Writer Joseph Pearce on the case for Shakespeare’s Catholicism

A floral tribute to William Shakespeare on display during the parade marking 400 years since the death of the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. Picture date: Saturday April 23, 2016. (Joe Giddens/PA Wire URN:26146340 [Press Association via AP Images]) 

Joseph Pearce is an English-born Catholic writer and literary critic who serves as director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review (www.staustinreview.org), editor of Faith Culture (www.faithandculture.com) and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions (www.ignatiuscriticaleditions.com). His personal website is jpearce.co.

A specialist on the religious faith of Christian literary figures, Mr. Pearce’s bestselling books include “The Quest for Shakespeare,” “Tolkien: Man and Myth,” “The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde,” “C.S. Lewis and The Catholic Church,” “Literary Converts,” Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton,” “Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile” and “Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc.” Pearce is also a former white supremacist and author of "Race with the Devil," a memoir about his conversion from racism to Catholicism while serving time in prison.

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Mr. Pearce has hosted two 13-part television specials about Shakespeare on EWTN and lectured at a wide variety of international literary events at colleges and universities in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Europe, Africa and South America. On May 24, I interviewed him by telephone about the latest developments in research on Shakespeare’s faith life. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.

Although films like “Shakespeare in Love” have presented the Bard as a religious or a dutiful Anglican, more recent productions like TNT’s “Will” have depicted him as a friend of Catholics, like the Jesuit St. Robert Southwell, and even as a Catholic recusant himself. What has changed in recent decades regarding popular perception of Shakespeare’s faith?

Principally, there’s just been a very large increase in the amount of solid scholarship being done, bringing to light facts about Shakespeare’s life which had either not been known before or had been forgotten and neglected. So right now, the evidence for the Catholic Shakespeare has become mainstream.

Even though the Bard knew so many Catholics that it’s hard to see him as anything but a Catholic himself, Shakespeare’s faith came up as an enigma in last year’s Kenneth Branagh biopic “All is Well,” about the playwright’s last years. In your opinion, why do some people still have trouble seeing Shakespeare as a papist?

I think one of the problems is that we tend to read in a postmodern sense, meaning through our own pride and prejudice. In other words, we want to see Shakespeare reflecting back to us our own understanding of the world. So those people opposed to Catholicism haven’t grappled with or fathomed that dimension.

I can see where people might respond by saying I’m the pot calling the kettle black because I’m a Catholic myself, but I insist in my scholarship on reading the work objectively through the eyes of the author, which means we have to learn as much as possible about the author. So although you can prove Shakespeare’s Catholicism by reading the plays, I think you have to begin by proving it biographically and historically through his life, and I think there’s enough evidence now beyond any reasonable doubt that Shakespeare was certainly a Catholic in sympathy and to one degree or another a practicing, recusant Catholic.

Your writings provide an avalanche of this evidence about the Bard’s Catholic connections. If someone asked you in passing to briefly state the strongest argument for Shakespeare’s Catholicism, what would you say?

If I had to give just one example, I’d point to his purchasing of the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London in 1612, just before he retires and goes back to Stratford-Upon-Avon. This was a notorious center for recusant Catholic activity in London. [The gatehouse] had remained in Catholic hands from the dissolution of the monasteries to Shakespeare’s purchase of it 80 years later, and Shakespeare insisted that John Robinson—whose brother had left that same year to study for the priesthood at the English College in Rome—should remain as the tenant, indicating that the house would continue to be used as a center of Catholic recusant activity. There can be no real denying that Shakespeare purchased the house to remain in Catholic hands and indeed his own hands, which were Catholic.

Does the religious affiliation of Shakespeare even matter?

Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, intentional or unintentional, a work of art always embodies and incarnates in some sense the deepest-held beliefs of an author. Therefore, an author’s theology and philosophy, in the context of the times in which the author lives, are clearly going to inform the work. If Shakespeare is a believing papist, that’s got to inform how we understand the work, and more to the point, how we understand the objective meaning.

Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, intentional or unintentional, a work of art always embodies and incarnates in some sense the deepest-held beliefs of an author. 

What’s our understanding of how Shakespeare’s faith may have shifted or changed over the course of his life?

I don’t think there’s any real controversy any longer that he was clearly raised in a very Catholic household. His father was fined for his Catholic recusancy, his family was one of the most notorious recusant families in the country and some of his relatives were actually executed for their involvement in so-called Catholic plots. So he was certainly raised militantly Catholic. It’s been presumed in some circles that he lost his faith when he came to London and started writing the plays, but as I show in my book The Quest for Shakespeare and as other authors have shown, all the evidence shows that Shakespeare retains his Catholic faith during the 25 years or so that he’s writing the plays and sonnets.

Because of the gatehouse?

Well, the gatehouse, yes, but for instance he’s taken to court for threatening the lives of two people. And the people he’s alleged to have threatened in that court case were notorious Catholic persecutors who boast of raiding Catholic homes, of burning Catholic crucifixes and of burning Catholic books. So Shakespeare’s enemies were enemies of the faith and also his codefendants in that court case include some known Catholic recusants. That’s just one other example; I could go on. Obviously, the point is that now there’s an abundance of evidence to show that he retained his Catholic sympathies. To the extent to which he was really practicing his faith is more difficult to prove, of course, because you don’t leave a paper trail when you’re embarking on illegal activity.

While recent scholarly works have continued to speculate about Shakespeare’s faith, the late G.K. Chesterton wrote even before his conversion to Catholicism that he saw Shakespeare representing merry old Catholic England in complement to the Protestant England captured by John Milton. To what extent do you find Chesterton’s image helpful?

Very helpful. In fact, Chesterton is reflecting something very similar that Blessed John Henry Newman said 50 to 60 years earlier: that it’s impossible to read Shakespeare without seeing him as a Catholic. And Milton, of course, is the antithesis writing a half-century later.

What do you make of the apparent anti-Catholic themes in Shakespeare’s plays?

If you look at the entirety of the plays, his villains are usually Machiavels; in other words, practitioners of secular politics, and the heroes and heroines are normally authentic orthodox Christian believers. We could talk about “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “The Merchant of Venice,” etc. Where there are instances of anti-Catholicism, I would say that’s Shakespeare covering his bases with the audience. But if you look at the whole of his plays, what comes across is a Catholic worldview, a Catholic philosophy and as far as possible a public expression of Catholicism at a time when it was illegal. It was illegal to talk about contemporary religion and politics on the stage; so Shakespeare gets around that by setting his plays in the past, which was Catholic, and by setting his plays in places like Italy where he can have Franciscan friars walking about—for the most part, positively portrayed—and get around the law by not talking about English politics.

In “Henry VI,” I suppose you could see Shakespeare’s negative treatment of Joan of Arc as an instance of anti-Catholicism. But Joan of Arc was not canonized until the 20th century and it was the view of Catholic England, prior to the Reformation, that Joan of Arc was some sort of weirdo and not a saint. All Shakespeare’s doing in that instance is expressing the English Catholic view of Joan of Arc; it’s not anti-Catholic, he’s just speaking for his time.

Based on your research, how would you describe the flavor of Shakespeare’s faith, the type of Catholicism he represents?

What we see in the Elizabethan Shakespeare, the plays he wrote during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, are lots of questions about authentic monarchs and usurped authority. It was the view of many Catholics, including St. Pius V, that Elizabeth was not the bona fide queen of England and that Mary, Queen of Scots was the true queen and her heirs entitled to succession. Shakespeare toying with these themes would be a Catholic way of seeing things.

Then, after James comes to the throne, a lot of Jacobean Shakespeare is about betrayal. That’s why, for instance, “Macbeth,” about the Scottish king, is really about how promises were broken by a Machiavellian monarch. The Catholics had great hopes that James would actually bring back tolerance and liberty, but he failed to perform that. In 1606, when Catholics were most despondent and almost despairing as the persecution came back in force, with no hope of letting up, we have Shakespeare’s darkest plays: “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “King Lear.” In “King Lear,” we have references to the poems of St. Robert Southwell as in some of Shakespeare’s other plays.

