Rorate Caeli

William Shakespeare and the Heart of His Mystery - PART II - by Elizabetta Sala




Elizabetta Sala

'The Plot Thickens'

(Or How More Pieces Fit Into The "Shakespeare Was Catholic" Puzzle) 

Sir John Gilbert's 1849 painting: The Plays of William Shakespeare -  420 scenes and characters from several of William Shakespeare's plays.

Let’s examine some other clues of dissidence in his works. For example: why does Shakespeare fill his classical plays with anachronistic elements such as abbeys, churches, bell-towers and monasteries? In the Comedy of Errors, to cite one, an abbey right next to  “graves” makes topical reference to a place of execution. It has a definite importance because in the 1930s it was discovered that the setting was exactly the same as that next to the first theatre Shakespeare worked in: there, following the defeat of the Armada, a Catholic priest was executed for the mere fact  that he was one. Could Shakespeare be paying tribute to a martyr? 

Robert Southhall,  a martyr  Saint under the Elizabethan regime. Shakespeare was influenced by his writings.

Priests were hunted by the regime and automatically guilty of high treason simply for their presence on English soil: this is what happens to the unfortunate merchant in the Errors: in this sense it is of  distinct importance that “merchant” was a code-word for “missionary”. Obviously, the references were more explicit for those knowing how to identify them, while they could pass almost unnoticed by inattentive eyes and ‘untrained ears’. 

The Comedy of Errors:  Duke Solinus, ruler of Ephesus, presides over the trial of the unfortunate merchant,  Egeon of Syracuse. Syracusians were not allowed in Ephesus, so Egeon has been detained. (engraving)



Shylock, the  Jewish money-lender  in the Merchant of Venice, gets ready to rip out 'a pound of flesh' from Antonio, The Merchant,  who hasn’t been able to pay back the loan he contracted with him.

References to priests - and the savagery inflicted on them by the regime -  can also be found in the Merchant of Venice, where the punishment of a ripped-out heart was even too realistic and applicable to daily life. Most of all, the hunted missionary for whom “no port is free” is Edgar in King Lear, constrained to disguise himself as a poor half-wit to escape capture. In the same play we have one of the most bone-chilling scenes of the entire canon: the torture and blinding (without trial) of the elderly Earl of Gloucester, falsely accused of treason.  In Shakespeare, such accusations are usually reserved for innocent figures, who, in fact, are the most faithful of all and disposed to paying for their fidelity with their own lives. Fundamental then to this point, are the academic studies retracing how much the entire canon is impregnated with the influence of Jesuit writers, primarily, Fathers Robert Persons and Robert Southwell.

King Lear Act 4 Scene 6: The blinded Duke of Gloucester is led by Edgar, his son and heir, forced to disguise himself as a half-wit) . 

Once one has started reading between the lines, the subversive elements keep increasing. Even in the comedies; even in those that seemed innocent, longer-classic poems; even in some of the Sonnets.  In The Rape of Lucrece, which is everything but an edifying  tale pulled out of school-books, you can in fact read a dangerous allegory of violence inflicted on the Country by King Henry VIII in person (resumed again a little bit everywhere and in an especially clear way in A Winter’s Tale).  In Venus and Adonis, we get a glimpse of Elizabeth’s political seduction of young nobles coming from Catholic families. 

A lithograph image depicting a scene from The Rape of Lucrece


And so on and so forth. Some recurring themes are striking: if encountered in isolated works they may not arouse particular suspicion but they become very clear messages specifically for their recurrence throughout the entire Canon, from the works of youth to those in maturity, from comedies to tragedies, from the histories to the romances.  We are talking about the exile of the good, the lawfulness of tyrannicide and, most of all, a foreign invasion (often led by the same exiled “renegades”) as the sole remedy in the saving of a Country, wounded and oppressed by its own  rulers. 

The Execution of the Earl of Essex, 1601 (French Chocolate Bar Card)

Here things began to get very hot indeed for our playwright and his company. So much so that they were once even investigated for the part one of their plays had had in encouraging a palace conspiracy.  We are referring here to Richard II and the Essex conspiracy of 1601.  Fear should have silenced him; instead, he immediately went ahead to stage Hamlet, filling it with oblique references to the entire affair, along with regret for good old times, for the old world where the souls of Purgatory sought help from the living. Shakespeare might well have been supported by important Catholic circles, but his audacity is impressive. 

Hamlet- Act 3 Scene 1-Polonius and Claudius spying on Hamlet behind the arras – spying is everywhere in the play -  mirroring the complex spy-network during the Elizabethan regime.

Then, in 1610, Shakespeare was publicly accused of being in league with the number-one enemy of the regime: Father Persons. The accusation had no criminal consequences, but it was perhaps no accident that he retired from the stage the following year, at the height of his career, with no apparent explanation. 

Father Robert Persons (1546-1610) an English Jesuit and the major figure in establishing the “English Mission” of the 16th century

And why, two years later, when he was no longer residing in London, did he make his first and only purchase of a property in that city, never to live there? Why did he cede that portion of the building, Blackfriars Gatehouse, to an obscure (recusant) tenant for a peppercorn rent? Everything becomes very much clearer when you discover that the said building was a refuge for priests and recusants hunted by the government, who had perhaps the charge of repaying him by praying for his soul. This may be why Prospero, the protagonist of The Tempest, bids farewell to his audience with the hope that “indulgence” may “set him free” (The Tempest ACT V- THE EPILOGUE). 

The gossip did not stop even after his death: at the end of the 1600s, the Anglican priest Richard Davies, the same who alleged that the reason for his escape to London was poaching, declared that Shakespeare “dyed a Papist”. Of course he died a Papist, for he had been one all his life, albeit the entire 18th and 19th centuries bent over backwards to cancel that ‘stain on his reputation’ and transform him into a champion of the Anglican settlement.


With all this, of course, the mystery of his heart remains, otherwise it wouldn’t be Shakespeare. But many pieces to the puzzle are slipping into place as  many once-suppressed (or ignored) details about him are being brought out into the open.  And as time goes by, paradoxically, the Swan of Avon is becoming increasingly more “Roman” and less “British.”


Prospero’s Speech 

(The Tempest ACT V- THE EPILOGUE).



And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.’


 Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana