Press) quotes John Henry Newman’s On the Idea of a University to the effect that only theology is able to represent the human situation in its entirety, in its relationship to God and other human beings: “Without theology,” says Newman, “the total field of experience cannot be explored and assessed.” There is no greater, more profound idea for the human mind to consider than transcendence; and no sublime art can exist apart from the existential problem of man’s relationship to transcendence. It is this relatedness between the human and the divine that should be conveyed – and Battenhouse emphasizes the importance of teaching literature in this way. Truths such as “debate cannot be an end in itself” have the power to leave us in awe, reminiscing about a past when teachers taught animated by the ideal of a noble vocation, and writers wrote not for greed but in search for truth.
[lx] Wright, Terence R. Theology and Literature. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
[lxi] Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1957-1990.
[lxii] The distinction between religion and theology is more a formalism than a reality. In fact, the two are so interconnected that one cannot exist without the other: if theology is the discourse on and science of God, religion is the necessary application of that knowledge to human life. One implies the other in an unbreakable virtuous circle, a continuum without any fracture or interruption. This idea is also represented in Luke’s Gospel (10:25-37), when a scholar of the Law asks Christ how to save his soul for eternal life. Christ replies with a question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The scholar gives a theologically correct answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” But because he wants to justify himself, he also asks who his neighbor is. Christ replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. God teaches that without a practical application of the Law of Charity toward God and the other, there can be no faith, no theology and no salvation for eternal life.
[lxiii] Wright, Terence R. Theology and Literature. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988, 3.
[lxiv] Ibid., 1.
[lxv] Ibid., 183.
[lxvi] Ibid., 3.
[lxvii] Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1957-1990, xix.
[lxviii] Howe, James. A Buddhist’s Shakespeare. London: Associated University Presses, 1994, 129.
[lxix] Ibid., 96.
[lxx] Ibid., 27.
[lxxi] Ibid., 200, cf. Buddhist sacred sculpture, architecture and mandala-drawing to teach impermanence.
[lxxii] Cf. Hall, Kim F., ed. Othello, The Moor of Venice. Texts and Contexts. Boston and New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2007, 171-172: “A powerful cultural and political force, as well as a spiritual one, religion was the dominant means by which early moderns understood and ordered their world. Prayers, sermons heard during mandatory church attendance, and popular entertainments that educated people in religious doctrine shaped their sense of family, community, nation, history, and politics. Religious solidarity… affected both alliances and antagonisms between nations. […] Religious habits of thought affected ordinary people.”
[lxxiii] Also thanks to the diffusion of King James’ poem, the Battle of Lepanto was present in the mental background of audiences attending the performance of Shakespeare’s Othello, cf. King James I, Lepanto. His Maiesties Poeticall Excercises at Vacant Houres. Printed by Robert Walde-grave, printer to the King’s majestie. Cum Priuilegio Regali. La Lepanthe de Iaques VI, Roy D’Escosse. Imprimé à Edinburg par Robert Walde-Grave, Imprimeur du Roy, 1591. Avec Privilège de la Majesté.
[lxxiv] Quoted in: Knapp, Jeffrey. Shakespeare’s Tribe. Church, Nation and Theater in Renaissance England. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002, 15. Knapp highlights the fact that Holinshed, as a historian and an intellectual tied to the monarchy, called for “Christian unity, which, he maintained, could be promoted by granting subjects ‘liberty of conscience, concerning matters of faith,’ and by using ‘the word’ rather than ‘the sword’ to decide religious controversies” (Shakespeare’s Tribe, 193).
