Rorate Caeli

In Memoriam: William Shakespeare: April 23 , 1564 - April 23, 1616 - The Heart of His Mystery by Elizabetta Sala

Shakespeare: The Heart of His Mystery 


Elizabetta Sala

Part I 

 The Elusive Catholic

Coleridge coined the adjective “myriad-minded” to describe Shakespeare, since his genius is not completely comprehensible, neither explicable nor inscribed to the scheme of a culture or an age. Like the smile of the Mona Lisa, from whatever angle you view it, there is always something elusive.


In a famous excerpt from Hamlet, his two ‘traitor-friends’, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are trying to induce the Prince into revealing his secret: he, being much smarter than both of them, evades their enquiries with great nonchalance and says openly that they will never be able to pluck out “the heart of his mystery” (Hamlet 3.2,):  is the playwright speaking here in the first person, challenging a too simplistic interpretation?  If so, who are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?



The heart of his mystery. Each of us has one – is one. Indeed, this is another theme in Hamlet, every man is an unfathomable mystery made in the image of God, endowed with infinite faculties, ‘noble in nature’ (2.2).  Each one of us, then, will always be a mystery to other human eyes. 

Pedro Américo:Hamlet'sVision (1893)

But, let us turn our focus once again to the literary “mystery”.   Shakespeare’s work is totally permeated by something mysterious, enigmatic, never fully explainable, which has certainly contributed to its great fame. Neither the man nor his work can be contextualized  adequately and  if continuous critical studies explain more, they also reveal an ever-increasing number of enigmatic or ambiguous aspects.


No matter which view you take of him, what you read - or what you see on stage - it is merely the tip of the iceberg, as if he were playing hide-and-seek: what did he want to say exactly with this or that line, which often, as in the game of mirrors, lends itself to a multiplicity of vertiginous interpretations? In order to understand more, we need to make a connection between the author and what was happening around him.   We will discover that his reticence, once again, greatly resembles that of Prince Hamlet, who would like to speak but can’t: “But break, my heart;  for I must hold my tongue” (1.2, 159).

Shakespeare with his Family, at Stratford, Reciting the Tragedy Hamlet (stipple engraving).

Like all the literary men of his time, writing under a dictatorial regime of the most severe type, not even Shakespeare could say all that he wanted to; unlike many others, though, he chose not to renounce comment. Which means the Shakespearean “mystery”  layers increase, and we have to read between the lines: this makes everything far more interesting and complicated.

My essay L’enigma di Shakespeare (Ares 2011) follows a very specific sector in Shakespearean critique: that of his political and religious dissidence, which came to the fore only in the 20th century. If we consider what was going on in his times, it becomes easier to understand what the Bard of Avon had to say to his contemporaries, as the theatre was the only means of mass-communication the government was unable to control completely. Shakespeare was certainly a great artist, an enchanter with words, but his message certainly did not stop at the level of aesthetics or pure entertainment. 


In this sense, it is illuminating to know at least in broad terms that the Elizabethan government represented a minority within the Protestant minority: at the very least,  at the statistical level, then, it was highly probable that those who didn’t belong to that limited circle nourished some sorrow and regret, some affinity for the Old Faith, which had been swept away from one day to the next by an act of Parliament.


In other words, the majority of the Queen’s subjects were potentially guilty of high treason and the task of the government, with its refined secret services, was that of tracking down the greatest number possible and inoculating the others with a sufficient dose of terror to render them harmless. A new word emerged -  perhaps new to most -  and a new crime to condemn without mercy: “recusant”, indicating those English Catholics who refused to attend the religious service of the State, prescribed by law.  In many respects, therefore, Religious dissidence was the same as political dissidence.


Approaching the Shakespearean canon with some attention then, it is easy to perceive a philo-Catholic aura: regret and sorrow for a lost past, sympathy for religious orders (regularly mocked, instead, by the conventional writers of the time), exclamations naming Saints, Our Lady, reliques and the Holy Cross; one-liners alluding to confession, Mass, Purgatory: it is a question mostly of atmosphere, of a specific climate, which did not escape those critics of the nineteenth century who had a ‘trained ear’.  From that time forth, Shakespeare’s life and work began to be revisited, analyzed in-depth and re-explored.   There have been several interesting discoveries.


To begin with, the environment Shakespeare was brought up in was just enough anti-conformist to avoid getting into trouble: in the waves of persecution which broke out regularly, it was not rare to come across people connected to him. 


Some examples: his father, John, hid a Catholic spiritual testament under the beams of the ceiling in his home; a document originally edited by no other than St. Charles Borremeo, then translated and distributed in England by Jesuit missionaries. The will was found in the 1700s but its authenticity was proven only in 1923. 


