Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Unlike its English and American counterparts, Scottish law allows three verdicts in criminal trials: innocent, guilty, and not proven. Several years ago, amateur Shakespeareans convoked moot courts in this country to decide who wrote Shakespeare’s plays: Was it the man from Stratford, or was it somebody else, perhaps Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (though he inconveniently died before the real Shakespeare had finished writing about a fifth of his plays)? In one such trial, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens voted for the fustian Earl, a decision that should not surprise anyone familiar with his constitutional jurisprudence.

In any event, the renowned literary critic Frank Kermode, after having published a fine study titled Shakespeare’s Language, has turned his attention to the historical setting of Shakespeare’s life in The Age of Shakespeare, and he resolutely (and rightly, in my opinion) refuses to deal with the authorship “debate,” which has become a kind of Da Vinci Code for amateur Elizabethans, an X-Files for eggheads.

Kermode does, however, pay attention to a genuine debate that has been raging recently among Elizabethan historians: Was Shakespeare a Catholic? Sticking strictly to the forensic standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, he renders his firm verdict: not proven. He certainly makes clear how circumstantial is the evidence for Shakespeare’s personal attachment to his parents’ faith. Kermode admits the strong Catholic connections of the Ardens (Shakespeare’s mother’s family) as well as the illegal and highly dangerous hospitality proffered to the Jesuit Edmund Campion by Shakespeare’s father. And he concedes that Shakespeare’s favorite daughter Susanna seems to have stayed Catholic, at least up until her marriage to a Puritan physician, John Hall. As for the rest, Kermode cannot resist pointing out how those who argue for Shakespeare’s Catholicism must invoke diffident phrases like “might have” and “may well have”; and when they use intimidating words like “surely” and “doubtless,” their evidence proves, on close examination, to be wispy at best.

Be that is it may, one finishes reading this pleasantly written book with a strong sense of how very much we do know about the man and his background (especially the social and economic background of both the plots of the plays and the institution of the theater), even if Shakespeare’s personal opinions continue to elude us; and an evening spent with this vigorously lucid book will set it all out before the eager and curious reader.

Where Kermode fears to tread, Michael Wood barges right in. In his new Shakespeare, he argues that if both Shakespeare’s father and Shakespeare’s daughter were Catholic, then the conduit through which the forbidden Catholic faith traveled from grandfather to granddaughter must have been William (although, given William’s extensive absences from home to keep his company stocked with plays, Susanna’s mother would seem to be a likelier candidate for the role of secret, seditious catechist). Wood’s book is the lushly illustrated companion to his BBC/PBS television series In Search of Shakespeare, and viewers who have seen his earlier ventures for public television, In Search of Lost Troy and In Search of Alexander, already know of his irrepressible enthusiasm and will not be surprised that he goes in search of Shakespeare’s Catholicism like a 60 Minutes reporter on the prowl for a scandal.

More than once (in fact, repeatedly), Wood calls Elizabethan England a “police state,” and he stresses, far more than Kermode does, how dangerous life was for a dramatist, Catholic or otherwise, during Elizabeth’s neurotic and anxiety-ridden reign. One day, Shakespeare’s company put on a performance of Richard II (about the overthrow of a hopelessly incompetent monarch) for the Earl of Essex. This turned out to be the eve of Essex’s abortive attempt to depose the queen. When Elizabeth got wind of this performance, the company found itself in hot water; but actors are nothing if not chameleons, and it seems they got off with merely a fine. Wood also reports—a fascinating detail—that the famous Jesuit poet Robert Southwell was William’s distant cousin and penned a sharp remonstrance addressed to one “W. S.” (presumably his cousin William) that rebuked W. S. for his worldly outlook (this was just after Shakespeare had published his erotic masterpiece, Venus and Adonis).

No one would dispute Shakespeare’s worldliness, if by that one means a wide acquaintance with the ways of the world, for in that regard Shakespeare stands unrivaled in literature—Homer, Dante, and Dostoevsky very much included. But Southwell’s complaint was much more personal than that. Otherwise he would be attacking his cousin for possessing a writer’s supreme virtue, which is knowledge of the world. For Southwell, however, only a forthright willingness to be martyred for the Catholic cause counts before God (he was himself martyred by Elizabeth’s government, and with appalling gruesomeness). Wood points out that Southwell’s remonstrance hardly makes sense except as the lament of a zealous Catholic bemoaning the caution of a Catholic kinsman who is ambitious and decidedly wary.

