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Assurances of Faith: How Catholic was Shakespeare? How Catholic are his Plays?

Paul J. Voss - Tue, Apr 24th 2012

Assurances of Faith: How Catholic was Shakespeare? How Catholic are his Plays?


The Catholic imagination — the imagination that allowed Shakespeare to sprinkle his plays with references to Catholic religious beliefs and practices in meaningful ways — also helped to create the fictive worlds of Denmark, Rome, Verona, Venice, and Illyria. The imagination that made him Catholic also helped make him the greatest writer in the English-speaking world.

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare stands as a wonderful anomaly. It could be argued that no artist in the history of the Western world enjoys both the critical and popular esteem of Shakespeare. His poems and plays continue to enchant generation after generation; his rich language saturates modern speech — whether we realize it or not. What accounts for this enduring fascination? How can we explain the beauty of his writing or the power of his imagination?

Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps we must remain silent in the face of genius, simply accepting the precious gift. Yet that answer somehow fails to satisfy scholars and critics. We want to know more — that is, after all, our calling. We want to ask challenging questions, and we expect convincing responses.

Recently, a number of scholars have revisited the question of Shakespeare’s religious impulses. Scholars long ago accepted, perhaps begrudgingly, that religious belief can serve as a powerful stimulant for the creative process. Religious devotion contributes to art, music, and literature in manifold ways. Yet the recent attention given to Shakespeare’s possible Catholicism is not a welcome development for many in the academic community. The dominant voices in that community, the avatars of postmodernism, generally ignore the religious dimension of art while concentrating instead on the holy trinity of race, class, and gender.

Why Ask the Question

Many Shakespeareans ignore the religious dimension of his plays. They believe that Shakespeare was somehow above the pettiness of religious belief. The eminent critic Harold Bloom, author of the best-selling Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead Books, 1999), finds the whole question of Shakespeare’s religious commitments laughably irrelevant. Bloom argues that "Shakespeare seems too wise to believe anything" political or religious. He adds, "I am baffled when critics argue as to whether Shakespeare was Protestant or Catholic, since the plays are neither." According to Bloom, Shakespeare could not have any religious convictions and still remain Shakespeare.

Stephen Greenblatt, the influential founder of New Historicism, has been criticized for his failure to acknowledge the importance of religious belief in Elizabethan literature. New Historicism, unlike the English Renaissance culture it often interprets, tends to have a radically secular perspective. Interestingly, Greenblatt’s most recent book, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton University Press, 2001; see David A. Murray’s review in the February 2002 issue), attempts to explore complex religious questions, but not with a sympathetic imagination. Greenblatt focuses his considerable intelligence on debunking Catholic beliefs rather than trying to understand them.

The turn toward a "Catholic Shakespeare" evidently bothers some professors at Catholic universities as well. Michael A. Mikolajczak, professor of literature at the University of St. Thomas, considers the very question in bad taste: "[I]n my view, this question is not decidable nor even very interesting; and I suspect it of the sin of pigeonholing and perhaps triumphalism." While Mikolajczak’s obscure theology creates some confusion (what is the sin of pigeonholing?), more disturbing is his bald assertion that scholars interested in the question of Shakespeare’s religious orientation are somehow sinful. His posture reflects a lack of curiosity and a type of intellectual sloth: He finds the question of little interest and therefore others should as well. He seems to hope that if we do not investigate the question, it will simply go away.

Yet scholars and critics of all stripes have long conceded the importance of religious belief in the production of art, literature, and drama. Mikolajczak might perhaps be forgiven for his hostile indifference to the question — he is not, after all, a Shakespearean scholar — but to dismiss, prima facie, the connection between religious belief and imaginative literature smacks of bigotry.

Other more sensible objections exist. For example, Rev. Paul Murray, O.P., notes: "It would not, I think, be helpful to characterize Shakespeare formally as a religious dramatist. The fact is that he chose, by and large, to leave religion alone." This is half true: Shakespeare was not a religious dramatist. But Father Murray assumes that Shakespeare chose not to address religious issues in a concerted, conspicuous fashion. In fact, the choice was not Shakespeare’s.

