Shakespeare’s Catholicism

This article from First Things outlines the scholarly argument and mentions Jesuit writer Peter Milward, who has been writing books and articles about Shakespeare and his plays for some time. The most controversial book is Claire Asquith’s Shadowplay in which she theorizes that all Shakespeare’s plays–written during the police state of the Elizabethan regime–were all coded messages to undermine the tyrant queen and her anti-Catholic forces. Asquith hit upon the idea while watching a play in Soviet Russia. The play seemed innocent enough, but the audience all knew that the author had woven into the play a politically subversive message through the clever use of symbols, code words, significant characters etc.

Like all conspiracy theories there is enough evidence to make you believe it is all true, then suddenly a piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit; some common sense steps in and it all seems like an illusion.

However, the details from the plays are intriguing. Joseph Pearce is writing a whole series of new interpretations of the plays which unlock the Catholic meaning. Through Shakespeare’s Eyes starts out with Hamlet, King Lear and Merchant of Venice.

In As You Like It the refugees live in exile in the Forest of Arden. The Forest of Arden was a real place in England–not only a secure hiding place where a network of recusant families lived, but also the home of Shakespeare’s mother’s family. Do the exiles living in the forest represent the Catholic recusant families hiding from the Queen’s soldiers?

The details I like best are from Hamlet. Hamlet and Horatio are students at the Protestant town of Wittenburg–where Luther began the Protestant revolution. The Danish kingdom is Protestant, and like the Tudor regime, there are tales of usurpation, murder, incest, adultery, madness and Machiavellian schemings. What does Shakespeare think of this Protestant regime? “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” Hamlet’s Protestantism brings about his relativism, (“there is no good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”) his indecision, his doubt and fear. He is alone without moorings and drifting in a moral wasteland.

Does Claudius represent the corrupt Tudor dynasty–founded on murder and usurpation–for which Henry VII was blamed? Are the mysterious characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern secret Catholic signs? Rosencrantz means ‘rose garland’ and was an ordinary devotional term for ‘rosary’. Guildenstern means ‘golden stone’ and ‘Golden Stone’ was one of the medieval names for  Our Lady. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fellow students at Wittenburg, and when they go to the Protestant country of England they are killed, thus the Blessed Virgin is “dead” in England–murdered by the impostor Virgin Queen Elizabeth…

You see how it goes. Sure makes reading Shakespeare a lot more fun.