WAS SHAKSPEARE A CATHOLIC?
IN the great question of the comparative intellectual influences
of Catholicity and Protestantism the names of Shakespeare and
Spenser are generally relied upon by Protestants as decisive with
regard to poetry. As to Spenser, however, he has never been a
popular poet like Shakespeare, who has been the idol of the
people; who has laid fast hold on their passions and feelings; and
to whom they proudly appeal as a splendid specimen of the opening
glory of that intellectual emancipation which is vaunted as the
primary result of the Reformation. To Shakespeare, learned and
unlearned among Protestants alike appeal on this great
controversy, as the learned among them point to the poetry of
Spenser or the prose of Bacon.
There is however, a flagrant fallacy in this argument; which to
detect simply requires the slightest attention to chronology.
These illustrious men were not the first-fruits of Protestantism,
but the last legacies of Catholicity. It is true, when they wrote,
the country was Protestant; but it had only just become so even by
law; and in fact and spirit it was scarcely so: it was in a state
of transition and struggle; and the struggle lasted more or less
from the Reformation to the Revolution. The real question is, not
what were they when they wrote, but what were they when they were
educated? when their minds were opened and fed with that first
deep stock of ideas, which Lord Brougham declares exceeds in value
and in vigor all that are subsequently acquired? What was England
when they were born and bred? What were those among whom they
lived? Under what influences were they brought up? To a large
extent Catholic. Not exclusively so, of course; but to such an
extent as to color their character and influence their ideas.
Shakespeare was born in the early part of the reign of Elizabeth,
when only a few years had elapsed since England was ruled by a
Catholic sovereign, and solemnly reconciled to the Holy See. It
may be conjectured, then, that Shakespeare's parents were most
probably Catholics. And there is much to confirm this conclusion.
In the house in which he was born, an ancient document was
discovered purporting to be the will of John Shakespeare the
father, and sufficiently attesting his faith by its fine old
Catholic commencement: "I commend my soul to Almighty God and to
the Blessed Mary ever Virgin." It is true that Malone, with the
instinct of a Protestant critic, rejects the genuineness of this
document: but a Catholic will as much suspect the impartiality of
his reasoning as that of Spelman, when, from a similar bias, he
rejects the evidences afforded to the ancient orthodoxy of
England, derived from books purporting to have been written in the
age of Alfred; and which the ingenious antiquary labors to prove
were written some centuries afterwards. One answer suffices to all
such theories. They were never heard of until the necessities of
the Protestant argument required them. To recur, however, to
Shakespeare. We said many other facts confirmed the conclusion as
to his Catholic education, or at least the Catholic coloring of
his character, and its influence upon his mind. Of course, one
great fact upon the subject would be the style and spirit of his
poetry. Does that betray a latent love of Catholicity? Does it
exhibit the influence of Catholicity? This question we propose to
discuss. And our conviction is, that the poetry of Shakespeare
does exhibit the character of his mind, and the influence of
Catholicity upon it; an influence often unconscious, but on that
account making the more interesting the fact of its existence.
When he wrote, Elizabeth was in the zenith of her power, and the
Catholics were depressed and persecuted. But that does not prove
that Catholicity was extinguished It is notorious that a large
number of her subjects who ostensibly "conformed" were really
attached to the ancient faith. On the part of the queen herself,
the controversy was really as to the question of supremacy, or
rather as to her own legitimacy. Her father had only quarreled on
the supremacy; and she would gladly have submitted to that, if her
own legitimacy could have been admitted One would expect , then, to find Shakespeare pandering, indeed, to royal
passions and popular prejudices as to the question of Roman
supremacy; but on all other subjects betraying a Catholic spirit,
or the influence of it, at all events, upon his mind. And so it
We need not remind our readers that a large proportion of
Shakespeare's plays are founded upon stories, the scenes of which
are laid in Catholic life, and many of them in English history;
which up to the very last reign (with the exception of a few
years), had been Catholic. And it cannot but be observed that he
reverts to those scenes and times with enthusiastic admiration,
and in no spirit of detraction We might, indeed, expect (as we
have already observed) to find him embrace every opportunity, from
the reign of John to that of Henry VIII, to pander to popular
prejudices as to the "domination" of Rome. And accordingly in the
play of "King John "-the earliest of the historical series-we have
some celebrated passages, breathing the spirit of "the royal
supremacy;" and which have served ever since as watchwords against
"Papal usurpation." He represents the king as saying
"What earthly name to interrogatories
Can task the free breath of a sacred king?
