Sunday, May 31, 2009

John Newton: “Quest for Shakespeare”

John Newton
University of Durham

Book Review

Joseph Pearce, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome, Ignatius Press (San Francisco, 2008), 216 pp. ISBN-13: 978-158617-2244. $19.95 (USD).

1> Shakespeare’s elusive religious beliefs have elicited a good deal of speculation on the part of his critics. The idea that Shakespeare may have been a Roman Catholic was first raised in the late seventeenth century by the Rev. William Fulman, who noted a local tradition in Stratford that the playwright “dyed a Papyst”
; and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some scholars speculated that he may have lived a Papist as well. A minor tradition for that line of biographical inquiry emerged during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century specialist, Joseph Pearce is well-versed in those arguments, but less comfortable with the approaches of more recent literary critics, who have, as Pearce asserts, “misunderstood” Shakespeare’s meanings (p. 18).

2> While some readers may have sympathy with Pearce’s discomfort with many of the post-modern deconstructions of Shakespeare’s plays, this reviewer wonders whether greater engagement with New Historicism would have served the author better. Instead, Pearce starts from the position that any reading of Shakespeare’s text must be subject “to the objective authority of the Author” (p. 9) and then proposes that by showing “objectively who Shakespeare was, and what his deepest beliefs were” we can provide a better key for understanding Shakespeare’s meanings (p.9). Pearce holds that to understand the plays one must understand the man (p. 18), and that the key to understanding Shakespeare’s meaning is his religious faith.

3> While Pearce’s attempt to discover Shakespeare’s beliefs is interesting, it is flawed in two significant ways. Firstly, Pearce offers no new facts about Shakespeare’s life, but merely claims that the existing evidence is “sufficient to convict him of his Catholic convictions in the eyes of any right-minded jury in the venerable court of common sense” (p. 172.). In fact, the evidence is largely circumstantial, and any conviction based upon it should be considered highly unsound. Secondly, while Pearce prosecutes the case for Shakespeare’s Catholicism with great rhetorical force, he gives little consideration to the counsel for the defence, and problematic circumstances are explained in a way that harmonizes them with his general thesis. So, the fact that Shakespeare lodged with a Huguenot family in Cripplegate is interpreted as a way for the playwright to avoid having to go to services in the Church of England because, as Pearce informs us, those residing in the predominantly Huguenot area of Cripplegate were exempt from attending Anglican worship (p. 126 ff). Ingenious as this reading is, one could equally interpret Shakespeare’s choice of lodgings as a sign of Protestant sympathies, or a more latitudinarian Christian spirit that had sympathy for all Christian minorities in England, Protestant as well as Catholic (perhaps barring Puritans). If the latter, it may suggest that, as Lucio says in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare believed “Grace is grace, despite of all controversy” (I.ii.24).

4> In a similar fashion, Shakespeare’s decision to marry out of the parish is read as a sign of his Catholicism, when it could equally have been an attempt to disguise his bride-to-be’s pregnancy. The minister in whose parish he was married, John Frith, is referred to as “Fr Frith” (p. 81) and described by Pearce as a “Catholic priest” (p. 80). Yet Frith was a minister of the Church of England using the approved rites of the established religion. Certainly, he may technically be described as a Catholic priest, having been ordained according to the Roman rite during Queen Mary’s reign. But, if Firth was indeed a Catholic priest, he was an apostate one, having opted to remain in the Church of England at the accession of Elizabeth I. It is also true that a survey of Warwickshire clergy described him as “unsound in religion,” but an unsound Anglican is not a Catholic—whatever his leanings. These subtleties seem lost in the book’s crashing charge to establish a Catholic dimension to Shakespeare’s wedding. Pearce reduces a situation of nuanced greys to stark black and white.

5> Again and again in reading this work, the question of how the scant facts of Shakespeare’s life are ordered and interpreted—and more importantly how the gaps are imaginatively filled—rises to the fore. Pearce makes a good case, marshals the evidence well, and presents a picture of what might have been. However, mere evidence is not proof. Moreover, as indicated above, evidence that would undermine his case is frequently left out. For example, no consideration is given as to why the Geneva Bible, produced by the Puritans on the Continent during Queen Mary’s reign, is the main source for Shakespeare’s biblical quotations. Pearce sees Shakespeare’s naming of his daughter Susana as evidence of his Catholic credentials, as the name comes from the Apocrypha: “that part of the Bible explicitly rejected by Protestants but retained by Catholics” (p. 84). Yet the Apocrypha was included in most Protestant Bibles at the time and passages from it were included in the Book of Common Prayer. Similarly the 39 Articles of the Church of England said the Apocrypha should be read as an example of life and morals, if not used as a source of doctrine.

