Was Shakespeare a Catholic?

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Mystery of Shakespeare's religion

John Shakespeare's house, believed to be Shakespeare's birthplace, in Stratford-upon-Avon.
John Shakespeare's house, believed to be Shakespeare's birthplace, in Stratford-upon-Avon. | Source
Shakespeare's grave.
Shakespeare's grave. | Source

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Shakespeare a Catholic?

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Shakespeare, a Catholic?


Shakespeare, a Catholic?

There have been many controversies regarding history. Some controversies surface and die immediately. Some live longer. Some live forever. Some controversies surface again and again. The religious identity of the greatest English playwright William Shakespeare is a mystery mired in controversy. Was Shakespeare a Roman Catholic or a Protestant? Which faith he followed?

Jesus never preached Christianity?

Before we debate this hot topic, let us dwell briefly into the history of Christianity for a while. There are many sub faiths like the Hindu castes in Christianity such as Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Church, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventists etc. Christianity came into being because of the preaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus was supposed to have been born 2011 years ago on December 25th at midnight in Bethlehem in the present day Israel in Asian Continent. Even this fact is universally not accepted and there are controversies about this. There is a view that Jesus Christ was born in Kashmir in India. Some people dispute the date of birth of Jesus. Some people even dispute the religion Christianity itself. They argue that Jesus was a Jew and he never converted himself to Christianity. They argue that Jesus in fact never advocated a separate religion after his name called Christianity. They say that Jesus wanted his followers to follow and preach the principles he advocated from the Jewish religion itself.

Pope was considered as the next God

After the death of Jesus Christ, his disciples went to different parts of the world and spread Christianity. It was agreed that a leader should be appointed to lead the monolithic religion. That leader was called the Pope. It was agreed that the Pope will give directions regarding religious practices and all matters concerning religion. The Pope’s headquarters was chosen as Vatican City in Italy. The Pope became very powerful because of the following he had. The Pope was considered synonymous to God himself.

Rise of the Protestants in Europe

As time passed, the Pope began to exercise his authority and power in political, economic, religious and all walks of life. Those who questioned Pope’s authority were done away with by his commanders. This caused a resentment, which spread throughout Europe in the middle ages. Those who protested the Pope’s authority were called Protestants. Those who abided by Pope’s authority were called Catholics. The Protestants not only questioned the authority of Pope, but also questioned about worship of Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother. They argued that in Christianity, only Jesus was the acceptable God and nobody else including Mary could be granted that status. The Protestants differentiated themselves from Catholics in many customs and habits also. Many European countries became bastions of Protestantism including England, Germany, and France etc. But some countries like Italy, Portugal, and Spain had sizeable Catholic followers.

Shakespeare was really Chokkappa Iyer?

Historians were debating whether William Shakespeare belonged to Catholic religion or was a Protestant. Now this argument has re-surfaced with the release of the film ‘Anonymous’. The identity of Shakespeare is not well established and is still a bone of contention. There is even a claim from Tamil Nadu in India that Shakespeare was actually a Tamil Brahmin called Chokkappa Iyer who went and settled down in England, mastered English and wrote different popular Plays. They say that English people called Chokkappa Iyer as Shakespeare. But this seems difficult to believe. Brahmins are of course highly intelligent, capable of mastering any foreign language and contributing literary gems in that language. But it is difficult to believe that a Tamil Brahmin could have gone that far, travelling thousands of kilometres, and settled down in an unknown place England. But imagination knows no bounds.

Buried in Holy Trinity as a Protestant

Even though the identity of Shakespeare is not fully known, it has been accepted beyond dispute that Shakespeare was buried in the Protestant Church of Holy Trinity in Stratford Upon Avon. Had Shakespeare been a Catholic, his family would have also been Catholic. Therefore he would not have been buried in a Protestant Church as per the Protestant religious practices. This emphatically rules out that Shakespeare was a Catholic.

A secret Catholic?

