George Austin finds so many references to the Old Religion in Shakespeare’s plays it is clear he never escaped its influence
William Shakespeare was never a polemicist, not one to press this or that political issue of the day, but a story-teller pure and simple. Often the plays were rustic, reflecting his own rural background, and no other plays of his day are so full of references to trees and flowers, often with the local names for them. Some fellow playwrights, brought up in the sophistication of London life or with an Oxbridge education, poured scorn on this upstart from Warwickshire with his local accent.
Moreover he could not escape the Catholic influences in his upbringing and this is reflected in his plays – for instance in the understanding of death and purgatory that is present in the speeches of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The dead king complains that he was cut off ‘even in the blossoms of my sin’ so that he died ‘unhousel’d, disappointed, unaneled’ – that is to say, without a last communion, without confession and without anointing. As a result he can describe how he is ‘for the day confined to fast in fires till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burned and purged away.’
This is purgatory, clear and simple, set before an audience whose reformed church had condemned purgatory as a lie, and had cut back or eliminated such rituals as anointing and confession. Would someone without at least a Catholic background have slipped into that way of thinking?
A curious coincidence here: in the Catholic testament signed by William’s father the text speaks of the danger that ‘I may possibly be cut off in the blossoms of my sin.’ Or perhaps not a coincidence?
And at the end of the play, with Hamlet having taken the revenge his father demanded, the king – and accidentally the queen also – are dead, with Laertes, having sought revenge on Hamlet for the murder of his father Polonius and the suicide of Ophelia, killing and being killed by Hamlet. But then as the two are dying, Laertes cries out to Hamlet, ‘Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet: Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, nor thine on me.’ ‘Heaven make thee free of it!’ is Hamlet’s purging reply. It may not confirm Shakespeare as a covert Catholic. But it surely indicates that the old faith was still around.
Of course there is evidence on the other side of the coin – for example the anti- Catholic and anti-papal rhetoric of King John, in which the king rails against this ‘Italian priest’ from whom one can ‘by the merit of vild gold, dross, dust, purchase corrupted pardon of a man, who in that sale sells pardon of himself.’ Nevertheless there is a large question-mark over too simplistic interpretation of this.
It has been suggested that while ‘the play is not overtly anti-Catholic yet it activates that the attack is on the Pope’s temporal claims,’ and that ‘loyal English Catholics felt free to defend the queen against Catholic invaders’ so that it would be fair to take the more lenient view. After all, we can complain about the Church Establishment – some of us in no uncertain terms – while nevertheless loving the dear old Church of England.
Then in Measure for Measure, there is a latent anti-Catholic feel yet ‘at the same time it manages to present a Catholic point of view persuasively from the inside.’ Again the Friar in Romeo and Juliet, though he acts with considerable stupidity in secretly performing the marriage of the young lovers, is nonetheless a quite sympathetic portrayal.
One scholar has suggested that ‘what is significant is not that he normally wrote as one would expect from a committed Protestant, but that he sometimes reverted to a Catholic viewpoint – which was most unusual in the drama of the day.’ Was it because he was a Catholic or was it because having been brought up as one, the ethos was engrained in him