Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Was Shakespeare a Catholic? (Stephen Greenblatt's biography)

Was Shakespeare a Catholic? If not, where does his unprecedented secularity come from?

Shakespeare's seeming disinterest in the church has always puzzled me, especially since, for generations after him, major British writers struggled to find a place for their voices outside of religious authority. John Milton, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson, and James Joyce all dealt with this issue, though they responded to the challenge (and to changing historical conditions) quite variously.

I've always wondered how Shakespeare could live when he lived -- before the secularization of English literature -- and yet have written so many plays that ignore direct reference to schism, to Queen Elizabeth's religious politics, etc. His silence makes more sense if he himself were from a Catholic background; he has plenty to say about dead historical and fictional tyrants, but he can't say anything about the live ones for obvious reasons.

Stephen Greenblatt has a new biography of Shakespeare, called Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. It's reviewed in this week's Chronicle. The highlight for me is the following:

England endured violent swings between Catholicism and Protestantism in the decades before Shakespeare's birth. During much of Shakespeare's lifetime, Elizabeth I was not merely the sovereign, but she was also the head of the Church of England. Though a range of private beliefs on religious matters were tolerated, public conformity to the state church was expected. Recusancy was punished with fines or worse.

"Anyone who was alert in this world was immersed in this symbolic language of religion," says Mr. Greenblatt. "Because that is how this world was put together. It would be like growing up in the 1950s and not being interested in Communism versus capitalism. This is the great struggle that was defining life."

Shakespeare's religious beliefs have excited heated debate among scholars. What is in little dispute is that some of Shakespeare's family and acquaintances -- including his schoolmasters -- had connections to English Catholicism and to the missionaries sent secretly to England by the Catholic Church to bring that country back to the fold. Many of these missionaries, including the Jesuit scholar Edmund Campion, were arrested and executed by the authorities. There is also evidence -- in the form of a Catholic religious testament found in the 18th century in a house that once belonged to the Shakespeare family -- that Shakespeare's father remained a Catholic during Shakespeare's youth.

Theories about Shakespeare's beliefs rooted in those facts grow stranger and more elusive. One such theory places the young Shakespeare in the service of a recusant Catholic family in Lancashire with connections to Campion and (equally significant) a strong interest in the theater.

Mr. Greenblatt embraces the Lancashire hypothesis for his own narrative purposes, but with a significant twist. Far from pegging Shakespeare as a Catholic, he argues that the writer's close encounter with religious fanaticism shaped the reasoned sensibility of his plays.

I realize that many people are skeptical of the Lancashire hypothesis, but I'm interested in it because it would explain a lot. People who could imagine the totality of human experience without emphatic reference to God were very rare in the late 16th century. Shakespeare was one of them, and it's worth pondering how that came to be.


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