The Greatest!

We all like to think of the Bard as our own. For homosexuals he is undoubtedly one of themselves; soldiers with a taste for scholarship are quite certain he must have been in the army; men of the law point to his remarkable knowledge of their mysteries; aesthetes like Lytton Strachey to what they think of as his later indifference to everything but poetics and style. Politicians used to prefer him to be the wily Bacon; snobs, the Earl of Oxford. Persons of faith know him for a devout Christian, while for unbelievers he was a dedicated atheist. It is not difficult to find what appears to be good evidence for each and every one of these Shakespeares.

Of recent years he has become increasingly sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, if not actually a Catholic. His father, John Shakespeare, self-described as “Bailiff, Justice of the Peace, the Queen’s Officer and Chief of the Town of Stratford,” undoubtedly was one. Nor was it any barrier to his worldly success, although at the height of his comparative prosperity in 1569 he made formal applications for a family coat of arms and was turned down, for reasons unknown. Not until 1596 did his own increasingly successful playwright son manage to secure the coveted title on his father’s behalf, together with the motto Non Sans Droit. A scornful but possibly envious Ben Jonson joked that it might just as well have been “Not without Mustard.”

But joking apart, the Roman Catholicism of the elder Shakespeare was clearly, in those dangerous times, a serious matter. “Bloody Mary,” Elizabeth’s sister and queen before her, had burned a good number of Protestants, something usually overlooked by those who draw attention to the persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth. Elizabeth in fact was not a persecutor by nature, nor did she wish to make “windows into mens’ souls.” Her view was not religious but practical and political: if some fanatics wanted to do her in, all Catholics then had better watch out; but she would not draw and quarter them for their faith alone, although her more zealous advisers often implored her to do so.

The relevance of this to the latest general study of Shakespeare’s life and work is that Anthony Holden attaches a great deal of importance to the Bard’s paternal provenance, and to his religious sympathies. No harm in that: all surveys of a subject as familiar as this are well advised to home in on some issue. At the start of the book Holden draws attention to “a document of great significance,” discovered a century and a half after Shakespeare’s death, and found hidden in the rafters of his father’s family house. The document, which has since disappeared, became known as John Shakespeare’s “Spiritual Last Will and Testament,” and was shown by a Jesuit scholar to be a copy of an Italian tract translated and disseminated by English priests like Edmund Campion who came to England at the …

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