Thou canst not, cardinal, devise a name
So slight, unworthy, and ridiculous,
To charge me to an answer, as the pope.
Tell him this tale; and from the mouth of England
Add this much more,-That no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we under heaven are supreme head,
So, under him that great supremacy,
Where we do reign we will alone uphold,
Without the assistance of a mortal hand:
So tell the pope; all reverence set apart,
To him, and his usurp'd authority."
Our readers will recognise in the phrase, "Italian priest," the
very expression applied by Lord John Russell to Archbishop Cullen,
in the debates on Papal Aggression; so lasting are prejudices once
implanted in the popular mind. And they will recollect the next
line as quoted by the late Lord Chancellor (Truro) at a city
banquet during the height of that agitation. The very chords of
national feeling, so skillfully played on by Shakespeare under the
patronage of the statesmen of Elizabeth, were made to vibrate
again, after the lapse of three centuries, by the ministers of
Victoria. But let no one imagine these passages prove any thing as
Shakespeare's real feelings. Listen to the lines in the same play,
in which he afterwards depicts the true character and actual
conduct of the monarch in whose mouth he has just put such high-
sounding sentiments of independence and freedom:
"Cousin, away for England; haste before:
And, ere our coming, see thou shake the bags
Of hoarding abbots; angels imprisoned
Set thou at liberty: the fat ribs of peace
Must by the hungry now be fed upon:
Use our commission in his utmost force."
To which the Bastard replies with glee:
"Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
When gold and silver becks me to come on."
Does not this look like sarcasm? Could Shakespeare fail to
recollect how recently a Sovereign, similar in spirit and in
conduct, had issued such a commission? Could he be oblivious to
the plunder and murder of "abbots" under the father of the
reigning monarch? No argument against the supposition can be drawn
from the fact of Elizabeth's relationship to the royal plunderer;
for it is not to be doubted that she in her heart disapproved of
his conduct; so that Shakespeare knew he could not offend her by
his sarcasm. It was for her mother, not her father, she was
jealous; for her father was her mother's murderer. Certain it is,
if he had meant sarcasm, it could not have been more severe; and
that he most aptly portrayed the spirit and temper of the royal
ruffians who had plundered the Church and the rapacious courtiers
who had proved their ready tools.
Shakespeare has himself supplied the best comment upon his own
sarcasm in those severe lines upon-
"That sly devil,
That daily break-vow; he that wins of all,"
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids-
That smooth-fac'd gentleman, tickling commodity-
Commodity, the bias of the world-
The world, which of itself is poised well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent."
All this, of course, would be perfectly consistent with
Shakespeare's seizing every opportunity to hold up to royal and
national detestation the supremacy of the Holy See; and of course
this disposition would especially manifest itself in regard to the
legates and cardinals, as most closely connected with Rome. In the
fulfilment of this purpose he is utterly unscrupulous as to truth,
and distorts and falsifies the facts of history in a most
unprincipled manner. Thus, in the "King John," he represents
Pandulph, the papal legate, as driving a sordid sort of traffic
with the king in the independence of England, and engaged in a
kind of conspiracy to enslave it; whereas attests
that the papal legate was not Pandulph, but the Archbishop of
Canterbury, and that both worked together for the obtaining of
that great charter. So, in "Henry V," he portrays Cardinal
Beaufort in the most odious colors, both covetous: and ambitious,
proud, cruel, and overbearing, and the murderer of the "good Duke
of Gloucester;" and represents the king as paying the warmest
tribute of respect to the character of the duke, and as speaking
in the strongest terms against the cardinal. The truth of history
is precisely the reverse of all this: the cardinal's was a truly
noble character, and the duke was a designing traitor; and the
king himself well knew it.
