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Was Shakespeare Catholic?
Summary and Discussion of Key Evidence Linking Shakespeare to Catholicism

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Circumstantial Evidence Suggests Shakespeare Held Fast
To Roman Catholicism but Foolproof Documentation Lacking

By Michael J. Cummings..© 2005, 2008, 2011

Was William Shakespeare a lifelong Roman Catholic? 

That question has generated lively debate for centuries. Today, it ranks as one of the most actively investigated questions about Shakespeare, who was born in Stratford, England, in 1564 and died there in 1616 at age 52.

Why does the question matter today? It matters because, over the centuries, Shakespeare earned a reputation as the most important playwright in the English language. Any glimpse into his private mind, any glimpse into the core of his beliefs, can reveal new insights about why he wrote what he did about God, religion, and the universe—and can thus give us a deeper understanding of the characters in his tragedies, comedies, and histories. They are, after all, ourselves.

We can say this much for certain about Shakespeare: He was the son of a man and a woman who actively practiced Roman Catholicism before and at the time of their marriage during the reign of Queen Mary I, the daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mary, who ruled England from 1553 to 1558, espoused the Catholic religion of her mother as the one true faith, renouncing the Protestant Church of England (Anglican Church)—founded by her father—and imposing severe penalties (including death sentences) on Protestants who refused to follow her example.
Whether William Shakespeare’s parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden Shakespeare, were Catholics at the time of William’s birth in 1564 is open to speculation. Here is why: Upon the death of Queen Mary in 1558, the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, acceded to the English throne as Elizabeth I and recognized the Protestant faith as the official state religion. Using parliamentary laws approved early in Elizabeth’s reign, the government required citizens to attend the Protestant services of the Church of England under penalty of a heavy fine or worse. Holders of religious and municipal offices had to swear an oath of allegiance to the queen as the supreme religious authority in England to avoid loss of their positions and, in some cases, to avoid imprisonment or execution. Consequently, the ability to succeed in the Elizabethan world—and sometimes merely to stay alive—depended on one’s willingness to renounce Catholicism publicly.

Although the queen generally frowned on intrusion into the privacy of the home, there were times when government spies poked their noses through any window, or across any threshold, to ferret out religious nonconformists. In fact, at times, Elizabeth's secret police would follow a suspected Catholic anywhere and would check every closet, every attic, and every cellar in his house to turn up incriminating evidence.

Topcliffe: Elizabeth's Ruthless Spy

The most notorious Catholic-tracker in Elizabeth's service was Richard Topcliffe, who maintained a torture chamber in his house. There, he subjected captives to excruciating agonies. One of these captives was Robert Southwell (1561-1595), a Jesuit priest and poet who lived and moved in England's Catholic underground. After arresting Southwell in 1592 while Southwell was saying mass, Topcliffe tortured him in at least ten separate sessions, but the priest refused to disavow his religion. Topcliffe then transferred him to Gatehouse Prison in London and later to the Tower of London. After about two-and-a-half years of confinement—all the while refusing to renounce his religion—Southwell was taken to Middlesex Gallows on Tyburn Hill for execution by hanging, drawing, and quartering. First he was hanged. Then his body was drawn and quartered, although the executioners may have waited until he was dead (as a concession to a crowd that sympathized with Southwell) before carrying out the drawing and quartering. (In such elaborate and grisly executions, it was customary to cut down the hanged man while he was still alive, then draw and quarter him. Drawing and quartering involved removing the prisoner's intestines while he was still conscious, burning them—again, while he was still conscious—then beheading him and dividing his body into four parts.) Ironically, Southwell's mother had served as a governess for Queen Elizabeth.

