If events of the day prompt one to cry, “O Shakespeare, thou shouldst be living at this hour,” a Henry Adams or Ambrose Bierce might suffice to chronicle the current ascendancy of the Snopeses. There is a sense in which Shakespeare lives at every hour, his iambic pentameter furnishing even the most modest of minds and his players always strutting and fretting their hour somewhere. Shakespeare lives, but of course he died, and the manner of that death is fascinating.
Just before Christmas, someone sent me an article that had appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (December 19, 1997, pages 11-13). “Shakespeare and the Jesuits,” by Richard Wilson, reviewed recent work dealing with a period that the young Shakespeare spent in Lancashire, the so-called “lost years.” Lancashire was a center of recusancy where the old faith was observed at some risk. Shakespeare’s father apparently stayed with the old faith. His spiritual testament, modeled on one composed by St. Charles Borromeo, was discovered in the roof of his house in Stratford in 1757. A clearly Catholic profession of faith, it was once treated with skepticism, but recently the tide has turned.
John Henry de Groot’s The Shakespeares and “The Old Faith,” first published in 1946 and reissued by Real-View Books with a postscript by the indefatigible Stanley Jaki, is fundamental. De Groot was a Protestant minister, his book is a doctoral dissertation, and it has the disarming persuasiveness of slow-motion research. Fr. Jaki feels de Groot has not yet been accorded the credit he deserves in this matter, and it is difficult to disagree.
If Shakespeare’s father and daughter were Catholics, what about the bard himself? No one argues that, after the Lancashire years, and during his writing career, Shakespeare was known as a Catholic. Still, there are tantalizing events and, above all, there are things in the plays and poems that arrest. These were times when it was worth your life not to conform. Edmund Campion and other Jesuits were brutally martyred for ministering to the pockets of Catholics who remained loyal to the Old Faith.
Shakespeare did not volunteer for a martyr’s role, but, retired to Stratford, “He died a papist.”
DeGroot has a lengthy chapter on Catholicism in the writings of Shakespeare and this suggests that his active life was not a hiatus between youthful Catholicism and deathbed return. But I leave such matters to the experts, as my mind goes on to other cases of writers who, at the end, embraced the faith. Wallace Stevens is a notable instance. Among the antecedents to this was a lifelong habit of spending time in Catholic churches.
Before her baptism, Edith Stein was astounded to find people coming and going in Catholic churches all day. Surely what dawns on a Stevens or a Stein—and perhaps on an Emerson too when he sat in the old cathedral in Baltimore—is that there is someone present. People are, in the phrase, paying a visit. In Fisher Hall at Notre Dame, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament goes on, hour after hour, students taking turns to visit the Lord. Many say the rosary. The Hail Mary is, among other things, a prayer for a happy death.
A happy death. The phrase may conjure up the image of a patriach, propped up on snow white pillows, shaved, hair neat, surrounded by his children and his children’s children, lifting a fragile hand in final benediction. But of course what it means is to die in the state of grace, in the friendship of the Lord.
Doubtless that is the meaning of the account of William Shakespeare’s end. All the great dramatic deaths of the plays crowd into the mind and lines echo in the memory. Still, there is a sufficiency in the simple historical statement, “He died a papist.”