In the next play, "Richard II," is a passage on which Shakespeare
dwells with a fondness and fulness of expression quite
unnecessary, unless as the outbreak of his own inward feelings, on
the character of Catholic England. He makes John of Gaunt, on the
bed of death, utter a long speech, in which occur the following
"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, the seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress built by nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home
(For Christian service and true chivalry),
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, :
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land, -
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now (I die pronouncing it),
Like to a "
The latter expressions are singularly applicable to the condition
of England in the reign of Edward VI, when the Church lands were
literally "leased out" to the courtiers like so many farms.
Let it be remarked, we are not in the least attempting to conceal
that Shakespeare; was an accomplice in that great conspiracy of
talent and tyranny which Dr. Newman so eloquently describes, to
poison all the traditions of the age with the perversions of
Protestantism. On the contrary, we are showing that he was a prime
and powerful agent in that conspiracy, perhaps the most powerful;
for, as we set out with saying, he was, and is, and ever will be,
a popular poet; and while a Coke could pervert the laws, a
Shakespeare could pervert the passions of the people, and instill
into their minds prejudices which centuries could not eradicate.
But what we are proving is, that those prejudices which he
conceived himself under a necessity by his complicity in that
conspiracy to implant, to propagate, and perpetuate, were only
such as related to Rome and the Pope, and did not affect any other
part of the Catholic religion,-her most sacred mysteries, her
divine dogmas, or her sacramental system. And our argument is
fortified by the fact, that on topics connected with the Holy See,
the great poet did his utmost to awaken and deepen popular
prejudices; while he never makes an allusion, or an observation,
in the least tending to depart from the respect due to the
Catholic doctrines or sacraments, or to any other part of the
Catholic system, although ample opportunities offered themselves
for his alluding to such subjects, opportunities of which, as we
shall show, he systematically availed himself only to convey
sentiments of the most sincere reverence and respect, and
breathing much of the true Catholic spirit.
It is in perfect consistency with our theory, therefore, that we
find the poet, in "Henry VI," representing Cardinal Beaufort in
the vilest colors, in utter and unscrupulous opposition to the
truth. There can be no question that the popular impression in
this country as to the pride of Roman prelates has its source in
Shakespeare. No one can read this play without perceiving how
powerfully all the most odious traits of overbearing ambition,
unrelenting animosity, and unyielding pride, are accumulated in
the portrait he draws of the cardinal. In the dispute between him
and the duke, he always displays the cardinal as animated by the
most bitter animosity and malice; and finally represents him as
the murderer of the duke, and as dying in agonies of remorse. How
false all this was, Shakespeare could hardly fail to know. The
facts were then far more recent and fresh in men's minds than they
are now; yet at this distance of time, one or two dates and simple
truths speak forcibly as to the mendacity of these
misrepresentations. The duke's death took place in 1447, some
years previous to which the cardinal had retired from court and
relinquished politics; occupying himself in the duties of his
diocese, Where he expended vast sums in completing the cathedral
and endowing the hospital of St. Cross; the Duke of Suffolk having
become the royal favorite and the rival of Gloucester in those
courtly scenes from which Beaufort had withdrawn. A recent
Protestant writer says: "So powerful has been the enchantment of
Shakespeare's genius, that his dramatic picture of the cardinal's
character is too often accepted for historical truth, without
reflecting that the simple object of the bard was to enliven
scenes developing political events, and to create a powerful
interest in his audience by exhibiting the great action of the
time in strong and exciting contrast." Poor apology this for
systematic and studied mendacity; and it is hard to say whether
the calumny or the apology betrays the worse morality.
In regard to the character given of the prelacy of the Church,
this play of "Henry VI" is very like that of "King John:"
"What! is my lord of Winchester install'd,
And call'd unto a cardinal's degree?
