Perhaps it is simply A Superfluous Man‘s Calvinist guilt, but today we once again wade into the stinking morass of Shakespeare scholarship to learn that “Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and Shakespeare was also a papist.” Quick, someone bring a fainting couch and smelling salts!
Title: The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome, by Joseph Pearce
Motivation: Purely to épater les bourgeois: When readership flags, stirring the pot with Shakespeare polemics never fails to generate attention.
Completed: April 11, 2012 (#28)
Recommendation: “As tedious as a twice-told tale / Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.”
Before the generation of Shakespeare’s father, everyone was Catholic. Then, thanks to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, everyone became Catholick (at least in publick). Then again later, Cromwell scared everyone into becoming Roundheads, with some crypto-Catholics and crypto-Catholicks lurking about, until everyone settled on the via media that persists in Blighty to this day.
What does all this mean for the Bard? Well, he lived smack dab in the middle of the transition from Catholic England to Anglican/Protestant England. Lots of folks of his era broke one way, and others broke t’other. Some, including Shakespeare, wrote plays to divert people from debating the Real Presence.
Mr. Pearce’s heart is in the right place:
Whereas the imagery of carrion-critics picking over the bones of a corpse, killed by the poison of their theories, is a powerful one, the implicit allusion to ‘putting Humpty together again’ is less so. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, Shakespeare has never had a great fall and, therefore, unlike Humpty, does not need putting together. It is not Shakespeare who has fallen. He is as he always was. It is all the king’s men who have had the fall, and it is they who cannot be put together again. The historicists, new historicists, feminists, postfeminists, deconstructionists, et cetera ad nauseam, are lying broken at the feet of the unbroken Shakespeare, picking over the pieces of their own theories, arguing over the meaning of the monsters of their own monstrous musings, missing the point and impaling themselves on the point of their own pointlessness. This is where we shall leave them, arguing amongst themselves, whilst we begin to look at the real William Shakespeare.
Quite so, let us leave the “-ists” by the roadside!
And that includes “conspiracists,” too:
Perhaps at this juncture, however, it might be prudent to consider, albeit briefly, those who claim that Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare but that he was really someone else. Nobody denies that the real William Shakespeare existed, but many have claimed that the plays ascribed to him are not really his. These ‘anti-Stratfordians’ have erected fabulously imaginative theories to prove that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. Some have claimed that Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays, others that they were written by the Earl of Oxford, and some even believe that Queen Elizabeth was William Shakespeare! It is difficult to take any of these rival claims very seriously. Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, died in 1604, a year after the death of Queen Elizabeth, and about eight years before the last of Shakespeare’s plays was written and performed! Needless to say, the Oxfordians, as they are known, have gone to great lengths, stretching the bounds of credulity to the very limit (and beyond), to explain why the plays were not performed until after their ‘Shakespeare’s’ death.
A dispassionate observer might note that there are many pots and kettles here, and that in the end, most of them are black.
This is Mr. Pearce’s conclusion, which, judging from his evidence, is certainly not implausible:
And so we come to the conclusion of our quest, discovering that Shakespeare had died as he had lived, as a resolute Catholic. And we can say with confidence that if this cannot be proved with mathematical certainty, it can at least be considered to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt. This is sufficient to convict him of his Catholic convictions in the eyes of any right-minded jury in the venerable court of common sense. It is only because we live in an age of uncommon nonsense that Shakespeare remains misunderstood and misconstrued by the ‘silly asses’ of academe. There is, however, no real cause for concern. Shakespeare will outlive the asses as he will outlive the deplorable zeitgeist that they serve. Intellectual fads and fashions are always coming and going, but, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, they are mostly going. Shakespeare, on the other hand, and as Ben Jonson reminds us, ‘was not of an age but for all time.’
Apparently, it’s a really big deal to commentators of a certain denominational persuasion to claim Shakespeare for Rome, and maybe he was in fact Roman. The evidence is mixed but is certainly not a fable, unlike the Oxfordian and Baconian theories. A Superfluous Man can understand why it’s critically important to recognize that Milton was a Protestant. Same goes for the Judaism of Shmuel ha-Nagid. And then there’s Salman Rushdie, whose [REDACTED FOR SECURITY REASONS].
But St. Shakespeare? Not so sure it matters, and however the question is ultimately decided, it will not change the “pro-Shakespeare” editorial bent of this site one way or t’other.