Markus A. Langer


Media Manager


Markus A. Langer


Media Manager


The Hidden Catholicism of William Shakespeare

The Plays of Shakespeare

An Interview with Peter Milward, S.J. by Markus A. Langer (2014)

Father Peter Milward, SJ (12 October 1925–16 August 2017) was a Jesuit priest and literary scholar. He was emeritus professor of English Literature at Sophia University in Tokyo and a leading figure in scholarship on English Renaissance literature.

Markus A. Langer: Why has it taken so long for Shakespeare’s Catholic roots to be noticed?

Peter Milward SJ: Simply, it is because the reputation of Shakespeare as poet and dramatist has for so long been cherished in a Protestant country, and Shakespeare himself has afforded large scope for Protestant critics from his own age onwards to acclaim him as the national poet and dramatist of England, and therefore as both Protestant and patriotic.  After all, from his time onwards, patriotism came to be regarded as the characteristic of good “true-blue” British Protestants, while treason has been seen as the characteristic of disloyal English Catholics.  (Notice how from the time of Henry VIII onwards “Britain” has been the favored name for Protestants, partly because the Tudors were Welsh, and then the Stuarts were Scottish, and the Hanoverians were German, and partly because the British were seen as less indebted to Rome for their Christian faith.  On the other hand, “England” was the preferred name for Catholics, considering that the English from the time of St Gregory and St Augustine were indebted to Rome for their Catholic faith.)  Only in the Victorian Age could John Henry Newman, in his Idea of a University, come to recognize that Shakespeare “has so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics”, such as his friend and fellow-convert Richard Simpson, “have been able without extravagance to claim him as their own”.  Subsequently, GK Chesterton, in his book on Chaucer, put his conviction even more strongly, with implicit reference to Newman’s Grammar of Assent, “That Shakespeare was a Catholic is a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true.”

All this time, however, what may be called “the Shakespeare establishment” refuses to accept the many indications of Catholic allegiance in the plays and poems, regarding such claims as “sectarian”, while insisting on the universal vision of Shakespeare as transcending the narrow religious controversies of his time.  Nevertheless, in the last two decades they seem to be fighting a rearguard action, in view of the extent to which “the religion of Shakespeare” – hitherto rejected as “taboo” – has become a “hot topic” of discussion on both sides of the Atlantic.  An interesting indication of this confrontation appeared some 15 years ago, first in a conference at the University of Lancaster on “Lancastrian Shakespeare”, held in the summer of 1999, based on the fascinating theory that it was at a Catholic household in the area that Shakespeare was (according to an old tradition) “a schoolmaster in the country”, under the name of “Shakeshafte”.  Then the following year the biennial conference at Stratford was held on the subject of “Shakespeare and Religions”.  (I presented papers at both conferences, which were subsequently published in their proceedings.)

Was William Shakespeare connected to Jesuit missionaries operating under cover in Warwickshire or Lancashire?

Peter Milward SJ: There is much circumstantial evidence connecting Shakespeare with the English Jesuits both in Warwickshire and in Lancashire, and later in London, but little to convince those who do not wish to be convinced or who insist on hard and fast documentary evidence.  Even from the time of his boyhood, in the year 1575, his schoolmaster at Stratford Grammar School, Simon Hunt, left Stratford for the continent with one of his pupils Robert Dibdale, and then, while Dibdale went on to become a seminary priest and a martyr (in 1586), Hunt journeyed to Rome and entered the Society of Jesus.  He would have been there to meet both Campion and Persons before they departed on the English mission in 1580, and he may well have told them of the situation of Catholics both in Stratford and in the nearby Forest of Arden (covering both the Western division of Warwickshire and the county of Worcestershire).  We know, from the writings of Persons, that both of them were welcomed by Edward Arden of Park Hall (near the present Birmingham), the head of the old family of Arden, including Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden.  They also seem to have been welcomed by Sir William Catesby (father of the Gunpowder plotter Robert Catesby) at his home either in Lapworth in the Forest of Arden or just across the border in the neighboring county of Northamptonshire in Ashby St Leger.  At one or other of these houses Shakespeare’s father John might have met either of the Jesuits (with or without the company of his son William) and received the “Spiritual Testament” to which so much attention has been paid as documentary evidence of at least John’s Catholicism.

