Was Shakespeare a Catholic?

By James Lane

Shakespeare was born some 25 years after King Henry VIII broke with Rome and was baptised into the new Church of England at Stratford-upon-Avon, where his father was a prominent citizen.

At the age of seven, he was enrolled in the town’s grammar school, no doubt helped by his father being the Chief Alderman, and there he had to endure a ten hour day of study, six days a week with no holidays, absorbing a largely classical education, including Latin, Greek and in-depth studies of the Old and New Testaments.

The day started and ended with Protestant devotions and then there was Sunday School as well, with three church services to be attended during the day.


So, with this start in life, why should it be thought that Shakespeare might have been a Catholic. The Reformation had taken place some thirty years previously and was soon accepted by the upper levels of the country who had greatly profited from the dissolution of the monasteries and church properties, but for most people, it took longer for them to take in the radical new ways of worship.

Shakespeare, in his dawn to dusk studies, may not have been aware of the sentiments that were still retained by many for the Old Faith, but unconsciously perhaps, his perspective mind must have absorbed some of them, for they later appear in his plays and writings.

In one of his sonnets, written while musing on passing life, he includes the line ‘Bare ruin’d choirs where late sweet birds sang’, an obvious reference to the roofless monasteries now standing as poignant reminders of more joyful days.

And then in Hamlet, the ghost of the King of Denmark asks his son Hamlet to avenge his killing by telling him. ‘I am they father’s ghost, doomed for a certain term to walk the night and for the day confined to fast in fires till the foul deeds done in my day of nature are burnt and purged away’ (Purgatory).

He goes on, ‘cut off even in the blossom of my sins, unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d (Sacrament of Extreme Unction) and no reckoning made’ (Confession). These were doctrines that were anathema to the Reformers, and Shakespeare would have been aware of this, but he got away with it.


His poem ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ describes the funeral of a Phoenix and a Turtledove as representing emblems of perfections, and love is seen by Shakespearian scholars as a tribute to the two Catholic martyrs who were executed in London shortly before the poem was first published; the Phoenix being Anne Line who harboured priests, the Turtle being either her husband Roger who had been arrested and exiled for attending Mass, or Fr. Mark Barkworth who was executed alongside her.

The final line in the poem, ‘For these dead birds sigh (say) a prayer’ supports this as the Reformed Church did not believe in praying for the dead.

Elsewhere in his writings, there are a number of casual allusions that could been seen as reflecting his thoughts and sentiments, since otherwise they would not make sense.

In ‘Twelfth Night’, Sir Toby, disguised as a clown, says ‘as the old hermit of Prague that never saw paper or ink’, a remark that had no relevance to anything else he was saying.

This has been interpreted as referring to St. Edward Campion who, after a short but illustrious career at Oxford University, went to the Continent and entered the Society of Jesus.

After being ordained, he became Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Prague and stayed there for six years before he returned to England and his barbarous execution.

While at Prague, he would have been isolated from England and his friends, hence ‘hermit’, and it was during his interrogation that he was told to put his questions in writing. Provide me with ink and paper he asked, only to be told that he would not get any.

Shakespeare’s sympathetic portrayal of priests can be seen too. In ‘Romeo and Juliet’, he does not blame the Franciscan Friars, Fr. John and Fr. Lawrence, for failing the couple, but rather explains how Fr. John’s failure to pass on to Fr. Lawrence a vital message was due to his visiting people sick with the plague and being detained by the townspeople who said he was contagious.

Then in ‘Measure for Measure’, a complex comedy featuring a duke disguised as a Friar, and two other Friars, Fr. Peter and Fr. John, he is again sympathetic in his portrayal of them.

Other playwrights at the time, like Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene, went to some lengths to show priests in contrary settings.


Shakespeare was living through dangerous times, more especially in London where he was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who sometimes performed before the Queen and her court, but this it seems did not stop him from putting in the odd enigma to challenge those looking for hidden messages.

He had, though, to take care as to how he approached the political and religious conflicts of the times, since it was known that he came from Warwickshire, a county well known for its cluster of Catholic recusants, prominent among them being the Ardens and the Catesbys, who had connections with his mother, an Arden before she married.

Shakespeare’s father, born ten years before the Reformation, would have been baptised into the Catholic Church, but throughout his life as a prominent citizen of the town, he appears not to have come to notice, except on two occasions when he was listed as a recusant for failing to attend church, perhaps fortuitously because he was being troubled at the time with bailiffs and may not have been able to leave the house.

However, some 150 years after his death, a six page pamphlet, handwritten in English and listing fourteen articles of the Catholic faiths, were found hidden in the rafters of his former home.

The intriguing pamphlet cannot now be found, but fortunately it had been copied and it is believed to have been written by Shakespeare’s father.

It can actually be traced back to the Last Testament of St. Carlo Borromeo, copies of which were brought to England by Campion, and it seems likely that Shakespeare’s father had seen one of them and may even have met Campion while he was being sheltered by the Catesbys in nearby Lapworth.

With his playwritings and connections with the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare became a man of some wealth, and he bought a large house in Stratford-upon-Avon, which he retired to and died there at the age of 52. He was buried in a prominent position in front of the altar in the parish church.


But did he die a Catholic? Some years after his death, the Anglican Dean of Coventry in Warwickshire wrote, ‘he died a papist’, without giving any reason why he believed this, but it is possible that he was given the Last Rites by a priest who was travelling around at the time, and this may have come to the notice of those who were engaged in hunting the papists.

Just before Shakespeare retired, there was his curious purchase of the gatehouse to the former Dominican priory in Blackfriars, a rambling building with cellars and upper floors given over to a variety of uses. He leased it to a John Robinson, who may have had some connections with the Catholics in London.

Seven years later, a crowded floor collapsed while a Mass was being celebrated, and ninety or more people fell to their deaths. The Anglican Dean of London refused to allow any of them to be buried in the city’s graveyards and a pit was dug on the site and most of them were buried where they fell.

The Spanish Ambassador was able to recover some of them and had them buried in the nearby crypt of St. Etheldreda, then a disused church.

In 1876, St. Etheldreda’s became a Catholic Church again and is now a shrine to the Catholics who were martyred in London. Mass is celebrated there every day above the crypt, where some of the ninety lay buried, and it could be said that they too were martyrs.

As to whether Shakespeare was a Catholic or just a pragmatic businessman who retained some of the Catholic sentiments he inherited from his youth, we shall never know.

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