Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The old debate as to whether or not Shakespeare was a Catholic has erupted anew, owing to a recently published book on the subject. Although I have never researched the question in a scholarly manner (surely a doctorate in English literature would be helpful), I have long taken it for granted that the answer lies somewhere in the affirmative. From reading his plays alone, how could it be otherwise?

Simply review the internal evidence found in a masterpiece like Hamlet. Therein the playwright manifests an appreciation of the doctrine of Purgatory (I,v), of Confession (III,iv), of Anointing of the Sick (I,v), of praying for the deceased (V,i), of the theology of prayer (III,iii), of conversion (III,iv), of the wrongfulness of suicide (III,i), and more.

Similar references can be found throughout most of Shakespeare’s plays, many just as telling. Read Othello, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, The Tempest, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Cymbeline. Read the histories, like Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Richard II or Richard III. Read even the comedies, such as As You Like it, or Twelfth Night, All’s Well that Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, and more.

One cannot read through any of these plays without being reminded of Catholic doctrine, moral norms, devotions or practices. Shakespeare was steeped in Catholic thinking and tradition, despite the anti-Catholic age in which he lived and exercised his incomparable and immortal artistry.

There is one great play in which the Bard is Catholic to the core, and Catholic throughout. It is a mysterious masterwork, focusing on morality; specifically, the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue, which prohibits sexual experience outside of marriage. In our age, when the subject of sexual exploitation is found everywhere in the arts, it is rarely staged. The play is Measure for Measure. When it was produced at Lincoln Center in New York City back in 1989, it was largely viewed as a curiosity.

The play focuses on Claudio, arrested and sentenced to execution for fornication. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, pleads with a Deputy, named Angelo, to save her brother from death; he agrees to leniency on the condition that Isabella submit to him. Isabella’s response is so clear and theological:

“Th’ impression of keen whips/ I’d bear as rubies… /ere I’d yield / My body up to shame…

“Better it were a brother died at once/ than a sister, by redeeming him,/ should die forever.”

In another line she declares:

“More than our brother is our chastity.”

Shakespeare emphasizes Claudio’s weakness of character, as contrasted from his sister’s firm commitment to ethical behavior. When the brother begins to argue in behalf of his sister’s yielding her honor, Isabella expresses horror:

“O faithless coward!/ Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?”

Yet, as I indicated above, Measure for Measure fails “to play well” in America today. Interestingly, some reviewers are at a loss to assess it, and resort to overworked clichés suggesting a note of disinterested sophistication. Thus a New York Times critic recorded clichés in a 10 March 1989 notice:

“Where does justice intersect with morality, and how can it be obtained?”

Besides, the reviewer added, Isabella can be judged as “devout to a fault.” And he concluded that Shakespeare’s characterizations are really so complex that “nearly everone on stage is variously wrong and right.” However, he states, by “the reconciliatory finale, Angelo and Isabella have infused their rigid moral codes with true charity even as the previously sensible Duke embraces his own forms of self-contradiction.”

There is, of course, much to be learned about Shakespeare’s religion from his biographical data. Yet without even considering these, concentration on his plays alone (disregard his other writings) is in my estimation quite adequate for the position I affirm above.

To me, Shakespeare should be included in the curriculum of every American school, beginning at least with the secondary level. In my high school years, back in a public school in Bridgeport, we began with Julius Caesar and Macbeth, eventually graduating to Hamlet.

While studying Hamlet in our senior year, a group of us – about a dozen – signed up for a Broadway-bound production of the masterpiece, for which we attended daily rehearsals after school hours at the Klein Memorial, where quite a few Broadway-bound plays originated. During World War II, not all Broadway shows were staged in New Haven. Although we were unable (obviously) to accompany the troupe to Broadway, following its successful run in Bridgeport, we learned the play line by line, which profited me substantially in my seminary college days, when Hamlet was a major part of our English curriculum. And although we were simply “walk-ons” assigned to the crowd scenes, we also got to know the professionals who starred in the production and to appreciate to a degree the commitment they had to culture, especially the glory of our magnificent English language. (The Ghost of Hamlet’s father was played by the Chair of the English Department of an Ivy League University, who told us that after years of teaching Shakespeare, he must act in Hamlet.)

Even in those days, though we were but high school students in a public school, we all learned some theology from our experience. For one example, we stood in the wings, evening after evening, listening in awe to scenes such as the King’s attempting to pray for forgiveness in the chapel:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.