It was also in the year 1580 that a new schoolmaster appeared at Stratford named John Cottam, who hailed from Lancashire.  His brother Thomas was one of the seminary priests involved in what came to be called “the Jesuit invasion” of England.  He brought with him a letter from Robert Dibdale for his family in Shottery, the village of Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, but both he and his letter were intercepted, he was imprisoned and put on trial with Campion and others in 1581, but his execution was delayed till the following year.  Now John Cottam may well have brought with him a request from his Catholic neighbor in Lancashire, Alexander Houghton, for a reliable Catholic tutor for his household – though this was against the law.  And so, while Campion continued on his journey North to Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, the young William might have made a more direct journey to Houghton’s country house at Lea Hall near Preston, under the altered name of “Shakeshafte”, partly because there were others named Shakeshafte in the vicinity and so his presence would arouse no suspicion, partly because the name was susceptible of such alteration as we find when he appears in London, in the first mention of his name there as “Shakescene”.  At this time we know that Campion was staying at the house of a half-brother of Alexander named Richard, again not far from Preston, for the purpose of completing his work on the Latin “Ten Reasons”.  Thus we have the situation in which Campion could not only have renewed his previous probable acquaintance with the young William, but also have directed this promising young man in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.  On the influence of these Exercises on the Plays of Shakespeare I had published a monograph, even before I came upon the above-mentioned evidence of a probable meeting of the Jesuit and the future dramatist in Lancashire.  I had merely wondered how Shakespeare could have included so many echoes of the Exercises in his plays.

It was not long after Campion returned to the South with his completed MS of the “Ten Reasons” for publication at Stonor Park and distribution on the benches of the church of Saint Mary in Oxford, that he was captured at a nearby recusant house, Lyford Grange, by a spy named George Eliot and imprisoned in the Tower of London, to be examined under torture as to where he had received shelter in the course of his journeys in the North.  That was in July 1581, and that August Alexander Houghton drew up his famous will with its mention of William Shakeshafte in connection with play clothes.  That is the last we hear of him, as he no doubt had to undergo the same kind of examination as Campion had undergone.  At the same time, William would have beaten a hasty retreat to Stratford, where he soon met and married Anne Hathaway.

Now Campion had suffered a traitor’s death on December 1, 1581, and Persons had prudently returned to the continent, to continue his work for the English mission in controversial writings of all kinds.  Subsequently, their work was taken up in 1584 by William Weston, who notably figures together with Robert Dibdale, now a seminary priest, in the performance of a number of exorcisms at two recusant houses in the vicinity of London, at Hackney and Denham, during the year 1586.  An echo of these exorcisms appears as early as Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, in which the dramatist seems to support their notoriety against a Puritan critic named Phinch – which happens to be the name of the schoolmaster who performs an exorcism in the play.  An Anglican criticism of the same exorcisms also appears as a secondary source of Shakespeare’s later tragedy of King Lear, in his characterization of Edgar as a mad beggar – and implicitly as a hunted priest.

Not long afterwards Weston was imprisoned, but his place was taken by two young Jesuits, Henry Garnet and Robert Southwell, in 1586.  The former became the prudent superior of the few Jesuits in England, who from now onwards gradually increased in number, and he successfully eluded capture till the time of his arrest shortly after the exposure of the Gunpowder Plot in late 1605.  Whether he ever met Shakespeare is uncertain, but as his trial –like the preceding trial of Southwell in 1595 – came to turn on his defence of “equivocation”, this is seen as constituting an important theme in Macbeth, though scholars all too often confuse the lawful use of equivocation to defend the innocent, as upheld by the Jesuits, and what Macbeth calls “the equivocation of the field that lies like truth”, of which their adversaries are rather to be held guilty.  As for Southwell, the remarkable extent of his influence on the mind of Shakespeare, through his many writings in both poetry and prose, has been thoroughly explored by John Klause in his book on Shakespeare, the Earl and the Jesuit (2008), where the Earl is Shakespeare’s patron the young Earl of Southampton, and the Jesuit is Robert Southwell.