Strict laws regulating theater prohibited any explicitly religious or current political events from being represented on stage. No playwright writing for the public during the English Renaissance could be formally considered a religious dramatist. Protestant reformers had recently put an end to the centuries-old tradition of religious drama, including miracle and mystery plays. Yet key questions remain unanswered. Why does Shakespeare make repeated references to Catholicism in his plays? Why would Shakespeare risk his freedom to portray Catholicism in a sympathetic fashion?

Of course, too much emphasis on religion (or politics or sex or philosophy) in Shakespeare may lead to a reductive appreciation of his art: He was, obviously, not writing dramatic homilies. Still, it would be equally unwise to neglect or ignore the conspicuously religious language, themes, and characters found in his plays. Some scholars have contended that Shakespeare incorporated these religious attributes in a strictly universal way, free of any clannish meaning or color. But this position requires one to ignore numerous and repeated references to specificreligious practices, especially to proscribed Catholic rituals.

The theory that Shakespeare was Catholic rests on two types of evidence: the archival/historical record and the sentiments culled from his plays. Both sources of evidence have their limitations: The archival record from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods is far from comprehensive, and ascribing personal convictions to an artist on the basis of his work remains a complicated business. Nonetheless, both sources of information also have been useful.

What History Tells Us

The archival/historical evidence for a Catholic Shakespeare is circumstantial but significant. We do not have a sworn testimony signed by Shakespeare, advertising his religious affiliations. But we do have less direct indications. One could cite, for example, the religion of his mother’s family, the Catholic Ardens, and the spiritual testament signed by his father, John Shakespeare, sometime before the elder Shakespeare’s death in 1601. In the testament, which follows the formula of St. Charles Borromeo’s Last Will of the Soul, John makes a formal profession of his Catholic faith. Both of Shakespeare’s parents appear to have conformed to Catholicism despite the risks to personal wealth, freedom, and life. Although England’s final break with Rome was still within living memory, the Elizabethan government expected outward conformity from all subjects. To make a public vow of Catholicism during this period required great measures of faith and courage.

One could also point out that Shakespeare’s teachers at the Stratford grammar school all had contacts with the "Old Faith." Simon Hunt, his first schoolmaster, from 1571 to 1575, left Stratford to matriculate at the University of Douai in the summer of 1575 and later become a Jesuit. One of Shakespeare’s classmates from Stratford, Robert Dibdale, abruptly left with Hunt, was also ordained a priest, and was martyred in 1586.

The next two schoolmasters at Stratford were Thomas Jenkins and John Cottom. According to Park Honan, Shakespeare’s most recent biographer, both men "had strong Catholic connections." Jenkins, if not Catholic himself, had many friends who were; Cottom’s younger brother, Thomas, was, in fact, martyred in 1582 as a seminary priest. Remarkably, all of Shakespeare’s grammar school teachers (if he indeed attended Stratford’s grammar school, as is universally assumed) were active Catholics or had close connections with the "Old Faith."

Shakespeare’s last will and testament also provides a glimpse into Shakespeare’s life and faith. Although the will itself, like the vast majority of wills drawn up in Jacobean England, follows the current Protestant formula (with no references, for example, to the Blessed Mother or the communion of saints), the document also reveals Shakespeare’s intriguing pattern of friendships with known Catholics.

Of the ten non-family members specifically mentioned in Shakespeare’s will, the religious inclinations of three are not known (Hamnet Sadler, Francis Collins, and Richard Burbage); two were Anglicans (John Hemminges and Henry Condell); and five were Catholic or Catholic sympathizers (Thomas Combe II, William Reynolds, Anthony Nash, John Nash, and Thomas Russell). Obviously Shakespeare continued to remain close friends with recusant Catholics — Catholics cited, fined, or imprisoned for their faith.