Public executions of Catholics frightened recusants, causing some of them to exercise extreme caution against discovery or to renounce their religion altogether. William Shakespeare must have been especially shaken by Southwell's execution, for he had read and admired Southwell's poetry. But there is more: Southwell also read Shakespeare and wrote a critical work, St. Peter's Complaint, in which he alludes to several Shakespeare works while urging all Elizabethan writers to focus on religious themes glorifying God rather than on worldly themes. Michael Wood—a London historian famous for writing and hosting television documentaries on history, culture, art, war, archeology, and politics—asserted in a 2003 documentary, In Search of Shakespeare, that Southwell was Shakespeare's cousin and that their blood relationship could imply that they also shared a common religion. As evidence of Southwell's kinship with Shakespeare, Wood cites Southwell's address at the beginning of St. Peter's Complaint: "To My Worthy Good Cosen [Cousin] Master W.S."  The reference to "W.S." is a reference to William Shakespeare, Wood believes. Wood's conclusion here is logical. After all, Southwell refers in St. Peter's Complaint to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, as well as other Shakespeare works. Unfortunately, Southwell never spelled out the full name of "W.S." Moreover, Wood presented no evidence that Shakespeare shared Southwell's Catholic mindset. Nevertheless, Wood has pricked the skin of an intriguing apple; would that we could peal this apple to the core.

Stubborn Loyalists

In spite of the dangers facing them, many Britons stubbornly remained loyal to the “old faith,” as Roman Catholicism came to be known after Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530's. But what about Shakespeare's parents? Three years before William's birth, a Protestant named John Bretchgirdle was appointed pastor of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. As Stratford became “Protestantized,” John Shakespeare publicly accepted the Church of England. Records indicate that he even participated in remaking the church and the chapel in the local guild hall into Protestant houses of worship between 1560 and 1571. Images were  painted over; stained-glass windows were replaced; and the elaborate trappings of Catholic ritual were removed. But strong evidence—outlined in numbered examples below—suggests that John and Mary remained Catholic in secret. If so, William Shakespeare grew up inculcated with Catholic teaching.

Remaining Catholic during the first three decades of Elizabeth’s reign was not only a matter of conscience for some citizens but also a matter of prudent political judgment, for the possibility existed that another Catholic—Mary, Queen of Scots, who was the grandniece of Henry VIII—would succeed in her effort to claim the English throne. She and her Catholic supporters maintained that Elizabeth was not the rightful queen, inasmuch as she was the daughter of Anne Boleyn. Catholics believed Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon was invalid, making Henry's marriage to Miss Boleyn illegal. Therefore, they said, Elizabeth was a bastard and thus ineligible to become queen. However, the issue became moot in 1587, when Elizabeth had Mary executed. When King James I of Scotland became King James VI of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, he continued to enforce anti-Catholic laws

Whether William Shakespeare accepted the Protestant faith under Elizabeth or James as a matter of conscience is uncertain. Research to date suggests, but does not prove, that he was a secret Catholic to the end of his life. Following is the key evidence supporting the position that Shakespeare was reared a Catholic and remained a Catholic:

1...John Shakespeare's Recusancy

Shakespeare’s father, John, was identified in 1592 as a recusant, a Catholic who refused to attend the services of the Church of England. However, no one has firmly established why he missed the services. The possibility exists that his absence was due to reasons unconnected with his religious beliefs. On the other hand, one may fairly ask why he was accused of recusancy instead of simple truancy. Of course, one may also fairly ask whether William Shakespeare would have followed the example of his father if the latter had remained Catholic.

2...Mary Shakespeare's Catholicity

Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden Shakespeare, belonged to a fiercely loyal Catholic family not far from Stratford. A member of that family, Edward Arden (whose father was a cousin of Mary), befriended Catholics—including a priest named Hugh Hall, who lived in disguise on Edward Arden’s property—and opposed the religious policies of the Crown. The government eventually caught up with him and accused him of plotting against the queen. He was executed in 1583, and his head was impaled on a stake atop London Bridge. However, this evidence fails to demonstrate that Mary Arden Shakespeare was as fixed in her religious views as Edward Arden. If she had decided to bend to the will of the Crown rather than to follow the example of Edward, William might well have decided to walk in her footsteps.

