Shakespeare, Catholicism, and the Middle Ages: Maimed Rights by Alfred Thomas
This well-written, widely researched and precisely documented book should stimulate debate, but some of its claims and interpretations may not convince some readers. The approach taken raises the question: how useful is it, scholarly speaking, to put forward conjectures that superficially are improbable and which, [End Page 245] without new evidence, are unlikely to be either proven or rejected? Shakespeare, Catholicism, and the Middle Ages is strong in historical research, but less convincing in literary analysis.
In opposing Stephen Greenblatt's view that 'Renaissance learning and individuality' decisively transformed a 'benighted, superstitious medieval world' (p. x), Alfred Thomas takes his cue from Jacques Le Goff to argue that the 'Protestant' Tudor-Stuart state was more restrictive and totalitarian than Catholic medieval Europe. This assumes an over-simple Protestant/Catholic dichotomy that ignores the Church of England's ritualized self-definition as 'one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church' (Nicene Creed, my italics), and the same church's origin as a compromise that combined Catholic with Reformist elements.
Building on its binary premise, the book contends that early modern playwrights, principally Shakespeare, responded to the political and religious oppression of their era by perpetuating medieval strategies of veiled dissent. The subtitle pun accordingly identifies the 'maimèd rites' at the burial of Ophelia, who is alleged to be a likely 'adherent of Catholicism' (p. 147), with the 'maiming of rights' under the 'Protestant' monarchs, Elizabeth I and James I. A series of comparisons based on debatable claims of generic continuity across the centuries elaborates this proposition in seven chapters.
Contentiously categorized as 'political allegory', Richard II is said to redeploy the techniques of 'chivalric romances' such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), the Alliterative Morte Arthure (AMA), and Malory's Morte Darthur in a critique of Elizabethan absolutism (p. 7). Preliminary discussions discern the operation of late medieval politics in each of these Arthurian works, which, as Thomas admits, Shakespeare may not have read (p. 34). SGGK and AMA's survival in unique manuscripts makes it unlikely that he had. Finally, Chapter 2 extends the suspicion of contemporaries including, as reported, Elizabeth herself, that Shakespeare's dramatization of King Richard's failings, deposition, and murder was covertly a call for the queen's overthrow.
Chapter 3 offers convincing analyses of The Prioress's Tale, The Passion of the Jews of Prague, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice as 'projective inversions' (p. 76), in which Christian audiences and readers projected doubts about their faith, inspired perhaps by the growth of heresies, on to the Jews. Thus, these works characterized Jews as perpetrators of religiously inspired crimes rather than as what they were—victims.
This book often hedges its detection of pro-Catholic subtexts in medieval and Renaissance works by markers of uncertainty, such as 'may well have decided', 'may have suggested', 'may have reminded', 'resonates with', 'may equally allude', 'may well have evoked', 'would thus have resonated with', 'may be said'. However, this verbal circumspection does not negate the objection that the equivalences perceived too often cohere into allegorical readings of Shakespeare and other playwrights that audiences at the time are unlikely to have understood. For example, Chapter 4 equates Hamlet's famous alternatives, whether 'to take [End Page 246] arms' or 'to die, to sleep' with Elizabethan Catholics' choices of either reacting violently against the 'Protestant' state or of acquiescing in persecution (pp. 115–16). Similarly far-fetched is the suggestion that as Protestants the 'Oedipal' father– son pair, Hamlet and Claudius, 'are ultimately responsible for having suppressed the Catholic religion', here equated with Hamlet senior's Ghost (p. 143). It defies logic too that King Lear, which in Act 1 promotes King James's campaign against a divided Britain, would, 'by underscoring the differences between James and Lear', paradoxically have highlighted 'the similarities between them' (p. 22). Just as unlikely are the suggestions in Chapter 5 that Cordelia's divided loyalties may have 'exemplified' for recusant members of the Jacobean audience 'their own impossible situation in trying to reconcile loyalty to the Crown with their spiritual allegiance to the Pope'; or that Cordelia's defiance of Lear parallels some notable Catholic women's defiance of Elizabeth and James (p. 154). Equally hypothetical is the suggestion that Cordelia's hanging would, in an unrecorded performance of King Lear in 1609, have reminded a Yorkshire audience of the hanging forty years earlier of 600 'adherents of the true faith' (p. 150). Although this book is rightly cautious about claiming Shakespeare as a secret Catholic, arguments favouring the idea that he 'was at least sympathetic to the Catholic cause' (p. 63) build throughout and carry weight.
In Shakespeare, Catholicism, and the Middle Ages excursions that draw on the author's proven expertise in Czech history and texts will be new to many readers. His treatment of English people, events, and writing between 1100 and 1620 is admirably specific and wide-ranging. Yet this book's arguments for the operation of a Catholic propagandist intent that was perceptible to contemporaries in so many Renaissance poems and plays must finally be regarded as speculative.