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shakespeareSt. George’s Day, the feast day of England’s patron saint, is Shakespeare’s birthday and, believe it or not, is also the day on which Shakespeare died. Apart from the astonishing coincidence that Shakespeare died on his own birthday, it is also singularly appropriate that England’s greatest poet should have been born and should have died on the feast day of her patron saint. It seems appropriate, therefore, that we should celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by reminding ourselves of the enduring stature of the Bard of Avon.

Arguably the three greatest writers of all time are Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. Of the first of these, very little is known. Homer, it seems, has disappeared amidst the murk and mists of history. So great and wide is the chasm that separates him from us that he is almost invisible. What we know of him, for what it’s worth, is gleaned from allusive and elusive clues embedded in his work. Thus, for instance, it is widely presumed that, like Milton, he was blind. If so, like the blind seer Teiresias, he sees more in his blindness than those blinded by their own unwillingness to see.

Much more is known of Dante, a devout Catholic and a disciple of the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, who lived much of his life as a political exile from his beloved Florence. Perhaps the fact that he is a thousand years closer to us than Homer might explain the greater knowledge. If so, why is it that such mystery continues to surround the seemingly elusive figure of William Shakespeare? In terms of the time that has elapsed from his time to ours, it would seem reasonable to presume that we should know more about the Bard of Avon than about the divinely-inspired poet of Italy, the latter of whom lived three hundred years earlier.

Much of the mystery surrounding Shakespeare is linked to the age in which he lived. It was an age in which a large and alienated section of the population was considered outlaws by the state. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England it was a criminal offense to practice or propagate the Catholic religion, an offense that, for priests, was punishable by death. It is for this reason that England’s greatest poet remains largely unknown. He is unknown, first of all, because he sought to keep his religious life unknown, as far as possible, from the authorities. He is also unknown because later generations of Englishmen erected a myth in the nation’s likeness, ignoring or smothering the Bard’s “treacherous” popery in the interests of a nationally acceptable patriotic iconography. He became the posthumous victim of “patriotic correctness.”

The overwhelming evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism is rooted in the solid facts of his life and in the theological, philosophical and moral truths to be found in his work.

The factual evidence is to be found in documents, such as Shakespeare’s last will and testament and in the spiritual last will and testament of his father; in the persecution of Shakespeare’s family and friends for the practice of their faith; in court cases in which Shakespeare became embroiled; in property that he purchased; and in the sort of acquaintances and friends that he valued, and the type of people whom he considered enemies. All of these historical facts, pieced together meticulously by historians, paint a picture of Shakespeare’s life that points to his papist sympathies.

The textual evidence to be gleaned from his work includes thinly veiled and sympathetic allusions to the work of the Catholic poet and martyr, St. Robert Southwell, and a host of allegorical connections in his poetry and plays to the religious and political turmoil of the times in which he lived. At its deepest level of meaning, Shakespeare’s oeuvre can be seen as a dialectical engagement with the opposing forces of Christian orthodoxy and secular fundamentalism, with the Bard’s sympathies clearly falling on the side of the former against the latter.

One consequence of the emergence of the historically and textually verifiable Catholic Shakespeare is the construction of more acceptable “alternative” Shakespeares who can be made to dance obediently to the tune of the “religiously-correct” zeitgeist. Thus the dubious textual scholarship surrounding the “dark lady” of the sonnets was employed by Hollywood to depict an adulterous and hedonistic Bard in the travesty, Shakespeare in Love. More recently, the utterly absurd theory that Shakespeare’s plays were not written by the Bard but by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, has been resurrected by Hollywood. This so-called “Oxfordian theory,” which can be demolished with consummate ease with the merest modicum of historical scholarship, forms the basis of the more recent film, Anonymous.

