|Was Shakespeare a Crypto-Catholic?
copyright © 2007
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
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
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
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