The Quest For Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome

by Joseph Pearce

Ignatius, 216 pages, $19.95

In The Quest for Shakespeare , Joseph Pearce claims that the “real Shakespeare” was a secret Catholic. Pointing in the preface to his own “robust muse” and “Bellocian bellicosity,” Pearce goes on to mock contemporary writers on Shakespeare as “vultures,” “carrion critics,” “gossip and gutter-oriented ‘scholars,’” and “silly asses of academe.”

A promising beginning, you might think. Unfortunately, The Quest for Shakespeare proves to be a patchwork of other people’s work, indiscriminately selected, hastily stitched together, and served up with self-congratulatory fanfare. Seldom has such a slight book managed to combine ignorance and arrogance on such a grand scale.

A writer in residence at Ave Maria University, Pearce seems to have examined no rare books or manuscripts, for he cites them all from secondary sources. In fact, he seems to have cribbed most of his book from such old chestnuts as John Henry De Groot’s The Shakespeares and “The Old Faith” (1946) and H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf’s Shakespeare and Catholicism (1952), both of which he duly cites more than fifty times in a very lightly documented work.

He also borrows from a smattering of recent critics, including Peter Milward, S.J., who, delighting to see his own interpretations gain new currency, puffs the book in a dust-jacket blurb as a potential “literary masterpiece” that reveals “this greatest of English Catholics” and shows “precisely how his greatness consists in his hidden Catholicism.” (How, I wonder, would Father Milward explain that inanity of the “greatest of English Catholics” to the many English Catholics, including his brother Jesuits, who courageously suffered martyrdom for their faith?)

Pearce begins”alas, predictably”with John Shakespeare’s “spiritual testament,” a Catholic will discovered in the rafters of Shakespeare’s home in 1757. He neglects to inform the reader that the document has long since disappeared and that it was promulgated by John Jordan, an unreliable entrepreneur.

He quotes the great Edmond Malone’s endorsement of the will (as he finds it in De Groot) but fails to tell us of Malone’s later retraction. He pronounces the evidence for the will’s authenticity “utterly convincing” but declines to discuss any of it, referring the reader instead to De Groot’s 1946 work and thus blithely ignoring more than sixty years of scholarship, including Robert Bearman’s devastating critique in 2003.

Pearce goes on to note the citation of John Shakespeare for recusancy”and he concludes theatrically that William Shakespeare thus belonged to a family of “outlaw” Catholics. Had Pearce consulted the actual citation in the Public Record Office, he would have seen that John Shakespeare is grouped with eight others who “come not to church for fear of process for debt.” These absentees are distinguished from other recusants, among whom one is identified as “conformed,” another as “dead,” and most as incapacitated by “age and other infirmities.”

As in many previous accounts, Edmund Campion looms large here. The Quest for Shakespeare repeats the familiar fable about Campion’s visit to Charles Borromeo, his supposed receipt of the formulaic spiritual testament, his supposed carrying of it to England, and his supposed delivery of it to the Shakespeares. Pearce does not trouble to notice the many improbabilities of this narrative, long documented by others, or its conclusive rejection by Peter Davidson and Thomas McCoog, S.J., one of the leading Campion scholars of this generation.

But Pearce’s failure is hardly surprising. What he doesn’t know about Shakespeare and the Catholicism of his times would fill several large libraries. If he believes his dubious assertion that “the more we know about Shakespeare the more we will understand his work,” then why has he failed to consult important biographies by Park Honan and Katherine Duncan-Jones, as well as James Shapiro’s award-winning A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 , among scores of other books and articles? Why has he missed the entire revolution in our understanding of early-modern Catholicism, led by the Catholic Record Society, with its hundreds of volumes, and by scholars such as Jack Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh, Alison Shell, and Arthur Marotti?

If Pearce had done some homework, he might have made a better case or, at least, have avoided some howlers. The unfounded assumption that the dedication to “W.S.” in the 1616 edition of Southwell is authorial, for example. Or the gossip that Shakespeare got Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His House accepted by the Lord Chamberlain’s company. Or the assertion that the Chandos portrait, not the Droeshout engraving or Trinity bust, presents the most authentic likeness of Shakespeare. Or the misattribution of the discovery of the Brian Annesley source for King Lear . Or the false detection of allusions to Thomas More and the Mass in Sonnet 23. Or . . .

On and on it goes”errors that arise from basic misunderstanding of early-modern printing conventions, literature, and Catholic worship. Pearce concludes the book with a painfully uninformed discussion of King Lear that ignores the obligatory decision about the quarto and folio texts, as well as the entire critical and theatrical history; he advances a naive allegorical reading whose major elements have all appeared, more cogently, elsewhere.

At a conceptual level The Quest for Shakespeare repeatedly exhibits the logical fallacy of association”the idea that identification of Catholic associates constitutes evidence of Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. It never occurs to Pearce that a survey of Protestant associates could just as easily lead to the opposite conclusion. His work also exhibits the biographical fallacy”the unqualified conviction that one can read the author’s life from the work and vice versa.

This fallacy is widespread in Shakespeare studies, true enough, but the business of wrenching passages out of dramatic context as evidence of the playwright’s personal beliefs usually reveals more about the critic than about Shakespeare. Pearce endorses this method for himself”and then vents his spleen on anyone else who dare use it for different conclusions. Thus, for example, he ridicules the “doyens of postmodernity” for writing into the plays their own “prejudiced agenda.” As Pearce notes about much contemporary work on Shakespeare: “For the proponents of ‘queer theory’ he becomes conveniently homosexual; for secular fundamentalists he is a proto-secularist, ahead of his time; for ‘post-Christian’ agnostics he becomes a prophet of modernity.”

Quite right, one wants to say. But what shall we do when Joseph Pearce comes along to say, in essence: “You’re all stupid to think that Shakespeare is just like you. Actually, Shakespeare is just like me”? There is a parable about a mote and a beam that applies somewhere here.

Ah, well. Pearce giddily announces his next study of Catholicism in Shakespeare, which “promises to be even more thrilling than the first!” I’m not sure I can take that much more excitement, but those who want to follow Pearce onward in this adventure might keep in mind a cautionary aphorism: Dante was a Catholic; Milton was a Protestant; Shakespeare was a dramatist.


Robert S. Miola is the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor of English at Loyola College in Maryland and editor of Early Modern Catholicism: An Anthology of Primary Sources.