In the dark interior of Stratford, England’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, an audience gazes in rapt attention at the stark wooden stage — “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
When the theater in William Shakespeare’s birthplace reopened in 2010 after a $185 million renovation, it had echoed many times over the centuries to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. A recent production last year drew on previous traditions, but also set out, as with all productions, to find new meaning in the Bard’s eternal lines.
That task also has been taken up recently by researchers in Britain and the United States in a bid to retrace Shakespeare’s religious loyalties and how he expressed them in his 37 plays. The resulting claims and counter-claims have been divisive.
“Shakespeare is the one English writer whom virtually everyone has encountered — there have been many attempts to recruit him as an ideological ally for one cause or another,” explained Joseph Shaw, a Catholic philosopher from Oxford University.
“Although he left little information about himself, he must have held strong views about religion, given the bitterness surrounding it in his lifetime. If it turns out he was a secret Catholic sympathizer, this would have cultural significance.”
Views of Shakespeare, who was believed to be born on or near April 23, 1564 — 450 years ago this week — were traditionally dominated throughout the English-speaking world by Protestant perspectives.
While his vast output explored the deepest human dilemmas — life and death, love and hatred — it was generally held to be purely artistic, part of England’s cultural golden age under Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). New historical evidence has challenged this tidy interpretation.
When Shakespeare was born in 1564, the Reformation was still being enforced, and creative people had learned to stay out of trouble by concealing their religious preferences.
But some experts think Shakespeare himself was deeply religious.
Far from going along with the official Protestant ideology, they argue, the playwright was passionately attached to the Catholic traditions and devotions violently suppressed a generation before.
“Although not yet accepted by the academic mainstream, the idea is gathering pace that Shakespeare’s plays are actually full of references to this painful conflict,” said Clare Asquith, a Shakespeare scholar.
“Having shut the door on Catholicism for much of our history, it seems we’ve been deaf to this and missed much of Shakespeare’s subtlety as a result.”
Generations of English children, Asquith argues, were taught a one-dimensional version of their country’s history, in which a corrupt Catholic Church was rightly reformed by King Henry VIII.
For a popular figure like Shakespeare, it would have been risky to display any Catholic sympathy overtly. Clues about Shakespeare’s religious loyalties have nevertheless been pieced together.
It’s known that his father, John Shakespeare, got into trouble for his Catholic sympathies. Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, Susanna Hall, is believed to have refused to attend Protestant services, while his mother’s family, the Ardens, had ties with secret Catholic priests.
Although the playwright was buried with his estranged wife, Anne Hathaway, in Stratford’s Anglican parish church, several witnesses testified that he’d received Catholic rites on his deathbed.
Father Peter Milward, a Jesuit expert, has no doubt about Shakespeare’s Catholic sympathies. The real question isn’t whether he was a Catholic, Father Milward thinks, but how his Catholic Faith transformed his work.
One play alone, “King Lear,” contains echoes of the biblical Book of Job and Gospel accounts of the Passion and Resurrection. Shakespeare’s history plays, from “King John” to “Richard III,” offer moral lessons against tyranny and despotism, but also against weakness and indecision. Other works, such as “The Tempest” and “All’s Well that Ends Well,” reveal the importance of divine providence.
“What’s clear in all Shakespeare’s writing is that the grace of God has the capacity to change people and resolve even the most intractable conflicts,” Shaw told Our Sunday Visitor.
“We can’t expect any consensus as to how important this is to his plays. But those who refuse to see it at all create a problem for themselves.”
Asquith, whose book “Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare” (PublicAffairs, $14.95) explored Shakespeare’s use of “hidden language,” thinks the plays are saturated with allusions to the day’s religious and political conflicts.
Shakespeare avoided being directly subversive and was allowed poetic licence in deference to his wit and skill.
Critics speak out
When Asquith’s book was published, it was bitterly dismissed by David Womersley, an Oxford literature professor, as “a ‘Da Vinci Code’ for the credulous.”
None of Shakespeare’s contemporaries refer to any hidden language, Womersley insists. To see him as a Catholic apologist is “a tide of wild hypothesis, strained reading and reductive historicism.”
Diarmaid Macculloch, Oxford University’s professor of church history, has doubts too. By the time Shakespeare was active, Macculloch argues, the Reformation had already succeeded and most religious conflict was over.
While some Catholic characters, such as the Franciscan friars in Romeo and Juliet, are portrayed sympathetically by Shakespeare, others are treated as fools, and when Shakespeare quoted the Bible, he used the official Protestant translation.
“Since Catholics are now at the center of English-speaking intellectual life, it’s natural they should claim this great cultural icon for themselves,” Macculloch told OSV. “But myths about the past can be dangerous. Shakespeare’s Catholic family associations prove nothing about his own outlook, and it’s wrong to suggest his work reflects some nostalgic pro-Catholic groundswell.”
Debate goes on
The continuing debate will also be a reminder of Shakespeare’s richness as a writer for all times, with a profound grasp of life’s tragic and comic realities.
“While Shakespeare understood the disputes of his day, he never descended to sectarian squabbles,” Asquith told OSV.
“By hiding religious messages in a secular language, he invited listeners to ponder and reflect on the heritage they’d lost. People would have picked up his meaning then, and it’s a pity we miss so much of it today.”
How much the discussions are followed by audiences leaving the dark interior of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Stratford’s River Avon is anyone’s guess.
Even Hamlet’s much-quoted Soliloquy — “To be or not to be” — is now thought by some researchers to be a reflection on Catholic resistance to tyranny.
That meaning, in the end, can only be known to the man whose remains rest inside Holy Trinity Church, a short distance from the villa where he died in 1616.
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.