Was Shakespeare Catholic? (Guest: Joseph Pearce)

William Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of all time. Was he also a secret Catholic?

Crisis Point
Crisis Point
Was Shakespeare Catholic? (Guest: Joseph Pearce)
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Links

The Quest for Shakespeare
Through Shakespeare’s Eyes
Shakespeare on Love
Ignatius Critical Editions Shakespeare Set
Joseph Pearce website

Transcript:

Eric Sammons:

William Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of all time, but was he also a secret Catholic? That’s the topic for today on today’s Crisis Point. Hello, I’m Eric Sammons, your host, the editor in chief of Crisis Magazine.

Before we get started I just want to encourage people to hit the like button to subscribe and to let other people know about it. I really do appreciate that.

Well, we have a returning guest who’s an expert on this topic, and that’s Joseph Pearce. He’s a native of England and a contributing editor of Crisis Magazine and the internationally acclaimed author of many books, which include bestsellers such as Tolkien: Man and Myth, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Literary Converts, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile—which is what we talked about last time we had him on the podcast—and the topic of today’s podcast, which is The Quest for Shakespeare, The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome. Welcome to the program, Joseph.

Joseph Pearce:

It’s good to be back, Eric. Thanks for having me.

Eric Sammons:

So I was telling you beforehand, just to let everybody know, this is really a topic that has gained a lot of interest with me because I really started reading Shakespeare this summer after being woefully uneducated in the great bard. And so I’ve enjoyed it a lot, but then as I was reading and studying about him, I started to find out, wow, there’s actually a pretty decent segment number of people who believe that he was Catholic, which I had honestly never heard before. And then I saw that you had actually written a book about it. And actually you mentioned it in Faith of Our Fathers, your new book from Ignatius about the history of England. And so I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to find out more about this.” And like most people, like I said, I did not even know anybody thought that he was Catholic. I’d never heard this growing up in my public high school when we had to read some Shakespeare, never heard that. So what is the common belief among most Shakespearean scholars today about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs?

Joseph Pearce:

Well, first of all, Eric, I would say that like you I had no idea about Shakespeare’s Catholicism. And when I first moved to the United States back in 2001, one of my colleagues at Ava Maria, another literature person at Ava Maria, was saying that Shakespeare was a Catholic and I sort of smiled, probably superciliously, and said, “Well, that’s just wishful thinking. We don’t know enough about Shakespeare to have any real idea what his religious beliefs were.” The only honest position to hold is one of agnosticism, not his agnosticism, but our agnosticism with respect to we don’t know what his beliefs were. And since then, of course, as my books testify, I’ve come across so much evidence that I think we can show beyond any reasonable doubt that he was a Catholic. That obviously isn’t the view of most people, and what we have to understand is that Shakespeare lived in very anti-Catholic times.

And then there was a period of a century or so after his death when he wasn’t the celebrity he became. There was a great Catholic revival in the 18th century, so in the 1700s, where all of a sudden he became a celebrity and the greatest Englishman. But by that time, of course, 150 years had passed since his death and England had become even more anti-Catholic culturally than it was when he was alive. And so, insofar as his faith was remembered at all, and for the most part it wasn’t, it was certainly not going to be mentioned. And it was only until a century or so after that in the 19th century with scholars such as Richard Simpson and others, that evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism began to emerge. And since then we’ve had 150 years of good solid scholarship which is what I’ve built my own books upon.

Eric Sammons:

Okay, okay. So most people, most kind of scholars today would probably just say that we don’t really know his religious beliefs and perhaps he was even a bit anti-religious. Is that kind of the common consensus among a lot of scholars? Or have even non-Catholic scholars started to say, “Yeah, he possibly was Catholic.” Have they started to see that way?

Joseph Pearce:

Well, to take the first part of your question first, a lot of the belief that Shakespeare was anti-religious or anti-Christian is based upon a misreading of the plays. In other words, the modern and postmodern academy being divorced from any context, having no theology, no philosophy and no history, have no way of actually reading the plays in any objective sense. So they come to the plays with their own prejudice, their own pride and prejudice, and have that pride and prejudice mirrored back to them. They see what they want to see and therefore they come to a Shakespeare made in their own image. That sort of radical relativistic reading of the plays does not hold up when we do know a theology philosophy in history. So that’s the first thing I would say. And having said that, I’ve forgotten the second half of your question.

Eric Sammons:

Has there been any development among scholarship to admit that perhaps there is evidence for his Catholicism?

Joseph Pearce:

Yes, the evidence for Shakespeare Catholicism been gaining traction even in the secular world. So it’s not just a preserve for Catholics now. My favorite story in this regard was something I was told by someone who was attending a lecture by the director of the National Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC. And his lecture was on something completely unrelated to Shakespeare’s faith, but during the Q&A, someone asked the question, “Well, what about Shakespeare’s religious belief? What were they?” And he responded instantly, “Well, many people think he was Catholic.” So that’s, if you like, a mainstream secular response when asked a question directly unexpectedly, that’s the response. And I think it’s just acknowledgement that insofar as we have evidence, the evidence is overwhelming that he was a Catholic.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. So the reason why we’re unsure, it’s not concrete and definitive in a lot of ways, is because of the times he was living in. So why don’t you kind of paint a picture of the England in which Shakespeare lived?

