George Austin discovers more evidence of Catholicism in the life and plays of William Shakespeare

At the end of The Tempest Prospero addresses the audience, ending with the words, ‘Unless I be relieved by prayer, which pierces so that it assaults mercy itself and frees all faults, as you from crimes would pardon’d be, let your indulgence set me free.’ Exile on the enchanted island could have been like a purgatory, and now he was free. But too much should not be read into this, even when – as in the current RSC production – it is portrayed not as a pleasant tropical paradise but as an ice-bound horror.

The Catholic influence in Shakespeare’s plays is certainly there, but may have been no more than his life’s experience subconsciously showing itself. Certainly from time to time he seems to have been much more concerned with the creation of story-lines than in the possibility of personal political disaster.

Less than sixty years after Henry VIII had in 1535 ordered the execution of the Lord Chancellor Thomas More, a play was written by a group of writers, of whom one was Shakespeare. The play was Thomas More and in 1592 it had caught the eye of Edmund Tilney, the government censor, who demanded extensive alterations and cuts, not least because of its sympathetic portrayal of a popular Catholic martyr. Its first public performance was more than 400 years later in 2005 at Stratford.

Then there is Henry IV part 1 where Sir John Falstaff appears – but who was originally called Sir John Oldcastle. Shakespeare displays him as a liar, drunk and whoremonger. But there was a difficulty: Oldcastle was a real historical figure who had rebelled against Henry V and been executed. There had however been a Protestant revision of history, and Oldcastle was no longer a traitor but an early Protestant martyr.

Unfortunately Lord Cobham the Chamberlain was descended from Oldcastle and Shakespeare was forced to take the play off. When it returned, Oldcastle had become Sir John Falstaff – and Henry IV part 2 has an epilogue in which a Dancer speaks of a play that shall follow in which Sir John shall again appear, ‘where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a be killed by your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.’ Perhaps a way of saying: ‘Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental’

Interestingly, the names of two characters who appear in Henry V are also found in a list of Stratford recusants, William Fluellin and George Bardolph, alongside that of John Shakespeare. There are curious Catholic coincidences in Shakespeare’s life too, sometimes suggesting at least a lack of caution or perhaps of political nous.

In 1613 he purchased the gatehouse of Blackfriars, conveniently close to the theatre at Blackfriars and only a ferry journey from the Globe. But the gatehouse had had a history, ‘largely concerned with its role as a papist safe-house in times of trouble.’ It had been owned by a relative of the Lancashire Houghtons, notable Catholics, and in later years was a hiding place for recusant priests.

Shakespeare himself leased out rooms to John Robinson, son of a recusant who had given sanctuary to priests in Blackfriars and brother of a priest at the English College in Rome. The connection between the two men was a close one, and Robinson is said to have visited Shakespeare on his death-bed in New Place, Stratford; and he was a witness to the playwright’s will.

Whatever William’s own religious inclinations were, his acquaintances include many recusants – six in particular who suffered death for their faith. In 1611 he was linked by John Speed to a Jesuit missionary, Robert Parsons, describing him as a ‘petulant poet’ and ‘malicious papist’ and suggesting he was intent on ‘treasonable practice.’

Next month I shall give my answer to the intriguing question, ‘Was Shakespeare a left-footed bard?’