6> Pearce makes a convincing case for the family’s Catholicism: Mary Arden’s family was strongly Catholic, and it is not too controversial to suggest John Shakespeare was too. Yet the picture is not as incontrovertible as the one presented here. The standard proof of John’s religion comes from a manuscript purporting to be his spiritual testament discovered in 1757 in the rafters of Shakespeare’s birthplace: a Catholic document following the form composed by St. Charles Borromeo. The original is no longer extant and copies were not made until 1784, by which time the first page had gone missing. Pearce asserts that “The evidence for the genuine nature of the spiritual testament is utterly convincing” (p. 30). A highly plausible story as to how the text made its way into the hands of Jesuit missionaries is presented (p. 36): yet that is pure conjecture, far from the solid facts which Pearce promised to provide at the outset. He does not consider Peter Davidson and Thomas McCoog’s evaluation of the Spiritual Testament, which concluded that there is no good reason to believe the Jesuits ever distributed Borromeo’s text (TLS, 16/3/2007). The question of John Shakespeare’s religious beliefs is much more complex than that portrayed here: Pearce plays down his part in removing Catholic ornamentation from the Guild Chapel in 1564, and is silent about John’s role in disposing of Roman Catholic vestments from the same chapel in 1571-72. While John Shakespeare’s indictment for recusancy is highly suggestive, it does not automatically make him a Papist: Presbyterians and debtors absented themselves from Church as well as Catholics. Yes, John Shakespeare refused to pay for pikemen and gunmen in 1578 to enforce “anti-Catholic measures,” but he also refused his contribution to the parish poor later the same year, which may suggest financial embarrassment rather than religious principle.

7> Having established Shakespeare’s religious beliefs to his satisfaction, he reads King Lear as an allegory for the position of Catholic recusants in England: Cordelia thus represents the position of loyal Catholics before the monarch, wishing to pledge their love, but estranged by the laws prohibiting their faith (p. 184). I remain unconvinced by this approach, although Lear is a play that has Catholic dimensions to it, as Shakespeare drew on Samuel Harsnett’s work in crafting Edgar’s portrayal of Mad Tom. Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603) denounced Catholic exorcisms in the 1580s. Those exorcisms became embroiled in the backlash following the Babington Plot and lead to the imprisonment of many priests, including Robert Dibdale, who (as Pearce notes on p. 96) Shakespeare probably knew. It has been credibly suggested that Shakespeare’s presentation of Mad Tom expresses sympathy for the priests caught up in those proceedings. Both Stephen Greenblatt’s “Shakespeare and the Exorcists” and F.W. Brownlow’s Shakespeare, Harsnett and the Devils of Denham examine this dimension of the play, which gives it a Catholic context without making it allegorical. In contrast, Pearce’s reading of Lear feels like it is as much a deconstruction of the text as the modern critical approaches he denounces. Moreover, if Shakespeare’s secret Catholicism is the key to the plays, then most of his original audience would not have understood them as they were intended to be. The conclusion we are thereby led to is that only a few spectators would have ever apprehended the plays’ so-called real meanings.

8> None of this is to deny that parts of Shakespeare’s work may be regarded as rooted in the Old Religion (p. 21), but then so was much of the age. Pearce cites Carlyle, who describes the Elizabethan Age as the “flowering” of the Catholicism of the Middle Ages (p. 19), and many of the Catholic traces Pearce identifies in the plays were part of the common inheritance of the past. No Protestant would have seen Isabella’s concern for the fate of the health of her soul (Measure for Measure, II.iv.106-109) as alien to their religion, nor do we need to read it through a Catholic lens to makes sense of it, as it is read here (p. 22). Nor need we see Shakespeare’s additions to Munday’s Sir Thomas More as expressing Catholic views of providence rather than Protestant ones (p. 146). Shakespeare is a dramatist, and his characters were not mere ciphers. The beliefs they espouse are consistent with their roles in the plays and advance the dramatic action. If we need to look for the playwright’s religious views in the text, then in Act III of King John does the King or the Papal legate represent Shakespeare’s views, when one upholds papal primacy, the other the right of ‘a sacred king’? When John reviles the selling of indulgences as a tool to enrich the clergy, King John could easily be read as the work of a loyal Protestant. Passages in Titus Andronicus and Macbeth raise similar issues. Henry VIII has several such passages, including one praising the new-born Elizabeth, which may provide a corrective to Pearce’s view that Shakespeare’s refusal to elegize her reflected “the general feeling of euphoria experienced by the Catholics of England after [her] death” (p. 147). Of course, one might ascribe these passages to Shakespeare’s collaborator, Fletcher, but they need some comment in light of Pearce’s approach.

9> According to Pearce, “the present generation of critics, intent on claiming Shakespeare for their own particular agendas . . . , [have projected] the prejudices of their particular present into the distant past” (p. 89). While trying to rise above the constraints of contemporary criticism to find the so-called real Shakespeare, Pearce produces an example of the very thing he criticises by projecting his own prejudices onto the plays. Pearce, whose particular interest is the influence of Catholicism on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary figures, deduces that Shakespeare was a Catholic and that his religion is the key to understanding his life and dramatic works. Yet Pearce is not completely off the mark. He ably proves that Shakespeare had Catholic connections, Catholic relatives, Catholic sympathies, but not that Shakespeare himself was Catholic. The Quest for Shakespeare is a fascinating and deftly written exercise in historical conjecture that renews debate, but which is by no means the final word on the matter.

John Newton’s interests include folklore and popular belief in Renaissance literature. He is also engaged with reader-response theory as a way of exploring Renaissance interpretations of texts. He recently edited Witchcraft and the Act of 1604 (Brill, 2008) an inter-disciplinary examination of reactions to the Jacobean witchcraft statute.
Dr. Newton teaches part-time in Durham University’s Department of English.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges

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