Posted By Roger Stritmatter on December 26, 2009
As those who have followed the authorship question over a period of time may be aware, over the last decade a growing showdown has been shaping up within the orthodox Shakespeare community over the question of the bard’s religious affiliations.
A quick and dirty solution to the longterm problem of the “mystery” of Shakespeare’s biography is to postulate that he was a secret catholic.
The Catholic bard theory is like a cheap magic trick.
Voila! Suddenly the misfit between the biographical documents and the literary work is explained. No need to question who wrote the stuff. Like many English recusants who practiced the Old Faith, Shakespeare was forced to adopt a public persona at odds with his private faith. He lived life wearing a mask!
The only trouble with this theory is that, while purporting to resolve the biographical problem, it actually only makes it worse, as Peter Dickson argued in a 2004 University of Tennessee Law Review article.
That’s why an impressive roster of older Shakespearean scholars (among them Stanley Wells, Robert Bearman, James Shapiro, Johnathan Bate, and Katherine Duncan-Jones), who are not so easily seduced by the latest fad and know when they are being led into a trap, have steadfastly resisted falling for the Catholic bard theory.
But Richard Owen, in a London Times December 22 story, “Cryptic Signatures that ‘prove Shakespeare Was a Secret Catholic,'” appears as blithely unaware of the problem as he is irresponsible in promoting gossip as credible journalism.
While the biographical record of the Stratford Shakespeare does contain definite traces of Catholic sympathy, including evidence that he was an investor in the Blackfriars Gatehouse, the Shakespearean works taken as a whole are unmistakably Protestant in their ethos. Adding additional “documentary” evidence for the Bard’s Catholicism, even if it could pass the smell test for legitimacy — which the “evidence” of Owen’s article most certainly doesn’t — does not salvage the Stratford biography, as Dickson has cogently argued for over ten years now.
Having mentioned the “smell test,” let me disgress for just a moment. The caption to the Times Online graphic assures us with a straight face that the name “Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomiensis,” which appears “in the visitors’ book at the Venerable English College in Rome” as a visitor in 1587, is “thought to be a pseudonym of William Shakespeare.”
Since William of Stratford’s whereabouts in 1587 are otherwise undocumented, this “Arthurus Stratfordus” must actually be the Bard!
If that doesn’t seem logical, you may not have studied enough theology in an English Department. Obviously anyone associated with “Stratford” in 16th century Europe (most of which constitutes one or another of the “lost years” of the alleged author of Hamlet and 12th Night), must be the divine William, even if his name is actually Arthur and his surname is either Stratford or Wigomienses.
It’s a pseudonym, dummy!
As if this isn’t loopy enough, the same article also announces a second sacred relic from the lost land of Elizabeth I: in 1589 arrived in Rome one “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis,” who, the London Times dispatch assures us without even cracking a smile, must also have been Shakespeare of Stratford. Surely this is nothing short of a miracle: two pseudonyms in as many years.
Questions: Is it possible — however bizarre it might seem to the conspiracy theorists at the Times Online — that “Arthurus Stratfordus” was actually just Arthur Stratford? Or that Williamus Clerkue” was just William Clerke? Has anyone tested this theory?
Is there any reason, beyond the fact that there are “lost years” in the traditional biography, and the two gents in question have names that soundly vaguely like they might have had something to do with Warwickshire, that this pair of pilgrims are identified with with the Bard? Is “Arthurus Stratford” the same man known known in Lancashire, according to Michael Wood, as “William Shakshafte“?
How many pseudonyms hath Shakespeare, anyway?
The answer, apparently, is “as many as we need to distract the public from the ‘Wolfish Earl’ and ‘Diablo Incarnato,’ Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.”
One would think that Vatican scholars would already know what any internet dummy equipped with Google can now discover in five minutes:Wigomiensis is an early Latin variant for Wigorniensis, and refers to the diocese of Worcester. The name is Arthur Stratford of Worcester, as Robert Bearman pointed out in The Shakespeare Quarterly more than a year ago.
But then, the reasoning must go, if Shakespeare could change his name, he could also change his diocese, couldn’t he?
This is not to say that Shakespeare the writer was unsympathetic to the plight of such recusants as the martyred father Edmund Campion (1540-1581). Indeed, as Oxfordian scholar Richard Desper has pointed out in an article originally published in The Elizabethan Review and reprinted at The Shakespeare Fellowship, Campion’s fate is central to some of the more obscure passages of 12th Night.
Likewise, Poor Tom in Lear can easily be read as Shakespeare’s comment on the circumstance of recusants, who were hunted down like animals by the Elizabethan security forces.
But being sympathetic to the suffering of recusants is not the same as being one. As Peter Dickson says, read as a whole, it is impossible to reconcile the humanist and Protestant high church ethos of the Shakespearean ouevre with the philosophical outlook of an English recusant.
An example from Hamlet may clarify why this is so.
Hamlet’s father may have gone to his grave “unhouseled and unaneled” — which is to say, without Catholic last rites — but Hamlet himself was a student at Wittenberg, the 16th century epicenter of academic Protestantism, not to mention, through Georg Joachim Rheticus, a stronghold of Copernican astronomy. All this, as numerous scholars have pointed out, is relevant to the exegesis of the play as a reformation parable.
One may add to this that over a hundred years of careful analysis of Shakespeare’s Biblical influences — which are very significant — shows unmistakably that the Bible with which Shakespeare was most conversant was the Geneva translation, prepared during the 1550’s in Geneva by Calvinist refugees from Mary Tudor’s counter-reformation government and first published in Geneva in 1560.
The Genevan translation was so inflammatory from a Catholic perspective that even the Anglican establishment disapproved of it and quickly attempted to replace it with a more moderate Protestant translation (The Bishop’s, 1576). To suppose that an Elizabethan recusant would depend primarily for his Biblical instruction on this translation of the Bible makes no sense at all.
Stephen Greenblatt assures us in a recent review of Johnathan Bate’s Soul of the Age that Shakespearean scholars are too timid. They don’t do enough “imagining,” says Greenblatt. Greenblatt, who has flirted with the recusant theory in a number of his works, might well be gratified by all the bold “imagining” that the London Times seems to be regularly bringing to the task of bardography these days.Certainly it is hard to ask for a better example of how postmodern historiography seems to have abandoned all principle except finding the answers we already want.
But to “imagine” that Shakspeare was a recusant is like imagining an English Puritan who fortified his faith with daily reading of the Vulgate and distributed references to its language and points of doctrine throughout his theological tracts. Indeed, as Concordia University Professor Daniel Wright points out in The Anglican Shakespeare: Elizabethan Orthodoxy in the Great Histories (a book based on Wright’s Ball State University PhD dissertation), and as many historically informed Shakespearean scholars are aware, the Shakespearean history plays are suffused with the rhetoric and spirit of the reformation.
They are no more the work of a recusant that they are the work of William of Stratford, by any of his imagined pseudonyms.
All this, however, is apparently unknown to London Times writers assigned to cover Shakespearean topics.