Joseph Pearce:

So for people that know more about the history of the 20th century than they do about the 16th and 17th century, a good analogy would be the Soviet Union and life under the Soviet terror. Obviously, if you are a dissident living under the yoke of communism, you don’t leave a paper trail behind you because if you did you’d end up in the gulag. So it’s the same thing as Shakespeare’s England. During Shakespeare’s life, he lived during the reign of two monarchs, Elizabeth I and James I. During the entirety of his life except for a very brief period of about a year after James I came to the throne… and we could talk about that if you’d like later… but with that very small exception the whole of his life the Catholic church was illegal. Illegal to such a degree that the mass was outlawed. To be a priest in England was punishable by death. To harbor a priest in England was to be punishable by death.

And we have between the 1530s with the martyrdom of the Carthusians and then Sir Thomas More and Sir John Fisher in the 1530s and the reign of Henry VIII, until the final martyrdoms in the 1680s. So a period of 150 years in which Catholic priests and laity were being put to death for their faith. It’s right in the middle of that period. So if this period of persecution begins in the 1530s and ends in the 1680s, Shakespeare is writing from about 1590 until about 1612, so really right in the middle of that period of persecution. So obviously he’s not going to be writing letters to everybody about his Catholic faith because that would be basically putting his head on the block.

Eric Sammons:

Right, and I think that’s something we should remember. When we look back at it historically, we know the names of the great martyrs of the day, the great recusants like Edmund Campion, people like that, and we also know the names of a lot of the people who went to Elizabeth’s religion and rejected the Catholic faith, were traitors to it. But the fact is that most people, we don’t really know what they were because it was kind of a mess on the ground. Wasn’t it? As far as how one family might have people that are practicing but they’re not letting anybody know about it, where another one might go to the local Anglican church but they actually still believe themselves be Catholic. And there’s a lot of different ways in which Catholics tried to survive during that time. Right?

Joseph Pearce:

Yeah, basically during Shakespeare’s time, particularly during the early part of Shakespeare’s writing, the tide was turning against Catholicism while he was writing. But certainly in the 1590s and the late years of Elizabeth reign, the majority of the people in England were still, by sensibility certainly, and by belief, largely Catholic. So this very large part of the population, possibly the majority, but certainly a very large part of the population, they expressed their Catholicism in three distinct ways. There were what I call the church conformists. So because you were fined if you did not attend the services of the state religion, the service of the Anglican church, if you didn’t attend at least a certain number of times a year you were fined. So the church conformists outwardly conformed. They went to the Anglican services at least as often as they had to, but moaned and groaned about the new religion and longed for return of the good old days.

And then you had the church papists. This was the term given to them by their enemies, the church papists who lived a double life. So they would be outwardly conforming in order to avoid paying the fines, or at least one member of the family would be out, the husband, to avoid paying the fines but they would also be secretly practicing Catholics. When there was a priest in a neighborhood they would go to mass and receive the other sacraments. So they would be living a double life. And then the third group are the recusants and those who recused, those who refused to conform, who refused to go to the Anglican services and in consequence paid huge fines. And I can’t remember what the main course of revenue for the Elizabethan government was, but the second largest source of revenue for the Elizabethan government was the income from fines levied on recusant Catholics.

So that’s how big an issue this was. And just to conclude, we know that Shakespeare’s mother’s family, the Ardens, were one of the most notorious recusant families in the whole of England. And we know that Shakespeare’s father was fined for his recusancy and so was Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna. So insofar as we know anything about Shakespeare family, we know they weren’t just Catholics, they were part of that most devoutly, militant and defiant section of the Catholic population.

Eric Sammons:

Okay, so let’s talk then a little bit about Shakespeare’s upbringing and how that reflects the potential that he was Catholic himself. You mentioned his father, you mentioned his mother’s family. So how was he raised? And also I know, for example, the school he likely went to as a young boy, a lot of the teachers seemed to end up becoming Catholic priests or becoming somehow associated with the recusant movement. So tell us a little bit about his upbringing.

Joseph Pearce:

Well, the first thing we need to realize, of course, that he was raised in the Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon, and in that period Warwickshire in general and Stratford in particular, was a town which was still predominantly Catholic. In other words, the majority of the population were Catholic. We know there’s all sorts of government reports. So we know Shakespeare’s family were Catholic, the grammar school he went to, on the assumption he went there because we don’t have a record of where he had his education, in theory he could have done what many other Catholics did and actually went abroad to study. We don’t know basically, but the most likely scenario is that he went to the local grammar school. And as you rightly say, least one of the teachers there at the time went on to become a priest and to actually be martyred upon his return to England. We know of other teachers that were also Catholics and ended up falling foul of the law. So Shakespeare was living in a predominantly Catholic community where the teaching staff and the students at the local school were predominantly Catholic.

Eric Sammons:

Now he was baptized though in the Anglican church. I know some people have said that’s evidence that his father and mother weren’t practicing Catholics, no matter what else we might say. What do you say in response to that?

Joseph Pearce:

Well, what you have to understand is that if someone is not baptized in the state religion, then they are illegitimate. They have no rights to property. They have no legal status. So just as when we get married in these days we might get married in the church but we have to register our marriage with the secular authorities. It was exactly the same there. So baptism and funerals and weddings had to take place in the state religion. There was no way around that. And we know for instance, in Stratford-upon-Avon churchyard, and Shakespeare is actually buried in the church, but in the Anglican church there, there were many known recusant Catholics buried in the church yard. I mean, where else is someone going to be buried? You have to be buried in the consecrated churchyard of your local parish church. That’s part of the state structure. So it means nothing the fact that Shakespeare was baptized according to the secular law of the land.

Eric Sammons:

Okay, okay. Now, I know that it’s his father, I think, who seems to have the most evidence of being explicitly a recusant. What is the evidence of his father, John, and exactly why is it we think that he was definitely Catholic?

Joseph Pearce:

Well, there were two pieces of documentary evidence that make it absolutely abundantly clear that he was a Catholic. The first is the fact that in 1592 he was fined as a Catholic recusant. And by this stage Shakespeare’s living in London and writing his early plays. So that’s when his father is fined for his Catholic recusancy. In 1606, the year in which Shakespeare is writing plays such as Macbeth, his daughter Susanna is fined for recusancy. And then about 150 years after Shakespeare’s death, in the 1700s, there were some building work, some renovation work being done on the Shakespeare family home. And as they were working on the roof they discovered, concealed in the rafters, a document that’d obviously had been hidden there presumably for fear of its being discovered. And that was the last will and testament, I’m sorry, the spiritual last will and testament of John Shakespeare. Now, we need to make this clear.

It was the spiritual last will and testament, not the legal last will and testament, and there’s a great story behind this. Basically what this says is that I want it to be known that I’m a Catholic and I want it to be known if there’s no priest available when I die, that I wish to die in the Catholic faith fortified by the sacraments of the church, including extreme unction, et cetera. So it’s this statement of his faith. And it’s what I sometimes call, it’s an extreme unction of desire. We know about baptism of desire and what have you, because of course the reality in England at the time was that because it was illegal to be a priest because the Catholic church was illegal, there was no guarantee that you would have access to a priest in extremis, at the point of death. So a spiritual last will and testament, actually there’s a whole history behind it, it’s fascinating, if you don’t mind my giving some more meat to the bones.

Eric Sammons:

Oh yeah, definitely.

Joseph Pearce:

It was authored, this spiritual last will and testament, this is great detective scholarly work done by, I think, Father Thurston, a Jesuit, and others in the early 20th century, that this spiritual last will and testament was actually written by Sir Charles Borromeo, the cardinal and archbishop of Milan, and a saint of course, and he wrote it during the plague that hit Milan. Because same problem, people were dying in such numbers that it was impossible for the priest to minister to the sick and dying, so he just wrote this and printed this spiritual last will and testament and it was then handed out to the people so they could sign it as a way of an affirmation of their desire for a priest. So when St. Edmund Campion and his companions are on their way to England to their martyrdom in 1580, they go from Rome to England over land, by land, and they stop in Milan.

And at St. Charles Borromeo’s invitation, they stayed with him. And it’s almost certainly then that these copies of the spiritual last will and testament were handed to St. Edmund Campion and his companions and came to England. We have a letter written by a Jesuit in England, I can’t remember which one at the moment, to Claudio Acquaviva, the superior general of the Jesuits in Rome, asking for more copies of the testaments because many people desired them. And for many years it was thought this meant the new Douay-Rheims New Testament, but there’s two reasons why it can’t be that. First of all, these priests are living as sort of God’s spies, to pluck a phrase from Shakespeare, traveling surreptitiously. The very thought that they’d be carrying bulky copies of the new testament with them is absurd, it would be suicide, where it’s much more easier to conceal a two or three page printed sheet.

But the other reason it can’t be the Douay-Rheims New Testament is the date of this letter is actually several months before the publication of the first edition of the Douay-Rheims and it’s asking for more copies of the testament. So quite clearly, these were testaments smuggled into the country by Jesuit priests and others that were then handed out to recusant Catholics. Obviously at some point Shakespeare’s father and family were sufficiently worried about the house being raided, that they hid the document in the rafters of the roof where it remained to be discovered 150 years later.

Eric Sammons:

That’s amazing. Is it possible that either John Shakespeare or his son William actually met or knew St. Edmond Campion himself?

Joseph Pearce:

Yes, there is certainly circumstantial evidence that some secular scholars have taken seriously that Shakespeare would’ve met him when Shakespeare was a teenager. So the evidence for that is that we know that when St. Edmund Campion came to England, and he was only at liberty for about a year before he was captured, tortured and martyred, but he passed through or within a few miles of Stratford-upon-Avon and met local recusant families while he was there. So there’s every possibility that Shakespeare’s family, Shakespeare’s father, perhaps Shakespeare himself, would have met St. Edmund Campion as he passed north on his way to Lancashire from London. But also we know that there’s a period of time when the young Shakespeare had to leave Stratford-upon-Avon in a hurry. All we know is he fell foul of the lord of the manor who was rabidly anti-Catholic, who relished overseeing the raiding of Catholic homes.

