27 October 2008

Shakespeare the Catholic

Back in May, when I attended the Chesterton conference, I hadn't heard of Joseph Pearce. I knew only a little more of Shakespeare than I did of Pearce, and I knew little of British history. For me, reading Shakespeare's plays were painful exercises done in my college prep writing class. Being completely ignorant of most history not tied to my own country, the plays were read not knowing or appreciating the context and richness of their setting. For that matter, I don't think any attempt was made to place Shakespeare's work in time and I can't recall that Queen Elizabeth was mentioned, or even if she had been, I knew so little of her it would've made as much impact as hearing that Zu-Zu was president of Mars...just a name associated with a place I knew nothing about.

When I got to college, I found how worthless my college prep history and college prep writing classes had been.

At the Chesterton conference, I met up with Ray who raved about hearing Joseph Pearce speak at a prior conference, so we grabbed a good seat with me hoping Pearce would be done soon so that I could hear Father Longenecker speak on Chesterton.

I was caught off-guard, pleasantly so, by Pearce's speech on Shakespeare. Previously, Shakespeare had been a subject I cared little about, with British history coming in close behind, but now I was so intrigued I couldn't wait to get my hands on Pearce's book, "The Quest for Shakespeare."

Being on a limited budget, I finally was able to get the book through interlibrary loan. In the interim, I had the time to read some of the reviews of Pearce's book and also the not-so-nice review in First Things. Robert Miola, in his review of, "The Quest for Shakespeare," criticizes Pearce for not relying on or citing primary sources and for considering Shakespeare a Catholic merely "by association." Another review I read criticizes Pearce for looking at history with rose colored glasses.

I see their arguments, but still loved Pearce's book despite them.

In this day and age, I think most people have learned the dangers of relying on secondary sources when they have regrettably forwarded on e-mails that have later turned out to not be true. Even grade school kids know they can't use Jimmy's opinion about sharks in their book reports. Whenever a primary source is available, it should be used.

But, IMHO, what is known about Shakespeare from primary sources has been poured over, rehashed, and analyzed from just about every conceivable angle, except possibly from the Catholic perspective. What is known about Shakespeare's life from primary sources probably fills a scant page and is limited to things like birth, marriage and death records. Maybe the strict academics get giddy with that information, but these common denominator facts can be found at Wikipedia and don't do much to further anyone's understanding of Shakespeare or fire up anyone's interest, especially the interest of someone like me who always considered Shakespeare to be a snoozer. Though I may be going out on a limb, I suspect Pearce has checked out the primary sources. I don't think regurgitating what was already known was what Pearce was trying to do.

I've been an amateur genealogist for decades. I want to "get to know" my ancestors, understand what brought them to this country, know what hardships and challenges they encountered and gain some insight about their lives. I spend a lot of time learning the history of the area, finding out about what life was like during that time period and trying to "crawl into their lives" as best I can. To me, this is far more interesting than having a huge family tree full of names along with birth, marriage and death information.

For one of my Irish branches, the family that I associate most closely with, I tracked my great-great grandfather and his family back to Ireland. Despite having the birth, death and marriage information, I've walked through the cemeteries, spent countless hours looking through records in court houses, read local histories, gone to local historical societies and libraries, and talked to people in the area all in my own "quest" to understand my ancestors a bit better. I've visited the places this family had lived in Wisconsin, areas outside Toronto (and learned what life was like for Catholics in Victorian Canada), places in Washington State and in Ireland. When I finally "found" my great-great grandfather's grave in an old cemetery in southern Wisconsin, I felt like I knew him and would recognize him on the street.

I've learned about my Scottish ancestors, their possible ties to the Gowrie Conspiracy and the Knights Templar and visited their still standing homes just outside Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. I've walked through the small alpine town and climbed through the hills where my Swiss great-grandfather pastured his cows and sat in a pew of the church he attended. The northern German towns where my family lived and suffered during the 30 Years War would be unrecognizable to them today. The home another branch of Irish ancestors lived with their 16 children before being evicted during the famine, is now a garage. These things are what make history, my family history, interesting, not the cold, hard, impersonal dates. Anyone can dig those up, but to bring some amount of "life" to a long dead ancestor is much more of a challenge.