What do you hope readers will take away from your writings on Shakespeare?

The most important thing is that Shakespeare has been treated unjustly by history—firstly, through ignorance of the facts, and then through deconstruction of who he is and what he says in his plays. If we’re going to place him where he belongs, at the apex of all that’s best in English literature, we need to understand who he is. Therefore, knowing his deepest beliefs is essential for understanding the plays.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Shakespeare, what would it be?

That Shakespeare shows us, in a perennial sense, the necessity of being true—not to ourselves, to quote Polonius, but to objective reality, to authentic orthodoxy. Where there’s a conflict between worldly and eternal, we have to be prepared to lay down our lives for the eternal. That’s what his great heroes and heroines do—there’s a constant replaying of that perennial theme in Antiphone, to go back to Sophocles, of religious liberty. I think Shakespeare speaks to the tensions between secular power and religious freedom. In that sense, he’s perennially relevant to what Francis comments on.

Knowing Shakespeare's deepest beliefs is essential for understanding the plays.

What’s your favorite line in Shakespeare and why?

My favorite line, just plucking one, would be the line from King Lear’s speech that begins: “Come, let’s away to prison…” He says, “as if we were God’s spies,” an allusion to both the Jesuits and to a line from St. Robert Southwell’s poem, “Decease Release,” where he talks about Mary, Queen of Scots being “God’s spice” and in being crushed her fragrance rising to heaven like incense. Shakespeare making that connection between “God’s spies” and “God’s spice” delights me.

What are your hopes for the future of Shakespearean research?

I sometimes say wistfully and whimsically that if I had the freedom, I’d like to write a separate book on each of Shakespeare’s plays, because I think the evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism really emerges when you go scene-by-scene, not plucking lines out of context. What we really need are dozens of new books looking at the plays from the perspective of Shakespeare as a Catholic. That’s far too big a job for one person, but I do think we need a whole new field of young scholars taking up the challenge to actually go through the plays. Every time I visit a play, new aspects of Shakespeare’s Catholicism leap up at me, so it’s very exciting and much remains to be done.

In his book “Shakespeare,” the late Catholic professor Mark Van Doren of Columbia University did look into each play, enjoying the themes for their own sakes rather than analyzing them. What value remains in reading the Bard for pleasure rather than through the lens of scholarship?

That’s absolutely legitimate as long as we know what we’re doing and don’t pontificate, based on a recreational reading, about objective matters.

Any final thoughts?

The key thing I try to encapsulate is that there are two ways of engaging Shakespeare’s Catholicism: one is through history and biography—the biographical evidence—and the other is through engagement with the textual evidence of the works themselves. I see these two types of evidence converging like a gothic arch, where one supports the other, and the more research we do in either half of the arch, the more clearly defined and delineated Shakespeare’s Catholicism becomes.

Correction, Oct. 9: The title of Joseph Pearce's book has been corrected to The Quest for Shakespeare.

Update, Oct. 16: Mr. Pearce’s biography has been updated to include a book about his journey from white supremacy to the Catholic Church.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
2 months ago

Remember reading this thesis several years ago.

The last Catholic king of England was James II who was run out of England because he produced a son. This son claimed to be the rightful king into the mid 1700's. James II was also not a very tolerant or likable person. Supposedly, his elder brother Charles II converted to Catholicism on his death bed.

Robert Lewis
2 months ago

Since all the current evidence points clearly to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as being the true poet-author of most of "Shake-spear's" dramatic verses, and the man from Stratford as being the mere impresario and stage and business manager, it is very likely that the aristocratic, bisexual and immensely scholarly earl would have had strong pro-Catholic sentiments (as well as "Italian" sexual proclivities--as revealed by the Sonnets). However, it is not true that all "Shake-spear's" Italian priests are gentlemen; the hedge priest who married Romeo to his Juliet was a real scoundrel. "Shake-spear" never traveled in Italy, would never have known the back alleys of Venice, or the Croatian countryside (described in "Twelfth Night"), would never have been able to use Grendel as a model for Caliban (because "Beowulf" was locked in a nobleman's cabinet, to which de Vere had access), was unable to read Cinthio's "Gli Hecatommithi" in the original Italian (as De Vere was--and the details in "Othello" are almost exactly apposite to Cinthio's romance, rather than the poor French translation). Also, the Earl of Oxford was an enemy, because of his forced marriage, of his guardian, the fiercely Protestant William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, who was the nemesis and the destroyer of Shakespeare's "sweet spy"--who was Southwell's "sweet spice."