Furthermore, John Shakespeare’s name appears in the recusant list compiled in 1592, while the playwright’s daughter, young Susanna, appeared on it in 1606.   As for his mother, Mary Arden, she belonged to an old noble family whose head, Edward Arden, endured the atrocious death of traitors in 1583 (he was hanged, drawn and quartered) solely for his religion. Even the teachers at Stratford grammar school were mostly pro-Catholic or even recusants; one of them fled to the continent in order to become a Jesuit; another had a brother who was executed because of his priesthood.  

   Tudor Justice: the fate of many recusant Catholics 

And then there is the famous “Lancashire connection”, timidly suggested, initially, in 1937 and after that with increasing force: the young Shakespeare might have left home to be a  music-recitation teacher in a great recusant family living in the North of England, where he was in strict contact with the extraordinary Jesuit, Father Edmund Campion, who would suffer martyrdom shortly thereafter.

Samlesbury Hall, an example of Lancashire's finest buildings, famous for ghostly happenings and its key role in the Roman Catholic 'recusancy' when local nobles refused to give up their faith under the Tudor Protestant monarchs. Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, which was destroyed in 1643 during the First Civil War and reconstructed again in 1862, is thought to be the grand house Shakespeare stayed in during the “lost years”. 

And here we have the “lost years” when Shakespeare mysteriously left Stratford, his wife, infant children, brothers, friends, parents and, on an unknown date, went to London to seek his fortune in the worst possible trade:  as an actor.  He had chosen the most insecure profession in the world, since, between spates of plague and prohibitions by the Puritan municipality, the theatre environment was at continuous risk of closure.  Yet, once again, behind the apparent irrationality of that move, there emerges a concrete and logical possibility: that of an escape. Precisely at that time, the Arden family fell into disgrace following a Catholic “plot” (the same  that had engulfed Edward) and all his relatives were investigated by the government. For centuries tradition has made us believe that it was an escape following illegal hunting – poaching.  Come on, let’s be serious: if there was an escape, it was for something much bigger and much more dangerous.


Once in London, who did William go to? He probably sought protection from a philo-Catholic nobleman, who, lo and behold! had close ties with the recusant family who may have hosted him in Lancashire. Pity that the noble in question, Ferdinando, Lord Strange, displeased someone very high up and was eliminated hastily. By whom? By the Jesuits, claimed the English government after 1606.  By the government, insist other scholars in the light of recent studies. The fact remains that Shakespeare needed to look for protection from some other… Catholic noble: the Count of Southampton, grandson of the powerful Viscount Montague.  Montague's daughter was Southampton's mother and Southampton's father died in the Tower before he could be tried.   He had been arrested for hosting Catholic priests.

Shakespeare's dedication  of the Rape of Lucrece to the Count of Southampton, 1594

Montague? Yes, that’s precisely the English name of Romeo’s family. It is interesting, then, to identify a possible ambiguous reference to the Queen herself in an apparently innocent piece from Romeo and Juliet where, from under the balcony, Romeo invokes his beloved and compares her to the sun (2.1, 46-51):


Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief

That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.

Be not her maid, since she is envious.

Her vestal livery is but pale and green,

And none but fools do wear it; cast it off! 



Why is lovelorn Romeo so angry at the moon, which is usually complicit with lovers? Yes, he may be encouraging Juliet to “cast off” her virginity and marry him. But there is more to this. Illuminating is the fact that the moon was  an absolutely recurrent symbol, and by then obvious, for none other than the Queen, Elizabeth “the great”, the Virgin Queen, in the guise of Diana and Cynthia etc.,. A pity that, unlike the Moon-goddess, she was not immortal, nor eternally young. At that time she was over sixty and, it was true, she was envious of the beauty of the young ladies-in-waiting surrounding her.  

Even more interesting is the fact that one of them had been made pregnant precisely by the Count of Southampton. To substantiate the allegory, whether the spectators were aware of it or not,  we have the “pale and green” livery of the moon: that of the Queen was white and green. For this reasom, in order  to conceal, the adjective “pale” of the First Quarto (1597), was replaced by “sick” in the First Folio (1623). The dangerousness of the message is extended, as usual, on various levels: simple satire, with the beauty of the young woman compared to the withering and envious sovereign;  real subversion, in any case, if we consider that the young woman is invited “to kill” the already moribund “moon” and, in any case not to serve her. Such a passage would never ever have been included in a performance at Court.






Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana



1)     From Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet:  ‘The Montagues and the Capulets’


2)      (2011) Gustavo Dudamel, the rather eccentric artistic director from Venezuela, brings a smile as he delightfully guides an orchestra through refinement of a section in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ overture.