The most recent theory to support Shakespeare’s Catholic education comes from Richard Wilson. According to his argument, first made in 1937 and revisited occasionally during the next 50 years, the "William Shakeshafte" who lived with the Catholic Houghton family in Lancashire is really young William Shakespeare from Stratford. This theory got a boost with the recent discovery that John Cottom belonged to the Lancashire gentry, who were relatives of the Houghtons. This possible connection created a significant buzz among students of Shakespeare, leading to a major international conference in July 1999, attended by more than 200 scholars and critics.

It would be mistaken to draw absolute conclusions about Shakespeare’s religious status from his teachers, classmates, friends, and family. It would be equally mistaken, however, to ignore this rich archival record and the rather extraordinary nexus of Catholic friends and acquaintances it reveals. The archival/historical record makes it abundantly clear that Shakespeare knew and felt comfortable around Catholics. The Old Faith had not disappeared from his life.

His Dramatic Vision

A more productive strategy for appreciating Shakespeare’s religious sensibilities centers on the conspicuously Catholic elements included in his plays. What do these allusions to the faith tell us about his drama?

Perhaps we can appreciate Shakespeare’s imaginative universe more clearly by looking at the Catholic imagination overall. In a recent book titled The Catholic Imagination (University of California Press, 2000), Rev. Andrew Greeley explores the differences between the Catholic imagination (or, as he terms it, the metaphorical imagination) and the Protestant imagination (or, according to Greeley, the dialectical imagination) Although Greeley’s conspicuous animus against Catholic orthodoxy distorts his conclusions, he raises some crucial questions: Do Catholics, exposed to a sacramental worldview, experience reality in a different way than non-Catholics do? And if so, can this difference be identified and demonstrated?

Greeley believes, with some empirical evidence to support his claim, that the Catholic imagination allows poets, artists, parents, priests, farmers, and others the opportunity to see God in all creation, in all pleasures, in human love, and even in sickness. This metaphorical, sacramental perspective may help account for Shakespeare’s dramatic vision. For even if Shakespeare was not a practicing Catholic, his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were.

The Crucial Role of the Clergy

Consider, for example, the depiction of the Catholic clergy in his plays. In Elizabethan England, Catholic priests found on English soil were considered guilty of treason and executed. Elizabeth I’s government executed scores of priests for this "crime." English Protestants would see all Catholic priests as guilty, ipso facto, without shading or nuance. Many plays written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, and Francis Beaumont, make this reductive characterization when depicting Catholics and Catholic clergy as simple, one-dimensional villains.

Shakespeare presents Catholic clergy in a more complicated fashion. Friar Laurence from Romeo and Juliet plays a crucial role in the unfolding plot. Although a bit long-winded at times, he offers moral counsel and faithful friendship, finally agreeing to marry the young lovers and hoping that "this alliance may so happy prove / To turn your households’ rancor to pure love." Although the friar readily admits his complicity in the tragedy and freely accepts punishment, the prince exculpates him, telling him, "We still [always] have known thee for a holy man." Friar Laurence is a complex character, but he is no villain.

Friar Francis plays a smaller role in Much Ado About Nothing (he speaks fewer than 85 lines), but he can be seen as the pivotal figure who moves the play from potential tragedy toward a comic resolution. In the play, Hero is about to marry Claudio. Yet Claudio, falsely believing Hero unfaithful, renounces her at the altar. Hero swoons, tempers flare, and threats ensue. The play hovers near the brink of chaos. Then Friar Francis interrupts the proceedings with a defense of the innocent Hero. He alone defends the maiden, calling on his experience as a confessor and confidant. He ends his plea by wagering his reputation on Hero’s innocence and his ability to determine right from wrong:

Call me a fool;
Trust not my reading, nor my observations,
Which with experimental seal doth warrant
The tenure of my book; trust not my age,
My reverence, calling, nor divinity,
If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
Under some biting error. [emphasis added]

Friar Francis offers the legitimacy of his vocation as potential ransom for Hero. Ultimately, Hero is proved innocent, and she weds the repentant Claudio. And Friar Francis and his vow are vindicated along with Hero: Shakespeare endorses his role as a priest to the community.

