The Play, the Play’s the Thing…

…in which I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

What, you mean, dear readers, that you are unaware of the Catholic subtext of Hamlet? The theory goes like this: Shakespeare was secretly a recusant Catholic. Under Elizabeth’s strict penal laws he could lose everything by being openly Catholic. For the full and best argument on this read Joseph Pearce’s excellent new book, The Quest for Shakespeare 
The Catholic reading of Shakespeare goes like this: Denmark is a Protestant kingdom taken over by an incestuous, bloodthirsty, lustful usurper. Ditto Shakespearean England. Henry VIII was considered to be the beneficiary of Henry VII’s usurpation of the English throne. He was rumored to be incestuous not only because he married his brother’s wife (as Claudius in Hamlet) but he was also rumored not only to have bedded Ann Bolyn’s sister, but also her mother. The most scurrilous rumor (which can’t be true because of dates) was that Ann was actually Henry’s daughter by Mrs Bolyn. Whatever is the truth, Henry VIII was regarded by his enemies as a violent, incestuous, lustful and bloodthirsty usurper.
That Shakespeare intends Denmark to be shown as a Protestant kingdom is clear because Hamlet and Horatio are students at Wittenburg–the center of Lutheranism.
The decay and anarchy, violence and madness in the kingdom is symptomatic (in Shakespeare’s Catholic worldview) of the anarchy, decay, madness and violence that has descended on England since Henry VIII’s break with the source of moral order, sanity and peace–the Catholic faith. That all ends in bloodshed and tragedy and the collapse of the kingdom was a reflection of the widespread fear within Elizabethan England that the country had departed from God’s will and that the Spanish (read Fortinbras) would invade and sweep through the land.
The play is thus read as a subversive recusant Catholic tract–a piece of subtle propaganda against the Tudor regime. As such it was Shakespeare’s intention that the play (Hamlet) would be the thing that would catch the conscience of the King (or in this case the Queen)
For more on this look up Fr Peter Milward’s excellent writings.
PS: If the work is a coded pro-Catholic work is there any significance in the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Rosencrantz means ‘Rosary’ in German and ‘Guildenstern’ means ‘Golden Star’. Here’s a piece that gives a history of the names and suggests they are references to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
 What does it mean? Shakespeare (if he was Catholic) would have been horrified by the destruction and pillage of the ancient Marian shrines of Glastonbury, Walsingham, and many others under Cromwell. The ancient images of the Blessed Mother were taken to London and burnt publicly. In the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (representing Mary) are violently killed in England at the orders of Protestant prince Hamlet.
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  • In my opinion, if Shakespeare coded all his plays to give secret messages to Catholics, then he failed spectacularly. The supposed codes are so cryptic that no one figured them out for centuries, until a few enlightened folks realized that EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT SHAKESPEARE IS WRONG — the Mary Baker Eddys of literature.The Catholic press that has given this idea credence, even my favorite publishing houses! — seems to have jumped at this “provocative” subject just as much as the main publishing houses jump at the newest “rediscovered” gospel every Christmas and Easter. A bunch of silliness!!

  • Yes maybe, but then it is v. possible that the plays were not difficult for Shakespeare’s audience. They might have understood the coded references as easily as we might pick up the satire or subtle visual allusions in a film which viewers a hundred years from now would miss totally.

  • Gail ~Well, wait a minute. Even before I was Catholic, while I was still an English grad student reading Shakespeare, I remember thinking, “Dang! This stuff is Catholic!” To un-Catholic me, it was patently obvious. I did, however, thoroughly approve of academia’s apparent refusal to acknowledge the fact in the interest of upholding the “sacred secular” approach to scholarship and criticism. No kidding. And nobody was more anti-Catholic than I–yet it seemed completely obvious to me.So, when I read Pearce’s book, it all seemed like something one already knows, but what is finally being said–along with biographical details that I hadn’t known before but which made perfect sense.Was Shakespeare Catholic? Of course, he was. Would he have kept that to himself. Of course–if he wanted to keep on living and writing under Bloody Lizzie.

  • Hard to know if he was much of anything, given how little we know of him. We are not even sure where he is burried. And what sort of person goes off to London, leaving the older Anne to tend the hearth in Avon? I will wager he was more of a free spirit than a Catholic. But even a Protestant visiting 400 years later can gaze upon the bare ruined choirs of Christ’s church and wonder what manner of religion would climb upon the back of the desecrated to establish itself.

  • Read Pearce’s book. All is explained. What is most intriguing is how the book explains the situation Catholics were in under Elizabeth. Think Christianity under the communist regime. It is probable that Shakespeare left his wife and children not only to earn a living in London, but to avoid the increasing persecution of Catholics in Stratford and the area.