Then I perceive that will be verified
Henry the Fifth did sometime prophesy,-
If once he come to be a cardinal,
He'll make his cap co-equal with the crown"
The cardinal himself is made to say:
"Now Winchester will not submit, I trow,
Or be inferior to the proudest peer.
Humphrey of Gloucester, thou shalt well perceive,
That, neither in birth, nor for authority,
The bishop will be overborne by thee:
I'll either make thee stoop and bend thy knee,
Or sack this country with a mutiny."
On the other hand, the duke exclaims:
"Under my feet I'll stamp thy cardinal's hat,
In spite of pope or dignities of Church,"
-the lines made use of with such exquisite good taste by Lord
Truro at the City dinner already mentioned. So in Henry VIII, the
great dramatist, in a similar spirit, represents Buckingham, as
the victim of Wolsey, without the least warrant from history; and
in the teeth of history, makes the exactions of that reign the
sole result of the voluntary and unauthorized rapacity of the
cardinal, in opposition to the wishes of the king. Notwithstanding
this, however, it is very observable that, on the whole,
Shakespeare takes care to do that justice to the character of
Wolsey which he withholds from Beaufort. And this is the more
remarkable, because the cardinal was the great foe of Anne Boleyn,
the mother of Elizabeth; and one would have supposed that
Shakespeare would have been anxious to exhibit him in the worst
possible light. Throughout there is a great deal that is extreme
interesting in this play, in the point of view in which we are
considering it. One of the most beautiful passages is that in
which the poet speaks of Catherine, the mother of Mary:
That like a jewel has hung twenty years
About his neck, yet never lost her lustre;
Of her, that loves him with that excellence
That angels love good men with."
He represents Anne Boleyn as speaking of her thus:
"Oh! now, after
So many courses of the sun enthron'd
Still growing in a majesty and pomp,-the which
To leave is a thousand-fold more bitter than
'Tis sweet at first to acquire,-after this process
To give her the avaunt!
It is a pity
Would move a monster."
One might suspect that the poet imagined his royal patron would
easily pardon this inuendo as to the cruelty of the murderer of
her mother, albeit her own father. But the manner in which he
portrays Anne herself, Elizabeth's mother, is still more
remarkable. He makes her say:
"By my troth and maidenhead,
I would not be a queen."
To which he makes her answer:
"Beshrew me, I would,
And venture maidenhead for't; and so would you,
For all the spice of your hypocrisy:
You, that have so fair parts of woman on you
Have too a woman's heart; which ever yet
Affected eminence, wealth, sovereignty;
Which, to say sooth, are blessings; and which gifts
(Saving your mincing) the capacity
Of your soft cheveril conscience would receive
If you might please to stretch it."
Considering that the person thus spoken to in such a tone of
sarcasm was the mother of the queen reigning when Shakespeare
wrote, and contrasting this with the respectful manner in which
Catherine, the mother of Mary, is spoken of, on the validity of
whose marriage depended Elizabeth's title, our readers will admit
that the re is something very remarkable in this language. He
makes the king speak thus of Catherine:
"Thou art, alone,
(If thy rare qualities, sweet gentleness,
Thy meekness, saint-like, wife-like government,-
Obeying in commanding,-and thy parts
Sovereign and pious else, could speak thee out),
The queen of earthly queens."
And, on the other hand, he clearly conveys his own conviction of
the iniquity of the divorce and the hypocrisy of the presence upon
which it was carried by the king, whose courtiers are represented
as speaking thus:
"'It seems the marriage with his brother's wife
Has crept too near his conscience.'
'No, his conscience
Has crept too near another lady.'"
And so broadly is the hypocrisy of the king depicted, that it
looks almost like burlesque:
"Oh, my Wolsey!
The quiet of my wounded conscience
Oh, conscience, conscience!
'Tis a tender place."
