Friday, September 12, 2008

Was Shakespeare a Catholic?

This question is receiving a lot of attention these days, generating several articles in First Things, and a new book by Jospeh Pearce (he says, predictably, 'yes').  Since I am a devout Catholic and a lover of Shakespeare, I feel like I should be concerned about this, but my dog's not in this fight--and not only because I am a monk.

Beginning with Shakespeare himself: the usual arguments put forward on either side engage in more of the frustrating and highly speculative/inventive 'biographical writing' on Shakespeare, the kind of speculation that gives rise to reasonable doubt on the authorship question.  I mean, we know virtually the dates of Ben Jonson's numerous 'conversions'.  Yet when it comes to Shakespeare, we have to conjure up theories from his father's alleged alliances and political activities in Stratford--!Stratford!--years before it would matter.  We comb the plays for clues about Shakespeare's beliefs on the one hand, and then, when they might suggest authors other than William, we say that they don't matter, and that he had a terrific imagination and read a lot.  Etc, etc.

But even less compelling is the idea that regarding Shakespeare as a Catholic will force us to re-read the plays, which is Pearce's claim.  Personally, I think that this does a disservice to what faith accomplishes in a person's life, and perpetuates a kind of tit-for-tat spat with the Church of England (we've got more important people on our side!) and a kind of ghetto mentality (we Catholics are really just as cultured as you!).  I hardly doubt that a man of culture like Shakespeare, someone as steeped in English history, could avoid having some affinity for the Catholic past, even while perhaps harboring sympathies for the contemporary agitations against Rome.  

Some questions perhaps will highlight the problem as I see it more clearly.  I mentioned Jonson, whom I also love.  Are his poems different when he is writing as an Anglican or as a Catholic?  Do his subtle political leanings deftly swerve when he returns to Mass?

Joseph Biden and Nancy Pelosi are Catholics.  Do their writings betray this (minus the obvious ones, in which they say things like, "I am Catholic, but I believe in the right to choose...")?  Four hundred years from now, would a scholar, with only their writings and their baptismal certificates, be able to tell you confidently if they were or not?  If you read Denise Levertov's poems, can you tell which are written before her conversion to Catholicism and which after?  How?  How about Fr Neuhaus' writings?  Did Evelyn Waugh need to convert to Catholicism to have written "Brideshead Revisited" (I'm not sure)?  Would we interpret the book differently had he not converted and written the same book?  There are plenty of people who feel a real affinity for Catholicism and for various reasons do not enter into full communion.  Chesterton entered rather late, after writing all kinds of books that Catholics revere as written by 'one of our own'.  C.S. Lewis wrote similar books, yet could often be quite hostile toward Rome, and as far as I know, never dreamed of 'poping'.  

This is not to say that a person's beliefs make no difference.  Surely the fact that Tolkien was a Catholic helps in understanding how his writings work.  But the differences between Anglicanism and Catholicism in the lifetime of Shakespeare were often of the most rarified sort.  What's more, Shakespeare's plays were usually set in a past in which the Reformation had not yet occurred.  Simple historical accuracy might easily be interpreted by eager Catholics as evidence of his crypto-Catholic status.

Those are some thoughts of a less-than-scholarly Shakespeare enthusiast.  I will return next to music and morality, topics more up my alley.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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