Sunday, 29 May 2011

Shakespeare was a Catholic

Fr Z's post on Shakespeare reminds me of a Carmelite priest, Fr. Columba Flanagan. If there is anyone out there who spent any time at St. Mary's College, Aberystwith when it was run by the Carmelites, we might share reminiscences. I was sent to St. Mary's College for two years to study Latin. I was 18 and had been accepted as a candidate for the priesthood. Since it was 1967 and Latin was still being used in major seminaries (and most of the Mass was still in Latin), I needed some knowledge of it in order to proceed to Ushaw College in Durham.

Fr. Columba (nicknamed "spud") looked at me with something bordering on disbelief. During my first year I was at times, clumsy and, I would say, accident prone. He watched me carefully and obviously thought I was not going to make it. However, he discovered that I knew something about poetry, or, at least, Hopkins. When I told him about "sprung rhythm" he was happily surprised. Later on when he discovered that I actually wrote poetry, I was his friend. I remember very clearly when he told us that Macbeth was about the tragedy of mortal sin and the eternal loss of a soul. He once asked us why Shakespeare set Lear in a pagan environment. Nobody answered. It was, he said, because Shakespeare wanted to write a real - perhaps the ultimate - human tragedy, and in order to do this he had to remove all hope, which meant removing Christ. As such it could be seen as the ultimate tragedy because without Christ there is no hope. So, the idea that Shakespeare was a Catholic, which Fr. Peter Milward explores so well in his first book (I gather the second book was overdone) was not new to me.

Some years ago I was in Stratford with a hermit friend and I told her about the theory. I also said that it was not liked by many so-called experts and that I doubted if there were any copies of Fr. Milward's books anywhere in Stratford. I went into one of the major bookshops and asked. They had never heard of it. I tried other shops. I was right - no copies in Stratford. Now the situation has changed since there have been more studies and more books, but I know there are some Shakespeare fans who will have nothing to do with it (I suspect, for instance, Melvyn Bragg). As the evidence piles up and the Catholicism reveals itself more clearly in those extraordinary plays it will soon be impossible to deny it.


  1. "As the evidence piles up and the Catholicism reveals itself more clearly in those extraordinary plays it will soon be impossible to deny it."

    I am not so sure, Father. We seem to be living in a society which constantly denies the truth even when it is obvious to plain sight. The refusal to see the humanity of the unborn child is one clear example of a society "in denial"- but there are many others.

  2. And of course there have always been those people who have denied that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare!
    My own view is that Shakespeare did write most of what is attributed to him and that he was indeed a Catholic. His father was as was his daughter who got into some trouble for her recusancy. In London he purchased a property where, subsequently, Mass was said. The circumstantial evidence seems very powerful.

  3. Doesn't The Tempest have a pagan theme?

    Magic was a controversial subject in Shakespeare's day. In Italy in 1600, Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for his occult studies. Outside the Catholic world, in Protestant England where Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, magic was also taboo; not all "magic", however, was considered evil.
    Prospero was a good magician whose magic was based on 16th-century science, rationality, and divinity, rather than the occult.
    Possible based on Dr John Dee, doesn't Shakespeare have Prospero give up the supernatural at the end. I can't remember his reasons.
    If Shakespeare was Roman Catholic was he perhaps critical of the burning and possible torture of Bruno?
    Was he urging a more accepting attitude in the same way as some Catholics today are comfortable with apparitions and mysticism for example and others are not?

  4. Anonymous - these are good questions and I must go to the Tempest and think about them. What I am beginning to believe is that Shakespeare was not just a Catholic, but a very good one. Those who grudgingly accept his probable faith have to answer why his plays are so full of it. Was he pleading for tolerance? I don't think so, but I would suspect that he was against torture and executions. But we have to be careful not to go too far without real evidence.