So we know that Shakespeare fell out with this man and had to leave in a hurry. And for some years we know he was a school master in the country, and that would really mean probably that he was basically homeschooling the children of Catholic recusant families. And there’s someone called William Shake Shaw who’s an actor who’s staying in a recusant home in Lancashire at the same time that Edmond Campion is staying in a neighboring recusant home, and it’s conjecture that they may well have met. And Edmund Campion had written plays while he was a Jesuit in Prague, and so we have this playwright, this seasoned, mature, very holy, very erudite, he was the Newman of his age, he was a great scholar with this sort of teenage Shakespeare sort of at his knee learning the trade, so to speak. But it’s speculative. What I normally emphasize, and in my book Shakespeare on Love, I think, has a whole appendix called the Jesuit connection.

I put more emphasis upon the absolutely solid evidence that Shakespeare would’ve known another Jesuit martyr, that’s Robert Southwell, who was basically ministering in London at the same time that Shakespeare was in London. And Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, who was a recusant Catholic, had Sir Robert Southwell as his personal confessor. So in this relatively small, this is the heart of the beast, the Catholics in London, and we know that Sir Robert Southwell alludes to and we refers to Shakespeare’s work. And we know that in several places, in The Merchant of Venice, in Hamlet, the last parts of the famous and last Polonius scene in Hamlet is basically quoting almost directly from Sir Robert Southwell’s poem, Upon the Image of Death. So for me, they certainly knew each other’s work and almost certainly knew each other personally, and it’s not in the least unlikely that Sir Robert Southwell could have been Shakespeare’s confessor.

Eric Sammons:

Wow, that’s amazing. I mean, you can make a movie about this, where you have the young Shakespeare learning some of the trade from St. Edmond Campion and these priests that are basically being hunted, and that’s amazing. So now, aside from his family, the evidence, and it’s raising things like that, and setting aside for the moment the evidence from his plays themselves, do we have any other biographical evidence from Shakespeare’s life itself, any evidence from him himself that he was a Catholic?

Joseph Pearce:

Yeah, I mean, there’s several pieces of documentary evidence which we can go on. Sometimes the documentary evidence is what’s there and sometimes the documentary evidence is what’s not there. So I’ll begin with that. For instance, there’s no record of William Shakespeare attending any Anglican church in the area which we know he lived, around the Globe Theater, just south of the river. There were many records of his friends and colleagues who he worked with attending Anglican services at this church and neighboring churches, no record at all of Shakespeare attending these services. So of course the secular scholars say this proves he had no religion. Whereas of course the logical conclusion is he’s not attending Anglican services for the same reason his father isn’t, for the same reason his mother isn’t, and the same reason his daughter isn’t, because he’s a recusant Catholic. And even the fact he lodged in a Huguenot home, which is sometimes taken as evidence he was a Protestant, is an example of his avoiding fines.

The Huguenots were exempt from attending Anglican services. They had a privileged position in that. So if he was lodging in the house of Huguenots, he did not have to pay fines for not attending the Anglican services. So that’s the evidence on that level. Another piece of evidence, and then I’ll come to the strongest piece after that, is that he was fined. He was charged with threatening to harm, to kill two people, Shakespeare along with three or four co-defendants. Now, this is very interesting because the two people who he threatened to harm, threatened violence against, were known priest hunters. And we have reports from them where they boast of raiding Catholic homes in London, were Shakespeare was living, removing crucifixes and papist books and other Catholic paraphernalia, and making a public bonfire on the street outside the house. We have reports of them gloating about this.

These are the people who Shakespeare has as enemies that take him to court for threatening them, and Shakespeare’s co-defendants are known Catholic recusants. So this again is further evidence. But the strongest evidence, the final thing that we know that Shakespeare did before retiring at the end of his playwriting career, and returning for the last couple of years of his life, the last three or four years of his life, to Stratford-upon-Avon, the last thing he did was to buy the Blackfriars Gatehouse, to purchase the Blackfriars Gatehouse. And again, secular biographers say, “Well, as he was planning to leave London this was clearly just an investment, purely a financial investment.” Well, that’s intriguing because if Shakespeare had the money to buy such a large house as an investment, why had he not bothered to invest in property prior to that? He had money, because he bought for his own family in Stratford the second largest house in Stratford.

So he buys this house, but not with the intention of living in it. He leaves London. What is this house? The Blackfriars Gatehouse, as the name would suggest, was the gatehouse to Black friars, the Dominican house in London, which was obviously destroyed in the 1530s with all the other monasteries and religious houses in England by Henry VIII. But we had the property deeds of every owner from the time of the dissolution of the monasteries until Shakespeare purchases it 80 years later, or 75 years later. And every owner of the Blackfriars Gatehouse is a known Catholic. Furthermore, the Blackfriars Gatehouse is a known hub for underground Catholic activity in London. The house is raided on more than one occasion. There are reports of secret passageways down to the river allowing people to make a quick escape. There are reports of a Jesuit priest being pursued, knocking frantically at the door to be allowed in. This is the house that Shakespeare purchases.

