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Was Shakespeare a Crypto-Catholic?

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
24 March 2007

Was Shakespeare, or was his father, a Catholic, or a crypto-Catholic? Were they connected to Jesuit missionaries operating undercover in Warwickshire? These questions are asked in an article in the TLS of March 16. The answer to the latter question appears to be a resounding raspberry, which is interesting, since the authors of the article appear well-qualified to judge.

One of them, Thomas McCoog, is archivist of the British Province of the Society of Jesus, while the other, Peter Davidson, is co-editor of Robert Southwell's poems (Southwell was indeed a Jesuit, arrested, tortured and executed at Tyburn in 1595). A point these scholars make is that no useful discussion of Shakespeare and Catholicism can be undertaken unless a clear distinction is drawn between passive nostalgia for the "old religion" and active participation in the Counter-Reformation.

In other words, if I understand them correctly, it is one thing to try to reconstruct the way an individual in late 16th-century England might have felt about the vanishing, or the abiding, legacy of Catholicism - what Shakespeare could have thought about the afterlife, for instance, about purgatory or intercession for the souls of the departed - and quite another to try to involve him or his father in some plot.

The attempt to prove a connection between Shakespeare and the Catholic underground of his day goes back to the 18th century. In 1757, as one of the recent conspiracy theorists tells the story, "some men working in the Shakespeare birthplace in Henley Street discovered, concealed between the eaves and the joists, a six-page hand-written Catholic testament of faith, in English, each page signed with the name of John Shakespeare". The implication of the document is that Shakespeare would have been brought up secretly in the Catholic faith.

The closer you look at the story, however, the more complicated the question of its authenticity becomes. For a start, the original document no longer exists. Secondly, the many who copied it did so, not in 1757, but in 1784, by which time the first page was missing. The great Shakespeare scholar, Edmond Malone, examined the original in 1790, and was at first convinced of its genuineness. He then printed it. Six years later he wrote that he had "since obtained documents that clearly prove it could not have been the composition of any one of our poet's family". But, alas, he died before he could publish that proof.

Malone was also shown, late in the day, a notebook belonging to the original transcriber, in which the first page was restored, but this part of the document was doubted by Malone and is now proved to have been a forgery.

If the whole text could have been shown to be bogus, the issue could be set aside. Strikingly, however, the wording of "John Shakespeare's Spiritual Testament" was shown, in the 20th century, to derive from an extremely rare source, a spiritual "Testament of the Soul" made by the celebrated Cardinal of Milan, St Carlo Borromeo, translated into English, dated 1638, and printed, probably somewhere on the continent, in a tiny format so that it could be kept about the body.

If you read even the most sober of sources you are likely to find some version of the following story. In 1580, the English Jesuit missionaries Edmund Campion and Robert Persons passed through Milan on their way from Rome to England, where they met Borromeo. Here they were given copies of his spiritual testament.

They became a sort of standard text for covert Catholics to sign up to, and this is what John Shakespeare, at risk of torture and martyrdom, did. He either inserted his name on page after page of a manuscript copy, where a space had been left blank, or he wrote the thing out himself. Weirdly enough, in article XII, he beseeched his parents to pray for his soul's delivery from purgatory, although his parents were by then dead.

What the TLS article makes clear, however, is that there is no reason at all to believe that the Jesuits were distributing any such "testament". There is simply no evidence either for any 16th-century copies of Borromeo's testament, or for this kind of clandestine work. Borromeo was not a Jesuit and there is no reason to have him act in league with the Jesuits.

What there is evidence for is a series of misreadings of texts, to make for instance Warwickshire look like a hub of Jesuit activity, and to conjure up a picture of Jesuits handing out in the 1580s the sort of booklets that are only found in the 17th century. From there it is a short step to the belief that Campion himself reconciled John Shakespeare to the Catholic Church.

The TLS authors ask: "What real evidence do we have for the active participation of either John or William Shakespeare in the Counter-Reformation recusant Catholicism fostered by the Jesuits on their English mission? What evidence do we have that even links Shakespeare to the Jesuits? None that bears examination."

So, once again, we can say: we have been ambushed by bosh. For some reason, Shakespeare as Shakespeare is not interesting enough for the sort of taste that dabbles in this area. It has to be Shakespeare and the great pyramid of Ghizeh, Shakespeare and the knights templar, Shakespeare and the missing Lancashire years (under the name Shakeshafte) leading to Shakespeare and the Jesuits and, of course, Shakespeare and the gunpowder plot.

Someone I know is fascinated by the thought that - as he read somewhere - Shakespeare's works were written by a chap in Sicily. Really he is more interested in this theory, as far as I can see, than in the works that this Sicilian chap actually wrote. We are told that "many of Shakespeare's more devout contemporaries (Catholics among them) seem to have expressed disappointment that he consistently failed (or refused) to write on religious themes". You see? Perfect cover for a Jesuit.

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