- Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays
David Beauregard’s Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays is an intervention in need of a problem. Beauregard states, “over the past sixty-five years the dominant view of Shakespeare’s theology has been fashioned from a Reformed Protestant perspective and set in the context of the ‘Whig’ version of the English Reformation” (13). He contends that Catholic Theology will correct this imbalance, arguing for Shakespeare’s Catholicism and his indebtedness to Catholic sources and theology. When A. G. Dickens published The English Reformation in 1964, this might have been an accurate description of the field; not so today. Revisionist historians such as J. J. Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh, and Eamon Duffy have [End Page 506] dominated the historiography of the English Reformation for a quarter-century. In Shakespeare studies, the “Catholic Shakespeare” is an increasingly held view, as argued by E.A.J. Honigmann, Richard Wilson, and Stephen Greenblatt, not to mention Peter Millward, who has been championing this cause since the 1970s. Any good library catalogue will provide dozens of other books and articles on this topic. Beauregard is flogging a dead horse, or rather giving mouth-to-mouth to one that is alive and kicking and champing at the bit.
At the same time, the extent of Shakespeare’s “Catholicism,” as that of his father or his hometown of Stratford, is actually still an open question. Little documentary evidence survives, and what remains is inconclusive and controversial.1 As a result, some of Beauregard’s argument is circular, building upon an unproven premise of Shakespeare’s Catholic faith. His book is effective, however, at pointing out just how much Shakespeare’s plays are permeated with Catholic language and theology; this verifiable material remains understudied, despite the thousands of pages hypothesizing about Shakespeare’s own beliefs. Catholic Theology includes chapters (most previously published as articles) on a variety of plays and topics: Purgatory and revenge in Hamlet, the language and thematics of penance in The Winter’s Tale, sympathetic nuns and friars in Romeo and Juliet and Measure for Measure, the use of Catholic marriage ceremonies in the comedies, Helena’s pilgrimage to Compostela and the theology of grace in All’s Well That Ends Well, Catholic political theology in King John and Henry VIII , and Prospero’s closing reference to indulgence in The Tempest. Many of Beauregard’s observations on the plays are convincing, although some (like those on Hamlet) are hardly new.
But the religious elements of the plays do not necessarily tell us anything about their author’s theology. Indeed, the notion of Shakespeare’s “theology” is fundamentally problematic: the beliefs of a dramatist, or indeed of anyone not professionally involved in the writing of theology, are rarely systematic enough to constitute a “theology.” The sixteenth century was a time of profound upheaval in religious belief, especially in England, which changed its official faith half a dozen times in a couple of decades. As the best scholars of early modern religion have recognized, neat distinctions between Catholic and Protestant often break down at the level of individual belief, which can be synthetic, contradictory, or muddled. Beauregard is often reductive in his delineation of Catholic or Protestant theology and practice, and he relies occasionally on sources that are either outdated or unauthoritative. Antonia Fraser, for instance, should not be cited on the same level as Eamon Duffy; Thomas Aquinas, Beauregard’s principal point of doctrinal reference, is not necessarily an accurate guide to beliefs of any faith in sixteenthcentury England.2 [End Page 507]
Furthermore, it is not clear that the inclusion of Catholic ideas or characters in the plays reveals anything at all about Shakespeare’s own beliefs. In some cases, as with All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare may simply be following the Catholic Italian setting of his source. In Measure for Measure, Friar Thomas seems to be represented positively, as Beauregard argues, but when the Duke disguises himself as a friar he seems at serious risk of hypocrisy. Would a devout...