We must not ignore the uniqueness of this representation. If a real Friar Francis were to have walked off the stage at the Globe Theater and practiced his faith in public, he would have been immediately arrested and eventually executed. This irony often escapes critics either unwilling or unable to accept this radical departure from the Protestant orthodoxy.

Doctrine and Sacraments

Shakespeare also mentions the Catholic sacraments in profound ways. During the discussion between Hamlet and the ghost of Hamlet’s dead father, the ghost describes the horrors of his current situation, which strongly resemble the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Unspecific circumstances forbid the ghost from disclosing all information about his plight, but if he were allowed to "tell the secrets of my prison-house," the story "would harrow up thy soul; freeze thy young blood / Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres." Clearly, the idea of purgatory continued to interest Shakespeare.

The ghost then relates the most painful aspect of the murder: He was killed before he had a chance to confess his sins; he was unable to receive the Eucharist, spiritual preparation, or anointing of the sick:

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d;
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

The archaic language should not obscure the thrust of the passage. The ghost complains of his dying "unhous’led" (without the Eucharist) and "unanel’d" (unanointed, without extreme unction). Moreover, he died with "no reck’ning made" (without confession). Suddenly the enormity of the crime becomes more obvious. Not only was King Hamlet deprived of his earthly joys; his lack of spiritual preparation compromised his heavenly happiness as well. Although it is merely a few lines of dialogue in an extended discussion, this passage gives power and vitality to the whole speech. If the ghost merely missed the earthly comforts of bed and food, his despondency would lose an important dimension. Shakespeare raises the stakes considerably. He makes this a question of eternal life and death. The deprivation of the sacraments — of God’s presence in our lives — underscores the injustice of the murder, compelling Hamlet to seek revenge. Hamlet’s consciousness of eternity motivates the action and intensifies the drama of the story.

Though not a religious dramatist per se, Shakespeare sprinkled his plays with myriad references to the sacraments. While he uses the word "sacrament" on only eight occasions, usually meaning "to receive the holy sacrament" of the Eucharist, Shakespeare also mentions confession and shrift (confession plus absolution) and unction (as in anointing with oil). Individually, the words may seem to be isolated instances of a fossilized piety; collectively they suggest a more dynamic and animated sense of the sacred.

The Sacramental Nature of Marriage

Consider also the presentation of marriage in his plays. During this turbulent period, Catholic and Protestant practices differed. After 1558 and the accession of Elizabeth I, the Church of England no longer considered marriage a sacrament. Queen Elizabeth, the child of an illegitimate second marriage, obviously had a vested interest in the desacramentalization of marriage. For the English church, marriage customs became much simpler. Although variations existed, a couple had only to make a vow of marriage or intent to marry in front of witnesses and consummate the union. Obviously, such limited ecclesiastical oversight created a host of problems. According to legal expert A.G. Harmon, this situation "could wreak all sorts of havoc with secret promises, hand-clasping, and ring-giving."

At the Council of Trent, which ended in 1563, the year before Shakespeare’s birth, the Catholic Church continued to insist on the sacramentality of marriage. Although the council underscored the role of the bride and groom in conferring the sacrament on one another, the council also mandated that all Catholic marriages must be contracted in the presence of a priest.

