Yes, I’m ignoring politics for… well, for a while. Different day, same junk. We’ll see how the November mid-term elections go… not that I’m sure that’ll fix everything, or even most things, because we usually get the government we deserve.
Prof. Joseph Pearce, of Ave Maria University in Florida, talked on “The Quest for Shakespeare.” (Yes, he has a book out: The Quest for Shakespeare and his new, follow up, Through Shakespeare’s Eyes, which analyzes the plays for Catholic markers and trends.)
Of course, we all grew up with the, “Gee, we don’t know much about him, Shakespeare could’ve been…” and then the teacher filled in with the latest trendy guesswork.
Pearce’s point is that of course we don’t know too much about Shakespeare: being a Catholic was a crime during his lifetime. You don’t exactly leave a huge papertrail detailing your Catholicism in those circumstances. But a few clues creep through.
(First, some terminology. Conformists were Catholics who grudgingly attended Anglican services, largely to avoid the heavy fines that were levied on Catholics. Papists were outwardly conformed to the Anglican church, but also secretly went to Catholic mass when they could. Recusants were devout and defiant Catholics who refused to go to Anglican services and, consequently, paid the fines. Obviously, although all are Catholics, the recusants were the most likely to still be Catholic after a generation or two. The conformists and papists generally compromised enough that their children and grandchildren failed to understand the gravity of the argument, comfortably fitting into the state-approved Anglican church.)
So, as a Catholic, you could be fairly unobtrusive… unless you were a recusant, in which case there would be records of fines, possibly imprisonment, etc. If the first fine failed to “convince” you of the wonderfulness of the newly-created Anglican church, there would be many records of fines and other punishments.
William Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, came from a family of staunch recusants. Several of his uncles were executed for their stubborn Catholicism.
William’s father had an extended political career; for a time, he was the mayor of Stratford on Avon, a fact that is often cited as proof that John Shakespeare must not have been a Catholic. However, most of the town council of Stratford were recusants; they’re on the list of people being fined for recusancy. Eventually, after the continued resistance of the recusants, Queen Elizabeth made the oath of allegiance to the queen as the head of the Anglican church mandatory… and John Shakespeare promptly disappears from politics.
Furthermore, John Shakespeare’s “Spiritual Last Will and Testament” was found hidden in the rafters of his house in Stratford. This document was nearly identical to similar items found in Spain, Mexico, and Switzerland. The Wills, however, seem to have originated with the Bishop of Milan, (St.) Charles Borromeo, who issued them during a plague in Milan. Due to the overwhelming number of deaths, many people were unable to have a priest to attend to them before death, so the Will was a sort of “confession by desire” statement for those who would die without the comfort of having a priest to hear their confession and bless them. Many of the English priests studying in Rome passed through Milan on their way back to England, staying some time with Bishop Borromeo. A letter from secret priests in England requested “more testaments”, which were “in huge demand,” which, from the numbers requested, seems to refer to these “Spiritual Last Wills” and not a Bible (which would have been prohibitively expensive and bulky to smuggle into England in the numbers requested).
In 1592, John Shakespeare was again fined as a recusant. William Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, would also be fined as a recusant.
Most of us heard the story about Shakespeare leaving Stratford in a bit of a hurry. There was some rumor about problems with the local lord, maybe poaching, or possibly something about a critical poem. Sir Richard Lucy, the local lord, was also the leader of the anti-Catholic hunting squad. So, there is some hint that the poem criticized Sir Lucy, who was the anti-Catholic lord of a stubbornly Catholic area… which resulted in a prompt exit to the anonymity of London for young William.
Recently, a German researcher found three or four cryptic signatures at the English college in Rome’s guest book. (England was an anti-Catholic police state; even the guest book could be used as a way to catch Catholics, hence, most signatures were not real names.) The researcher thinks the pseudonyms were Shakespeare’s, and they appear in the years immediately before and after his years of fame in England. (Last year, Prof. Pearce also pointed out some details that would seem to support the idea that Shakespeare went to college, first in London, then abroad, as laws against Catholics attending college were tightened, which would also explain some of the arguments about, “Will Shakespeare didn’t go to college and didn’t travel, so he must’ve just been a front for someone else who really wrote this stuff.”)
Another piece of circumstantial evidence (remember, outright evidence could be deadly), is the lack of a funeral eulogy for Queen Elizabeth. All the “big names” in English literature wrote one… but not Shakespeare, who was probably the biggest name in theater at the time. Why not, unless it was that Shakespeare was Catholic, and, thus, not particularly hoodwinked by the “Good Queen Bess” routine?
At the end of his career, Shakespeare returns home to Stratford on Avon, but buys a house in London: the Blackfriars’ Gatehouse. (Yes, the name is linked to one of the theater companies he worked with, as well.) Shakespeare already owned the second largest house in Stratford; why invest in real estate now? For starters, the blackfriars were the Dominicans, wiped out by Henry VIII. The gatehouse of their razed monastery had been kept in Catholic hands since the order was destroyed in England. It was known to be a hub of underground Catholic activities in London. Furthermore, the sale contract stipulates that the person living in the gatehouse must stay; John Robinson was known to be active in the Catholic underground, and his brother was then studying in Rome for the priesthood.
Finally, Shakespeare’s will named his daughter Susanna as executrix. Susanna was a recusant; her sister Judith had married a Protestant. The will’s beneficiaries were primarily Catholics. Again, it doesn’t state on the will, “I, William Shakespeare, am a Catholic and have always remained so…” but it might as well.
Apparently, it was enough to convince some. Fifty years after Shakespeare’s death, an Anglican vicar disparaged and dismissed him, saying Shakespeare “died a papist.”
Of course, Prof. Pearce has two books on the subject, which I will also point out are probably much more detailed than my notes from his one hour talk. And, as always, the conference talks are available from the IHM Conference website.
In London, Shakespeare was sued. His co-defendants were all recusants. His accusers were anti-Catholic hunters who raided houses to catch Catholics.
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