In Shakespeare’s time, 1564-1616, practicing Catholicism was illegal in England. Some historians have claimed that William Shakespeare was Catholic and hid this fact out of fear of persecution. Others go as far as to say that Shakespeare shaped parts of his plays after his own Catholic beliefs. Between Shakespeare’s youth upbringing, education, and the availability of Catholic literature, William Shakespeare had a basis if not a belief in the Catholic faith.
There are many Shakespearean experts who hold true to the belief that Shakespeare was a Protestant as was the custom of the time in England. Those who are in this manner of belief, point out the one thing that can be universally agreed on in the debate, the fact that there is no concrete evidence in the case for Shakespeare’s Catholicism. There is however a plethora of potential and speculative evidence to support the idea that William Shakespeare was a Catholic.
Although it was illegal to practice Catholicism in Shakespeare’s youth, this was a fairly new practice, less than fifty years old, meaning that Shakespeare’s elder relatives could easily have been Catholic previously. This possibility is accepted by many, including David Beauregard who writes, “It has long been known, of course, that Shakespeare’s family background was heavily Catholic.” (15) In George Seibel’s book, The Religion of Shakespeare, he cites about Shakespeare’s youth and specifically his father that; “He [Shakespeare] was passed amid Catholic influences, for there seems no room for reasonable doubt that his father was ‘a Popish recusant’ and suffered many things as such.” (6) This is not definitive proof by any means that Shakespeare or his father, John, was Catholic. If John Shakespeare was Catholic though, William would have at the very least known much about the faith, its practices, customs, and beliefs. Another possible link to Catholicism in Shakespeare’s youth would be his mother, Mary Arden. It has been shown that Mary came from the Catholic Arden family and was herself Catholic. (Beauregard 15) Marrying Mary, John presumably sympathized with or was Catholic. Even if Shakespeare’s family did not raise him in a strictly Catholic upbringing, he had to have come in contact with the Bible and the scriptures within it. Seibel writes, “Even if Shakespeare did not read it [the Bible], he could not escape it.” (17) The Bible was one of the most widely available texts at that time and its language and verses were widely spread and known throughout much of England. (Seibel 17) If Shakespeare’s family was Catholic they would not have been alone in their faith in the community of Stratford. Patrick Collinson, a leading Elizabethan historian and Emeritus Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, suggests that, “It is probable that most members of this community [Stratford] were church papists” (quoted in Beauregard 16)
It is widely believed that Shakespeare attended the King’s New School in...