That's what I believe was Pearce's aim in his book. He gathers all the "circumstantial" evidence of Shakespeare's life and tries to help us understand him. It's not "guilt by association" to posit that Shakespeare was a Catholic. That Shakespeare's parents were Catholic and his daughter was Catholic says a great deal, from my genealogical perspective, because one way to track people is by their religious affiliation. Once a person changes faith, it is extremely rare that their children will adopt the faith of their grandparents. Although it may be a small sampling, I've never seen it happen in my family. And, given the persecutions that were happening at the time, it is hard to imagine that Shakespeare's daughter would've become a Catholic. It makes much more sense that Shakespeare was a recusant Catholic and handed down the Faith to his daughter.

It's not revisionist to consider Shakespeare a Catholic if so much points to that conclusion and away from everything else. I think Pearce knew a great deal about Shakespeare before writing his book and this information then led him to believe Shakespeare was Catholic. Pearce merely went back through all the information again to show the reader how he came to the conclusion that Shakespeare was a Catholic. His book is a vivid and interesting "thinking out loud" telling of the story of Shakespeare's life, some things slightly speculative (association with Campion), other points far more plausible.

And, as Pearce shows, a reading of Shakespeare's work with a Catholic understanding of Faith and theology will illuminate a good deal of what would be missed if the reader didn't have that grounding.


Ray from MN said...


That is a wonderful rebuttal of the criticisms of Pearce's book and ideas.

As a fellow genealogist who has spent over forty years tracing my ancestors, all I can really tell your for sure about them is their names and a few dates.

That is, unless I want to to include some studies I have done about the countries, counties, villages, emigration patterns, histories, sociology and other aspects on how people of their backgrounds lived.

And these are people born in the 1840s. Shakespeare was born 400 years before that.

swissmiss said...

I really didn't get why First Things had such a negative review of the book...I really liked it and learned a great deal from it and plan to read his other books on Wilde, Tolkien, etc. Too bad the conference is in Seattle next year :(

David Zampino said...

Pearce is certainly not alone with regard to Shakespeare's possible (probable?) Catholicism -- but I didn't think that the First Things review was as negative as some have taken it to be -- AND I thought that Pearce's rebuttal in the most recent issue of First Things was, at best, completely over the top.

I must also confess, as a Tolkien scholar, that I have found Pearce's work on Tolkien to be, shall we say, less than completely original at times?

I love your blog!

Papa Z

swissmiss said...

Hi Papa Z:
Thanks for the comments. I hope to read the rebuttal in First Things, but have to wait for a copy to be handed down to me from a friend.

You'd be aghast to know I've never read the LofR trilogy. I've seen the movies (like many folks today who don't read much!). I am hoping to read more of Pearce's works, even the ones on Tolkien, because I'm such a newbie that I think I would be a good starting point.

Of course, Pearce's work will seem original to me since I don't know any better :)

David Zampino said...

Hi Swissmiss,

What? No Tolkien? How do you hope to get to heaven? (grin)!

If you are interested in a really good biography on Tolkien, I would recommend "Tolkien" by Humphrey Carpenter. Carpenter had the blessing of Tolkien's family, and access to family papers. There is also a good amount of information on Tolkien's influence on the conversion of CS Lewis. If you're interested in the best available biography of CS Lewis, try "Jack" by George Sayer. Sayer was a student and friend of Lewis' for some 29 years.

I think that you'd enjoy them both!


Papa Z

swissmiss said...

I hope get to into Heaven based on invincible ignorance :)

I never read the Little House on the Prairie series or other "girly" books either, so I'm at least well-rounded in my illiteracy.

I'll check out the books you recommend...although I have to pick one up at the library this weekend by Philip Hamburger, "Separation of Church and State." It came highly recommended, so I'm going to attempt to tackle it. I recently read most of "The Source" that another blogger suggested to me, so will get to the Tolkien one next. Thanks for the suggestion!