Monday, April 25, 2016

April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the playwright, poet, and actor widely considered to be the most influential literary figure in the English language. Yet, there's one mystery which continues to elude scholars to even this day: what exactly was Shakespeare's relationship with the Catholic Church? And, could he have been a secret Catholic, forced to conceal his true religious identity in an era of persecution? At the time of Shakespeare's writing, Britain was in a period of religious upheaval. Its people were still caught in the crossfires of the English Reformation that had begun decades earlier when Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England. Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, outwardly followed the State-imposed religion, since it was illegal at that time to practice as a Catholic in England. However, scholars say he nonetheless maintained strong sympathies with the Church of Rome. Shakespeare's writings “clearly points to somebody who was not just saturated in Catholicism, but occasionally argued for it,” said Clare Asquith, an independent scholar and author of a book on Shakespeare called “Shadowplay:The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.” He “was definitely putting the Catholic point of view to an intellectual audience,” she said. An example of this relationship with Catholicism comes out in Shakespeare's Hamlet, a play which scholars say captures the sense of conflict experienced by the population as the country transitioned to the Church of England. “Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, dramatizes the position of all these people, torn apart like Hamlet, having to play a part like Hamlet, pretend they were irresponsible, perhaps mad, and yet, having to make a decision about what to do about this,” Asquith told CNA/EWTN News.
She said that this conflict is particularly represented through the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Act I. Pearce reiterates that more people at that time had Catholic sympathies than is commonly believed. “Although the anti-Catholic laws made it necessary for any writer, Shakespeare included, to be circumspect about the way that they discussed the religious controversies of the time,” he said, “it is clear that Shakespeare's plays show a great degree of sympathy with the Catholic perspective during this volatile time.”