The saga of uncovering Shakespeare’s religion continues with Joseph Pierce’s new book, The Quest for Shakespeare , and Robert Miola’s recent FT review, now available to non-subscribers. The tension runs high on both sides:
At a conceptual level The Quest for Shakespeare repeatedly exhibits the logical fallacy of associationthe 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 fallacythe 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 himselfand 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.