Monday, 30 May 2011

Shakespeare's Catholicism

Fr Z  believes Shakespeare was a Catholic. I've always thought, at least from the time I studied Hamlet at school, that he was certainly not a Protestant. The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking at the Hay Festival, also seems to agree, at least up to a point.

Between them, Fr Peter Milward, Joseph Pearce and Claire Asquith have made a more than solid, if necessarily circumstantial case (without clear documentary evidence how could it be otherwise?) for establishing Shakespeare's continuing adherence to the old religion of England.
But the thought of a Catholic Shakespeare is only surprising if we forget the Catholic allegiance of a large proportion (if not an actual majority) of the population of Elizabethan England. It was only with the propaganda disaster following the Gunpowder Plot that English opinion became reconciled to the final victory of the politics and theology of the Reformation, and even then remained bitterly divided as to its interpretation and significance, as the events leading to the Civil War prove. The religious affiliations and theological sympathies of the time were much more fluid and complicated than we have traditionally been led to believe. As always, the victors write the history.

But Archbishop Williams is surely right when he says that it's impossible to understand much of Shakespeare without a knowledge of the Christian theology of grace and redemption but he was, perhaps, with respect, a little off-beam when he said that even if Shakespeare were a practising Christian he was neither a particularly nice man nor a saint. Well, that's not really the point; few of us are other than sinners in search of God's mercy, forgiveness and redemption.

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