The separation between public political loyalty and the private conscience of the citizens, which constitutes the foundation of contemporary democracy, was quite well known at the time. It was presented by the Jesuit Robert Southwell – William Shakespeare’s cousin – in his An Humble Supplication to Elizabeth I. In his address to the Queen, Southwell states that there is no conflict between being a devout Catholic and being a loyal subject to the English crown. Political loyalty in the public sphere is perfectly compatible with freedom of conscience in the private realm – and in fact, Christ commanded to obey temporal rulers: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; and to God what belongs to God.” (Mt 22:21) Referring to Matthew’s passage, De Tocqueville thus commented on the success of Christianity as a religion which separates the private from the political sphere: “Mohammed brought down from Heaven and placed in the Koran not only religious doctrines, but political maxims, civil and criminal laws, and scientific theories. The Gospel, on the contrary, speaks only about the general relations of men with God and among themselves. Beyond that, it teaches nothing and does not oblige belief about anything. That alone, among a thousand other reasons, suffices to show that the first of these two religions cannot rule for long in times of enlightenment and democracy; whereas the second is destined to reign during these times as in all others.” (Democracy in America Vol. II, Part I, Ch. V, § 30)
[lxxv] From the Dedication of the King James Bible, Authorized Version (1611). As we read in Gordon Campbell’s Anniversary Essay, included in the quartercentenary celebratory edition (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press), “[a]lthough members of the companies are described as translators, they were in fact revisers. The rules specified that the version ‘commonly called the Bishops’ Bible [should] be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit,’ and that, when alterations were deemed necessary or desirable, phrasing should be drawn when possible from one of five earlier Bibles: the Tyndale Bible (1526), the Coverdale Bible (1535), the Matthew Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560, printed in England from 1576). The base text was the Bishops’ Bible first printed in 1568; forty unbound copies of the 1602 edition were made available to the translators. Each of the earlier translators drew on its predecessors, so the ultimate origin of much of the language of the King James Version is William Tyndale’s Bible.”
[lxxvi] Published volumes on Demonology were numerous at the time. Only in France, and only between 1580 and 1650, we have: Jean Bodin’s Démonomanie (1580); Nicolas Rémy’s Démonolatrie (1582); Henry Boguet’s Discours execrable des Sorciers (1602); Pierre de Lancre’s Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et démons (1612); Liste authentique des réligieuses et séculières possédées, obsédées, maléficiés (1634); Confessions et histoire de Madeleine Bavent, religieuse de Louviers, avec son interrogatoire (1652); and F. N. Taillepied’s Traicté de l’apparition des esprits (1600).
[lxxvii] King James I, Demonologia (Daemonologie, in forme of a dialogue, divided into three Bookes). Silvani, Giovanna, ed. Reprint of the 1597 Edinburgh edition. Trento: Università degli Studi di Trento, 1997.
The idea that a reformed Anglican text cannot or should not be cited in a scholarly study on Catholicism in Shakespeare shows disinformation and misunderstanding regarding the development of Christian theology in general and of Christian Demonology in particular. After fifteen centuries of Catholic scholarship and religious practice – Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses date 1517 – the theological speculation of the reformed religion evolved at first by elimination, i.e. eliminating Catholic doctrines and practices: first of all, the apostolic succession from Christ to Simon Peter, Vicar of God on earth, cf. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will establish My Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail over it” (Mt 16:18 ff.); then the veneration of the Virgin and the saints; the celibacy of priests; certain sacraments and prayers like the Christological prayer of the Rosary; and faith in miracles, cf. “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in Me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. And whatever you ask in My Name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of Me in My Name, I will do it.” (Jn:14:12-14)
In the field of Demonology it is important to remark that at the end of the 16th century, Catholic orthodoxy was imported in the Anglican Church almost in its entirety, with the exception of priestly exorcism and the projection of the figures of the Great Babylon and the Antichrist on Catholic Rome and the Catholic Pope respectively. In 1597 and after sixteen centuries of Catholic scholarship, James and his counselors were writing in an atmosphere still saturated with Catholic doctrine, which takes more than a couple of generations to erase. Also in the field of Demonology there was considerable doctrinal correspondences, hence for instance the key concept that virtue is better learned by looking at its opposite is found both in King James (“There can be no better way to know God than by the contrary,” Daemonologie II, vii) and in the Saint and Doctor of the Church Catherine of Siena (“things can be better known by looking at their opposites” Dialogue of Divine Providence, sec. 110)
[lxxviii] James I, Demonology; News from Scotland. Edited and with an Introduction by Donald Tyson. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2011, 11-12.