And not only does he do that, he stipulates that the present tenant, who lived in it before he purchased it, should remain as the tenant. This is someone called John Robinson, who’s the only one of Shakespeare’s London friends who is close enough to Shakespeare to be with Shakespeare in Stratford during Shakespeare’s final illness and signs his will. In the same year in which Shakespeare buys the Blackfriars Gatehouse and stipulates that John Robinson must remain as the tenant, John Robinson’s brother enters the English College in Rome to study for the priesthood. So again, all the documentary evidence we have as regards to legal documentation and other things, points inescapably to the fact that Shakespeare was a Catholic.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, I mean, that’s a lot of evidence right there. Now, that’s like biographical evidence of his being Catholic. What about the evidence from the plays themselves? Obviously what we know most about Shakespeare is the plays. In fact, that’s kind of what people say is you don’t hardly know anything about his life but we know of course about his writings. So from his writings, what evidence do we have that he was a secret Catholic?

Joseph Pearce:

Yeah, so basically my work on Shakespeare, it began with the biographic evidence. That was the first book. And I’ve written two other books and also introductions to various of plays in the Ignatius Critical Editions. The way I see this is that the two types of evidence form a Gothic arch. So you have the biographical evidence and then the textual evidence from the plays, and the two sort of are mutually supportive like a Gothic arch, they hold each other up. So the first thing of course is we do have to know something about the times in which Shakespeare lived and what was going on to understand the plays on a deeper level. We can be three or four centuries removed or we can try to get close. All right? So when we do that, we see all sorts of evidence, so much so I don’t really know where to begin. But let’s begin with Hamlet.

So Hamlet is written right at the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, either shortly before or shortly after the Essex Rebellion in which Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, was a leader and was actually sent to the Tower of London. The Earl of Essex, the leader, was executed. The Earl of Southampton was sent to the Tower of London for his part. So Hamlet is a very angry play, and it’s a play that’s very antagonistic and angry towards first of all a usurping monarch, and the official Catholic position from documents such as from Pope Pius V, is that the true queen of England was Mary Stewart. Mary Queen of Scots who had been killed, presumably under Elizabeth I’s orders. And upon her death, her son James VI of Scotland who would become James I of England following Elizabeth, was the true heir.

So, a lot of Shakespeare plays during the reign of Elizabeth were about usurping monarchs. So you have King Claudius who kills the true king and has a spy network around him. And what you have to understand in England, the Catholics lived in fear of Elizabeth’s spy network because there were bogus fake conversions in order for spies to get in. They was also blackmail where Catholics were basically put in positions where they could be blackmailed and then they were the source of information that way. So Catholics didn’t know who to trust. So Hamlet is all about spies. It’s about Polonius the spy master, that would be William Cecil, Elizabeth’s spy master. And so we see here the anger against spies. There’s also a very strong defense of the Catholic theology against sola fide, that you need both faith and works. We see that at the beginning of the play in the discourse about the insistence upon praying on the sword and not merely by faith alone.

Again, as I’ve mentioned already, the famous graveyard scene, Upon the Image of Death, plucks lines from Sir Robert Southwell’s poem Upon the Image of Death. And there’s a mention of the queen, Queen Gertrude, being painted, having cosmetics an inch thick. Everybody was laughing at Elizabeth I at this point because she had white paint to cover all of her signs of aging. So she had this sort of white mask on all the time, and the phrase… I can’t quote it exactly unfortunately… but know that she’s going to come to this, she’s going to come to death. It doesn’t matter how much makeup she wears. And of course, it’s ostensibly talking about Queen Gertrude, but Shakespeare and his audience would know very well that he’s talking about Queen Elizabeth I. That’s one example. I don’t know if you want to ask another question or I could go on to King Lear.

Eric Sammons:

Let’s move on to King Lear. Actually, that’s what I’m reading right now, so let’s hear that one.

Joseph Pearce:

Well, again, the situation at the beginning of the play, that sets up the drama, is exactly the situation that Catholics found themselves in England, that the king says that you have to love me all. In other words, you love the monarch, you love the state above all else. So he has three daughters, Goneril and Regan lie. They tell him that he’s the only thing in the world, that basically he’s their God and they worship him, and their reward is secular advancement. They get their share of the kingdom. But the daughter who really loves him, Cordelia, refuses. Her choice is to love and be silent. In other words, in order to love the king one must actually refuse when the king is doing things which are wrong and therefore not just harmful to the state but harmful to the king himself. So she chooses to refuse. She’s a recusant.

