The last 30 years or so have seen a remarkable shift in the understanding of English religious history at the time of the Reformation.  There has always been a fringe minority of dissenters from the mainstream narrative of what Tennyson called England’s “rough island story,” but now some impeccably credentialed historians, among them Christopher Haigh (Oxford) and Eamon Duffy (Cambridge), have proved the dissenters right: The Protestant “Reformation” that shaped the England we all know was not—as we used to be told—a popular movement.  It was an unpopular revolution that the crown, for its own reasons, forced upon an unwilling population.

At about the same time that some of the historians began to acknowledge the occluded facts of English history, some Shakespeare scholars began doing the same thing in their field, and with a similar result.  They discovered that England’s national poet was born into a Catholic family, and was probably a Catholic himself.

To call these changes revisionism is an understatement.  The historians, probably unintentionally, have removed the moral foundation on which the triumphalist story of British Protestant imperialism stands.  The Shakespeare scholars are making it difficult to treat Shakespeare as Protestant England’s prophet and spokesman.

Understandably, the historians have tended to downplay the consequences of their findings.  According to Christopher Haigh, the reason Elizabeth I succeeded in imposing her version of Protestantism was that most English people did not care about religion one way or the other.  She cleverly directed her persecution only at the Catholic priests and gentry, and in any case the great change came about through a mix of contingency and politics.  Besides, it is all an academic question, because the English people are still there, and getting along fine—in Haigh’s own case “in Anglican agnosticism in the serenity of Christchurch Cathedral.”

The Shakespeareans, though, cannot dispose so easily of the consequences of a Catholic Shakespeare.  To begin with, for the keepers of the Shakespeare Birthplace at Stratford, Shakespeare is England’s national poet, England is still an anti-Catholic country by long habit and by statute, and the monarch is still the head of an established Protestant church.  Shakespeare, moreover, is no longer merely an English poet.  As the cultural figurehead of what has become an Anglo-American globalist enterprise, he has turned into a kind of international cult or religion in himself.  The major shrines are at Stratford-upon-Avon and Washington, D.C. (where the Folger Shakespeare Library sits on Capitol Hill), and the cult ramifies through schools, colleges, and universities all over the world.  At these places it is an article of faith, as it is among theatrical Shakespeareans, that at best Shakespeare had no interest in religion at all, and at worst he obeyed the law and went to the queen’s church from time to time, but had no interest in what went on there.

A Catholic Shakespeare, therefore, is a huge problem for these people.  To accept the evidence would require them to change their whole approach.  They are not going to do that, and so their only recourse is to try their best to dismantle the evidence.  That is the reason for the appearance of this short book, which consists of five chapters, four of them focused on the subject of Shakespeare and religion, and a fifth, unrelated to the main theme, on Shakespeare’s handling of aliens and their ideas in The Merchant of Venice and Othello.

The book originated as a set of inaugural lectures in a series set up at Oxford by the English faculty and Oxford University Press in honor of Stanley Wells, former director of The Shakespeare Institute, honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare.  The author is George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale.  A Will to Believe, therefore, is about as near as we shall get to an official statement from the Anglo-American cultural establishment on the subject of Shakespeare and religion.

They don’t like it.  They wish it had never come up, and Professor Kastan’s position, spelled out in his Introduction, is intended to silence opposition to that point of view.  Following William James’s notions of the workings of belief, Kastan announces that he—and presumably the rest of us—cannot possibly know what Shakespeare believed.  Therefore we do not know, and neither the known facts about Shakespeare nor his works can throw any light upon the question.  Because religion was a feature of Shakespeare’s world and formed part of his subject matter, he wrote about it as he wrote about war, the law, and love, and that is the extent of his interest in it.

If pushed to define Shakespeare’s religious allegiance, Kastan, borrowing a phrase from Haigh, would call him, rather unwillingly, a “parish Anglican.”  But in Kastan’s mind even that, if true, can tell us nothing about the poet’s beliefs.  The only conclusion to be drawn from the evidence, such as it is, is that one can draw no conclusions from it.