[lxxix] Ibid., 13.
[lxxx] Milward, Peter. Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays. Southampton, UK: Saint Austin Press, 1997, 7-8.
[lxxxi] Devlin, Christopher. Hamlet’s Divinity. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, 22.
[lxxxii]Beauregard, David. Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008, 18.
[lxxxiii] Ibid., 19.
[lxxxiv] Ibid., 21.
[lxxxv] Paul Yachnin, ‘The Powerless Theater,’ English Literary Renaissance 21 (1991): 68, cited in Beauregard (2008, 20).
[lxxxvi] Beauregard, David. Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008, 21.
[lxxxvii] Ibid., 20-21.
[lxxxviii] Knapp, Jeffrey. Shakespeare’s Tribe. Church, Nation and Theater in Renaissance England. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002, 9-10.
[lxxxix] Milward, Peter. Shakespeare’s Religious Background. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973, 11-12.
[xc] Knapp, Jeffrey. Shakespeare’s Tribe. Church, Nation and Theater in Renaissance England. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002, 9-10.
[xci] Ibid., 9-12.
[xcii] ‘Subversive Fathers and Suffering Subjects: Shakespeare and Christianity,’ in Religion, Literature, and Politics in Protestant Reformation England, 1540-1688. Donna Hamilton and Richard Strier, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 46. Quoted in: Knapp, Jeffrey. Shakespeare’s Tribe. Church, Nation and Theater in Renaissance England. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002, 10.
[xciii] Wells, Stanley and Taylor, Gary, eds. The Oxford Shakespeare. The Complete Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, xvii.
[xciv] Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, 249.
[xcv] One of the first to acknowledge Shakespeare’s faith was his friend and colleague Ben Jonson, himself a crypto-Catholic and Catholic sympathizer, who recognized the trace of John’s faith in William’s art. In the preface to the first Folio edition of the plays, Jonson praised Shakespeare as the faithful son of his father. This passage is taken from the 1623 First Folio, To the Memory of my Beloued The Author Mr. William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us:
“Looke how the fathers face
Liues in his issue, euen so, the race
Of Shakespeares minde, and manners brightly shines
In his well torned, and true-filed lines:
In each of which, he seems to shake a Lance,
As brandish’t at the eyes of Ignorance.”
Jonson’s pun on Lance – Shake-spear and Shake-shaft – seems to confirm the fact that he could read between the lines and understand the deeper meaning of the author’s “double-meaning” prophecy. Another indication that Jonson was aware of Shakespeare’s faith was his comment on Shakespeare’s motto on his coat of arms, “Non sans droit,” which he cunningly turned into “Not without mustard” – with a Scriptural reference that must have been much clearer in the Renaissance than now: “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to here,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt 17:20); “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of the plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.” (Mt 13:31-32)
Both parables explain Catholic faith liking it to a mustard seed; and both images encapsulate and symbolize Shakespeare’s situation: a persecuted Catholic was the least likely candidate for immortal fame within an Anglican establishment, and yet he became a source of unending inspiration for generations to come, exactly like the great tree in Matthew’s parable.
[xcvi] Knapp, Jeffrey. Shakespeare’s Tribe. Church, Nation and Theater in Renaissance England. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002, 9-12.
[xcvii] Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare. Studies in Theater, Religion and Resistance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004, 3. As an instance of this sort of ideological protectionism, Wilson records the “[h]ostile over-reaction to the conference on Shakespeare’s Catholic contexts held at Lancaster University in 1999,” in which the “pique of the critical establishment [was] deeply interested in building a Protestant canon centered on Spenser, Middleton and Milton, which remains, long after the world turned round again in Tudor historiography, a last redoubt of the Whig-Marxist version of English history.”
[xcviii] Cf. Shell, Alison. Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 8-9, quoted in Wilson, 2004, 3-4.
[xcix] Kastan, David. Shakespeare after Theory. New York and London: Routledge, 1999, 16-17.
