Shakespeare’s Religion

30 07 2013

According to mainstream scholarship the jury is still out on Shakespeare’s religion, but most will admit that he has a ‘smell of the old cask’ about him (a remark made of his contemporary, Samuel Daniel). Some will throw their hands in the air at this and declare that it has always been obvious that Shakespeare was a Catholic, others, though a diminishing number, will be equally adamant that he was a Protestant, or nothing. A few sensible-sounding folk will point out that the lines dividing Catholic from Protestant were very indistinct at this period. And, of course, there will be many who say in so many words, ‘Who cares anyway?’ Rowan Williams once declared in perhaps his most unambiguous statement as Archbishop of Canterbury, that ‘Shakespeare was a Catholic … but he was not a very nice man’. Nice or not, Michael Wood, in the BBC series ‘In Search of Shakespeare’ (and spin-off book) took the view that Shakespeare had a Catholic background that explained his apparent affinity with Catholicism and positive portrayal of friars and nuns, but that he grew out of it as he got older. However, having come to this rather safe conclusion, Wood admitted that there were certain indications, such as Shakespeare’s involvement with the Blackfriars Gatehouse, that point to a more radical conclusion: namely, that Shakespeare was deeply involved in the Catholic underground Church. This canny BBC balancing-act by Wood, leaving interesting possibilities open, illustrates quite well the state of play up to the present time. There is a recognition that Shakespeare might have been deeply committed to the Catholic cause, but at the same time, those of us who think that he was are still dealing with an unproven and perhaps unprovable hypothesis. We shall see. In the meantime, the jury may find it hard to agree on a verdict, but that does not mean the issue should not be brought to trial and the evidence interrogated.