So who is right, Kermode or Wood? My own view is that Shakespeare was such an effective dramatic ventriloquist that no one knows what he privately thought about any important issue, most especially religion and politics. The famous political philosopher Leo Strauss once wrote a book called Persecution and the Art of Writing, which proposed that in dangerous times major authors speak in a kind of code known only to initiates (and perhaps to those equipped with a special decoder ring and a diploma from the University of Chicago). Whether that holds for such diverse writers as Aristophanes, Plato, and Maimonides (as Strauss claimed) is arguable, but of Shakespeare I would definitely say it applies. Not only were his times exceedingly dangerous (although in calling England a police state Wood exaggerates, as he does on other matters throughout the book), but Shakespeare was also astonishingly skilled at mimicking voices and adopting personae, good and evil, as his own.

Craig Bernthal in The Trial of Man takes a different approach to the question of Shakespeare’s religion: he investigates the trial scenes in the plays, in order to show that Shakespeare held views on justice and jurisprudence shared by all Elizabethans, irrespective of religion. Now, views shared by everyone in a particular age are best seen when they contrast with our own, and here the contrast between Shakespeare’s time and ours could not be starker:

The prevailing theory of law in our time is that the law is rational, utilitarian, and secular. Legislators create rules to accomplish policy objectives. Laws are the instruments used to promote the finite, material interests of particular groups and individuals. Judges, in reaching decisions, use legal precedents to solve problems, not to propound universal truths or to make the will of God explicit. Laws are evaluated not with respect to any universal standard of right and wrong, but by workability.

Bernthal points out that every single author who wrote on the law in Shakespeare’s time held a very different view. For Elizabethans, positive law derives from natural law, which itself flows from the divine will. This means above all that a just verdict in a human court must in some way reflect, and be validated by, the divine verdict; and when the two diverge, divine judgment waits in the wings and will not ultimately be stayed or thwarted. For example, in one of his sermons, “A Remedy Against Sorrow and Fear,” the great Anglican divine Richard Hooker asserts (in the kind of superb prose that the Elizabethans seem always to have ready at hand):

The judgments of God do not always follow crimes as thunder doth lightning, but sometimes the space of many ages comes between . . . . [But even if sinners] chance to escape clearly in this world, which they seldom do, in the day when the heavens shall shrivel as a scroll and the mountains move as frightened men out of their places, what cave shall receive them then? What mountains or rock shall they get, by entreaty, to fall on them? What covert to hide them from that wrath, which they shall neither be able to abide nor avoid?

Shakespeare signals his agreement with these claims when he has Hamlet expostulate in these terms:

In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ‘tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we our- selves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.

In other words, Elizabethan legal philosophy knew that a corruption of the principles of the law in the name of expediency would be ruinous, sooner or later. The great Puritan philosopher of empiricism, Francis Bacon, put it this way in his essay “Of Judicature” (1612): “One foul sentence [from the court] doth more hurt than many foul examples [of crimes]; for these do but corrupt the stream, the other corrupteth the fountain.” (Justices on our Supreme Court might spend their time more profitably with this text than with showboating sessions on moot courts deciding issues of Elizabethan literary history that are beyond their competence.)

So how does all of this apply to the plays? In the first volume of Theo-Drama, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar makes this large claim: “The real dramatist of forgiveness is and remains Shakespeare.” One imagines that Bernthal would agree, provided we first amend the line by saying that the real dramatist of justice is and remains Shakespeare. For after all, mercy is “parasitic” on justice, just as forgiveness piggybacks on judgment—not in the sense that mercy eats away at justice or that forgiveness destroys true judgment (although that can happen when one is too ready to forgive, as if no real offense had taken place). Rather, mercy and forgiveness have no meaning unless the fault or crime for which one is seeking forgiveness or mercy is first acknowledged before an objective and fair tribunal.

A mercy that short-circuits justice by intervening before a just verdict has been rendered is no mercy at all, merely a cleverly (and insidiously) disguised injustice, as when certain unctuous clergymen preemptively announce that they have “forgiven” Osama bin Laden even as he continues to call for holy war and to evade justice. As Shakespeare himself puts it: “Mercy is not itself that oft looks so; pardon is still the nurse of second woe.” In other words, for Bernthal (who is both a lawyer and a professor of English) Shakespeare’s God very much resembles St. Anselm’s: a God whose mercy is perfectly expressed in His justice, and His justice in His mercy.

But while that might hold true theologically, Shakespeare was too good an observer of human affairs to be unaware of the human habit (or rather folly) of pretending to know just what divine justice and divine mercy precisely entail. (His contemporary Francis Bacon, for example, could pen lucid sentences on jurisprudence, but as a high official in the court of James I he confessed to bribery and corruption, and retired in disgrace.) Consider Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which has recently been much discussed for its supposed Catholicizing tendencies.

