The idea that Shakespeare could have been a Roman Catholic has caused controversy amongst critics for centuries. Although there is no conclusive proof, there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that he was a practicing Roman Catholic. So, was Shakespeare Catholic?
We should not forget that Shakespeare's time was a politically volatile period in British history. Upon her ascension to the throne, Queen Elizabeth I outlawed Catholicism and employed a secret police to smoke out religious rebels. Catholicism was therefore driven underground and those found practicing the religion could be fined or even executed. If Shakespeare was Catholic, then he would have done his best to conceal it.
Was Shakespeare Catholic?
The main reasons that have led some historians to conclude that Shakespeare was Catholic are as follows:
Shakespeare wrote about Catholicism
Shakespeare was not afraid to include favourably presented Catholic characters in his plays. For example, Hamlet, (from Hamlet), Friar Laurence (from Romeo and Juliet), and Friar Francis (from Much Ado About Nothing) are all kind and emotionally astute characters guided by a strong moral compass. Also, Shakespeare’s writing suggests an intimate knowledge of Catholic rituals.
Shakespeare’s parents may have been Catholics
It is argued that the family home of Mary Arden, William’s mother, was devoutly Catholic. Indeed, a family relation was executed in 1583 after the government discovered that Edward Arden had been hiding a Roman Catholic priest on his property. John Shakespeare, William’s father, later found himself in trouble in 1592 because he refused to attend Church of England services.
The discovery of a secret pro-Catholic document
In 1757 a workman discovered a document hidden in the rafters of Shakespeare’s birthplace. It was a translation of a pro-Catholic pamphlet distributed by Edmund Campion who was publicly executed in 1581 for not renouncing his Catholic faith. The young William Shakespeare was living at the house during Campion’s campaign.
Shakespeare may have had a Catholic wedding
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582. They were married by John Frith at his little church in the nearby village of Temple Grafton. Four years later, the government accused Frith of secretly being a Roman Catholic priest. Perhaps William and Ann were married in a Catholic ceremony?
Reportedly, Shakespeare died a Catholic
In the late 1600s, an Anglican minister wrote about Shakespeare's death. He said that he “dyed a Papyst” – or a loyal Catholic.
Ultimately, we still don’t know for sure that Shakespeare was a Catholic, leaving a question mark over Shakespeare's biography. Even though the reasons listed above are compelling, the evidence remains circumstantial.