Did Shakespeare receive his first lessons in dramaturgy from the Jesuits?

Peter Milward SJ: Despite the attempts of the Stratford “authorities”, specifically by Dr Robert Bearman, to refute the “Shakeshafte theory” of the young William’s presence in Lancashire in the spring of 1581, the question remains an open one.  There are so many advantages to this theory.  First, it offers the only explanation of the old tradition, going back to the 17th century and the name of Shakespeare’s fellow actor Christopher Beeston, that he was in his younger days “a schoolmaster in the country”.  Secondly, it paradoxically opens up the road that leads the young Shakespeare from Stratford to London by way of Lancashire, in that the will of Alexander Houghton recommends the young William Shakeshafte, with his play clothes, to the nearby recusant knight Sir Thomas Hesketh, who kept a company of players till the year of his death in 1588.  Then from the Hesketh players there would have been for him a smooth transition, as Hesketh had been well known to the Earl of Derby and his son and heir Lord Strange, to the Strange’s Men, who presented plays not only in Lancashire but also in London.  It is, moreover, under the auspices of Strange’s Men that Shakespeare first appears as a dramatist in London with his two plays of Titus Andronicus and Henry VI (presumably Part I), and then he is already seen in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) as offering a dramatic challenge to the “university wits” who were the leading dramatists of that time, as a “crow dressed in borrowed feathers”, under the pseudonym of “Shakescene”.

What is more, previous to all these advantages, the presence of the young William in the Houghton recusant household in 1580-81 would provide an explanation not only of the dramatist’s evident familiarity with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius under the direction of Edmund Campion, but also of his early approach to dramaturgy also under the same Campion’s direction.  For already, before embarking on the English mission in 1580, during his previous years as teacher to his students at the Jesuit college of Prague, Campion had composed and directed several plays in Latin, according to the Jesuit ideal of education which gave a prominent place to dramatic exercises, and so he played his part in the well known “Jesuit drama” of that period in Europe.

What are the key elements in Shakespeare’s plays that indicate he was a Catholic?

Peter Milward SJ: To begin with, what has always been recognized by Shakespeare scholars is a certain enigmatic or mysterious quality in his plays, which may be summed up in Lucio’s words about Duke Vincentio (who has sometimes been regarded, with Hamlet and Prospero, as an alter ego of Shakespeare himself) in Measure for Measure, that “his givings out were of an infinite distance from his true-meant design”, also in Hamlet’s heart-felt complaint at the end of his first soliloquy, “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!”

One such key element is prominent in the problem tragedy of Hamlet, in which the hero, though educated at the Lutheran university of Wittenberg, together with his friend Horatio and the two spies set on him by the king, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, finds himself on his return to Denmark aligned with the old order represented by his father’s ghost in contrast to a new order recently inaugurated by his uncle Claudius with the help of the Lord Chamberlain Polonius.  The old order is evidently Catholic, as the ghost is confessedly from purgatory, “till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away”, and as he expresses his grief at having been murdered without the opportunity of receiving the last sacraments of communion (or viaticum), confession and extreme unction, “unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled”.  The young Ophelia, moreover, in her madness recalls a time when people went on pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham and when prayers were offered for the dead, before the arrival of the new Protestant order.  On the other hand, the new order is not so much Protestant as secular, and it is based – like the religious changes introduced under Henry VIII – on the double crime of adultery (between Claudius and Gertrude) and murder (by Claudius).  It has also been largely effected by Polonius, whose name and character evidently point to Lord Burghley, the chief spy-master for Queen Elizabeth from the time he organized his first spy-system in 1570 with the assistance of Sir Francis Walsingham, not only against the Duke of Norfolk by means of the Ridolfi Plot – for which cf. Francis Edwards’ The Marvellous Chance (1968) – but also from 1574 onwards against the Catholic recusants and the newly arrived seminary priests, as well as Jesuits from 1580 onwards.