In his book Hamlet in Purgatory, English professor Stephen Greenblatt has argued that Shakespeare’s choice of Wittenberg as the place where Hamlet spent time as a student before his father’s death cannot be mere whim; for in Wittenberg the young prince would have imbibed Martin Luther’s theology of justification, including his critique of the dogma of purgatory. Back in Denmark (a Lutheranized country by the time the play was written around 1600), Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost, who describes himself as “doomed for a certain term to walk the night / and for the day confined to fast in fires / till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / are burnt and purged away” (emphases added). The budding Lutheran prince is thus jolted out of his Wittenberg theology—but not enough to trust the ghost right away, for the Protestant critique of purgatory still holds sway in his impressionable mind. Rather, he tests the authenticity of the ghost’s claim—that he was poisoned by his brother Claudius—by putting on a playlet, “The Mousetrap,” to catch the conscience of the new king; and only when Hamlet suspects Claudius is going to give himself away in the next scene does he tell Ophelia, “get thee to a nunnery.”

Greenblatt’s interpretation sounds plausible, I admit. But Bernthal says, in effect: not so fast. What is most striking for him is that Hamlet submits the ghost to a theological or metaphysical test (Is it real?) but not to a moral analysis (What kind of being would order me to kill my uncle?): “How much more hellish will King Hamlet’s time in purgatory be for encouraging a sin of the most serious kind?” Bernthal asks. “And what kind of father would want to put his son’s soul in danger by persuading him to commit such a sin?” Moreover, when the prince is finally convinced of the ghost’s authenticity, he refrains from killing Claudius; finding him praying, the prince backs off, lest he kill Claudius at a repentant moment and thereby send him to heaven. What kind of Christian, Bernthal asks, would deliberately send someone to hell while calling himself a Christian?

Nor has Claudius really given himself away by swooning during “The Mousetrap.” To the best of my knowledge, Bernthal is the first and only critic to point out that Hamlet has written his little play to guarantee some strong reaction from Claudius, even if Claudius were not old Hamlet’s killer. Yes, the audience may know that Hamlet’s uncle killed the rightful king; but young Hamlet doesn’t know that at all. To find out is, he says, his whole reason for staging “The Mousetrap.” But curiously enough, what he presents is a play that seems designed to prevent him from finding out. “In Hamlet’s play it is a nephew, Lucianus, who murders his uncle, Gonzago. Claudius, even if he were innocent, would have every right, given Hamlet’s erratic behavior, to take this as a barely veiled threat. Since Claudius’s reaction to ‘The Mousetrap’ could verify either of two hypotheses, it ultimately fails to reveal the truth.”

To complicate matters even further, the audience, too, must render judgment. If “The Mousetrap” was Hamlet’s way of capturing the conscience of but one king, all of Shakespeare’s plays are “trial scenes” of a sort; that is, they are Shakespeare’s way of trapping audiences into rendering a “verdict.” At the close of The Tempest , for example, Shakespeare, with a self-consciousness about the theatrical arts typical of much of his writing, even engages in a witty riff on the Catholic belief in indulgences: Prospero appeals to his “jury,” the audience, to judge the play not according to its poor “merits” but by the audience’s merciful “indulgence,” that is, by its benign, all-forgiving applause:

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 wouldpardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Audiences are always complicit in plays, and in no plays more than in Shakespeare’s. I have seen productions of The Merchant of Venice that make Shylock an oily misanthrope and deliberately play up the anti-Semitic tropes of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and others where Portia seems to be cynically mouthing mercy while Shylock actually embodies it (or at least justice). And Shakespeare notoriously left the ending of Measure for Measure up to the director. That play revolves around a man in late-medieval Vienna whom the viceroy of the absent Duke sentences to death for fornication. The man’s sister, who has just entered a convent, comes to plead for mercy for her brother; and the viceroy promises amnesty only if she will bed with him. Unbeknownst to the viceroy, the Duke is back in town (disguised as a monk, of course) and the “monk” arranges for this illegal tryst to be kept not by the condemned man’s sister but by a fiancée whom the viceroy had previously jilted; thus the viceroy will be caught in fornication himself, while the sister’s virtue will be preserved.

At the end all is revealed, the viceroy marries his fiancée, the convicted fornicator marries the woman he had violated, who was, after all, his intended spouse—and the Duke, doffing his monk’s robe, proposes marriage to the novice nun. Having hotly refused the viceroy earlier (much to the consternation of her brother), does she accept the Duke’s almost equally impertinent offer? The play doesn’t say, for it ends there. A director may have her walk off in a huff or take his hand while the curtain falls; I have seen it staged both ways (and both leave a rather unpleasant taste in the mouths of spectators).

So who knows what Shakespeare’s religious convictions were? No one, probably. But at least Kermode, Wood, and Bernthal can confirm this historical fact: he knew his theology, Catholic and Protestant. What audiences and readers make of that, it seems, is up to them. I predict that this debate on Shakespeare’s religion (just like that on his politics) will never be resolved. That’s the great advantage of being in the theater: people never know for sure what to think of you.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. is coeditor, with David Moss, of The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, forthcoming in the Fall of 2004 from Cambridge University Press.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift