Culture At Large

Was Shakespeare Catholic, Protestant, or what?

Andy Rau

Here's one for the history and literature geeks among you: a few months ago, I noted an article at First Things examining the question of Abraham Lincoln's religious beliefs, which are actually more difficult to determine that you might guess. Now FT has published an interesting piece about the quest to decipher William Shakespeare's religious beliefs. The core question is whether Shakespeare was a Catholic or Protestant, and whether evidence of his views can be found in the characters and plots of his plays.

It appears that while both Catholic and Protestant historians have claimed Shakespeare as one of their own, none of the many pieces of evidence (guesses based on Shakespeare's acquaintances, vague comments by contemporaries, and Shakespeare's writings) points decisively in either direction. Here's a summary of one of the big problems:

The evidence for Shakespeare’s biographical Catholicity presents nothing like proof but only intriguing possibility. Even if we could determine that his family and friends were clearly and consistently Catholic, we could not then reasonably conclude anything definite about Shakespeare’s religious belief and practice. Catholics have always believed in baptism by blood and baptism by desire but never, so far as I know, in baptism by association.

The claims, moreover, rest on a simplistic notion of religious identity in a period that often shows what one scholar has called a “large muddled middle”—people holding a mixture of pious sentiments and generally Christian beliefs drawn eclectically from both confessions. There was also frequent conversion and reconversion. Witness Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright, who began as a Protestant, converted to Catholicism in 1598, and switched back to the Church of England twelve years later, celebrating his return by downing all the communion wine. Or John Donne, who was raised a Catholic amid talk of martyrs but who became the famous Church of England preacher—all while retaining two pictures of the Virgin Mary in his residence and enunciating Catholic doctrines in his poetry.

If only Shakespeare had been photographed described wearing one of these t-shirts—then we'd know for sure if he Was or Wasn't. Lacking such proof, we'll have to accept it as yet another mystery.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, History