Did Shakespeare have Catholic sympathies?

Vintage colored engraving of William Shakespeare, after the Chandos portrait. Photo: duncan1890/iStock

Clare Asquith is the author of Shakespeare and the Resistance (PublicAffairs, 2018), a book in which she argues that William Shakespeare harbored Catholic sympathies and covertly critiqued the religious fabric of his age through his writings.

Asquith spoke to Catholic Digest to further elaborate on the religious climate of England in the time of the Immortal Bard.

Q: Could you explain, in brief, the religious landscape of England at the time of Shakespeare? What was life like in the wake of the Anglican Reformation?

A: The 1559 Elizabethan Settlement demanded conformity to a hybrid brand of Protestantism repugnant to reformers and Catholics alike. Most people conformed outwardly, cowed by stringent legal penalties and fearful of further political division. Forty years later, the true extent of secret national disaffection was the subject of feverish speculation — given the uncertainty over the succession and the rise in Catholic and Puritan activism — many expected civil war on the death of Elizabeth. James I’s peaceful accession to the throne was largely due to his unfulfilled promise to end the savage persecution of English Catholics.

Q: How much do we know of Shakespeare’s own religiosity? Would you say that Shakespeare was expressly Catholic in his sympathies, or was more so generally cynical to the repercussions the Reformation had caused?

A: Shakespeare was the most circumspect of his generation of writers, many of whom suffered for including incautious political allusions in their work. But he was also among the most committed. A careful comparison of his works with the revisionist history of his times clearly indicates a Catholic sensibility, and reveals a consistent, impassioned plea for a solution to the profound damage done to the country’s psyche in the course of Henry VIII’s Reformation. It is widely known that his early work supports the stance of the oppositional Earl of Essex — less widely known is the fact that Essex was seen by Catholics as a champion of religious toleration.

Q: Could you explain the “coded language” you refer to in the book and why writers in Elizabethan England would have used it to communicate certain ideas?

A: My book Shadowplay (PublicAffairs, 2005) lists key terms in a literary double language which was widely understood at the time, and was tolerated and even welcomed in certain circumstances by the monarch. Its purpose was to sidestep the ban on dramatizing political or religious material. As one would expect of Shakespeare, the virtuosity with which he deploys this language was far in advance of other writers, and is yet to be explored as a neglected aspect of his genius.

Q: You use Shakespeare’s Lucrece and Venus and Adonis as examples of allegorical or coded references to the political/religious landscape in England. Have you found, or have others hypothesized about the prevalence of this coded writing on other works of his, such as his more political plays like Richard III ?

A: All Shakespeare’s works contain a concealed, topical narrative, addressed sometimes to the monarch, sometimes to the nobility, and sometimes, most covertly, to suffering English Catholics. It is recognized that other contemporary writers played this game, but the work of the many scholars who maintain that Shakespeare did too continues to be sidelined.

Q: Would this coded language be noticed by the typical reader of Shakespeare during his time, or only those who were intently looking for it? Did anyone during his time openly accuse Shakespeare of Catholic sympathies?

A: The chief indication that Shakespeare’s secondary layer was understood is the fact that he continued to use it throughout his career. There are also two public reactions. Elizabeth I correctly identified herself as the weak, ill-advised monarch in the dissident Earl of Essex’s “signature” play, which according to the scholar Jonathan Bate, was Shakespeare’s Richard II. “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” she told her archivist after Essex’s death.

Years later the Protestant propagandist John Speed, referring to a slur on a government figure in Henry IV, connected Shakespeare with the hated Jesuit Robert Persons: “This papist and his poet, of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning, the other ever falsifying the truth.” Shortly after this, Shakespeare retired from the stage.


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