The construction of bogus Shakespeares is an act of treason against the real Shakespeare, who is still being hounded by his enemies 400 years after his death. In this context, the distortions and fabrications that have dogged the Bard throughout the centuries can be said to be held at bay by the true scholars who are the Bard’s true friends. Set against the baying hounds who have hounded him, the true scholars can be likened to bloodhounds who unearth the evidence that sets Shakespeare and his times free of the falsehood that has surrounded them. Against the dogs of deception and deconstruction, such scholars can be likened to the hounds of heaven. Switching analogies, and considering the significance of the date on which the Bard both lived and died, we might also liken the Shakespeare-abusers to deceitful dragons who have been slain by the scholarly St. George. As Henry V might have said, “The game’s afoot; Follow your spirit: and upon this charge, Cry—God for Shakespeare! England and Saint George!”

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The National Catholic Register.

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9 replies to this post
  1. What’s with this long-trite “Bard” business? Shakespeare may well have been Catholic, but he was certainly not Welsh.

  2. Very interesting, are there any hints of collaboration in that period?, did Shakespeare work with others? In any case we’re gifted with a corpus that elevates a culture, a language, and an art.

  3. “Arguably the three greatest writers of all time are Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare.” When you say “writers” are you lumping poetry and prose together? I have read, but can’t identify the source, that St. John of the Cross would rank among the top three poets of all time. How would you rank him? He did not write many poems, but the ones he did are astoundlingly beautful in the way they lead one into the depths of contemplative prayer. “Dark Night” and “Ascent of Mount Carmel” are two that come to mind. Thank you for your articles published in The Imaginative Conservative.” Your articles insightful and stimulating and find much enjoyment readiing them. Cheerio!

  4. Nota Bene:
    Hamelet is undoubtedly a Catholic character who swears “by the rood”. One of the first things to go with the advent of Protestantism was the rood screen found in Catholic churches.

  5. One of the overarching themes in Romeo and Juliet is the parents of both forbidding their marriage. When you understand parental consent for marriage was insisted by early Protestantism, versus the Catholic view that parental consent is not necessary, the violent disastrous end can have a very different interpretation.

  6. Marshall McLuhan pointed out that King Lear, and its representation of delegation of authority to the three sister’s (the beginning of the age of “specialization”), represented a cultural shift Shakespeare was aware of in the Protestant world. In the end of the play, one sister, the one of most virtuous character, remained faithful to the “father”. The meta themes are astoundingly brilliant.

  7. Mr. Pearce is quite humble not to mention it, but his book The Quest for Shakespeare is outstanding on this subject. Not only is it thoroughly researched but totally convincing. I had noticed hints of Shakespeare’s Catholicism in his works, but it was when I read Mr. Pearce’s book where I became totally convinced. There is a lot more evidence than is widely known. There is no doubt; William Shakespeare was Roman Catholic and died a Papist. The reason we don’t commonly know much about Shakespeare’s life is because his Protestant, inimically anti-Catholic country did not want their greatest author to be recognized as Catholic.

  8. I would myself hesitate to use words like “overwhelming evidence” and “clear” about Shakespeare’s own personal psyche judging from his plays until scholarship about the role of collaboration in the English drama of the time becomes clearer, and computer analysis of word frequencies and other stylistic aspects across different authors, counter-balanced by textual questions about individual differences between folio and the quartos become clear. As it stands now scholarship is in flux, and I am not talking about craziness about de Vere or Bacon being Shakespeare. The Oxford Shakespeare (second edition) states as fact that among Shakespeare’s dramas known collaborators are Thomas Middleton, and John Fletcher, and “probably” George Wilkins. Some collaborations would have been from the start. Others would have been after the first performances when venues and politics and whatnot changed. Shakespeare as an author, like all the other dramatists, sold his plays to a company. The companies could do what they wanted with the plays. No copyright law in those days. Shakespeare, as part owner of the company in which he was an actor, would have had some say in changes but over a long career, would probably not have “won” each and every discussion.
    Literary scholars, even good ones, sometimes forget textual criticism and other issues involving history when discussing the lives of literary gods. There is overwhelming evidence for his personality only in works generally acknowledged as 100% Shakespeare: There are three of them: Venus And Adonis and The Rape Of Lucrece with their dedications, and The Sonnets. The first two are generally thought to be the least personal of his poetic career.

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