Why did this particular author, the one we most want to know, choose to hide his face? The quest for an answer reminds us that “Shakespeare,” as an historical literary phenomenon, requires an explanation.
The exploration of Shakespeare’s Catholic roots has provided Michael Wood, the filmmaker behind the four-part documentary In Search of Shakespeare, with an opportunity to suggest an answer – that Shakespeare lived his life as a hidden Catholic, and the fear of drawing the attention of Protestant authorities to his forbidden beliefs necessitated a low literary profile.
The case for Shakespeare’s father John’s Catholicism is solid. Evidence from his life and more from his will leaves little doubt that he kept his loyalty to the old faith in spite of the state’s attempts to stamp it out. Shakespeare’s youth then was spent in a home that paid lip-service to the upstart Anglican religion. The textual evidence for the author’s Catholicism is less sure, but more passionately argued. Scholars have constructed opposing views with equally strong ammunition from the same texts. This is part of the frustration. The collected Shakespeare plays, though finite in number, create a near infinite space within which we interact with his creation.
The author’s intimate knowledge of religious matters, including the history and practice of the Catholic Church, hints to Wood and others that the author was a devout Catholic. But we must take into consideration that the author was a Renaissance polymath of the highest degree. Those who forget this fact waste time speculating, for example, that demonstrated expertise in legal matters means the author worked in a law office – or that he was Francis Bacon. Likewise, an easy familiarity with courtly matters, and a broad acquaintance with continental Europe and its politics, tells others the author was the Earl of Oxford. A handful of knowing references to leathercraft leads scholars like Jonathan Bate to imagine the poet’s youth spent as the son of a glover.1
After outlining Shakespeare’s family’s Catholic roots and some contemporary accounts of Catholics persecuted by the state, Wood, in his companion book Shakespeare (2003), reveals why Shakespeare’s supposed Catholic faith is so important:
Such hints might tend to suggest that the absence of personal revelation in his works, which has so exercised his modern readers, and fuelled the fantasies of the conspiracy theorists, is no accident but a deliberate act of self-concealment on his part. This would make complete sense in someone of his background, whose family religion was defined by the law as treason, and whose father was pursued by the government’s bounty hunters and thought police.2[my italics]But could the author’s private Catholic beliefs have really produced a life-long fear resulting in deliberate literary self-concealment? As often when discussing Shakespeare in his world, we can look for a comparison to Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson. A player for the Admiral’s Men, Jonson made his playwrighting debut as a contributor to the 1597 Isle of Dogs, a seditious play which landed him in jail. A year later, Jonson was back in jail for killing a fellow player, Gabriel Spencer, in an illegal duel. Jonson escaped hanging for his crime because of a legal loophole, the ancient “right of clergy,” which allowed those fluent in Latin to get a second chance. Instead, Jonson forfeited all his possessions.
Here is where the Jonson comparison becomes relevant. While in prison, Jonson actually converted to Catholicism and remained openly Catholic for twelve years.3 And even though he stopped practicing his faith in 1610, it is widely believed that he returned to Catholicism later in life.4
This is curious. Shakespeare, we are asked to believe, was so fearful of his “hidden” Catholic beliefs being outted that it led to a life-long “deliberate act of self-concealment.” Jonson, by contrast, while trying to build a reputation, chose to become an open Catholic. What impact did Jonson’s conversion have on his career? It did not slow him down for an instant. Upon release from prison in 1598 he effected a comeback with Every Man Out of His Humour, a hit for Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men. His career continued on an upward trajectory culminating in 1616 when King James I named Jonson the first de-facto poet laureate by granting him an annual pension of 100 marks.5
Scholars are quick to point to Ben Jonson when needing an example of another playwright who began as a player, or one who had not gone to the university. They should also remember Jonson when considering the theory that Shakespeare’s remarkable literary self-concealment was the outcome of hidden Catholic beliefs. Ben Jonson, minor actor, ex-con son of a bricklayer, was not impeded in his writing career by his open Catholic beliefs. Can we really be expected to believe that the author of the Shakespeare plays was paralyzed with fear into a literary life lived under cover because of hidden Catholic beliefs?
In light of Jonson’s experience, it appears that Wood may be exaggerating the danger of Catholicism in 1590s England. Simply being Catholic was not an act of treason. It was only when those Catholics declared their Protestant monarch illegitimate that treason was charged against them.
Perhaps Shakespeare was just more cautious than Jonson? We know Shakespeare was not the shy and retiring type; witness his pursuit of a coat of arms, padded with spurious embellishments, and his huge Stratford home. And living in London as an actor/shareholder with a theater company that performed at court could not be considered “low-profile.”
If Shakespeare did hold private Catholic beliefs, he would not have needed to live his literary life in fear. He did not need to avoid recording personal remembrances – letters, dedications, encomia, prefaces; all he needed to do was avoid making anti-establishment statements in them.
Still, the fact remains that the author of the Shakespeare plays, whoever he was, did employ a policy of literary self-concealment. The answer to why he chose to do so lies elsewhere.
© Daryl Pinksen, May 2009
Daryl Pinksen, a regular MSC contributor, is the author of Marlowe's Ghost, Grand Prize Winner of the 17th Annual Writer's Digest International Self-Published Book Awards.
1Bate, Jonathan. 2002. "Scenes from the Birth of a Myth and the Death of a Dramatist." In Shakespeare’s Face. Stephanie Nolen. Canada: Alfred A. Knopf. p.122.
2Wood, Michael. 2003. Shakespeare. New York: Perseus Books Group. p.27.
3Harp, Richard, and Stewart, Stanley, eds. 2000. The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. xiv.
4Van Den Berg, Sara. 2000. "True Relation: the Life and Career of Ben Jonson." In The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson. Richard Harp and Stanley Stewart eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.10.
5Marcus, Leah. 2000. "Jonson and the Court." In The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson. Richard Harp and Stanley Stewart eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.36.
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