Most students will learn in their classrooms that William Shakespeare was a Protestant Elizabethan playwright who produced his masterpieces during the height of the Reformation, when Catholicism was suppressed in England. 

But a small group of academics contends that there is substantial evidence that Shakespeare was secretly Catholic, citing evidence in both his works and in the little that is known of his life. 

Written evidence?

Now an exhibit at England’s Catholic seminary in Rome is bringing the idea to the fore with cryptic signatures in a leatherbound guest book that the exhibit organizer believes shows that Shakespeare repeatedly visited the seminary, known as a “school for martyrs” during the English Reformation. The time coincides with Shakespeare’s “lost years” from 1585, when he left Stratford abruptly, to 1592, when he began his playwriting career in London.

During the period 1581-1679, 44 of the English priests sent from the Venerable English Catholic College in Rome to England were martyred, 130 imprisoned or exiled. Forty-one were later beatified or canonized.

The purported Shakespeare signatures were discovered by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel , an English professor and Shakespeare scholar at the University of Mainz, Germany, during a visit to the college in 2000.

Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616, so his life overlaps the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, which spanned from 1558 to 1603. Several recent books and essays argue Shakespeare was Catholic, notably those by Jesuit Father Peter Milward, Joseph Pearce and Hammerschmidt-Hummel.

In reaction to Queen Elizabeth’s Catholic persecution, the Church established English Catholic colleges and seminaries on the continent. Hammerschmidt-Hummel contends that Shakespeare attended the Jesuit-oriented Collegium Anglicum at Douai/Rheims, France, and periodically visited the Venerable English College during that period.

“It was a typical feature of the careers of young English Catholics to avail themselves of this Catholic college, as they avoided Oxford and Cambridge on account of the compulsory Oath of Supremacy,” the German biographer wrote in an academic discussion on the University of Tubingen website. “The poet’s academic education is apparent from the knowledge contained in his works,” and he mentions Rheims in his comedy “The Taming of the Shrew.”

“William Shakespeare surely seems to know not just Catholicism but the whole Catholic world as it really must have been in Italy. Even if he were raised Catholic, which it seems as though he was, he also knows what the world where Catholicism was the norm was like,” said Patrice Thompson, a proponent of the Catholic Shakespeare theory and a high school English teacher in San Francisco. “By his time, Catholicism was seriously suppressed in England,” and that would argue for time spent in Catholic environments on the continent of Europe. 

Familiarity with the faith 

The signatures add to a minority body of academic scholarship that points to a Catholic connection. London-born Father Milward, professor emeritus at Sophia University and scholar of the English Renaissance, wrote “Shakespeare the Papist.”

 “Almost all his plays reveal the dramatist’s Catholic sensibility, once we relate them to the religious background of his age, when it was a major aim of the queen and her favored ministers to uproot the old religion, and when the supporters of that religion had to lie low for fear of incurring punishment under the strict penal laws,” Father Milward said.

 The Jesuit scholar said there are recurring elements in Shakespeare’s plays that indicate he was Catholic, including “invariable nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ in England, in contrast to ‘these last times so bad’ (Sonnet 67).” 

 Despite the looting and destruction of the monasteries under Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare presents friars favorably in “Romeo and Juliet,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Measure for Measure,” Father Milward said. And, in the tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” there is the “Catholic prayer for the souls of the dead on the lips of Juliet’s Nurse and Old Gobbo.” 

Does it matter? 

“It is certainly possible that Shakespeare was Catholic, but there is no evidence of that,” said Robert Miola, Gerard Manley Hopkins professor of English and professor of classics at Loyola College of Maryland. “Catholicism doesn’t need Shakespeare. It has Christ. There’s this idea of catching the big fish — we have him as opposed to the Protestants. It’s ridiculous!”

However, Miola said, “I would say in favor of the case that it is interesting that Shakespeare does not seem to indulge in the rabid anti-Catholic rhetoric of some playwrights — not at all.”

 “I think it is likely that Shakespeare grew up in a family that had continuing ties to Catholic practices and beliefs, and his works display a fascination with Catholic figures (monks, friars, etc.),” said Harvard Univeristy scholar Stephen Greenblatt, author of “Will in the World,” in an e-mail to OSV. “And, of course, much that you are likely to identify as ‘Catholic traditions and ideas’ was also fully absorbed into the Church of England. But I also believe that Shakespeare’s spirit was skeptical and secular.” 

Reading between lines 

Father Andrew Headon, vice rector of the Venerable English College in Rome, believes Shakespeare visited the college during the “lost years,” and included a display on the signatures in an exhibit on the institution’s history, according to the London Times Online. The college was converted in 1576 from a hospice to an overseas seminary to educate English priests. Father Headon believes Shakespeare disguised his identity, but the clues point to the playwright. “Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis” signed the book in 1585, while “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis” arrived in 1589. Father Headon said the names can be deciphered as “[King] Arthur’s [compatriot] from Stratford [in the diocese] of Worcester” and “William the Clerk from Stratford.” A third entry in 1587, “Shfordus Cestriensis,” may stand for “Sh[akespeare from Strat]ford [in the diocese] of Chester,” Father Headon told the Times.

Hammerschmidt-Hummel added: “In 1613, when Shakespeare concluded his literary career, he must have travelled to Rome once more. This time he again used the name of his hometown — and with it the Christian name of his brother Richard, who had died in February 1613. The entry thus reads “Ricardus Stratfordus.”

Of Shakespeare’s life, little is known for certain, Father Milward said, “but there are many suggestions pointing to a Catholic formation,” through his parents at Stratford, other family connections and tutors. There are signs of Shakespeare’s familiarity with the writings of two Jesuits, Robert Persons and St. Robert Southwell, not to mention his portrayal of “the hunted priest” in “King Lear,” he said. Southwell was educated at the Venerable English College and martyred in 1595. “Two of his plays, ‘King Lear’ and ‘Pericles,’ were shown to Catholic audiences in Yorkshire in 1609-10, as if implying their relevance to such audiences. After his departure from London he was involved in the purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse, a notorious place of resort for Catholic priests and Jesuits,” Father Milward said.

Hammerschmidt-Hummel, author of “The Life & Times William Shakespeare: 1564-1616” and numerous other volumes about Shakespeare, and Joseph Pearce, author of “The Quest for Shakespeare,” also point to the purchase of Blackfriars Gatehouse, the only property purchase in London by Shakespeare although he lived there for 25 years, and also to complicated arrangements leaving the tenant in the house after Shakespeare’s death. 

In addition, Pearce said Shakespeare’s father was fined for being Catholic, as was his daughter Susannah, and Shakespeare chose Susannah as the executor of his will, not his other daughter, who had married a Protestant.

Miola said the purchase of Blackfriars was just the purchase of a valuable piece of property and does not indicate Shakespeare was Catholic. “I happen to be a Catholic, but it isn’t important to my faith that Shakespeare was; I have the Gospel,” said Miola. “If you want a real Catholic writer, go to Dante. Every page of Dante is soaked in Catholicism. Shakespeare is an Elizabethan playwright selling tickets to Catholics, Protestants and atheists.”

Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor.

English ties (sidebar)

If William Shakespeare did visit Rome during his “lost years,” he joined a list of English pilgrims to the Eternal City, dating back to at least 653 and the visit of St. Wilfrid. 

In 1362, the Hospice of St. Thomas was founded to provide shelter to English pilgrims, and it grew into an important cultural center until the Sack of Rome in 1527 and then King Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 1540s.
 In 1576, Cardinal William Allen, founder of a system of English seminaries, converted the old hospice into the college now known as the Venerable English College. 

Source: Venerable English College