Shakespeare represents the courtiers as ascribing the divorce to
Wolsey, but he also represents the king as solemnly and publicly
relieving him from that charge: and he does enough justice to the
character of the cardinal, at the close of his career, in the
Though from an humble stock, undoubtedly
Was fashion'd to much honor. From his cradle
He was a scholar, and a ripe and good one;
Exceeding wise, fair-spoken, and persuading:
Lofty, and sour, to them that lov'd him not;
But to those men that sought him, sweet as summer.
And though he were unsatisfied in getting
(Which was a sin), yet in bestowing, madam,
He was most princely: ever witness for him
Those twins of learning, that he raised in you,
Ipswich and Oxford! one of which fell with him,
Unwilling to outlive the good that did it,
The other, though unfinish'd, yet so famous,
So excellent in art, and still so rising
That Christendom shall ever speak his virtue.
His overthrow heap'd happiness upon him;
For then, and not till then, he felt himself,
And found the blessedness of being little:
And, to add greater honors to his age
Than man could give him, he died fearing God."
This eloquent eulogy speaks volumes as to Shakespeare's
appreciation of the magnificent prelates whom the Catholic Church
gave to this country, and who, with all their faults-even the
least worthy of them-were an honor to it. And we repeat, all this
is very remarkable, especially if it be supposed, as it usually
is, that this play was written in the reign of Elizabeth; and
contrasting it with the unscrupulous spirit in which the
dignitaries of that Church are portrayed in other plays, when the
scenes are laid in earlier reigns, there seems every reason to
infer that it was not in those plays that Shakespeare spoke his
real sentiments on the subject, but that he rather pandered to
prevailing prejudices; and that in de scribing more recent events,
he was led to express his sentiments more truly.
But was the play written in the reign of Elizabeth "Our opinion is
that it was not, but at the commencement of the reign of James.
Protestant critics find great: difficulty in fixing the periods at
which his plays were composed. But the circumstances we have
suggested are not likely to have occurred to them, and appear very
strongly to point to a later date than the others. At the
accession of James the poet was scarcely thirty-six years of age,
in the prime of his vigor; as he received the royal patent from
the king directly on his accession, there is a great probability
that his genius just then would be active. And the whole character
of play betokens a genius mellowed and matured. If we are right in
our conjecture, it would explain the remarkable circumstances we
have pointed out in the play of Henry VIII. James was, not less
than Elizabeth, born and bred a Catholic; and there can be no
question his predelictions were in harmony with Catholicity; and,
of course, he would have no particular regard for the character of
Anne Boleyn, nor aversion to that of Cardinal Wolsey, nor any
interest in maintaining the lawfulness of Henry's divorce, or the
legitimacy of Elizabeth: So that the poet would be at perfect
liberty to convey his own impressions and express his own sincere
feelings; and we conceive that he has done so in the beautiful
passages we have quoted.
The whole of Shakespeare's historical plays may be searched in
vain for any passage reflecting upon or sneering at the religious
doctrines or ceremonies of Catholicity. On the contrary, there are
many passages like those in which Henry V says:
"I Richard's body have interred new;
And on it have bestow'd more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood.
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a day their wither'd hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul. More will I do:
Though all that I can do is nothing worth;
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Here the Protestant will fail to find the least countenance to the
coarse and vulgar caricatures of the Catholic doctrine as to
penance, purgatory, and prayers for the dead, which now acquire
ready currency. So also he speaks-
Of conscience wash'd ""
So he makes the dethroned Richard thus speak to his queen, in the
true spirit of penitence:
"Hie thee to France
And cloister thee in some religious house.
Our holy lives must win a new world's crown,
Which our profane hours here have stricken down."
It is in this spirit Shakespeare always speaks of the religious
life. Thus in "Measure for Measure," Isabella says,
"Hark how I'll bribe you!
Not with fond shekels of the tested gold,
Or stones, whose rates are either rich or poor
As fancy values them: but with true prayers,
That shall be up at heaven, and enter there,
Ere sunrise; prayers for preserved souls
From fasting maids, whose minds are dedicate
To nothing temporal."