3...William Shakespeare's Schooling

When he was an elementary student at the King’s New School in Stratford, William Shakespeare’s schoolteachers included at least two Roman Catholics, Simon Hunt and John Cottom, who may have taught or promoted Catholic ideas. A third teacher, Thomas Jenkins, may also have been a Catholic. However, Shakespeare’s plays suggest that as a boy he used the Protestant Geneva Bible, published in English on the European continent between 1557 and 1560 and in England in 1576. It is possible that Shakespeare was also familiar with the first English translation of the Catholic Bible, the Douay-Rheims version. The New Testament of that Bible became available in England in 1582 and the Old Testament, between 1609 and 1610.

4...William Shakespeare's Wedding 

John Frith, who presided at Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582 in the village of Temple Grafton (about four miles from Stratford), was identified by the government in 1586 as a Roman Catholic priest even though he had outwardly affected Protestant ways. It is reasonable to speculate, therefore, that Shakespeare chose the church in Temple Grafton as the site of his wedding, not the then-Protestant church in his hometown, because he wanted to marry in a Catholic ceremony.

5...Shakespeare and Southwell: Were They Spiritual Kin?

See Topcliffe: Elizabeth's Ruthless Spy, above.

6...The Mysterious Document Hidden in the Rafters

A document found in John Shakespeare’s home—in which William lived as a boy and a teenager, then as a married man with his wife until 1597, when he bought his own home in Stratford—contained wording identical to that in a pamphlet distributed by Edmund Campion (1540-1581), a Jesuit priest. The pamphlet was an English translation of an Italian document written by the Catholic Archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo (1538-1584). Borromeo (in Italian, Carlo Borromeo), a member of the religious society of Oblates of St. Ambrose (known today as the Oblates of St. Charles), was a major figure in the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a movement to combat the Protestant Reformation. His pamphlet was a deathbed profession of faith used to hearten persecuted Catholics in Europe. Campion pretended to be a jewel merchant while distributing the pamphlet and ministering and preaching to English Catholics at clandestine meetings, including gatherings less than fifteen miles from Stratford. The found document in the Shakespeare home—John Shakespeare's will with the pamphlet wording appended—was discovered on April 29, 1757, by a bricklayer. It was stuffed between rafters and the roof covering. The owner of the home at that time was John Hart, a descendant of Joan Shakespeare, William's sister, and Joan's husband, William Hart. If the pamphlet was authentic and if it was hidden by John Shakespeare, it would link him directly or indirectly with Campion, who was tortured and executed in 1581 for promoting Catholicism and denouncing the Church of England. William Shakespeare was living in his father’s home (on Henley Street in Stratford) at the time of Campion’s campaign and likely would have known about the will. Whether he would have approved of the religious message in it is arguable. 

7...Was Shakespeare "Shakeshafte"?

As a teenager, William Shakespeare may have practiced the Catholic faith under the name "William Shakeshafte" while working for and living with Alexander Hoghton (also spelled de Hoghton and Houghton) and his family in a sprawling, castle-like manor house in northwest England near the towns of Preston, Blackburn, and Darwen in the county of Lancashire. Known as Hoghton Tower and alternately Hoghton Castle, the manor house was a hotbed of Catholic activity, with priests (such as Edmund Campion) or aspiring priests using it as a kind of way station while traveling to and from the European continent. That Shakespeare was an employee (a servant or perhaps a tutor of children ) in the Hoghton household is based on the following information: 

