The Catholic Shakespeare

Interview With Author Joseph Pearce

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By Carrie Gress

NAPLES, Florida, JULY 8, 2008 (Zenit.org).- There is mounting evidence that William Shakespeare was a Catholic, says author Joseph Pearce.

In this interview with ZENIT Pearce discusses his latest book, "The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome" (Ignatius Press), where he pieces together evidence of Shakespeare's Catholic faith from his life and writings.

Q: Clare Asquith's book "Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of Shakespeare" is perhaps best known as putting forth the thesis that William Shakespeare was a Catholic. Have there been others throughout history that also believed this?

Pearce: There is a long and illustrious history of Shakespeare scholars who have come to the conclusion that the Bard was a Catholic. From Richard Simpson's pioneering work in the 19th century the belief that Shakespeare was a believing Catholic has been reinforced by subsequent scholarly detective work. These scholar-detectives include Jesuit Father Herbert Thurston, Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, John Henry de Groot, Ian Wilson, another Jesuit, Father Peter Milward, Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel and, of course, the aforementioned Clare Asquith.

Q: Why has this element of Shakespeare's life been so overlooked by most Shakespearean scholars? Many believing him to be above religion, something of a secular humanist or enlightened atheist?

Pearce: In recent years, even secular scholars have been forced to address the mounting evidence that Shakespeare was a Catholic, though many remain in obstinate denial.

The reason that Shakespeare's Catholicism has been largely unknown is due to a combination of factors. First, Catholicism was illegal in Shakespeare's time, which necessitated that all Catholics had to keep the practice of their faith a secret.

Second, the evidence for the Bard's Catholicism was studiously ignored by Shakespeare scholars during the two centuries following his death due to the anti-Catholic bias of scholars during this period. Third, much of the irrefutable documentary evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism did not come to light, or was not properly understood, until fairly recently.

Finally, the belief that Shakespeare was a secular humanist or an atheist is due to a subjective misreading of his work by secular critics, who see only their own prejudices reflected in his plays. These misreadings are exposed by the weight of documented historical evidence that Shakespeare was a believing Catholic.

Q: As a Catholic and an Englishman, what kind of new research and insights were you able to bring together what you call the jigsaw puzzle of Shakespeare's Catholic life?

Pearce: I believe that my position as a Catholic Englishman has assisted me greatly in my research on Shakespeare's Catholicism. I know my country's history and was very "at home" in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods that are the subject of my book.

The chief value of my book is that it assembles the vast wealth of evidence within the pages of a single volume. Prior to the publication of "The Quest for Shakespeare" it was necessary to read many separate works in order to assemble all the pieces of the jigsaw together. Now all the pieces are available in one place!

As for new insights, I believe that my book contains a number of such insights, interpreting the evidence in a way that has not been done previously. Perhaps the most obvious way in which my insights differ from those of most other scholars of Shakespeare's Catholicism is my belief that he was considered to be a "safe" Catholic by Queen Elizabeth and King James. I believe that his Catholicism was not unknown but was an open secret, which was tolerated by the powers-that-be.

Q: What kind of evidence can be found for his Catholicism in his family?

Pearce: The evidence that Shakespeare's family were militantly and devoutly Catholic is overwhelming. His mother's family was one of the most notorious Catholic families in England, and several of Shakespeare's cousins were executed for their involvement in so-called Catholic plots. Shakespeare's father was fined for his Catholicism, as was Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna. The discovery of a spiritual will, signed by Shakespeare's father, also points unequivocally to his Catholicism.

Q: Was the access his plays had to Queen Elizabeth's court not evidence that he had embraced he state religion of Anglicanism?

Pearce: Many known Catholics, considered to be "safe" by the Queen, had access to the court. These include William Byrd, the court composer, who was a known and an unabashed Catholic, and also the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's benefactor, who was a favorite of the Queen in spite of his Catholicism. It is, therefore, not an argument against Shakespeare's Catholicism that his plays were performed for the Queen.

Q: You make the case that Shakespeare's life was a constant tightrope walk between convenience and conviction. How so? Was this evidenced in his plays?

Pearce: The tension of this "tightrope," in which Shakespeare tried to keep his balance between expressing his beliefs without finding himself condemned for them, is evident in the tortured tension in his plays. Although the Catholicism is in evidence, it is always expressed in a circumspect way, and this subtlety and circumspection is the reason for the plays being so often misread by secular critics. The Catholicism is certainly in the plays, however, and a true critical reading of the plays will discover the wealth of Catholic morality that is present.

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On the Net:

"The Quest for Shakespeare": www.ignatius.com/questforshakespeare/