[c] Wilson points out that Shakespeare was “a member of one of the most militant recusant families, in a town which was a bastion of Elizabethan papist resistance. Local studies and biographies have now converged… to situate young Shakespeare at the epicenter of the English Counter-Reformation culture, which has itself been a recent rediscovery of historians such as John Bossy [Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story, 2001], Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh and Michael Questier.” (Secret Shakespeare, 1) Regarding Catholic Warwickshire, Wilson also comments on Patrick Collison, “the leading authority on Puritanism,” according to whom “the notion of Shakespeare’s family’s conformity to Protestantism rests on mistaken, anachronistic perspectives of Elizabethan religious life. […] Thus, the poet looks representative, according to Collison, of a community where the majority of those in the church were ‘church papists,’ [who] if not ‘rank papists’ retained ‘still a smack and savor of popish principles’ [Collison, Patrick. ‘William Shakespeare’s Religious Heritage,’ in Elizabethan Essays. London, UK: Hambledon Press, 1994, 230 and 250-252]” (Secret Shakespeare, 4)
[ci] Patrick Collinson. ‘William Shakespeare’s Religious Inheritance and Environment,’ Elizabethan Essays. London: Hambledon Press, 1994, 246-247.
[cii] Fraser, Antonia. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: Doubleday, 1996, 114-115.
[ciii] Neale, John E. The Elizabethan House of Commons. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963, 241.
[civ] Spenser, Edmund. A View of the Present State of Ireland. Renwick, W. I., ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925, 162.
[cv] As Christopher Devlin points out, few scholars ever mention the fact that “Shakespeare was seriously accused in his lifetime of being a pro-Catholic propagandist.” (The Life of Robert Southwell, 11) Protestant historian John Speed, for instance, accused him of being the “Papist”’ poet of Jesuit Robert Persons: “this Papist and his poet, of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning and the other ever falsifying the truth.” Devlin’s quote is from John Speed, History of Great Britain. London, 1611, Book 9:15.
[cvi] Beauregard, David. Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008, 15 ff. For these data on Stratford’s school, Beauregard cites:
Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. New York: Oxford, 1987, 66; Baldwin, T. W. William Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, vol. 1. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944, 488, n. 129; Stevenson, W. H. and Salter, H. E. The Early History of St. John’s College Oxford. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939, 334. On Stratford’s Catholic schoolmasters, see also: Christopher Devlin, 126; Peter Milward, Shakespeare’s Religious Background. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1973, 41; John Henry De Groot. The Shakespeares and ‘The Old Faith.’ New York: Crown Press, 1946, 87.
The Stratford grammar school saw a succession of Catholic masters, whose influence contributed to the willing martyrdom of a number of students. “It seems likely that Debdale [Robert Debdale, seminarian in Rome and second cousin of Shakespeare], who would follow Cottam to the gallows in 1586, had been recruited for Rome by his teacher Hunt, so that, as T. W. Baldwin inferred, the Stratford Grammar School… [was] virtually a cell for these suicide missions.” (Secret Shakespeare, 52)
[cvii] cf. David Ellis, ‘Biography of Shakespeare: An Outsider’s View,’ The Cambridge Quarterly, 29:4 (2000), 302-3.
[cviii] Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare. Studies in Theater, Religion and Resistance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004, 3.
[cix] Ibid., 3; cf. Devlin, Christopher. The Life of Robert Southwell, Poet and Martyr. London, UK: Longmans and Green, 1956, 18-19.
[cx] Devlin, Christopher. Hamlet’s Divinity. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, 18.
[cxi] Wilson points out that in the 1590-s Shakespeare’s Warwickshire cousins were “decimated for their alleged treason.” (Secret Shakespeare, 64)
[cxii] Shakespeare’s alleged deer-poaching in Lucy’s park is only significant in that it highlights the existing tension between the Puritan magistrate and Shakespeare’s family, who suffered persecution at his hands. While the deer-poaching tale is unfounded, the persecution was real. Among other factors, this may have contributed to the negative portrayals of Puritans in Shakespeare’s plays. In the Scylla and Charybdis chapter of Ulysses, Joyce uses this fabricated detail to deride critics who project their private interests on the author.
