The literature on Shakespeare being a Catholic keeps mounting. Clare Asquith’s book Shadowplay along with the scholarship of Fr.Peter Milward started the ball rolling, then Joseph Pearce’s excellent, The Quest for Shakespeare gathered all the evidence together in a rollicking good read and the PBS documentary In Search of Shakespeare made it visual.
Now some mysterious evidence has emerged in the Venerable English College in Rome. You can read the article here and the Times reports here. They have found some documents that might have Shakespeare’s name on them, indicating that during his ‘lost years’ from 1585 – 1592 he was in Rome, and if in Rome was he studying for the priesthood? Probably not since the entries are in a guestbook. It could be that if this is Shakespeare, it consolidates other evidence that he remained a Catholic and that he was networking through the Catholic contacts on the continent.
A leather parchment kept by the college is signed by “Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis” in 1585, “Shfordus Cestriensis” in 1587 and “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis” in 1589. The college believes these signatures are: “(King) Arthur’s (compatriot) from Stratford (in the diocese) of Worcester,” “Sh(akespeare from Strat)ford (in the diocese) of Chester” and “William the Clerk from Stratford”.
What makes the quest so intriguing is that the evidence for Shakespeare’s life is so scant, and in this particular area it is very scant indeed, but the times were dangerous. To be a Catholic in England was considered an act of treason. Catholics had to disguise their identities. If the names in the register at the English college were cryptic maybe they had to be so that real identities would not be revealed. Walsingham’s spies were infiltrating the seminaries on the continent with fake converts (one of whom was probably Shakespeare contemporary and playwright Christopher Marlowe) Therefore Shakespeare would not only have disguised his name and hometown, but done it differently on three different visits. It’s all very juicy conspiracy theory stuff, and yet that was the situation the Catholics were in. They were members of an underground church. They had to destroy or disguise evidence and ‘keep it secret keep it safe.’
As it happens, I’ve produced the outline of a screenplay called The Shakespeare Plot. In it Shakespeare is a secret Catholic in Elizabethan England and is all tied up with spies, disguised priests, torture chambers priest’s holes, executions and other juicy stuff. Think Man for All Seasons meets Shakespeare in Love. Some people in California seem to be interested.