Most strongly does Shakespeare convey his deep reverence for the
religious life, tell putting into the mouth of Lucio, a very loose
character, these expressions,
"Though 'tis my familiar sin
With maids to seem the lapwing, and to jest,
Tongue far from heart,-play with all virgins so:
I hold you as
And to be talked with in sincerity,
As with A saint."
In "Midsummer Night's Dream" there is a passage conceived in a
similar spirit. The heroine is asked whether
"You can endure the livery of a nun;
For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
that master so their blood,
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage:
But happy is the rose distill'd,
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness."
The exquisite beauty of this passage is not more remarkable than
its harmony with Catholic feeling; and it is to be observed that
Shakespeare went rather out of his way to write it, as it was
hardly necessary to descant so fully on the subject; which was
evidently one he loved to dwell upon.
Again, Shakespeare always represents friars in an amiable light.
In "Much Ado about Nothing," when Hero is sinking under her load
of obloquy, and her father is quite bowed down by it, the friar's
voice, meek, calm, and kind, seems to come like divine music on
"Have comfort, lady!"
We cannot wonder that the poor victim of calumny ventures to raise
her head. This the poet indicates by one of the finest touches of
his dramatic art:
"Leon. Dost thou look up?
Friar. Yea, wherefore should she not?"
The friar's reply depicts a saintly charity so sweetly, that the
readers and lovers of Digby (and all his readers are lovers) will
remember how beautifully he introduces it as an example of the
virtue. The contrast between the human and the divine is still
more strongly drawn out by what follows: the father answers the
friar in evident amazement at his calmness:
"Wherefore? Why, cloth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her?"
Yes; but the great poet designed to exhibit the face of something
heavenly, of that charity which "hopeth all things;" and how
beautifully it seems to speak in the friar's words:
"Hear me a little;
For I have only been silent so long
By noting of the lady: I have mark'd
A thousand blushing apparitions start
Into her face, a thousand innocent shames
In angel whiteness bear away those blushes;
And in her eye there hath appear'd a fire,
To burn the errors that these princes hold
Against her maiden truth:-Call me a fool;
Trust not my reading, nor my observations
Which with experimental seal cloth warrant
The tenor of my book; trust not my age,
My reverence, calling, nor divinity,
If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
Under some biting error."
In "Romeo and Juliet," every one is sensible of the sweetness with
which Shakespeare has drawn the character of the friar, who comes
on the scene with that beautiful soliloquy beginning: "The grey-
eyed moon smiles on the frowning night," with which all lovers of
the poet are familiar; and no one can fail to observe how
appropriately his reflections take a religious turn, ending with
the fine lines which express so sound a doctrine of theology:
"Two such opposed foes encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant."
Upon the heated and distempered brow of Romeo calmly and sweetly
falls the of the friar, like the fresh cool air of
morning. Quite in character is the holy man's horror at the idea
of guilt first crossing his mind,-a feeling which in his usual
masterly manner, the poet conveys by the hurried exclamation:
"God pardon sin! Wast thou with Rosaline?
Romeo. With Rosaline, my ghostly father? No.
Friar. That's my good son!"
Equally characteristic is the friar's observation on the equivocal
explanation of Romeo:
"Be plain, good son, and homely in thy drift;
Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift."
And with great truthfulness and skill the poet makes him eager to
"For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households' rancour to pure love."
The marriage-scene opens with his pious exclamation:
"So smile the heavens upon this holy act,
That after-hours with sorrow chide us not!"
And the gentleness of his soul breathes out a chastened spirit
over the transports of the young lovers, preparing the mind for
the woe that is to follow. It would be impossible in fewer or more
exquisite words to express the spirit of Christian elegy, than
those in which he speaks the epitaph of Juliet:
"Heaven and yourself
Had part in this fair maid; now heaven hath all,
And all the better is it for the maid:
Your part in her you could not keep from death;
But Heaven keeps his part in eternal life."