[cxiii] Cf. Beauregard, Christian Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays, 17. The Preface to Southwell’s book of poetry contains an affectionate allusion to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V, i, 7) and Venus and Adonis. For a life of Robert Southwell, see Christopher Devlin, The Life of Robert Southwell, Poet and Martyr. London: Longmans, 1956.
[cxiv] For a realistic description of the persecution, tortures and executions suffered by Catholic martyrs, see John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, 1981, 15-18.
[cxv] Cf. Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform, 1250-1550 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980). Its front-cover symbolically reproduces The Burning of John Huss at the Council of Constance (from Ulrich’s Richenthal’s Das Concilium, 1536).
In Reformation history it is the brief reign of Mary I (1553-1158) that is usually demonized. But Mary I did not invent the practice of sentencing “traitors” to death. Her predecessors – e.g. Henry VIII – as well as her successors – e.g. Elizabeth I and James I – were all guilty of the same abomination. According to Ozment “[b]y the end of September, [Mary I] had Hooper, Coverdale, Latimer, Cranmer, and Ridley – the leadership of Edwardian Protestantism – in the Tower on charges of treason. Like Thomas More before them, these protestant leaders embraced martyrdom as the ultimate protest against an unjust ruler.” (The Age of Reform, 426) Apart from the fact that Thomas More died as a martyr of Catholicism and as such is venerated in the Roman calendar, Ozment overlooks the fact that in antiquity and in the Renaissance, it was common practice for newly established monarchs to eliminate their political adversaries within the court in order to avoid future plots. Hooper, Coverdale, Latimer, Cranmer and Ridley were first of all maneuvering political enemies who used religion, as well as the young king Edward, as pretexts to deflect attention from their own ambitions.
[cxvi] Nuttall, Anthony. Shakespeare the Thinker. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, 16.
[cxvii] Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, 15-18.
[cxviii] Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare. Studies in Theater, Religion and Resistance. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004, 1-2. Wilson’s quotation is from John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, 1981, 15-18.
[cxix] Ibid., 64.
[cxx] Beauregard, David. Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008, 90.
[cxxi] Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, 15.
[cxxii] Ibid., 18. The Catholic cultural milieu, family origin and education of Shakespeare and Donne are very similar; hence it is important for Shakespeare scholars to consider Carey’s text quite carefully. “Because of his family connections, Donne was dragged into the very center of the storm, and was forced to watch its bloody course with the closest attention. The victims were among the most gifted and intrepid of England’s youth: young men like Edmund Campion, executed in 1581, who had been sent to the Catholic colleges abroad for their education, and who returned on their suicidal missions, joyfully embracing martyrdom… Possibly young Donne witnessed these sights while in the care of the Catholic tutors whom his mother employed to educate him. Their purpose would be to arouse in the boy a spirit of emulation, for martyrdom was in his family and it might justifiably be hoped that… he would join the glorious company himself. […] [Donne] dwelt tirelessly upon [the martyr’s crown] and came to regard it almost as part of his inheritance” (John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, 19).
[cxxiii] Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare. Studies in Theater, Religion and Resistance. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004, 5.
[cxxiv] Cf. Chalmers’s Apology for the Believers in the Shakespeare Papers: “The conjecture that Shakespeare’s family were Roman Catholics is strengthened by the fact that his father declined to attend the corporation meetings, and was at last removed from the corporate body.” In: George Wilkes, Shakespeare from an American Point of View. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1882, 53.
Chalmers saw clear evidence of Catholic faith in Shakespeare, linking the author’s Catholic education to his art. From the evidence of John Shakespeare’s dismissal from the Stratford Corporation, Honigmann and Beauregard also draw the conclusion that he was a practicing Catholic.
[cxxv] Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, 38.
[cxxvi] Quoted in Wilkes, George. Shakespeare, From an American Point of View. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1882, 52.
[cxxvii] Devlin, Christopher. Hamlet’s Divinity. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, 13.
[cxxviii] Devlin remarks that “[t]here was a great hunger among English Catholics for devotional works from overseas.” And in fact “there is a letter from Persons in England to Allen in 1580 asking for hundreds more of ‘the testaments’ because there was such a demand for them.” (Hamlet’s Divinity, 14) The document was translated into English, and a blank space was left at the end for the signature of the faithful.
