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The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome
The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome
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 "Catholic" and "Anglican" to describe the conflicting religious parties of late 16th- and early 17th-century England is a Victorian anachronism that Duffy explicitly avoids by using "traditional religion" and "reformation religion." At one point Pearce compounds the anachronism by misleadlingly importing the distinction between "low" and "high" church from several centuries later as parallel terms to "protestant" and "Catholic." Identifying the "secularist state" as the source of evil in King Lear is problematic; historians have pointed out that the idea of the state postdates Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Beyond terminology, Pearce shows his lack of familiarity with the subject he addresses when he refers to Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, the source of As You Like It, as a "play … published in 1590 but performed earlier." A quick look at Geoffrey's Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (never referred to by Pearce) would have confirmed that Rosalynde is a prose romance, not a play. If the facts matter, then reporting them accurately and using appropriate terminology are important. In Pearce's own words, "If we insist on studying history through the prejudices and presumptions of our own day we will succeed only in misinterpreting the motives and purpose of historical actions."

Pearce raises further questions about his scholarship by relying almost entirely on two or three secondary sources that have already interpreted the evidence to support his supposition. Large portions of the book borrow heavily from Mutschmann and Wentersdorf's Shakespeare and Catholicism (1952) and Michael Wood's Shakespeare (2003), with considerable reliance on Richard Wilson's Secret Shakespeare (2004). Pearce gives no indication of knowing T. W. Baldwin's study of Elizabethan grammar school education, William Shakespere's Small Latine and Less Greeke (1944), but turns instead to "the historian Michael Wood" for information about Shakespeare's education, though Wood is a documentary filmmaker for television who himself relies largely on the primary research of others. Pearce appropriately cites Honigmann on the theory that William Shakeshafte of Lancashire may have been the young William Shakespeare of Warwickshire, but he omits the exhaustive collection of primary information, Records of Early Drama: Lancashire (1991), in which David George points out that Shakeshafte the "player" could as easily have been a musician as an actor. To his credit, Pearce acknowledges the rebuttal to Honigmann by the Warwickshire archivist, Robert Bearman, in Shakespeare Quarterly (2002), but he dismisses Bearman on the questionable basis of Michael Wood's authority. At the same time, Pearce omits mention of Bearman's recent articles questioning other documentary support for Shakespeare's putative Catholicism—one on the "spiritual testament" of John Shakespeare, the poet's father (Shakespeare Survey, 2003), and the other on John Shakespeare's business dealings (Shakespeare Quarterly, 2005). Either Pearce does not know these contrary arguments, or the authorities he relies on have not answered them.

Too often, Pearce falls back on invective as a substitute for archival research and careful argument. An early diatribe against "historicists, new historicists, feminists, postfeminists, deconstructionists, et cetera and ad nauseum" reappears at intervals as a dismissive way to explain the intellectual blinders of those who disagree with Pearce's conclusions. Anachronism and name-calling combine in his characterization of Elizabethan policies—"the butchery of the Elizabethan pogrom against Catholics," for example. There is no question that terrible things were done to traditional Christians who resisted Elizabeth's regime, but equally terrible things were done to reformers who resisted the regime just before Elizabeth's, to say nothing of Counter-Reformation regimes on the Continent, and the sad fact is that our recognition that those were terrible things is not, historically, a Christian insight but a secular one, produced by the Enlightenment emphasis on reason, tolerance, and equal treatment under the law, in reaction against the cruelty of religious prejudice. Christians of all kinds should lament the horrors perpetrated in the name of Christianity; it will not do to lay them all at the door of one side or the other in the Reformation conflict. Pearce would do well to remind himself how the angelic doctor proceeds in the Summa Theologica, that remarkable model of intellectual thoroughness, candor, and honesty. Thomas Aquinas carefully lists all the substantial counter arguments to his own position for every point he makes, not only outlining each argument but citing authorities for it. Though one of the best of Christian apologists, he is hospitable to Jewish and Muslim commentary, as well as Christian, and his own primary authority, after the Bible, is a pagan philosopher who was suspected of heresy by some in Thomas' own day.

I wish I could hope for more from Pearce's second book than I found in his first, but the signs are not promising. His sample interpretations of Shakespeare are clumsily moralistic, allegorical, and one-sided. Pearce takes issue with Clare Asquith on a point concerning Shakespeare's biography, but his way of reading the plays and poems is very close to hers in Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (2005). Both read what Shakespeare wrote as if it were an allegory of his secret Catholic loyalty. Pearce commendably rejects this way of reading when it comes to questions concerning Shakespeare's authorship of the works attributed to him. Yet both authorship defenders and secret Catholic defenders read Shakespeare in the same fashion: assuming what they aim to find (Shakespeare's "known Catholicism" in Pearce's case), they inevitably find it, but they find nothing else, and their conclusions are therefore circular, predictable, and unenlightening to all but those who are committed to the interpreter's supposition in the first place.

A concluding example will, I hope, show the method's inadequacy. Following a standard argument by Catholic code readers, Pearce sees All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure as Shakespeare's celebrations of hope about the advent of King James VI and I in 1603, after the dreadful reign of Elizabeth I. Measure for Measure is, in fact, "the most overtly Catholic of all his plays." Again, Pearce's archival research failed him. In Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, R. M. Frye pointed out many years ago (1963) that a copy of the Shakespeare 1632 Folio survives from the library of a 17th-century Jesuit seminary for English priests at Valladolid, Spain. (The volume is now held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., where Frye examined it.) It was censored by the seminary's principal, William Sankey sj, to make it acceptable to the tender consciences of seminarians. One play was physically cut out of the volume in its entirety, and that play is Measure for Measure. How can Shakespeare's "most overtly Catholic" play have been understood by anyone as Pearce understands it, if the "coded allusions" were missed after careful scrutiny by a 17th-century English Jesuit principal?

I share Pearce's concern that criticism of Shakespeare since the early 19th century has been predominantly secular, and I applaud his effort to take early modern religious habits of thinking and being into account. I believe he has unnecessarily restricted his enterprise, however, by attending to an extraordinarily narrow frame of reference, by forcing the evidence, and by oversimplifying historical complexities. Before proceeding with his second book, Pearce should consult more careful explorations of Counter-Reformation faith and culture in England, especially books by Susannah Monta and Alison Shell and a forthcoming book by Brett Foster on English encounters with Renaissance Rome.

John Cox is DuMez Professor of English at Hope College. He is the author most recently of Seeming Knowledge: Shakespeare and Skeptical Faith (Baylor Univ. Press).

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