Shakespeare, outside a few extraordinary plot devices, opts for the Catholic practice of marriage in his plays. Whether set in pagan or Christian times, in Catholic or non-Catholic countries, marriage is generally depicted as sacramental in nature. Consider Twelfth Night, a play about mistaken identity set in Illyria. During the play, Lady Olivia falls in love with Cessario (actually Viola disguised as a man). Olivia happens upon the recently arrived Sebastion (Viola’s twin brother, believed to be dead) and, thinking Sebastion is really Cessario, asks the stunned Sebastion for his hand in marriage. Despite the rashness of the request, Sebastion agrees to marry the lovely Olivia. She directs the action:

Blame not this haste of mine. If you mean well,
Now go with me and with this holy man
Into the chantry by: there, before him,
And underneath that consecrated roof,
Plight me the full assurances of your faith;
That my most jealous and too doubtful soul
May live at peace. [emphasis added]


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "chantry" (defined as a chapel, altar, or part of a church where one or more priests sang daily Mass for the souls of the founders or others specified by them) carried specifically Catholic associations.

In Julius Caesar, a play set in pagan times, Portia confronts Brutus, asking him to reveal the source of his anxiety. Brutus repeatedly attempts to dismiss the questions, referring to fatigue or ill health. Portia demands the truth, and she appeals to the validity and transcendence of their marriage vows:

No, my Brutus;
You have some sick offense within your mind,
Which, by the right and virtue of my place,
I ought to know of: and upon my knees,
I charm you, by my once commended beauty,
By all your vows of love, and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, yourself, your half,
Why you are heavy.

Brutus tries one final time to appease Portia without divulging his plans. He pleads, "Kneel not, gentle Portia." She responds with one of the most stirring defenses of marriage found on the Renaissance stage:

I should not need, if you were gentle Brutus.
Within the bonds of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I yourself
But, as it were, in sort of limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.

Portia makes it abundantly clear that the "great vow" exchanged between them transformed their very nature — two into one. As a result, Brutus owes a responsibility to Portia far exceeding a mere contractual arrangement. The difference between a covenant and a contract helps explain both his profound attachment to his wife, and the pathos felt by Brutus when he learns of Portia’s death later in the play.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare again emphasizes the sacramental nature of marriage. Before their marriage, Romeo and Juliet both receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Friar Laurence will not leave the young lovers alone "till Holy Church incorporate two into one." Later, when the nurse audaciously recommends bigamy to Juliet, she is horrified and opts to kill herself rather than break her marital vow to Romeo. The power and transcendence of their union comes, in part, from the transcendent nature of that vow. If either Romeo or Juliet considered their marriage simply a contract, they would not opt to die for one another, and we would have less reason to be moved by their sacrifice.

Shakespeare continued to insist on the sacramental nature of marriage long after his queen, his country, or the English church. As anyone in the pro-life community understands, continuing to insist on the sanctity of the once sacred can get you labeled as extreme, excessive, and even intolerant. In his sympathetic depiction of the sacraments, Catholic teaching, and Catholic clergy, Shakespeare was a radical.

The Imagination of a Catholic

The Catholic imagination — the imagination that allowed Shakespeare to sprinkle his plays with references to Catholic religious beliefs and practices in meaningful ways—also helped to create the fictive worlds of Denmark, Rome, Verona, Venice, and Illyria. The imagination that made him Catholic also helped make him the greatest writer in the English-speaking world.

The question of Shakespeare’s religious sensibilities is not simply a matter of academic thumb-wrestling. Much more is at stake for the readers of the plays. Not only does the Catholic imagination allow for great art, music, and literature to flourish, it allows Catholics today to use the transcendent truths of our faith in profound ways. We, as Catholics, need not observe the world with the blinders of fundamentalism, rejecting everything not found within a narrow worldview. Moreover, the Catholic imagination mitigates against an unfettered relativism that is skeptical of any truth, no matter how obvious. The Catholic imagination, anchored in the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth, seeks connections between God and His creation, between His truth and our understanding Shakespeare’s plays grant us a glimpse of that imagination at work.




Paul J. Voss. "Assurances of Faith: How Catholic was Shakespeare? How Catholic are his Plays?"Crisis 20, no. 7 (July/August 2002): 34-39.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call             1-800-852-9962      .


Paul J. Voss is professor of English and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville, Georgia. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2002 Crisis

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