[cxxix] Taken from the accompanying instructions of the spiritual testament, quoted in Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, 45.
[cxxx] The text of John Shakespeare’s Spiritual Testament is found in Wilkes, Shakespeare from an American Point of View, 57-59. Wilkes refers to Nathan Drake’s Shakespeare and His Times. Volume I. Reprinted by B. Franklin, New York, 1969. The opening and closing sections read:
Section I. In the name of God, the Father, Sonne, and Holy Ghost, the most holy and blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, the holy hosts of archangels, angels, patriarchs, prophets, evangelists, apostles, saints, martyrs, and all the celestial court and company of heaven; I, John Shakespeare, an unworthy member of the Catholic religion, being at this, my present writing, in perfect health of body, and sound mind, memory, and understanding, but calling to mind the uncertainty of life and certainty of death, and that I may be possibly cut off in the blossom of my sins, and called to render an account of all my transgressions, externally and internally, and that I may be unprepared for the dreadful trial either by sacrament, penance, fasting, or prayer, or any other purgation whatever, do, in the holy presence above specified, of my own free and voluntary accord, make and ordain this, my last spiritual will, testament, confession, protestation, and confession of faith, hoping hereby to receive pardon for all my sins, and offences, and thereby to be made partaker of life everlasting, through the only merits of Jesus Christ, my Saviour and redeemer, who took upon himself the likeness of man, suffered death and was crucified upon the crosse, for the redemption of sinners. […]
Section IV, and last. I, John Shakespeare, having made this present writing a protestation, confession, and charter, in presence of the blessed Virgin Mary, my angell guardian, and all the celestial court, as witnesses hereunto: the which my meaning is, that it be of full value now, presently, and for ever, with the force and vertue of testament, codicil, and donation in course of death: confirming it anew, being in perfect health of soul and body, and signed with mine own hand; carrying also the same about me, and for the better declaration hereof, my will and intention is that it be finally buried with me after my death. Pater noster, Ave Maria, Credo. Jesu, Son of David, have mercy on me. Amen.
Wilkes also reports Drake’s notation: “’From an accurate inspection of the handwriting of this will, Mr. Malone infers that it cannot be attributed to an earlier period than the year 1600, whence it follows that if dictated by, or drawn up at the desire of, John Shakespeare, his death soon sealed the confession of his faith; for, according to the register, he was buried on September 8, 1601. Drake, vol. 1, pp. 9-14.”
[cxxxi] As an instance of insightful criticism into Shakespeare’s psychology, see William Hazlitt, On Shakespeare and Milton, Lectures on the English Poets, 1818.
[cxxxii] Quoted in Beauregard, Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays, 17; cf. Schoenbaum, 1975, 222-223; Collison, William Shakespeare’s Religious Inheritance and Environment, 251; Duffy, ‘Was Shakespeare a Catholic?’ The Tablet, April 27 (1996): 537.
[cxxxiii] Again, James Joyce used this piece of malicious gossip for Stephen’s “Shakespeare Theory” in the Scylla and Charybdis chapter of Ulysses. In Joyce’s fiction, Stephen imagines an Anne Hathaway who “tumbles” a younger William Shakespeare in a “cornfield” – an autobiographical reading of Joyce’s early sexual experiences, but also an ironic self-projection on the author. In this way, Joyce ironically denounces those who project themselves on the author, trying to mold Shakespeare into their own image.
[cxxxiv] Parker, M. D. H. The Slave of Life: A Study of Shakespeare and the Idea of Justice. London: Chatto & Windus, 1955, 244.
[cxxxv] Cf. Baker, Oliver. Shakespeare’s Warwickshire and the Unknown Years. London: Simpkin Marshall, 1937; Chambers, E. K. ‘William Shakeshafte,’ Shakespearean Gleanings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1944; Milward, Peter. Shakespeare’s Religious Background. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973; Honigmann, E. A. J. Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years.’ Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985. In support of the Lancashire theory, Richard Wilson adds the historical evidence that he discovered, linking the Jesuit mission of 1580-1581 with both Stratford and Hoghton Tower.
