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Michael Alexander Shakespeare's Catholicism? or "You would pluck out the heart of my mystery." The possibility that William Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic is under active scholarly discussion. It is unlikely to be proved either way, but recent converts to the idea that he was very probably a crypto -Catholic include Gary Taylor, the younger oí the two editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, the most influential single-volume edition of Shakespeare for some decades. Taylor is non-religious and historically minded, not a Catholic; some Protestant scholars have reached the same conclusion. A generation ofhistorical research has given us a much better idea of English religious sociology in Shakespeare's lifetime. Conferences on Shakespeare and the Catholicism ofWarwickshire and of Lancashire have recently been held in British universities. The Catholic hypothesis is by no means new. I had not thought about it much until recently, and I have not reread the thirty-seven extant plays with this question in mind. There are gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare's life, especially the ten years between his marriage at eighteen and his appearance in London. We know nothing about his personal beliefs. The assumption has been that he was a LOGOS 3:3 SUMMER 2000 igLOGOS Protestant or at least an Anglican, there being no direct evidence to the contrary. Some modern skeptics try to ignore his Christianity; in response to them it may be more necessary to insist that his plays are Christian as well as humanist, than to discriminate the chances that he was a Catholic. This discussion has three parts: first, the religious background ofhis day; second, his life history; third, the plays. The plays are the thing, and I hope to show why I see their Christian understanding as Catholic. This enquiry started when a student told me that it had not occurred to her that Shakespeare was a Christian. Why was it so clear to me that he was—and not just because this was true of virtually all his contemporaries? He often gives his characters language that is implicitly Christian. But how would one show a modern British audience largely indifferent to religion, that this Christianity was more than passive or conventional, or perhaps appropriate local color supplied to plays with anhistorically Christian setting?After all, this man wrote Roman plays, convincingly set in ancient Rome, with no Christian ideas. I was then asked to write an article on Shakespeare for a German theological encyclopedia, and tried to settle my view. I was not looking for a Catholic angle, which emerged to my surprise. The reason I am interested is not to claim him as a co-religionist , nor to correct the assumption ofEnglish literary history that he was—naturally—Anglican, but because the human and spiritual depth of his plays seems to me to draw on an understanding of life formed by Cadiolicism as well as by renaissance humanism. First some definitions. What did Catholic mean in Shakespeare's day (i ^64—1 6 1 6)? Although theologically the word Catholic means "of the universal church," the term is often used in contradistinction to Protestantism. Catholics regard Protestantism as an unorthodox offshoot of the universal Church. Protestants often preface "Catholic" by Roman, which (in Britain) marks it as foreign, although the term "Roman Catholic" was originally introduced as less offensive than "Papist" or "Romanist." English Christians have had, since SHAKESPEARE S CATHOLICISM.' the late-sixteenth century, not two camps but three, with die Church of England established in the middle, and nonconformists, Catholic or puritan, on either side. The Church ofEngland, the ecclesiastical center, claims to be both Catholic and evangelical, though some Roman Catholics do not realize this. The official Anglican position is expressed in a remark once made to me by anAnglican woman: "All of us are Catholics; only some of us are Roman!" This echoes what was said by the Dean ofSt. Pauls to Fr. Henrv Garnet S.J. on the scaffold on 3 May 1606: "But Mr. Garnet, all ofus are Catholic." Today, "Catholic" is in Britain more often a denominational than a doctrinal label; it was not so in the mid-sixteenth century. Before Luther nailed his theses...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-791X
Print ISSN
1091-6687
Pages
pp. 35-49
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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