1 – His family were recusant Catholics – and William might well have been too
“Now, God be praised, that to believing souls /Gives light in darkness, comfort in despair” Henry VI in Henry VI, part II
Before we deep dive into the life of Shakespeare, we should place ourselves in the England of his birth. The Bard was born in 1564, during the 6th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was a tumultuous time: Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had broken with the Catholic Church and confiscated their vast wealth, causing untold social upheaval, and his successor had been disastrous. Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward, took the throne at the age of just 9, but was sickly and died at 15, leaving her half-sister, Mary, to become Queen. Mary was a Catholic and sought to return England to Rome, embarking on a violent campaign against Protestants, burning 250 religious dissidents at the stake in her 5-year reign. When she died and Elizabeth ascended to the throne, the new Queen reversed the order again, and the new Church of England was again in power.
You might wonder what this had to do with a young baby in rural Warwickshire. Shakespeare’s birth came at a time in which the official state religion had been changed twice in a generation, with violent repercussions for those who did not conform (not to mention the two failed uprisings that were directly caused by the changes) and the destruction of the monasteries, which had been the main form of social welfare, as well as a physical representation of the church. Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was born, was a hotbed of Catholic recusancy and Shakespeare’s family were steeped in the old faith. His mother, Mary Arden, was from a known recusant family who harbored priests and her uncle, Edward Arden, was executed in 1583 for plotting against Elizabeth. William’s father, John, was publicly a conforming member of the Church of England, but many suspected that privately he still held to the old ways. According to a letter found in the rafters of the Shakespeare home, he remained a Catholic in secret throughout his life. He stopped going to Anglican services around 1592, though that might well have been as a method of avoiding debt – it was common at the time for failing borrowers to be confronted at Sunday service. When the time came to pay for the town militia, which was known to enforce measures against Catholics, John and several other prominent men in the Stratford community with known ties to the old religion refused to pay their share.
As the son of a known recusant mother and a suspect – later admitted – recusant father, the question of William’s religion has long lingered. In his plays, many have read the character of Falstaff in Henry IV as a cypher for John Oldcastle, who was considered a martyr by many Protestants and thus read the satire of Falstaff as a veiled attack on the Church of England. Across the body of his work, there are references to purgatory and characterization of Catholic characters in a positive light, with Protestants in a negative one. Certainly, at the time, any outward criticism of the established order would have resulted in severe consequences for Shakespeare, so we have to read deep into the texts to be able to find any inklings either way.
A third reading of Shakespeare’s work, which takes into account the litany of religious references and overtones in his plays, says that he was simply trying to make his drama as accessible to his audience as possible. Solid knowledge of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as well as the order of services and the standard concepts of religion, was to be expected of the average citizen of Tudor London, and so to constantly draw back to religious themes was to speak a language that everyone understood. Educated men such as Shakespeare were taught a canon that weighed heavily on Greek and Roman myths, but not everyone would have had access to that sort of education: everyone understood the Bible, understood its characters and themes and thus, as a dramatist, making allusions to it was a quick and simple way of advancing the narrative of the play. Without, of course, raising the ires of the censors in the process.