The evidence that Shakespeare was a faithful Catholic has become incontrovertible. I won’t bore you with the details. I won’t even channel my inner-Cicero and mention how I won’t mention that William’s father, the sometime mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon, resigned his post and accepted ruinous monetary fines rather than agree that the State is head of the Church. Or how his father almost certainly met St. Edmund Campion himself and signed a spiritual testament requesting a Catholic priest at time of death that was written by St. Robert Bellarmine. Or how he purchased the Blackfriar House to secure a continued safe haven for recusants. Or how his own daughter was a notorious recusant. Or how there is absolutely no record anywhere that he ever darkened the door of an Anglican prayer service. No, I won’t go through all the details here, mostly because Joseph Pearce has already masterfully done so in his book The Quest for Shakespeare.
It really is impossible to argue that the man wasn’t a faithful Catholic of the recusant variety (which is to say, he didn’t even bother to hide it). The interesting question, though, is what does it matter? Is there any reason to harp on the fact of Shakespeare’s faith other than to claim yet another literary luminary for the Church? My pride showed a little bit there in the previous sentence, but there are good reasons to keep in mind the faith of the bard. It’s simple, really, if we deny or ignore his faith, then we will never understand his art. This, the 400th year after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, is as good a time as any to lay aside the childish interpretations of his plays as the work of an atheist, a playboy, or secretly composed by Gwyneth Paltrow.
I recently attended a lecture by Pearce and he mentioned a fascinating example of textual criticism, the discovery of which is only possible in the context of Shakespeare’s Catholicism. We need a tiny bit more background first.
Shakespeare had a distant cousin, the now sainted Robert Southwell. Southwell received holy orders and served the Church as a Jesuit missionary to England. Yes, Merrie England, where under Queen Elizabeth it was a capital crime to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood, where secularism was ascendant and aggressive. Like so many other martyr-priests before him, Southwell ministered to the recusant population while he could and spent the rest of his time trapped like a rat in a priest hole. Eventually, he was caught, sent to the Tower, and paid for his faith with his life, but he spent his time in prison well. In addition to being tortured for three years, he wrote poems. He wrote really, really good poems. So good, in fact, that his cousin William Shakespeare admires and constantly references them in his own work. In the meantime Southwell, one the greatest poets of the age, has faded from modern view and instead of lasting fame he received a martyr’s crown. I imagine that he is happy with the trade.
This background of Shakespeare’s faith and his admired cousin the Jesuit, once applied to his plays, offers up mind-bending insights into the depth and beauty of his work. Joseph Pearce points to this heart-rending speech, the last from King Lear, and all the credit for this reading is his alone.
The suffering, half-crazed King, in his last speech, says to his daughter Cordelia:
Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.
(Act V, Scene 1)
Shakespeare wrote Lear about one year after the ascension of King James I to the throne. For Catholics, the death of Elizabeth was the signal for happier times; finally the persecution would ease. The new monarch would no longer be a horrid old woman who cakes an inch of makeup on her face (as Shakespeare mocked her), but would be the son of the Catholic martyr Queen Mary and husband to a Catholic woman. The relief was palpable, as evidenced by the swift publication of a play on the life of Thomas More (with Shakespeare’s handwriting all over it) which never would have made it past Elizabeth’s censors. High hopes were soon brought low, the persecution ceased for about a year but then descended with more weight than ever. The false-flag Gunpowder Plot was put into motion, not only bringing a few Catholic extremists out of the woodwork to charge with treason but also justifying continued persecution of the populace as a whole.
Knowing this, Lear’s resignation, his tiredness, and his dogged faith speak of the inner condition of a people tyrannized by secularism, who feel like spies in their own land, prisoners in their own home. The king is cast from his throne and gilded butterflies play political games as directionless as the tide on the sand while true heroes are worn out and rot in prison.
Southwell is one of those heroes. In prison, he writes the poem Decease, Release:
God’s spice I was, and pounding was my due,
In fadinge breath my incense savored best ;
Death was the meane, my kyrnell to renewe,
By loppinge shott I upp to heavenly rest.
The saint contemplates his own impending death. His dismembered head is to be the seed that, falling to the ground, shall raise him up to eternal life. His life is a sacrifice of crushed incense to be burned up and used in the divine service.
You’ve probably noticed the pun already. Lear and Cordelia are to be, “God’s spies.” Southwell is, “God’s spice.” Lear and Cordelia are strongly linked with Decease, Release. They are the English Church, victims of a rapacious government that hates Catholicism from a primal fear. The fear is only natural, those as directionless as the tide cannot stand the presence of that which transcends this world and reaches to heaven. Southwell got his due for not knuckling under. Lear, too, will be dispensed with.
Martyrs always get the final word, though. Lear chooses not to capitulate to a random fate. Even in prison his life will be meaningful. He will be God’s spy, a sacrifice burned up before the altar. So will Southwell. So will any number of English Catholics. Lear reassures his daughter as they are led to their cell,
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.