Historians say that there is some evidence that secretly he was a Catholic. But they have not been able to quote any convincing proof for this. Of course during the time Shakespeare lived, England had become a Protestant society. Anybody claiming to be a Catholic and follower of Pope was looked down and even attacked by the public and the Protestant leaders. Therefore a Catholic had to secretly follow his religion in order to safeguard himself from the fury of the majority Protestants. Therefore there is reason to believe that Shakespeare could have been following Catholic religion secretly. But there should be some convincing proof to accept this fact. In the absence of proof, mere speculation cannot be accepted as truth and should be dismissed as such.

A one word reference in a single play cannot be cited as a proof

Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano recently published an article headlined ‘More Catholic than anonymous’. The article insisted that Shakespeare’s identity was a matter of debate, but his religious belief was not. The paper quoted Shakespeare’s reference to purgatory in his famous Play Hamlet. Roman Catholics believe that purgatory is a place souls go to after death and get themselves purified. Purgatory is described in the Catholic religion as a place between hell and heaven. But the word purgatory also means a temporary condition of torment or suffering. Shakespeare could have used this word in that meaning also. Even if we accept for argument’s sake that Shakespeare really meant the place Catholics believe, it cannot be accepted Shakespeare himself belongs to Catholic religion.

Vatican indulging in sensationalism

A playwright may depict different characters, belonging to different places, speaking different languages and having different religious beliefs in his plays for variety and attraction. One simply cannot form an opinion about the playwright’s religion, caste, language, place of domicile and nationality based on the characters from his Plays. Shakespeare had written so many plays that have become world famous. Quoting one word from his numerous plays and claiming that he was a Catholic is like reading the lines on the cat’s skin and claiming that it is a tiger. Had Shakespeare lived a Catholic albeit secretly, he would have shared this secret to some of his close friends and family members. In due course of time, it would have revealed itself after Shakespeare’s death or even before his death. Nothing of the sort ever happened. Therefore one has to conclude that Vatican is indulging in sensationalism and blowing a mountain out of a mole hill.

No secret passages or stanzas

Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian master painter and skilled in so many arts and science. His paintings including the famous Mona Lisa is supposed to contain secret codes that contain many religious truths including the Holy Grail. Had Shakespeare wanted to express his faith for the Catholic religion, he would have written many secret quotes and stanzas. There are many experts in Shakespeare dramas in all English speaking countries. Shakespeare dramas are taught right from the school level to the college level. There are many research scholars in these plays. But none of them have come out with any interpretation of any such secret stanza or quote from any of the Shakespeare’s plays.

Catholic religion owes its respect not because of Shakespeare’s membership

Catholic religion has millions of followers all over the world. Even without William Shakespeare, the importance of the religion and the Pope will not diminish. Catholics follow their religion because of their firm belief in Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, authority of Pope, respect for Vatican and their reverence towards the Holy Bible. These things are enough to keep the Catholic faith going for many centuries and perhaps till the end of humanity. There is no need for Vatican to indulge in any sensationalism to claim a membership of a famous person who is already dead. Historians, general public, media and rumour mongers will indulge in sensationalism for time passing and interest. That cannot be stopped. But a religious authority like Vatican should not stoop to such a low level. They should speak only the fact and should not speculate.

Would Shakespeare have been a Catholic? 1 comment

Agnes Penn profile image

Agnes Penn 5 years ago from Nicholson, Pennsylvania, USA

True your hub poses a view in an argument many have ventured into. Your definition of Catholics and the Pope, from an outsiders point of view is commendable, but not accurate.

The power struggle between countries' rulers led many leaders, including Popes, to fall into human frailties of greed and abuse of religion as was the case with Queen Elizabeth. She was head of state AND church as is the Pope. This does not define the veracity of a religion, only the humanity in all of us.

The lines in a cat do not define it as a tiger, but if you compare a lioness to a tiger, the lines matter. You are right in stating Shakesp's family faith was Protestant, but if he was, secretly, anything else his head would have been lost long before Romeo and Juliet!

Great thought-provoking hub.

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