It is in a similar spirit that Shakespeare always mentions friars,
who are often introduced as confessors. Thus, in the play we have
just quoted from, Juliet goes to the friar ostensibly for
confession, and says,
"Are you at leisure, holy father, now,
Or shall I come to you at Mass?"
an expression rather curious and not easily explainable. The
count. her lover, at once understands her purpose, and asks:
"Came you to make confession to the father?"
So, in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona," Silvia says to Sir Eglamour
that he shall meet her
"At Friar Patrick's cell,
Where I intend holy confession.
And soon afterwards, in the same play, we catch another sweet
glimpse of the holy fathers; the duke saying, when his daughter's
flight is mentioned,
"Tis true, for Friar Laurence met them both
As he in penance wander'd through the forest,
Besides, she did intend confession
At Patrick's cell this even."
The argument is certainly a fair one, and not without force, that
had Shakespeare been in heart a Protestant, he would not have
failed to avail himself of all these opportunities, to convey (as
he so well knew how) impressions repulsive, rather than so sweetly
attractive, of these religious orders, and of the holy rite of
confession The more so when we remember the brutal tone of the
Homilies of the Church of England on this and all similar
subjects,-Homilies, which in Shakespeare's life-time were
"appointed to be read in churches." Compare with the language of
those homilies, the following from Shakespeare, clearly showing
that he possessed a perfectly correct appreciation of "holy
"Friar. Repent you, fair one, of the sin you carry?
Julietta. I do; and bear the shame most patiently.
Friar. I'll teach you how you shall arraign your conscience,
And try your penitence, if it he sound,
Or hollowly put oil.
Julietta. I'll gladly learn."
Had the poet been imbued with those Protestant ideas of penance,
he could not have given this fine and proper representation of it;
he would have been sure to have put it in the odious light in
which prejudice and ignorance always delight to present it,
instead of thus doing justice to it as a sacrament for the
Expressions on other subjects also are scattered throughout
Shakespeare's plays, showing a sense of religion such as we can
only imagine to have been implanted by the pious instructions of
Catholic parents. Clarence says to his murderers:
"I charge you, as you hope to have redemption
By Christ's dear blood, shed for our grievous sins;"
and Edward reproaches his nobles for not interceding on his
brother's behalf as they would have done for any of their vassals,
"Had done a drunken slaughter, or defac'd
The precious image of our dear Redeemer."
"Oh, momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God."
Elsewhere he uses the phrases, "as firm as faith." These
expressions are scattered here and there like pearls, with a
natural and careless freedom which looks extremely like a deep-
seated sense of piety.
In "All's Well that ends Well," Helen utters these beautiful
words, which seem imbued with much of the Catholic spirit of
faith, humility, and piety:
"He that of greatest work is finisher,
Oft does them by the weakest minister;
So holy writ in babes hath judgment shown,
When judges have been babes."
Our impression is, that in the "Winter's Tale," under cover of a
beautiful eulogy on the heathen worship of ancient Sicily-for the
introduction of which there was not the slightest necessity-
Shakespeare expresses his own sense of the majesty of the Mass:
"Oh, the sacrifice!
How ceremonious, solemn, and unearthly,
It was i' the offering!"
This deep religious feeling in Shakespeare breaks out in his
lightest and airiest scenes? as in the "Merry Wives of Windsor,"
where the fairies are addressed thus:
"Go you, and where you find a maid,
That, ere she sleep, hath thrice her prayers said,
Raise up the organs of her fantasy,
Sleep she AS sound as careless infancy;
But those as sleep and think not on their sins
Pinch them, arms, legs, backs, shoulders, sides, and shins."
In his most playful moods, the great poet unconsciously betrays
his latent religiousness; and, unlike the Puritans, whom he
satirises as "peevish in prayer," he exhibits that true secret of
Catholicity, the union of pleasantry and piety.
