The Shakespeare Code

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

The Shakespeare Code


"The Catholic Bard: Shakespeare and the 'Old Religion'" by Clare Asquith, in Commonweal (June 17, 2005), 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, N.Y. 10115.

Though a 17th-century Protestant clergyman stated that "William Shakespeare dyed a papist," Protestant England for centuries deemed it unthinkable that the national poet had adhered to the "old religion." But historians now acknowledge that England in Shakespeare's day was not so wholeheartedly Protestant as previously portrayed. Like dissident Soviet-era dramatists expressing the cause of freedom, the Bard in his great works stealthily made a case for Catholicism, contends Asquith, author of Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Polities of William Shakespeare (2005).

Protestant historians long maintained that Henry VIII's break with the pope in 1534 inaugurated a new era of enlightenment. But "fresh evidence ... indicates that Shakespeare lived in an age of silent, sullen resistance to the imposed new order. In spite of penal legislation and horrific executions, Catholics remained in the majority through 1600, conforming under duress, not out of conviction."

Scholars today agree that Shakespeare's "childhood was deeply imbued with the 'old religion,'" though he probably did not retain his Catholic beliefs throughout his working life. Asquith thinks that a familiarity with "Catholic idiom, history, aim liturgy" reveals a hidden political message in Shakespeare's plays. …

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