- Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theatre, Religion and Resistance
With the publication of Secret Shakespeare, Richard Wilson offers another contribution to the burgeoning school of Shakespeare scholarship that maintains not only that England's greatest poet and playwright was a Catholic, but that his Catholic faith and his association with the Recusant community exerted a profound influence over his plays and non-dramatic poetry throughout his career. The idea that William Shakespeare was at least reared in a Catholic family is hardly novel. The Jesuit historian Herbert Thurston was, for example, pursuing this line of inquiry early in the twentieth century, and a sometime Presbyterian minister, John Henry de Groot, made a detailed case for the impact of a Catholic upbringing on Shakespearean drama in 1946 in The Shakespeares and "The Old Faith" (reprinted with a postscript by Rev. Stanley L. Jaki, OSB, in 1994). E. A. J. Honigmann's Shakespeare: The 'Lost Years' (1985) created a stir with its persuasive account of the youthful Shakespeare as an actor-playwright-schoolmaster among the Lancashire Catholic gentry, but it was at the turn of the new century that the "Catholic Shakespeare" became a fixture in Shakespeare studies, taking center stage (so to speak) with Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory (2001) and Will in the World (2004).
The distinctive feature of Professor Wilson's new book is the enormous number of references to contemporaneous Catholic issues that he finds in Shakespeare's plays and poems along with his insistence upon the crucial interpretive significance of such allusions. Moreover, Shakespeare emerges from this study not merely as a Catholic, but as a Catholic of a very specific kind: he eventually escaped from the influence of Jesuit "terrorists" that darkened his youth and became one of those moderate Catholics who reacted against "the suicidal violence of the fanatics with a project of freedom of conscience and mutual toleration" (ix). To have discovered such an agreeable Shakespeare is evidently a great relief, since Professor Wilson [End Page 642] admits to sharing a worry that he attributes to Alison Shell "about researching Elizabethan Catholic resistance as a corrective to the domination of the academic WASP patriarchy, given that the Vatican is such a repressive tyranny, with its medieval doctrines on women, contraception and divorce," to which "litany of hate" Professor Wilson himself adds "the Church's murderous bigotry on gay rights" (4). Shakespeare, we learn in the course of the book, was not that kind of Catholic.
A pair of examples of Professor Wilson's remarkable ingenuity in finding specifically Catholic allusions in Shakespeare's work will have to suffice. Although Belmonte is the home of the widow whom Giannetto finally wins in Il Pecorone, the principal source for The Merchant of Venice, Professor Wilson maintains that "Belmont" actually refers to the Hampshire seat of the Catholic Montagues, "famous as a Mass centre" (255). It thus follows that Lorenzo's condemnation of "the man that hath no music in himself," who "is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils" (5.1.83, 85), is intended to distinguish the "loyalism" of the Montagues from "the politics of traitors" (256). Since Jesuits were caricatured by Protestant polemicists as "massing crows," "the picture of the Jesuit 'black-robe' as a carrion crow was one which Shakespeare would himself use to dissociate from papist terrorism, when he wrote of the evil hour when 'the crow \ Makes wing to th' rooky wood' (Macbeth 3.3.51–52) in denunciation of the Masses hosted by the conspirator Ambrose Rookwood at Clopton House, near Stratford, in the darkening days before the Gunpowder Plot" (12).
Shakespeare may well have had such notions cross his mind as he was writing, but even if we could prove that it were so, it is difficult to see how such knowledge enhances the public meaning of the plays or adds to the depth of their meaning or the power of their appeal. Homer may have been thinking of Ionian political events of the eighth century bce or...