And it’s in her recusancy she’s then exiled to the country, actually to France, which is where many of the exiles went. And of course we then Regan and Goneril are only interested in being self-serving. Now lots of other things we could say, but my favorite part is one of the most beautiful speeches in the play towards the end of the play is the come, let’s away to prison speech, when King Lear says to Cordelia, he’s deliriously happy… even though they’re both about to be put to death… he’s deliriously happy because they’re reunited and she forgives him and he says, “Come, lets away to prison.” And it’s this wonderful speech, but in the midst of it he says, “We can laugh at those gilded butterflies,” the courtiers, those that care about the king and the court. We will basically pray for each other and bless each other forgive each other.

Then he says, “And we will be as God’s spies.” Now, two things about that. Of course, the priests and Catholics in general, in England, were God’s spies because they had to live secretly from the eye of the state, the secular power. But there’s also a wonderful poem by some Sir Robert Southwell called Deceased Release and it’s written about Mary Queen of Scots and it’s in the voice of Mary Queen of Scots on the eve of her execution. And in the whole imagery, in being crushed she would be like incense that rises like a pleasing fragrance to heaven. And there’s a phrase in it, “I will be as God’s spice.” So we know that Shakespeare loves puns, and here he’s saying that God’s spies, the recusant Catholics and the priests and the Jesuits, that God’s spies are also God’s spice. They are being crushed, but in being crushed in the beauty of their martyrdom they are rising like incense to heaven.

Eric Sammons:

Now how about the timing of some of his, on a big picture, some of his plays, for example, wasn’t it that Macbeth that came out after the Gunpowder Plot and doesn’t that… I think I remember, so you wrote talking about that kind of reflects the fact that there was this hope when James I first became king, that better days were coming for Catholics, but then it all fell apart. And then you see that in the somewhat, really unrelenting tragedy of Macbeth.

Joseph Pearce:

Yeah, in fact I’m really pleased you asked that question because this is one of the strongest pieces of textual evidence we have. So King James VI of Scotland, who was a Protestant, the church of Scotland, but his mother of course was Mary Queen of Scots, a devout Catholic. He promised that when he became king, he would do away with religious intolerance and allow Catholics to practice their faith freely. He made that promise. So the Catholics in England were just hanging on in there. The queen was getting older and they knew she couldn’t hold on forever. We just have to hang on in there because when she dies and King James VI of Scotland becomes King James I of England, all will be well. So they wait for that to happen. When King James becomes king, he keeps his promise. There’s a brief honeymoon period after he becomes king when Catholics can practice their faith.

And everybody’s astonished at how many Catholics there are, because they come out of the woodwork and Catholicism is being practiced everywhere. But by this time, parliament is becoming dominated by the Puritans who of course hate Catholicism and will not tolerate Catholicism. 40 years later, they would actually overpower the king in the civil war and King Charles I will be executed by them. So they’re rising in power and they say we will not tolerate your tolerance of the Catholics. And so King James I in a true Machiavellian fashion, weighs it up, who has the most power, parliament or the Catholics? And he says, okay, obviously parliament has the power and I’m going to do what parliament wants and he brings back all of the anti-Catholic laws. Now, we have to imagine, try to put yourself in a position of Catholics in England at the time, they’ve been waiting for Queen Elizabeth I to die so they could be free and liberated again.

And then they get a taste, just a taste of freedom, about 10 months or so, and then it is taken away. And then we have a young king on the throne who could reign for another 40 years with no prospect of religious liberty. So this is the point where many Catholics surrender. They say we can’t continue to pay the fines, we’ve done the best we can, and they conform. But the other extreme of the spectrum are the hot heads who say at this point the only thing we can do is violence. We can only over overcome the persecution by destroying the government. And that’s why the Gunpowder Plot comes to fore at that time. And we know that the Gunpowder Plot, it was probably instigated by hotheaded Catholics, but the spy network knew about it straight away and rather than arresting people, the spies were involved in the whole conspiracy that’s why they managed to get the gunpowder right under parliament so that they can maximize the impact of exposing it just when the fuse is about to be lit to have the maximum impact in terms of anti-Catholicism.

So that’s the situation. Now, where does Shakespeare fit into all of this? We imagine, we have these angry plays like Hamlet that we mentioned towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign. When Elizabeth dies, the two plays he writes about this time, one is All’s Well That Ends Well, and we’ll let the title speak for itself. And the other is Measure for Measure, which is very basically warning the king not to trust the Puritans and the heroine is a religious sister. So this is probably the most overtly Catholic play Shakespeare wrote. But then after that, what comes after that? Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, both the darkest and the angriest of Shakespeare’s plays with the possible exception of Hamlet.

So Othello, who is the villain, the satanic villain, Iago. Iago is the Spanish name for James. And in the source material that Shakespeare… most of Shakespeare’s plays the sources already exist and then he does his thing with them. In the source play for Othello the villain is not called Iago. Shakespeare changes his name to James. So this Machiavellian villain in Othello is one of the most demonic characters that Shakespeare creates, is named after the king of England. Then we have Macbeth, and we’ve already talked about King Lear so I shall desist. I could say more, but then we have met Macbeth. Now Macbeth is a play about a Scottish kid. So for Shakespeare’s contemporary there’s no doubt at all what’s going on here. Iago is James, Macbeth is James. And I could again say much more, but I think that it succinctly shows what Shakespeare’s doing here.

