Was Shakespeare Catholic?
Besides his plays and poems and a couple of dedications, William Shakespeare left hardly a trace to history. We know with tolerable precision the dates of his birth and death, the names of his immediate family, his addresses in London and Stratford, and his trajectory up the ladder of status, from simple player to retired gentleman. The rest, as scholars fondly say, is silence.
Given the Bard’s literary preeminence, biographies must be had; but given the paucity of evidence, the results are mainly thin on fact and thick in imaginative projection. In search of material that would make the man as interesting as the work, biographers often have found it hard to resist the lure of third-hand anecdotes and self-serving memoirs, such as the 17th century Rev. Richard Davies’ claim that Shakespeare was a Catholic, which in the time of Elizabeth and James was tantamount to treason.
Historian Ian Wilson’s boldest claim in Shakespeare: The Evidence is that Davies was right and that Shakespeare’s Catholicism explains much about his life and work. It also adds a good measure of danger and drama to a biographical record that is disappointingly dry as dust.
It is far from coincidental that Wilson (author of Jesus: The Evidence and The Shroud of Turin) is English and Catholic. “In the course of the book,” he writes in the preface, “I point to other writers who have moulded Shakespeare according to the way they would like him to have been, and I may well be accused of having fallen into the same trap.”
Although Wilson denies that he set out to prove Shakespeare Catholic, he does little to conceal his prejudice. He seldom misses a chance to rue the Reformation, which at one point he compares to communism and at another describes as “Henry VIII and his bully boys.” While wholly circumstantial, the evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism is certainly plausible, but Wilson’s argument would be more convincing if advanced less insistently and tendentiously.
Where Wilson succeeds is in bringing to life the close, complex and sometimes dangerous world of Elizabethan society. His passion for pursuing minute details and shadowy characters results in a finely drawn portrait of the age’s notable figures and events, delivered in agreeable if sometimes colorless prose.
Since his goal is historical rather than literary, he makes no attempt to criticize Shakespeare’s work, analyzing it rather for clues to underlying motivations and sympathies. But this is a perilous pursuit, difficult to carry off absent a foregone conclusion. And although Wilson is careful to qualify his guesses, he’s often carried away by what he considers the rightness of his premise. Possibilities slip into probabilities, hypotheses into assertions.
At first, for example, he presents the idea that Shakespeare’s father was Catholic as an intriguing possibility, resting principally on a dubious and now-lost testament. But within a few pages Wilson is treating possibility as fact. Likewise, he suggests in an appraisal of The Comedy of Errors that Shakespeare’s unkind portrayal of the ridiculous pedant Pinch is perhaps a sly allusion to the anti-papist scribblings of a certain “R. Phinch.” By the next page, and without further proof, Wilson is referring to “Pinch/Phinch” as a single entity.
Most of Wilson’s other conclusions (which lean heavily on the work of conservative scholar A.L. Rowse) are not much more convincing than Pinch/Phinch. After building a case for identifying the Sonnets’ “Dark Lady” as Emilia Lanier—“married, musical, adulterous, high-handed, tyrannical and inclined to the occult”—Wilson typically notes that while her “identification with Shakespeare’s Dark Lady cannot be considered proven, she certainly seems to come close to the sort of woman who might have snared” the Bard.
There are many similarly arguable points in the text, but they do give it a certain charm. At the very least, Wilson’s hypotheses are interesting, whether or not one thinks Shakespeare’s personal beliefs are relevant to appreciating his work. Think of it as a sort of historical fiction, and you’ll probably enjoy Shakespeare: The Evidence.
San Francisco writer Michael Macrone is the author of Brush Up Your Shakespeare! (Harper Perennial).
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First published in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 23, 1995)