- Catholic Theology in Shakespeare's Plays
This is a tendentious, but valuable, study. In a series of chapters on selected comedies, problem plays, romances, tragedies, and two (non-tetralogy) history [End Page 1037] plays, David Beauregard argues that Catholic terminology, sacramental and ritual practices, and theological doctrines are so pronounced in Shakespearean drama that one must conclude that the playwright was either a recusant Catholic, church papist, or (though he doesn't put it this way) religious skeptic with a strong cultural attachment to his Catholic background. Arguing against those who detect the strong presence of the Genevan Bible, the Book of Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer, Beauregard, in both the individual chapters and in two appendices that list extensive evidence for his arguments, contends that Shakespeare had a Catholic mindset, was influenced by the Rheims translation of the New Testament, and dared to present onstage some of the very features of Catholicism that were most repugnant to Protestant reformers —for example, purgatory, the sacrament of penance, intercessory prayer, admirable friars and nuns, and the miraculous.
The individual chapters concentrate on particular Catholic elements in the plays: Shakespeare's treatment of the sacrament of penance in several dramas; the treatment of grace, merit, and the presentation of Helena as miracle-worker and pilgrim in All's Well That Ends Well; the favorable portrayal of monastic life in Measure for Measure and elsewhere in the canon; the Catholic character of marriage ceremonies in several plays; the discourse of purgatory and of Catholic resistance theory in Hamlet, which criticizes Erastianism and the oppression of Catholics; the Catholic conception of nature and grace and the presence of Catholic miraculism in The Winter's Tale; the relatively benign treatment of papal coercion, the criticism of the concept of King John as a Protestant-nationalist hero, and refusal to follow a Protestant anti-Catholic nationalistic line in King John and in those parts of Henry VIII Shakespeare probably authored; and the use of Catholic notions of intercessory prayer and indulgence in the epilogue of The Tempest. The strongest sections of the study are those in which Beauregard deals with Shakespeare's use of Catholic models of penance and satisfaction for sins, of saintly or Marian intercession, of traditional Catholic practices and rituals, and of counter cultural criticism of the abuse of royal authority. The sense we get is of a Shakespeare whose Catholic cultural orientation made him critical of the English monarchy and the established church as well as nostalgic for those features of the old religion that infused both everyday life and religious practices with supernatural presence.
Despite its useful gathering of evidence, this study has some problematic features. First, Beauregard calls attention to the work of historians of early modern Catholicism who have questioned traditional Protestant-progressive historiography, but he doesn't attend to the debates between these revisionists and those who have argued with them. Second, the search for Catholic elements in Shakespeare's texts leads him to play down those Protestant elements that scholars have detected —for example, in Hamlet. Third, the book slides too often from precise representations of Catholic material to more general religious terms that lack distinctive Catholic marks. Although Beauregard is aware, especially in his discussion of the language of the Homilies, that confessional discourse can often blur into a conventional religious vocabulary, he sometimes sees language as Catholic when [End Page 1038] it might have been heard as denominationally uninflected: I think this is the case in some of the discussion of notions of grace and merit in All's Well, where more general or even secularized notions of human "reward" or "desert" might have been used. Fourth, the book frequently cites the work of Thomas Aquinas and the decrees of the Council of Trent to draw lines between Catholic theology and Shakespeare's writing, but it is not always clear whether these are presented as representative source materials for particular Catholic doctrines or as Shakespeare's own background reading. If the...