In 1613, at the end of his career, Shakespeare joined John Fletcher to dramatize the reign of Henry VIII--the king who broke with Rome and started the Protestant revolution in England. The play ends with Thomas Cranmer's rhapsodic paean to the once and future queen, Elizabeth, who would consolidate the Anglican settlement:
This royal infant--heaven still move about her!-- Though in her cradle, yet now promises Upon this land a thousand, thousand blessings, Which time shall bring to ripeness. She shall be-- But few now living can behold that goodness-- A pattern to all princes living with her, And all that shall succeed. Elizabeth's foes, Cranmer predicts, will shake like a field of beaten corn; and, since those foes included the Catholics whom Elizabeth relentlessly persecuted, imprisoned, and executed, readers have traditionally seen the play as Protestant propaganda.
And yet Henry VIII is also the tale of another queen: Katherine of Aragon, Henry's discarded, staunchly Catholic wife. Katherine courageously endures the trial, stands by her "honour," her "bond to wedlock," and her "love and duty." She assails Wolsey for his "arrogancy, spleen, and pride" and wishes to make appeal "unto the Pope," to bring her case before "His Holiness." Onstage she has a vision of angelic spirits dancing and welcoming her to heaven before she dies. Shakespeare and Fletcher portray Katherine as a wronged, heroic, and saintly queen.
Henry VIII, in other words, is hot ice and wondrous strange snow, as Theseus says in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Does the play extol the Protestant Reformation or the Protestant Deformation? How shall we find the concord of this discord?
Unlike such poets as Dante, Spenser, and Milton, Shakespeare gives us no clear window through which to see into his soul. Both Protestants and Catholics--like everyone else--can find ample evidence to claim him as their own. But since Shakespeare has been canonized as the Protestant national poet for so long, notice of Catholic sympathies and perspectives has generated popular and scholarly excitement in recent years.
So, for example, the World Shakespeare Bibliography, an electronic database of Shakespearian studies from 1962 on, records 228 hits for Catholicism, well over a hundred of them from the last decade. Some of this recent work is tendentious and unpersuasive. But some of it reveals evocative patterns of appropriation as Shakespeare draws on the rich traditions of Catholicism to create his drama.
The moment of transition among Shakespeare scholars was marked by the 2000 meeting of the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon. "Shakespeare and Religions," the subject of the biennial conference, drew more than two hundred of the world's best scholars. David Daniell (a distinguished Shakespearean, as well as biographer of William Tyndale and editor of Tyndale's New Testament) presented the opening paper, "Shakespeare and the Protestant Mind." Daniell argued that Tyndale's New Testament gave Shakespeare a model for his language--simple, direct English--and for his subject, especially the portrayal of the common man suffering. "That is a great bequest of Protestantism," he concluded.
On the other side of the aisle, Peter Milward, S.J., sat uncomfortably. Milward's paper, "Religion in Arden," began with a summary of the alleged biographical connections between Shakespeare' family and Catholicism and went on to discern complimentary references to the forbidden religion in As You Like It. He rehearsed the "Lancashire Thesis"--the theory that Shakespeare spent his lost years in Alexander Hoghton's recusant Lancashire household--and suggested, moreover, a possible meeting there with Edmund Campion, the brilliant fugitive Jesuit: "May not Shakespeare have received his first lessons in dramaturgy from Campion, not to mention the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which it was a principal aim of Jesuits like Campion to introduce to promising young men like Shakespeare?"
Though he wisely declined to speculate on Shakespeare's private beliefs, Daniell spoke within the long and well-established tradition that associates Shakespeare and Protestantism. The cultural and political forces that crowned Shakespeare as the English national poet naturally portrayed him as the product and loyal member of the Church of England. At the end of the seventeenth century, playwrights appropriated Shakespeare to supply a series of plays about the popish plot and the execution of Titus Oates, a Catholic conspirator. Thomas Cooke's The Mournful Nuptials (1739) contrasted sensible Anglican followers of Shakespeare with the schismatic followers of the harlequin, a Catholic character, and the Methodist John Wesley. The French-supported, pro-Catholic Jacobite rebellion of 1745 inspired revivals of Shakespeare's Henry V, which dramatized the victory over the French at Agincourt, and his King John, which featured John's ringing repudiation of papal claims.
The actor and producer David Garrick, who brought Shakespeare to new life in the eighteenth century, inaugurated another stage of the process, inflecting the religious identification with accents of bardolatry. Garrick's theatrical commemoration of the Stratford celebration of Shakespeare, The Jubilee (1769), begins with two Stratford wives worrying about the invasion of Londoners into their town: "Ralph swears there's mischief in hand.... He verily believes that the Pope is at bottom on't all." Ralph, it turns out, fears a new Gunpowder Plot, a plan by Catholics to blow up Parliament in 1605. Everybody is relieved to discover that all the fuss is really a celebration of Shakespeare, their own "Warwickshire lad": But Law and the Gospel in Shakespeare we find / And he gives the best physic for body and mind.
At the next great national celebration for Shakespeare, the 1864 tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth, Richard Chenevix Trench, a poet and Anglican divine, preached the Sunday sermon at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford: "Shakespeare was a true child of the England of the...