A related element is the series of what I call “plays of the disinherited” from Richard II and As You Like It to King Lear.  In the first of these plays it is first Bolingbroke who is disinherited by the wayward young king, but then in the development of the play their positions are reversed, when it is the king himself who is not only disinherited but also deposed.  Then there appears a significant verbal contrast between Bolingbroke’s follower Lord Fitzwater, who states it as his intention to “thrive in this new world”, and Richard’s advice to his sorrowing queen to hasten to France, there “to cloister thee in some religious house”, since now their “holy lives must win a new world’s crown” – which was precisely the situation of Catholic recusants in Elizabethan England, when so many of their daughters had to take similar refuge on the Catholic continent as nuns.  In the second play, set as it is in the Forest of Arden, there is a similar contrast between two orders, between the usurping Duke Frederick and the nameless exiled duke with his many “merry men” who have followed him – “like the old Robin Hood of England” – into exile.  Implicit in this contrast is that closer to home between the Protestant Earls of Leicester and Warwick in the Eastern division of Warwickshire and the Catholic enclave, including Edward Arden of Park Hall, in the Western division covering the Forest of Arden.  There is also an intentional ambiguity in the Forest of Arden, as the dramatic source, Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, points to the Ardennes in the Low Countries, in the vicinity of William Allen’s English College of Douai, whither (as we are told in the play) “many young gentlemen flock to him every day”.  Moreover, in the Forest there are a number of mysterious old religious men who are mentioned but never appear on stage, but they are contrasted with the Puritan parson Sir Oliver Martext.  As for the third play of King Lear, we find the good children of both the King and the Earl, Cordelia and Edgar, disinherited by their gullible parents, only to be followed by those parents when the latter learn the errors of their ways.  But more of this play later, in connection with its deep reference to the Passion of Christ.

A further key element is to be seen in the significant use of the word “grace” with reference to the ideal heroines from the early Comedy of Errors (namely Luciana, whose name implies Light) to the latest Tempest (namely Miranda, whose name implies both Virgo Veneranda and Mater Admirabilis), with more than an implication of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the angelic salutation, “Hail, full of grace!”  (Of the versions of this episode used in the Elizabethan age, it is only the Catholic Rheims version which has “grace”, where the Protestant versions have “favor”.)  This implication is made explicit in Othello, where the heroine Desdemona is greeted on her safe arrival in Cyprus by the gallant Cassio with the salutation, “Hail to thee, lady, and the grace of heaven, behind, before thee and on every hand enwheel thee round!”  Above all, it is the heroine Marina in the late romance of Pericles whose very name suggests that of Stella Maris accorded to Mary by St Bernard, and who is addressed by her joyful father on their unexpected reunion as “Thou that begett’st him that did thee beget” – in a literal translation of the Catholic anthem Alma Redemptoris Mater, “Tu quae genuisti, Natura mirante, tuum sanctum genitorem.”  Incidentally, it was this play, together with King Lear that was presented before a recusant audience in Yorkshire at the feast of Candlemas, 1610, using their recently published quartos.

Yet another key element may be seen in the characterization of three Franciscan friars, Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing, and Friar Lodowick as the Franciscan mask of Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure.  In each play they appear as trusted spiritual adviser to the hero and heroine, whose names are, respectively, Romeo and Juliet, Claudio and Hero, Claudio and Juliet – as a kind of lovers’ syllogism.  The advice they have to give is that of “Die to live”, as it were echoing the poem of Robert Southwell, “I Die Alive”.  Their favorable presentation affords a contrast with the Puritan/Anglican parsons who appear in several plays, such as Sir Nathaniel in Love’s Labor’s Lost, Sir Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir Oliver Martext in As You Like It, and the Clown Feste masquerading as Sir Topas the curate in Twelfth Night.

A further key element may be noticed in the frequent references to the Catholic liturgy scattered in the plays, one of which has been mentioned in the words of the delighted Pericles to his daughter Marina.  But it would take too long to detail all such references, which I have gathered together in an appendix to my monograph on The Plays and the Exercises.

   Last but not least (but there are many others) is the key element of Shakespeare’s numerous references to the sufferings of Catholic recusants in the Elizabethan age – as in the sufferings inflicted on the poor heroine Lavinia in the early Titus Andronicus, the riddling conversation between Portia and Bassanio on the subject of treason and confession before he comes to make his choice of the three caskets in The Merchant of Venice, the jesting mention of martyrdom by being hanged, drawn and quartered, in King John and Much Ado About Nothing, and the pursuit of Edgar in King Lear in terms of watching at the ports, publishing of proclamations, and employing of intelligencers, so as to make him appear as a type of hunted priest.  On this one point I have published two articles on “Shakespeare and the Martyrs”, by way of refuting Graham Greene’s assertion (in his Introduction to John Gerard’s Autobiography) that in Shakespeare’s plays “the martyrs are silent”.  Well, I say, if they are silent, they may be said to speak (like Carthusians) by silences.

Why do you suggest that Othello, Macbeth and King Lear constitute a Passion play?

Peter Milward SJ: The idea that Shakespeare was writing his plays in a dramatic tradition that was deeply rooted in the religious drama of the Middle Ages, or the three M’s of Mystery, Morality and Miracle plays, is one that goes back to the critical essays of TS Eliot, and it was taken up more fully by SL Bethell in his Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, and with special reference to the Passion plays by John Vyvyan in his The Shakespearian Ethic (1959).  This idea I have applied more precisely to the first three Jacobean tragedies of Othello, Macbeth and King Lear (in that chronological order), as well as to the last problem tragedy of Hamlet the Elizabethan age.  True, Hamlet, is the first of “the four great tragedies” designated as such by AC Bradley, but while it is deeply Biblical – more than most Shakespeare scholars are willing to recognize – it is less centred on the story of the Passion than those others.

Still, in dealing with all four together, I discern what I call “meta-drama”, or the metaphysical (and religious) dimension of drama, in a pair of monographs for the Renaissance Institute, taking Hamlet with Macbeth in one and Othello with King Lear in the other (both published in 2003).  It is in this connection that I speak of three layers of meaning in all the plays of Shakespeare, but particularly in these.  The first layer is that open to all spectators and readers of the plays, including the majority of Shakespeare scholars, many of whom refuse to admit a hidden “meaning” in them, even while allowing the dramatist to have been the most enigmatic of authors.  The second layer is that which emerges from a study of the many Biblical echoes and allusions in the plays, considering them not separately – as does the standard authority on the subject, Naseeb Shaheen, who merely records such echoes without noticing any special significance in them – but all together, as growing (in the words of Hippolyta about the story of the night as told by the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) “to something of great constancy”.  Indeed, from this point of view, especially when approaching the great tragedies, one sees everything as it were turned upside-down and inside-out, as what seemed on the surface merely secular, turns out to be really religious.  This accords with the persistent emphasis in the plays on “being” rather than “seeming”, as when Bassanio declares before making his choice among the three caskets, “Well may the outward shows be least themselves,” and when Hamlet declares in response to his mother, “Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not ‘seems’!”

Coming, therefore, to Othello, we are presented with three characters from the outset as respectively hero, heroine and villain, namely Othello, Desdemona and Iago, or in the Morality terms of Everyman, with his good angel on one side and his attendant devil on the other, or else in the terms of a Mystery play as Jesus, Mary and Judas.  Only, as the play develops, Othello changes as a result of Iago’s temptation from Jesus to Judas, while Iago appears no longer as Judas but as Satan – just as in John’s account of the Last Supper it is said of Judas that, on leaving the upper room, “Satan entered into him”.  Consequently, in his murder of Desdemona, for all her innocence, she comes to be implicitly identified (despite the difference in sex) with Jesus in his Passion and death on the cross.

