Shakespeare revealed as 'closet Catholic'

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William Shakespeare may have been a closet Catholic. In an article in this week's Tablet, a Catholic news magazine, Dr Eamon Duffy, of Magdalene College Cambridge, concludes Shakespeare was "A church- papist, outwardly conforming, but inwardly rejecting Protestant teaching".

After Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I in 1570 and removed Catholics from their obligation of obedience, she made Catholic priests and those who sheltered them guilty of treason. One of Shakespeare's school-fellows, Robert Debdale, converted to Catholicism and was executed as a priest in 1586. His first schoolmaster died a Jesuit in Rome.

Shakespeare's father seems to have re-converted to Catholicism in the 1580s. A bricklayer working on his house in 1757 found his hand-written spiritual testament, reaffirming all his Catholic beliefs and signed John Shakespeare. The manuscript has since been lost but conforms to a pattern spread by two Jesuits sent to England under cover in 1580, who were later captured and executed.

Dr Duffy finds suggestive evidence in the fact that Shakespeare did not attend Anglican communion at Easter for nine years when he lived in Southwark, although it was illegal to miss the service.

Even his marriage to Anne Hathaway, in a village some distance from Stratford, seems suggestive to Dr Duffy: "Neither the Shakespeares nor the Hathaways had connections there, but the vicar, John Frith, was an old Catholic priest, suspect to the Protestant authorities as 'unsound in religion'. It could well be, therefore, that the teenage bridegroom deliberately opted for the ministrations of a known Catholic.

"Shakespeare's treatment of Catholic themes is consistently sympathetic. Friars, nuns and the religious life get a remarkably good press from him; Anglican clergy, by contrast, a bad one."

However, Dr Duffy draws back from claiming for certain that Shakespeare was a Catholic and even doubts whether should be considered a Christian writer at all.