Eric Sammons:

Right. I mean, it just shows a certain amount of, I don’t know if I want to say depression, but just a real sense of that things are not going to… all is well is not going end well.

Joseph Pearce:

Yeah, I mean, Macbeth is the darkest of the plays, but what I tried to say here however, is that we should see Hamlet as the anti-Macbeth and Macbeth as the anti-Hamlet, because Hamlet starts in despondency and near despair, contemplating suicide, and then through the use of reason and virtue such as temperance and prudence, not acting hastily, not being rash, comes eventually to an acknowledgement of the gospel, quoting the gospel directly and then laying down his life for his friends. He is the innocent victim, in some sense the Christ figure who purges the something rotten from Denmark. And of course, Denmark again is a euphemism for England. The other thing you should know by the way, it’s all important stuff this, that it was known that Shakespeare’s history plays were seen as anti-Elizabeth and pro-Catholic, so on the eve of Essex rebellion, his play, Richard II, was performed in the hope that it would help the people rise up against the queen.

So in order to stop this Shakespeare using English history as a way of furthering the Catholic cause, it was made illegal. It’s called the Bishop’s ban, the bishops of the Anglican church were behind it, but it became illegal to write plays about English history. And that was in the 1590s. So what happens after that? Shakespeare writes plays are either set in Rome or in Scotland. So in other words, he just gets around the ban by doing the same thing, but setting it in other than English history. In this case, in Macbeth, Scottish history. So in Macbeth it’s the other way around, that he begins as a hero, lorded by everybody, and then through satanic temptation and prideful ambition descends till at the end far from embracing the gospel he has a radical nihilistic belief that nothing signifies anything. Right? Life’s a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nihilism. And again, secular scholars… I’ve heard this, I don’t know if you know, there’s a wonderful series… I know I’m jumping about here.

Eric Sammons:

That’s okay.

Joseph Pearce:

There’s a wonderful series which I recommend that prefigures, if you like Bishop Barron’s series, called Civilization by Sir Kenneth Clark, and it was late sixties in England and I recommend it. But the worst episode in it of all is the one on Shakespeare because Sir Kenneth Clark is an art historian. He’s in his element talking about art. He’s not his element talking about literature. And he ends his episode on Shakespeare by saying Shakespeare is the first nihilist and then he quotes these words from Macbeth. And we have to understand why Shakespeare never said that, he wrote that, the person who says it is Macbeth. This person has been in league with the devil, who’s a serial killer who basically is left with nothing but despair at the end.

Eric Sammons:

And it’s almost like he’s saying that’s where James is going because he started off this is our savior, this is the person who’s going to bring Catholicism back to the country, and then through his Machiavellian actions, just like Macbeth, he ends up basically giving all up. It’s almost like Shakespeare’s telling James this is where you’re headed and this is what your life is headed towards. If you don’t end up like Hamlet you’re going to end up like Macbeth, which is completely nihilistic, as you said.

Joseph Pearce:

Absolutely. And in terms of pure, real politic as well, of course, it would actually mean that his own son would be murdered by the very people that James had sold his soul for, the Puritans. So there was also an element not just of the theological and philosophical understanding of the human psyche, which you’ve just addressed, but also this real politic that if you’re going to get in bed with the devil don’t expect to come out the other side very clean or even alive. The other thing I wanted to say about Hamlet and Macbeth by the way, is you’ll notice as the parallel, both begins with a supernatural dimension. So in Hamlet there is the ghost of his father who’s in purgatory and Hamlet says, “What if he’s lying? What if he’s a demon telling me lies? Telling me that my uncle murdered him just to get me to kill my uncle.”

So he tests whether it’s an honest ghost and that’s where he has to play the mouse trap. What’s the purpose of the play? To reveal the truth. And so that really Shakespeare talking about his own role in society, in the role of the play in Hamlet. But the ghost is honest. The ghost is a Catholic ghost in purgatory and listening to that Catholic ghost and acting upon it brings about justice. In Macbeth, Macbeth listens to demons, to diabolical tellers of half-truths. There’s lies, damn lies and half-truths. Right? Macbeth believes the devil and ends up in hell. Hamlet prudently tests whether the ghost is really in purgatory, which means of course he’s on his way to heaven, and then acts in accordance with that honesty and brings about justice, and goes to heaven. Again, the final words said over Hamlet’s his body by his servant Horatio is, “May flights angels sing thee to the rest.” And again, the significance, these are a translation of the Latin prayers said for the dead immediately after a requiem mass, which was illegal at the time that those words were being said by Horatio.

Eric Sammons:

It’s just like the Catholicism just seeps through, even if he’s not trying probably, he can’t help himself in a sense because that’s just who he is. Now, I want to finish here with kind of the question of why does this matter? And I’m particularly thinking of maybe there’s parents who are watching this, who homeschool their kids and are teaching their kids Shakespeare, or younger people learning Shakespeare in college. Why does it matter for our reading of Shakespeare today to understand this religious background of Shakespeare himself?