This, then, is a rather strange book.  It has received a grand welcome in professional academic circles, but one wonders what a general reader would make of it.  The title promises so much, and so little is delivered.  It offers no new information, and for a reader who knows something about the subject, the author’s knowledge of it is either scanty or willfully blinkered.  Besides, if we can know nothing about Shakespeare’s religion, why write a book about Shakespeare and religion?

Why indeed?  Why is there a subject here at all?  What is all the fuss about?  There are two answers to that question.  First, it obviously makes a difference to one’s understanding of a play like Macbeth—not to mention all the others—to know that its author had a Catholic understanding of good, evil, and divine justice.  Second, questions of scholarly integrity are involved because the evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholic sympathies is not trivial.  It is of three kinds: There are the surviving documents about the Shakespeare family, including William; there is evidence about Shakespeare’s own literary practice and relationships; and—perhaps most intriguing—there is the evidence that the plays and poems themselves provide of what he knew about religion.

Real scholars are in the business of increasing knowledge, and, truth to tell, they are rather rare.  Most literary “scholars” are credentialed academic journalists.  The extreme agnosticism toward evidence, as exhibited by someone like Professor Kastan, if generally applied, would render virtually all historical scholarship moot.  It ignores, too, one of the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of real scholarship.  Scholars discover facts and erect probabilities on the basis of them.  If their inferences are correct, new discoveries will harmonize with or even verify them.  That is how scholarly truth behaves, and we have just seen a dramatic example of it in this very field of Shakespearean religion.

We have known for a long time that the library of the English Jesuit school at St. Omer, founded by Fr. Robert Persons in 1593, owned the 1609 quarto edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles.  They probably owned the 1608 quarto of King Lear as well.  We know, too, that a company of Catholic actors was performing both these plays in Yorkshire in Shakespeare’s lifetime.  It has also been known for a long time that Shakespeare knew, and was influenced by, the writings in poetry and prose of the martyred English Jesuit St. Robert Southwell, to whom he was distantly related through his mother’s family.  (Just recently, Professor John Klause has exhaustively demonstrated the extent of Southwell’s influence on Shakespeare.)  Moreover, when the St. Omer Jesuits published a selection of Saint Robert’s poems in 1616, the unknown Jesuit editor altered the superscription of the poet’s prefatory letter “To his Loving Cousin” to read, “To my worthy good cousin Master W.S.”—by whom he meant, one presumes, William Shakespeare.  Why he made the alteration, we do not know.  There is no basis for it in the extant documents.  But he made it, presumably on the basis of information of some kind about a connection between Southwell and Shakespeare.

Here, then, are some facts, and on the basis of them some scholars have hypothesized a Shakespearean connection with the Jesuits, and especially with their school at St. Omer.  Well: Just a few weeks ago, we learned that the St. Omer Jesuits owned the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and it seems very likely that the boys performed some portions of them as part of the school’s activities.

This was headline news in London and New York.  How have the Shakespeareans reacted?  Predictably.  Professor Kastan, no doubt feeling the weight of his recent pronouncements, has gone into print to say that Jesuit ownership of the Folio does not prove either that Shakespeare was Catholic or that he had Catholic sympathies.  That, of course, is correct if, like Kastan, one treats the discovery as an isolated fact—though even if one pretends that none of those other facts exist and that no one has erected any probabilities on the basis of them, the discovery certainly proves that those English Jesuits thought that Shakespeare’s plays were the kind of English writing they did not mind their boys reading.  To the best of our knowledge, Shakespeare was the only dramatist writing in English whose plays they owned.

The discovery, though, is not an isolated fact, and for the scholars who have said all along that there was a Shakespeare-St. Omer connection, the news that the Jesuits there owned the Folio is as gratifying as it is unsurprising.


[A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion, by David Scott Kastan (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) 155 pp., $40.00]