In the final instalment of the series, George Austin delivers his verdict on Shakespeare’s religious beliefs
This series has examined the influence of post-reformation Catholicism on Shakespeare’s life and work. So was this gentle, uncontroversial poet and playwright a Catholic, covert or otherwise? As Hercule Poirot would say, let us examine the evidence.
Without any doubt he was born into a staunchly Catholic family. His mother was Mary Arden, and the Ardens were well known as Warwickshire Catholics – the head of the clan, Sir Edward Arden, was executed for treason and in his last words claimed that ‘his real crime was profession of the Catholic faith.’
John Shakespeare, William’s father, was accused in 1592 of obstinately’ refusing to attend church to receive Easter communion, as later was William’s daughter Susannah, together with other well-known recusants. She seems to have been persuaded to conform while remaining a ‘church papist’ throughout her life.
Many of John’s close friends and business neighbours were Catholics: George Whateley had two brothers who were priests; the Cawdrey family at the Angel Inn had a son who was a priest; George Badger was sent to prison for his faith; the Quiney family, of whom one married William’s daughter Judith, were fiercely Catholic, and Richard Quiney was one of William’s closest friends with William godfather to his child.
At Stratford Grammar School, several of Williams teachers were staunch Catholics, including John Cotton, brother of the Jesuit, Thomas Cottam, and their influence can be seen in his fellow pupil Robert Debdale who was involved in the Babing-ton plot and executed for treason in 1586.
Then there is the matter of Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ The evidence of his employment as a young tutor at Alexander Hoghton’s home in Lancashire is circumstantial but makes sense. His schoolmaster John Cottam had left to be ‘servant’ (tutor?) there and could have recommended William. Certainly a family with priests living there – one of them Thomas Campion – would need to be sure of the faith of their staff.
When Hoghton seemed in danger of imminent arrest, he commended ‘William Shakeshafte’ into the service of a neighbour, Thomas Hesketh, and in his later life in London, William’s company of players was sponsored by Hesketh.
But in spite of the many connections and coincidences, there seems no final proof that Shakespeare was a practising Catholic. He was certainly not a Puritan – a Puritan would not have written plays and would not have spent so much of his working life in the seedier part of London, where the playhouses were surrounded by inns and brothels.
His family ethos was undoubtedly Catholic and could not have done other than influence his writing, even if only subconsciously – and that influence is clearly there, again and again. If he actively shared their faith, his high profile would have meant that he would be forced to hide his religious commitment. But equally it is no more clearly evident that he was an active Protestant.
There is one final and optimistic parallel with our own troubled days, as we watch the glacier of liberal revisionism systematically wearing away the bedrock of orthodoxy. In Lancashire’s Ribble valley, where Shakespeare may have taught in his ‘lost years’ in the Catholic households of the Hoghtons and the Heskeths, there are still families who have never been anything but Catholic. And in the Church of England too, the Catholic influence survived pressure from those who would destroy it, just as we shall endure at the last.
A footnote to end this series: although Shakespeare’s will is Protestant in its phrasing, there is a story that when he died he received the last rites of a Catholic. This came from a seventeenth century Archdeacon of Coventry who reported that, according to Stratford oral tradition, a priest was fetched when he lay dying and that he ‘died a papist.’ Was Shakespeare a ‘left-footed bard’? We shall never know for sure. But archdeacons are usually right.