Wm Shakespeare: Anglican or Catholic?

Gillian Woods: (At the link Woods pursues her question through his plays.)

What was Shakespeare’s religion? It’s possible to answer this seemingly simple question in lots of different ways. Like other English subjects who lived through the ongoing Reformation, Shakespeare was legally obliged to attend Church of England services. Officially, at least, he was a Protestant. But a number of scholars have argued that there is evidence that Shakespeare had connections through his family and school teachers with Roman Catholicism, a religion which, through the banning of its priests, had effectively become illegal in England. Even so, ancestral and even contemporary links with the faith that had been the country’s official religion as recently as 1558, would make Shakespeare typical of his time. And in any case, to search for a defining religious label is to miss some of what is most interesting about religion in early modern England, and more importantly, what is most interesting about Shakespeare.

Questions such as ‘was Shakespeare a Protestant or a Catholic?’ use terms that are too neat for the reality of post-Reformation England. The simple labels Catholic, Protestant, and Puritan paper over a complex lived experience. Even in less turbulent times, religion is a framework for belief; actual faith slips in and out of official doctrine. Religion establishes a set of principles about belief and practice, but individuals pick and choose which bits they listen to.

‘Catholicism’ was an especially tricky category in this era. Under pressure of crippling fines and even execution, early modern Catholics maintained their faith in a variety of ways. Not every so-called papist supported the pope. The Roman Catholic Church of this era encompassed ‘recusants’ (who openly displayed their Catholicism by refusing to attend mandatory Church of England services) and ‘church papists’ (who conformed to the monarch’s protestant customs, but secretly practiced Catholicism). Some Catholics supported Elizabeth politically, looking to the pope only in spiritual matters; others plotted her overthrow. Catholicism was in the eye of the beholder; hotter Protestants saw many elements of Elizabeth’s own Church as horrifyingly ‘Romish’, but to average Protestants those puritanical objections seemed hysterical. Some accepted the theology and politics of the reformation, but still harboured an emotional attachment to older traditions, like praying for the dead. Furthermore, people have a habit of changing their minds over time, shifting their beliefs at different moments of their lives. Asking about the confessional allegiance of any early modern individual is a much more difficult – and interesting – enterprise than figuring out an either/or choice. Whatever Shakespeare’s personal faith was, he wrote plays that worked for audiences who had to feel their way through these dilemmas, audiences for whom Protestantism was the official state religion, but who experienced a far messier reality.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2016/01/what-was-shakespeares-religion/#sthash.YMMad9AW.dpuf

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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