A...Hoghton identified William Shakeshafte as an employee of his. 
B...William Shakespeare's grandfather, Richard, once used the name Shakeshafte.
C...William Shakeshafte's initials, W.S., were the same as William Shakespeare's
D...Shafte is an Elizabethan spelling variation of shaft, and speare is a variation of spear. Dictionaries define shaft in primary definitions as the cylindrical part of a spear, or the spear itself. Hence, Shake and shafte could represent Shake and speare, or Shakespeare.
E..John Cottom, one of William Shakespeare's teachers at the King's New School in Stratford, was an acquaintance of Alexander Hoghton. Cottom's brother was tortured and executed for espousing the Catholic cause...
F..Edmund Campion, a Catholic priest who distributed a pamphlet with a message repeated in the will of William Shakespeare's father, was among the Catholic visitors to Hoghton Tower.
G..Hoghton maintained a private theater, costumes, and musical instruments for staging plays. 
H..In his will, Hoghton bequeathed his theater paraphernalia to his brother-in-law, Thomas Hesketh, in the event that Hoghton's brother, Thomas, had no use for them. Hoghton also recommended that Hesketh accept Shakeshafte in his service.
I..Hesketh once took a group of actors to the home of the Earl of Derby. The earl's son, Lord Strange, maintained a company of actors.
J..In London, Shakespeare was believed to have first worked for an acting company called Lord Strange's Men, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
K..One of the financial backers of the Globe Theatre, in which Shakespeare held part ownership and staged many of his most famous plays, was Thomas Savage, who had resided in Lancashire and married a member of the Hesketh family. (See H and I, above.)
The evidence in points A to K above has been discussed by various writers over the years. In 1923 Edmund Chambers was the first researcher to consider the possibility that Shakeshafte was Shakespeare. In a 1937 book, Shakespeare's Warwickshire and the Unknown Years, Oliver Baker, of Stratford, pursued this theory. Chambers continued his research after the Baker book, and many other researchers—including Ernst A.J. Honigmann, in Shakespeare: The Lost Years—followed up on the research of both Edmunds and Baker. The combined research indicates that the Hoghton home was a safe house for Catholics, where William Shakespeare (if he indeed worked there) could practice Catholicism—or at least retain Catholic beliefs—without fear of discovery. Daring theorists have even suggested that William himself originally intended to go to the European continent to study for the priesthood. 
8...The Gunpowder Plot and a Possible Shakespeare-Campion Connection

In November 1605, defiant recusants plotted to kill King James I, the queen, their oldest son, and members of Parliament by exploding barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords and the adjacent royal palace. However, before the conspirators could execute their plan—scheduled for Nov. 5—government authorities arrested one of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, after receiving a tip. They tortured him until he disclosed the details of the conspiracy, which became known in English history as the Gunpowder Plot. What makes this incident relevant in research about Shakespeare's religion is that the leader of the conspiracy, Robert Catesby (1573-1605), and other conspirators lived in the Stratford region. Catesby's father, Sir William Catesby, once hosted Edmund Campion (1540-1581), the Jesuit priest mentioned in numbers 6 and 7 above, at the Catesby home in Lapworth, Warwickshire. There is speculation that William Shakespeare once met Campion and approved of his activities.

9...The Empty Pew

Although the English government maintained records of persons attending Protestant services, no records exist indicating that William Shakespeare registered as a member of the Church of England, as required, while he lived off and on in London. 

10...The Empty Pew 2: Shakespeare's Daughter Identified as a Recusant

On May 5, 1606, the government identified Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna as a recusant for failing to attend an Easter service of the Church of England at which she was supposed to receive holy communion. If Susanna was indeed a recusant, one may fairly speculate that her father, William, reared her a Catholic. Of course, it is possible she was her own guiding star on matters of conscience—or missed the Easter service because she was suffering from a bad headache.

11...Blackfriars Gatehouse: Catholic Haven or Investment Property?

On March 10, 1613, Shakespeare purchased Blackfriars Gatehouse on Puddle Dock Hill in London from Henry Walker for £140. Presumably, Shakespeare planned to rent the property and perhaps live there during his last days as a London playwright. However, the gatehouse was said to be a hiding place for London Catholics, complete with tunnels. Whether Shakespeare bought the property to aid Catholics or to augment his income and provide lodging for himself cannot be determined. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., holds Shakespeare's copy of the deed of purchase for the gatehouse.