Tim O'Leary
2 months ago

Lewis - it is absolutely not true that "all the current evidence points clearly to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford" as the author of any of Shakespeare's opus. This is a fringe idea that has had some prominent supporters but is clearly NOT generally accepted in academia and should not be presented as such. Like much of revisionist Church history, or your adelphopoiesis theory, this hypothesis was first raised centuries after Shakespeare was dead and has little going for it. Listen to this https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/william-shakespeare/shakespeare-authorship-question/

Robert Lewis
2 months ago

Although I AM a proponent--as were Henry James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and numerous other close readers of Shake-spear's text--of the anti-Stratford authorial theory, I actually think it doesn't much matter who was the chief author. That is because I think that the whole "heroic genius" approach to classics of literature is bogus, a product of romantic idolization, and, particularly, of Victorian hero-worship. Shake-spear's corpus was produced as much by a unique and virtually un-repeatable literary culture, as by fine poets (and it IS probably plural). Dramatic literature, in particular, is produced in repertoire, by a COMPANY, during rehearsals that allow for much revision and emendation. We are a victim of this worship of individuality in academic study of English in a way that, say, the French or the Spanish or the Italiana are not; the Pleiade edition of Moliere, for example, remarks continuously, in the copious notes at the back, the variants and the changes that were made by other dramatists, other actors and other companies, during Moliere's own productive career. Also, among the claimants for PARTIAL authorship of many of Shake-spear's lines, the Earl of Oxford IS, right now, the strongest claimant. Additionally, I pay little heed to the "Shakespeare Industry" of the United Kingdom, that is much bolstered by spurious Shakespeare criticism in universities. Most of it is corrupted by money.

John McAllister
2 months ago

I used Polonius speech to Laertes as a basis for my song Father’s Day Say. It’s called that because I composed it on Father’s Day. As a lapsed Catholic Of 56 years now I still retain my church upbringing like the early American Rock n rollers. One of my current projects is called Celtic Tiger and I am using it to make sense of my life as an exile and how I reconcile my working class republican background to the current Brexit mess. I have completed my Summer project Hot Day Retro, which was great fun. I spoke about my lifelong bipolar condition in a piece called Madness Days. Anyway Mac is a practising red neck”. I don’t think I could have put it better. Anyone interested in Fathers Day Say can find it on utube by searching Utube Father’s Day say + john Mcallister . Take care & keep on rocking.

John Mack
2 months ago

I believe that the house in central London that Shakespeare leased for Catholic use was made into an Anglican church but is now a Roman Catholic church.

Michael Bindner
2 months ago

I suspect he didn't care about the debate. It was not his concern. I don't think his ghost writer did either. Being Catholic had no consequences until a group of them tried to start a revolution. They were executed for their efforts and their houses stripped of their titles. My own Allen family (mine) lost Arundel and the loyalists were give Thaxted. Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Todd Witherell
2 months ago

Tolle, Lege!

Arthur Schopenhauer
A philosopher resigned
Did point out a truth
With his pessimistic mind
He described the act of reading
Amidst his perpetual pain
As the practice of true thinking
With another person's brain
I find he is correct
In this mystic point of view
For when I read a book
I become the author too
Jorge Luis Borges
An author much revered
Claimed that when we quote the Bard
We ourselves become Shakespeare
The quintessence of dust
Yet yearning to break free
Alive in words, words, words
Upon a literary sea
Shall we think transcendent thoughts
And burst our boundaries?
Wisely venture forth, dear reader
You are my identity.

Todd Witherell
2 months ago

Shenandoah Shakespeare

In Staunton - growth
Poetic oath
To sing from the heart
Als Ick Kan
(the best I can do)
By my troth!

