Should we bother with the burgeoning “Shakespeare was Catholic” literature?
Peter Milward’s Shakespeare the Papist kept me company last summer. Until I ran out of patience with its inconclusive, fantastical arguments. A subjective analysis of some plays does not an historical proof make.
To summarize: historical documentary evidence about the Bard’s private life demonstrates nothing conclusive about his personal religion. Internal evidence from the plays, like Claudius kneeling down to confess his sins in Hamlet, proves…nothing about Shakespeare’s personal religion.
Now Archbishop Rowan Williams opines that “Shakespeare was probably Catholic.” This is about as convincing as Oprah Winfrey asserting that the shot that killed Kennedy probably did not come from the grassy knoll.*
May God be praised! The real joy lies in the Bard’s oeuvre itself.
Can the genuinely ‘Catholic’ position on Shakespeare be: not to claim lamely that Shakespeare was Catholic but rather to rejoice simply that Shakespeare was awesome?
Like the way in which the Bard created Leontes’ convoluted, suspicious character by using over-wrought vocabulary and syntax in Winter’s Tale…
…Leontes is beginning to grow jealous of the friendship between his queen and his old friend Polixenes. So the king asks his servant Camillo if he has noticed anything:
…Was this taken
By any understanding pate but thine?
For thy conceit is soaking, will draw in
More than the common blocks: not noted, is’t,
But of the finer natures? by some severals
Of head-piece extraordinary? lower messes
Perchance are to this business purblind?
Leontes asks Camillo these contorted questions in the second scene of the play. When Leontes reappears in Act V, his strange, jack-in-the-box way of speaking also returns.
One of the courtiers urges king Leontes to marry a second time, but the dead queen’s friend Paulina forbids it. Leontes replies:
Thou speak’st truth.
No more such wives; therefore, no wife: one worse,
And better used, would make her sainted spirit
Again possess her corpse, and on this stage,
Where we’re offenders now, appear soul-vex’d,
And begin, ‘Why to me?’
When Leontes learns that Polixenes’ son Florizel has come to Sicily to visit, he asks, with his characteristic stiltedness:
What with him? he comes not
Like to his father’s greatness: his approach,
So out of circumstance and sudden, tells us
‘Tis not a visitation framed, but forced
By need and accident. What train?
A few lines later, Leontes reveals the mystery of his studied manner of speaking. He urges his courtier Paulina not to refer to Polixenes:
Prithee, no more; cease; thou know’st
He dies to me again when talk’d of: sure,
When I shall see this gentleman, thy speeches
Will bring me to consider that which may
Unfurnish me of reason.
To put oneself forth as a sober man of reason while, in fact, you are a burbling cauldron of jealousy, guilt, and remorse–this might lead a person to speak with Leontes’ robotic patter.
Maybe Shakespeare was Catholic. Certainly he was a veritable god.
* Just an analogy. I am not familiar with anything Oprah Winfrey ever actually said.