It is plain that Shakespeare's mind was utterly antagonistic to
Puritanism; it was repulsive to him; and no one more frequently or
forcibly expressed his aversions. Again and again he refers
sarcastically to the Puritan character, and in a tone which no one
imbued with Bible-reading Protestantism could possibly adopt. Thus
he makes one of his worst characters say:
"But then I sigh, and, with A piece of scripture,
Tell them-that God bids us do good for evil;
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends, stolen forth of holy writ;
And seem a saint when most I play the devil."
So in another play he has this passage:
What damned error, but
Will bless it and approve it with a text;
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?"
So in the same play, Gratian, a gay, good-humored fellow, is made
If I do not put on a sober habit,
Talk with respect, and swear but now and then;
Wear prayer-books in my pocket, ,--
Nay more, while grace is saying, hood mine eyes
Thus with my hat, and sign, and say amen."
"Let me play the tool;
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come;
Why should a man whose blood is warm within,
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster;
There are a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond.
And do a willful stillness entertain,
With purpose to be dress'd up in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit;
As who should say, I am Sir Oracle,
And when I one my lips. let no dog bark"
It is impossible not to see, that in these and similar passages
the grim gravity and pharisaical formality of the Puritans, at
that time, rapidly rising in influence, satirised. It is plain
that Shakespeare's soul had an instinctive aversion to Puritanism
and that seems the same thing as saying that he had an attraction
to Catholicity; for the two principles are so essentially opposed.
that a leaning to one involves a repulsation from the other.
It is in the casual coruscations of genius that we see more of its
latent tendencies and real character, than in any more formal or
elaborate efforts. And there is in the workings of
genius too subtle to be seized or analysed; like those finer
properties of the air which escapes all detection of chemistry,
and yet communicate to it either an exquisite sweetness or an
oppressive deadness. It its in this subtle spirit of Shakespeare's
poesy, which we cannot (so to speak) and set down in
citations, that we find the main force of our argument. It is
pregnant with latent Catholicity. It breathes forth, in a hundred
delicate touches and indescribable beauties of feeling, the
influence of Catholicity upon his soul. It is only by way of
general description, rather than by selection of passages marked
and noted, that we can convey our idea of this property of his
poetry, which speaks so eloquently of a Catholic education. To
Catholics we can convey our meaning by saying, that we find
dispersed through the marvellous creations of his genius all the
sweet results of that realization of the doctrine of the
Incarnation which is the exclusive attribute of the Catholic
So, again, Shakespeare's poesy is bathed in love; so that we may
exclaim in his own exquisite language:
"Oh, spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou!"
Listen to these beautiful lines:
"Oh! she that hath a heart of that fine frame,
To pay this debt of love but to a brother,
How will she love, when the rich golden shaft
Hath kill'd the flock of all affections else
That live in her! When mind, and brain, and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied and fill'd
(Her sweet perfections) with one sole king!"
It is no profanation to say, that this would not be unworthily
applied to the all absorbing influence on the human soul of the
love of the Sacred Heart! We say not, of course, that Shakespeare
had a religious meaning present to his mind, but he had the
capacity and predisposition for religious devotion which Catholic
education implants; and that he who could sing in such noble
strains of human love, must have had a heart touched by love
Then, again, his There is nothing more
marked in the great poet. Who remembers not the melting pathos of
the words of Viola:
"For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm;
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women's are.
Viola. I think it well, my lord.
Duke. There is no woman's sides
Can abide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart.
Viola. Ay, but I know,-
Duke. What cost thou know;
Viola. Too well what love women to men may owe.
My father had a daughter lov'd a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship."
We need scarcely quote the exquisite passage that follows, which
every reader "of Shakespeare knows by heart; yet the temptation to
quote is irresistible:
Duke. And what's her history?
Viola. A blank my lord.
She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek."
We must stop, however, or we could go on for ever. We know not
what our readers may think of our argument; but we are sure that
they will pardon us any failure in reasoning for the sake of the
object we have had in view, viz. to award Catholicism, what we
believe to be its due, the credit of having nursed the genius and
filled the mighty soul of Shakespeare.
From the Rambler for July, 1854.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN Online Services.