Sarah Morgan

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Was Shakespeare Catholic?

Because my father sent me the following tiny, unassuming email:

I wonder…

And I… sent him this in return. Yeah. Sorry, Dad. You raised a nerd.

I thought I’d share it here. Cause y’all are some nerds too. Which is why I love you.

It seemed like the right moment for a Shakespeare-quoting cat.

This seems like the right moment for a Shakespeare-quoting cat.

My email:

There’s a ton of argument about this, but the interesting evidence, to my mind, is less textual than practical.

I mean, you can find Shakespearean text to justify just about anything you want, if you look hard enough – he was a lawyer, he was a sailor; he hated his wife, he loved his wife; he was straight, he wasn’t; etc. There are just so many characters, saying and doing so many things, that their words make pretty specious arguments. Some of them I can believe because the text is so unusually heartfelt as to seem almost out of context. For instance, in King John, there’s a short soliloquy about a son probably written not long after his 11-year-old son Hamnet died:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.

But anyway, about Catholicism. There’s an argument that Shakespeare spent his “lost years” – about seven years between when he married Anne Hathaway at 18 and when he started being mentioned in the London theatre scene – as a tutor to a Catholic family in Lancashire, where there were a lot of Catholics (aka papists, aka recusants). There are enough coincidences of Catholics who show up in Warwickshire and Lancashire that there’s an argument to be made that, if the Shakespeares were part of that secret community, he could have gotten a job with a family who wanted someone they could trust.

There are also arguments that John Shakespeare (his father) was a recusant. He’d risen to the top town political post, but then fallen to almost nothing, and it’s unclear whether that was because of debt, or religion, or both (or maybe another reason). In the 1700s a Catholic testimonial was said to have been found hidden in the rafters of his house, but nobody knows if that was a forged plant; it’s no longer extant.

Anyway, there’s enough hearsay and coincidence to make it all possible. Personally I think Shakespeare was eminently practical. When a lot of his fellow playwrights were dying penniless, getting tortured in prison, killing each other, etc., he “would not be debauched,” invested in real estate, and retired back to the country to die well-off. Whether “he died a papist,” who knows. He knew how to write for his characters without saying much of anything about himself. And he knew that Tudor/Jacobean England was not a wise place to be one religion too loud for too long. I think he kept his faith as close to the vest as he did a lot of other things.

So now you know to be prepared if you email me. For more about my favorite dead bald possibly syphilitic bisexual glover, the Related Posts plug-in (below) seems to be doing a decent job for once. “Ew, Shakespeare?” especially. I don’t write about him much. Perhaps I should.


Pat Gardner

You should write more!

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