Similarly, yet contrastively, in King Lear we are presented with a double passion in the cases of the two good children in the parallel plots of Lear and Gloucester, namely Cordelia and Edgar.  From the outset of her banishment for her truth, Cordelia is characterized in terms not of Mary but of Jesus in his Passion, as when she is welcomed by the King of France, “Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor, most choice, forsaken, and most loved, despised.”  On her return home, she is described by her Gentleman in his words to Lear, “Thou hast one daughter, who redeems nature from the general curse which twain have brought her to.”  Finally, her dead body is brought on stage by her sorrowing father in a replica of the Pieta, with the sexes reversed, as Lear takes the place of the sorrowing mother and Cordelia stands for Christ taken down from the cross.  As for Edgar, in his flight from his father’s house he speaks of himself as now reduced to “nothing”, as in what St Paul calls the “self-emptying” of Christ (to the Philippians), even as “the thing itself” in the eyes of Lear, and as “a worm and no man”, as recalled by his father Gloucester.  Moreover, the play ends, not so much like Hamlet as a feast in Death’s “eternal cell”, as rather in a succession of broken hearts, with Kent and Gloucester and Lear himself, according to the episode of the piercing of the side of the crucified Savior, as echoed by Edgar on observing the meeting of the two old men, one maddened by his ungrateful daughters and the other blinded owing to the treachery of his bastard son, “O thou side-piercing sight!”

As for Macbeth, it is the hero with his heroine who together constitute one villain, and so in his soliloquy on leaving the hall where Duncan is feasting with his thanes, Macbeth hears the words of Jesus to Judas, “That thou doest, do quickly,” with the response, “If it were done when ‘twere done, then it were well it were done quickly.”  Subsequently, on climbing the steps to Duncan’s bed-chamber with his intent to murder and so to betray his royal master, he imagines he sees a dagger before him dripping “gouts of blood”, as if echoing the drops of blood (Latin, guttae sanguinis) exuded by Jesus in his agony.  Then if Macbeth is Judas, Duncan is Jesus, as indeed he is praised even by his murderer as “the gracious Duncan”.  This same “grace” is shown in Duncan’s son and heir Malcolm at the end of the play, when he resolves to settle all affairs in his new kingdom “by the grace of Grace”.  There is also a third participant in this distribution of grace, the holy Edward, who is even declared “full of grace” as he assists Malcolm in the eventual overthrow of Macbeth.

But that isn’t all there is to the meta-drama in these three plays, as there yet remains a third layer, in which the dramatist looks not just from the surface of the play to its Biblical undercurrent with emphasis on the story of the Passion, but rather to the continuation of the Passion in current events, namely in the sufferings of the Catholic faithful in England from the time Henry VIII broke with Rome and claimed the title of Supreme Head of the Church in England, and then went on to suppress all monasteries and shrines in his realm.  Thus whereas for the second, Biblical layer, the dramatist may be seen as appealing to the minds and hearts of both Catholics and Protestants in his audience, since the Bible is recognized on either hand as the Word of God – only the Catholics go on from the Bible to Tradition – for the third layer he is not so much appealing to the Catholics in his audience as reflecting their inmost thoughts and feelings.  He is as it were anticipating the thought of Pascal in one of the more famous of his Pensees, “Jesus Christ is in agony till the end of the world.”  Or rather he is developing and applying to his Catholic recusant contemporaries what St Paul says to the Colossians, “I fill up in my body that which is wanting to the sufferings of Christ.”  This is what he consistently shows in all his plays from first to last – as I have mentioned in dealing with the key element of “the martyrs” – except that in the last romances or tragi-comedies he is looking more optimistically to an ideal, even ecumenical reunion between Catholic and Protestant, in the concluding words of Cymbeline, “Let a Roman and a British ensign wave friendly together.”