12...Anglican Minister's Testimony

A statement affirming that Shakespeare died a Catholic was written, ironically, by an Anglican minister, Archdeacon Richard Davies, of Gloucestershire. In the late 1600's, he wrote notes added to a reference work—a collection of biographies written by the Rev. William Fulman—that said Shakespeare "dyed a Papyst [died a Papist]." A Papist was a Catholic loyal to the pope and the church of Rome. However, the reliability of Davies' information is dubious, for in the same notes he also says Shakespeare in his youth stole deer and other animals from the property of Sir Thomas Lucy (1532-1600) of Charlecote, Warwickshire. Many Shakespeare scholars (but not all of them) have since labeled this story apocryphal. According to an article first published in 1918 in Old and Sold Antiques Digest, the Fulman manuscript is in the possession of Oxford University's Corpus Christi College.

13...Shakespeare's Plays and Their Catholic Characters 

Numerous passages in Shakespeare’s plays indicate that he had a deep understanding of Catholicism, its tenets, and its rituals. Moreover, he often cast Catholic characters in a favorable light in conflicts involving moral principles, unjust traditions and practices, and theological and philosophical issues. Among these Catholic characters and the plays in which they appear are Hamlet, in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; Aemilia, the abbess in The Comedy of Errors; Friar Laurence, in Romeo and Juliet; Friar Francis, in Much Ado About Nothing; and Thomas More, in Sir Thomas More (a play believed to be of joint authorship, with passages written or revised by Shakespeare). However, Shakespeare also depicted Catholic characters in an unfavorable light, including Joan of Arc, in Henry VI Part I; Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, in Henry VIII; the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, in Henry V; and the heartless aristocrats in The Merchant of Venice, who ridicule Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, and force him to become a Christian.

14...Shakespeare's Outcasts: Catholic Surrogates? 

Shakespeare populates many of his plays with outcasts. If Shakespeare had clung to Catholicism, he may have been using these outcasts to symbolize his own status as a religious pariah. Among his outcast characters and the plays in which they appear are Duke Senior and his outlaws, in As You Like It; Prospero, in The Tempest; Posthumus Leonatus, in Cymbeline; Timon, in Timon of Athens; and Cordelia, the Earl of Kent, and Edgar, in King Lear. It is even possible (if one wishes to delve further into sheer speculation) that Shakespeare deliberately made Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice, a sympathetic character because of his outcast religious status. Few Jews lived in England in Shakespeare’s time, for the government had expelled everyone espousing the Jewish faith under a 1290 decree. However, a small number of Jews remained in England over the centuries, pretending to accept Christianity. In the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, publicly professing Christianity meant a Jew had to pledge allegiance to the Church of England, like a Catholic. 

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None of these fourteen examples of evidence is strong enough on its own to withstand intelligent rebuttal. Indeed, several examples are mere conjecture. However, considered collectively, these examples form an impressive body of circumstantial evidence to make the case for a Catholic Shakespeare. My own view is that Shakespeare was probably a lifelong Catholic, but I readily acknowledge that not enough documentation exists to prove that he was. It is unlikely that such documentation will come through exhaustive exegesis of his complete works; for, as Shakespeare himself wrote, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (Antonio to Bassanio, Act 1, Scene 3, line 99, The Merchant of Venice). In other words, any researcher can bend the meaning of virtually any Shakespeare passage to serve his own viewpoint.

Perhaps the day will come when some attic—or some library packed with crumbling yellow documents—will yield a paper in Shakespeare’s own hand that attests to his religious beliefs. Until then, the debate over his religious beliefs will go on while Shakespeare sleeps the eternal sleep inside his Stratford tomb in a Protestant church that once was Catholic.