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The Quest for Shakespeare
The Quest for Shakespeare
Joseph Pearce
Ignatius Press, 2008
275 pp., $19.95

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John Cox


Shakespeare as Crypto-Catholic

The argument fails to persuade.

The idea that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic was first developed by Richard Simpson in the second half of the 19th century, but it remained a marginal notion until the eminent Shakespearean, E. A. J. Honigmann, defended a particular documentary argument for it in 1985. The idea thus entered the mainstream, which has since been swollen by a flood of books on the topic. They have also been encouraged by the work of serious Tudor historians, especially Eamon Duffy and Christopher Haigh, who have documented the vitality of pre-Reformation religion in England and seriously challenged the previously received view that the "old faith" was happily thrown off by a people in bondage to oppressive superstition and ignorance. Duffy has himself endorsed the argument for Shakespeare's Catholicism, and the prospect of capturing the period's greatest writer for "traditional religion" (as Duffy calls pre-Reformation faith) has proved irresistible to Catholic writers in particular.

Joseph Pearce joins their number with The Quest for Shakespeare, the first of two books he proposes on the subject. The present one, he tells us, is historical, and the next will interpret Shakespeare's plays and poems. He sets himself a high standard for the historical investigation. Setting out "to show objectively who Shakespeare was, and what his deepest beliefs were," Pearce asks that his suppositions "be judged from the perspective of the facts presented"; if any disjunction between fact and supposition occurs, "I will hold myself to blame for a failure of scholarship." Such an explicit statement of his own expectation seems to invite the reader to ask if the book measures up to it.

Unlike Honigmann, Duffy, and Haigh, Pearce is a newcomer to early modern English history and literature, and his lack of familiarity with the context shows in several ways. He has previously published on writers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where his expertise seems to lie. His consistent use of the terms ...

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