Joseph Pearce:

Well, first of all, of course, in the broadest and absolute sense, great art is reflection of the good, the true and the beautiful. And I think when Jesus Christ says, “I’m the way, the truth, and the life,” he’s saying I’m the good, the true and the beautiful. So great art is itself reflects the goodness, truth and beauty of God. So that in itself should be sufficient. But beyond that, Shakespeare is living in very anti-Catholic times where the secular power is being used to bully, brow beat the Catholics into accepting the culture of the day, the secular culture of the day, and living in a time where religious liberty is being taken away, where the practice of religion is frowned upon and even punished. Though that’s been a recurring theme throughout the history of the church. There were times, in fact at all times the secular powers were in a state of tension with the church.

And at certain times the secular power becomes anti-Christian enough and powerful enough to do what it did in Elizabethan and Jacobian England, and we’ve seen it in the 20th century. We’ve seen it in the Nazi, Germany, various communist countries, and the French Revolution, before that Mexico in the last century. This is something which is a recurring feature. We have to learn the lessons that history and art teaches us. And there’s no greater teacher in terms of history and art than William Shakespeare.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, absolutely, amen to that. Now I want to recommend a few things which I’ll put up in the show notes. Of course there’s this book, The Quest for Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome, which is basically the biographical evidence more than anything of why Shakespeare was Catholic. You mentioned that this is from Ignatius Press. You mentioned there was two other books on Shakespeare that you wrote for Ignatius. Is that right? And what are those?

Joseph Pearce:

Yeah, so the follow up to that one was called Through Shakespeare’s Eyes.

Eric Sammons:

I do have that. I haven’t read that yet, but I do have that sitting over in my bookshelf.

Joseph Pearce:

And the subtitle of that is Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays. That’s also Ignatius. And the third one is Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet. And so it’s all on that one play, but that’s the one it’s got quite a lengthy 30 page appendix on the Jesuit connection, which is, I think, interesting itself. And also I’m the series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, and there were 27 titles, great works of literature in that series which includes seven Shakespeare plays, each of which has an introduction by me and then also a selection of good solid literary criticism, critical essays about the plays. So I would recommend those also.

Eric Sammons:

Right. I was going to recommend this as well, particularly for Shakespeare, obviously the whole Critical Edition series is great, but those seven books on Shakespearean plays are excellent. In fact, just so people know what I’m doing, when I’m reading through them what I do is I’ll read the play. I think I have the Folger copy already. We had this. So I read the play and then what I do is I go to your Critical Edition. I read your introduction and read the contemporary analysis afterwards by some great people who are seeing it as they should in a more traditional way, in a more Catholic way. And then I go back and read the play again because then it’s like, okay, now I can see it with new eyes.

I can understand kind of what you’re talking about by having read it once, but now I can really… and it’s been great, and so I recommend that to anybody, but particularly also if you’re schooling your kids and you’re hitting Shakespeare, definitely get the Ignatius Critical Editions of his plays. They’re just excellent. I know you have the four great tragedies and I’m not sure what the other three.

Joseph Pearce:

I can name the seven quickly, I think, so it’s Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and I knew there had to be one I was going to forget.

Eric Sammons:

Romeo and Juliet?

Joseph Pearce:

Romeo and Juliet, that’s the other one. And one thing I would say, most of those also have, particularly for homeschooling parents, a study guide which would be invaluable for a homeschooling parent and that they have a… what’s the word… detachable answer pages so that the parent can set essay questions or general knowledge questions and have discussion questions. They’re all in there. So, that’s another resource if people want to teach Shakespeare, to check out the study guides that accompany the Critical Editions.

Eric Sammons:

Now is the Critical Edition series over? Is there any plans to add any more to that series do you know?

Joseph Pearce:

Yeah, there are plans. I would say it’s stalled somewhat, but the position of both myself as series editor and Ignatius Press the publishers that we are intending to publish more titles in the series. There are one or two in the works but they’re moving through, trudging through slowly.

Eric Sammons:

Exactly. Well, I’ll just put in my two cents, add more Shakespeare plays then. That’s my vote. Okay, well, great. Now, where can people find out about the different things you’re working on?

Joseph Pearce:

Well, the best place to keep up with me is to go to my personal website and that’s a very simple Jpearce.co and if you don’t know how to spell my name, J-P-E-A-R-C-E dot C-O. So that’s my personal website. That’s where you keep up with all I’m up to, podcasts, essays and the rest.

Eric Sammons:

Great. And I’ll put a link to that as well. And also just for people who aren’t aware, that Joseph for the past year and a half has been writing an In the Nutshell series about all the great works of literature. They’re great. In fact, it was funny when I started reading the Shakespeare I went back to reread what you had written there, but those are nice little snippets, not real long, but to give you an overview of the great works of literature. And we’re in the 20th century now, so we’re nearing the end. We started a long time ago, but now we’re nearing the end and I think it’s been a great series. So I also recommend people check that out as well. Okay. Well, thank you very much for being on the program. This is great. I found it very stimulating and exciting and I appreciate you sharing it all with us.

Joseph Pearce:

My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Eric.

Eric Sammons:

Okay, everybody until next time. God love you.

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