Todd Witherell
2 months ago

When I was young and ...

Taipei typhoon
Bangkok monsoon
Tokyo train sings soon ...

And the rain it raineth every day

Sean Salai, S.J.
1 month 4 weeks ago

Thank you all for reading. Some of the comments here remind me of something I read in "The Soul of Wit: GK Chesterton on William Shakespeare," a Dover collection of GKC's essays on the Bard edited by Dale Ahlquist. In speaking of popular cryptograms that purported to identify Shakespeare as Francis Bacon, the precursor of theories about Edward de Vere, Chesterton observed that these theories generally emerged from an elitist view of Shakespeare as opposed to a populist view. In the elitist view of Shakespeare, upper-crust people seek to identify him as a leading Church of England nobleman out of implicit discomfort with the idea that he was an ordinary Englishman. The idea that Shakespeare was an ordinary Englishman of Catholic spirit, who spent most of his time cavorting in taverns with ordinary people, seems unacceptable to people who wish to identify England's greatest playwright as one of them. So they seek on scant evidence to prove that Shakespeare was a wealthy member of the ruling class like themselves. Yet for Chesterton, nothing runs more contrary to Shakespeare's spirit than a nobleman who collaborated with the Elizabethan status quo. So Chesterton, in his usual paradoxical fashion, argues on the basis of the writings themselves (not convoluted attempts to compare their alleged hidden meanings to leading men of the time) for the simple proposition that Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare. I find it intriguing that Chesterton advanced this same common sense approach to the Bard consistently throughout his life as an agnostic, as an Anglican, and as a Catholic: https://www.amazon.com/Soul-Wit-Chesterton-Shakespeare-Literature/dp/0486489191

Robert Lewis
1 month 4 weeks ago

Father, with THIS, you seem not to know that almost the whole Oxfordian Theory of authorship, is nowadays based on the evidences of the SUBVERSIVENESS of the obvious political allegories in so many of "Shake-spear's" plays:

".. nothing runs more contrary to Shakespeare's spirit than a nobleman who collaborated with the Elizabethan status quo..."

Oxford was in REBELLION against the Elizabethan "status quo," and his subtle criticism, if he is actually the chief poet, of most of the polices of Elizabeth's government are DEADLY, when properly understood. For example, Walt Whitman's observation that whoever wrote Shakespeare's plays was a spokesman for the values of medieval hierarchy and aristocratic pretension to higher virtues, shows a proper understanding of a typical old-school British nobleman's scorn for Tudor totaliatarianism, as practised by Elizabeth and her father, both of them instigators of priest-massacring.

And also, you seem to forget that there is such a thing as "reverse snobbery," which forecloses the possibility of Christ-like sympathy for the "gently born."

Sean Salai, S.J.
1 month 4 weeks ago

Mr. Lewis, thanks for sharing these thoughts. To be clear, I wasn't addressing the current Oxfordian argument about Shakespearean authorship, but merely referencing Chesterton's early-20th century writings in response to similar theories. As "the apostle of common sense," GKC tended to side in his paradoxical writing style with the common people over the elite, responding in particular to Robert Shaw and other critics of his day whose convoluted authorship theories seemed to him rooted in a refusal to accept the possibility that an ordinary Joe who spent his time in taverns could in fact by the greatest playwright of the English language. For example, there are several delightful passages in GKC's essays where he takes a bit of Shakespearean wordplay on which volumes of convoluted theories have been written and points out the lack of evidence in the text itself that the playwright was doing anything other than having fun for the sake of delightful vocal effect. Again, that's Chesterton's argument, but others have have arrived at the same position through analyzing the language more deeply recent years, with scholars like the late English Jesuit Fr. Peter Milward (in "Shakespeare the Papist") in addition to Mr. Pearce seeing Catholic recusancy behind Shakespeare's subversive political references. For the most recent scholarly argument that Shakespeare was indeed himself and a thoroughgoing Catholic, here's an article in Commonweal last year reviewing a book that the respected scholar Judge John T. Noonan published on this topic shortly before he died in California: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/was-shakespeare-catholic

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