[cxxxvi] Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare. Studies in Theater, Religion and Resistance. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004, 54.
[cxxxvii] Alexander Hoghton’s testament quoted in Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare. Studies in Theater, Religion and Resistance. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004, 49.
[cxxxviii] Ibid., 5.
[cxxxix] Devlin, Christopher. Hamlet’s Divinity. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, 29. Rev. R. Davies (d. 1708) received the biographical collections from Rev. W. Fulman (d. 1688). The manuscripts were presented to the Library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. As George Wilkes observes, “[s]urely it should require something more than mere incredulity on the part of Protestant biographers to annihilate this authoritative statement.” (Shakespeare from an American Point of View, 56)
[cxl] Devlin, Christopher. Hamlet’s Divinity. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, 11.
[cxli] Speed, John. History of Great Britain. London, 1611, Book 9:15. Quoted in Munro (1909: 224-225), Knapp (2002: 5) and Battenhouse (1994: 5).
[cxlii] Devlin, Christopher. Hamlet’s Divinity. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, 25.
[cxliii] Ibid., 25.
[cxliv] John Speed is quoted in Devlin, Hamlet’s Divinity, 25.
[cxlv] Cf. Among the works selected by Battenhouse, see Wilson Knight’s Wheel of Fire (1930) for a historically influential commentary on Christian symbolism; John Henry de Groot, The Shakespeares and ‘The Old Faith’ (1946); S. L. Bethell, The Winter’s Tale: A Study, 1947; M. D. H. Parker, The Slave of Life (1955); Patrick Murray, The Shakespearean Scene (1969); Peter Milward, Shakespeare’s Religious Background (1973) and Shakespeare Year Book I (1990); as well as Shakespeare and Catholicism (1952) by Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, who “concluded, on the basis of a large array of evidence both historical and dramatic, that he was a secret Catholic all his life.” (Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension, 5)
[cxlvi] Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Origins of Modern Germany. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976, 237-240.
[cxlvii] Ozment, Steven. The Age of Reform, 1250-1550. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
[cxlviii] See Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate traveller, esp. the crimes of Esdras of Granado in Rome, e.g. raping a matron on the (apparently) dead body of her husband – not even for lust, but for sheer love of evil.
[cxlix] Spini, Giorgio. Storia dell’Età Moderna, Vol. I, Torino: Einaudi, 1965, 121, my translation.
[cl] Evidence summarized from Alison Weir’s discussion in Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, New York: Ballantine Books, 2011.
[cli] And in fact the Epilogue to Henry V proclaims: “This star of England (King Henry V)… the world’s best garden he achieved,/ And of it left his son imperial lord,/ Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned king,/ Of France and England, did this king succeed,/ Whose state so many had the managing,/ that they lost France and they made England bleed.” (Epilogue, 6-12).
[clii] It is also interesting to notice the according to the Oxford Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet was the play immediately following A Midsummer Night’s Dream, presenting the same theme of the unfortunate lover committing suicide on the wrong assumption that the beloved may be dead.
[cliii] Espinosa, Ruben. Masculinity and Marian Efficacy in Shakespeare’s England. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011, 3.
[cliv] Ibid., 3.
[clv] The heroic life of St Agatha (246-261 AD) seems to have inspired the character of Marina, daughter of Prince Pericles. Proconsul Quinziano wanted to make Agatha relinquish her faith, and to this end he confined her in a brothel for a month, in the care of a certain “Aphrodisia.” The girl survived unscathed, but was later tortured and martyred, becoming a symbol for all abused children who lived before and after her.
[clvi] Quoted in: Beauregard, David. Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008, 15.
[clvii] Quoted in: Beauregard, David. Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008, 148.
[clviii] Cf. Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, 261.
[clix] William Hazlitt, On Shakespeare and Milton, Lectures on the English Poets, 1818.
[clx] Wilson, Richard. Secret Shakespeare. Studies in Theater, Religion and Resistance. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004, 5.