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Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up? | Joseph Pearce | Chapter One of The Quest for Shakespeare

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Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides. — Cordelia (King Lear, 1.1.282)

The quest for the real William Shakespeare is akin to a detective story in which the Shakespearian biographer is cast in the role of a literary sleuth, pursuing his quarry like a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. In fact, since the object of the chase is not to elicit the confession of a crime but the confession of a creed, it could be said that Chesterton's clerical detective, Father Brown, might be better suited to the task than Conan Doyle's coldly logical Holmes. Chesterton certainly believed that the evidence pointed toward Shakespeare's Catholicism, stating that the "convergent common sense" that led to the belief that the Bard was a Catholic was "supported by the few external and political facts we know". [1] One presumes from this assertion that Chesterton was familiar with Henry Sebastian Bowden's The Religion of Shakespeare, published in 1899, in which Father Bowden assembled the considerable historical and textual evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism that had been gathered by the Shakespearian scholar Richard Simpson.

Throughout the twentieth century a good deal of solid historical detective work was done, adding significantly to the "few external and political facts" known by Simpson and Chesterton. In consequence, the claims made by Carol Curt Enos in Shakespeare and the Catholic Religion, published almost exactly a century after Bowden's volume, were more self-confidently emphatic: "When many of the extant pieces of the puzzle of Shakespeare's life are assembled, it is very difficult to deny his Catholicism." [2] Every piece of the puzzle, placed painstakingly where it belongs, brings us closer to an objectively verifiable picture. As more and more of the facts of Shakespeare's life and times emerge from the fogs of history (to switch metaphors), the more clearly are those fogs lifted and the more clearly does Shakespeare emerge from the centuries-laden gloom that has surrounded him.

Even as the solid work of historians brings the real Shakespeare to life, the vultures of literary criticism continue to pick over the bones of the corpse of their unreal Shakespearian chimera. It is for this reason that Anthony Holden, on the opening page of his biography of Shakespeare, complained that "the long-suffering son of Stratford is ... being picked apart by historicists, feminists, Marxists, new historicists, post-feminists, deconstructionists, anti-deconstructionists, post-modernists, cultural imperialists and post-colonialists". "Perhaps," Holden added, "it is time someone tried putting him back together again." [3]

Whereas the imagery of carrion-critics picking over the bones of a corpse, killed by the poison of their theories, is a powerful one, the implicit allusion to "putting Humpty together again" is less so. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, Shakespeare has never had a great fall and, therefore, unlike Humpty, does not need putting together. It is not Shakespeare who has fallen. He is as he always was. It is all the king's men who have had the fall, and it is they who cannot be put together again. The historicists, new historicists, feminists, postfeminists, deconstructionists, et cetera ad nauseam, are lying broken at the feet of the unbroken Shakespeare, picking over the pieces of their own theories, arguing over the meaning of the monsters of their own monstrous musings, missing the point and impaling themselves on the point of their own pointlessness. This is where we shall leave them, arguing amongst themselves, whilst we begin to look at the real William Shakespeare.

Though Shakespeare is real, he is also elusive, defying our efforts to define him. Try as we might to pin him down, he always seems to get away. We don't even know for certain what he looked like. The various paintings claiming to be portraits of him are most probably of someone else. The painting that seems to have the greatest claim to authenticity, the famous Chandos portrait, looks at us with the enigmatic suggestiveness of the Mona Lisa. As with Leonardo's famous portrait, the Chandos Shakespeare seduces us with its aura of mystery, its unanswered questions. Who is this man who looks at us knowingly from the canvas? What secrets does he conceal? The questions are asked, but there's no hint of an answer. Its eyes meet ours, teasing us with evasive promptings of we know not what. It remains silent, keeping its secret.

"We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still, / Out-topping knowledge." Thus wrote Matthew Arnold in his sonnet to Shakespeare. Today, almost four hundred years after Shakespeare's death and more than a century after Arnold's sonnet, we are still asking. We ask and ask and are still met with the same beguiling silence, the same suggestion of a smile. Perhaps, on one level at least, this is as it should be. On the level of metaphor, the Chandos portrait serves as a representation of Shakespeare himself. The man who looks at us knowingly from the canvas is the man who looks at us knowingly through the plays. He knows us, even if we don't know him. He shows us to ourselves, even if he conceals himself while he does so. As with the picture of Dorian Gray, the portrait is a mirror. And if the mirror shows us ourselves does it really matter that we can't see the mysterious man who is holding it? This seems to have been the question on Matthew Arnold's mind when he composed his sonnet and, as the conclusion of the sonnet testifies, the great Victorian believed that the identity of his elusive Elizabethan forebear was not particularly important.
And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school'd, self-scanned, self-honour'd, self-secure,
Didst walk on earth unguess'd at. Better so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness that impairs, all griefs
that bow, Find their sole voice in that victorious brow.
Arnold appears to be saying that since Shakespeare shows us ourselves so well, it doesn't really matter that he fails to show us himself. There is, however, a serious problem with such a conclusion, a problem that is so serious that it amounts to a fatal flaw in the reading of Shakespeare's works and a consequent blindness to the truths that emerge from them. It is this. What if the image of ourselves that we see in the mirror is distorted by our lack of knowledge of the one who holds the mirror? What if our understanding of Shakespeare is essential to our understanding of ourselves as reflected by Shakespeare? What if we misunderstand and misconstrue what he is showing us if we misunderstand and misconstrue what he means to show us? What if Shakespeare is not simply holding the mirror? What if he is the mirror? What if the plays are, in some mystical or immanent way, an artistic incarnation of the playwright? What if the words only become flesh if we understand the personhood and philosophy of the flesh that gave birth to the words?

Pace Matthew Arnold, it is clear that knowing Shakespeare increases our knowledge of the plays. It is equally clear that a misunderstanding of Shakespeare will invariably lead to a misunderstanding of the plays. Misread the man and you misread the work. This being so, it is evident that the quest for the real William Shakespeare is at the heart of Shakespearian literature. The quest for the author of the plays and sonnets is a quest for the authority needed to read them properly.

In some ways the quest for the real Shakespeare can be likened to the quest for the Holy Grail. Some refuse to join the quest on the basis that the Grail is unimportant. These are the postmoderns and deconstructionists who believe that they are as capable of understanding the plays as was the playwright himself, and that they do not need his help to do so, or else they believe that the plays have no meaning anyway and that, therefore, there is nothing to understand. For these hollow men, slaves of the zeitgeist, there is little hope. With a yawn of tedious ennui, and a sigh of slothful hubris, they close the book and wander wearily into the vestibule of the Futile, perhaps en route to somewhere worse. Then there are those critics who join the quest for the Grail but discover that it was not, in fact, holy; it was merely a cup, like any other, or, at any rate, a cup remarkably like a graven image of the critics themselves. For these critics, Shakespeare emerges, in spite of the abundance of evidence for his Catholicism, as a progenitor of modern secularism, as a man who, ahead of his time, turned his back on the faith of his fathers and embraced the agnosticism of the future. "The safest and most likely conclusion", wrote Peter Ackroyd in his life of the Bard, "... must be that despite his manifold Catholic connections Shakespeare professed no particular faith. The church bells did not summon him to worship. They reminded him of decay and time past. Just as he was a man without opinions, so he was a man without beliefs. He subdued his nature to whatever in the drama confronted him. He was, in that sense, above faith." [4] One cannot resist a riposte to such arrant nonsense. The fact is that there is no such thing as "a man without opinions" or "a man without beliefs". Indeed, "a man without beliefs" is simply beyond belief. Agnosticism is a belief, atheism is a belief, nihilism is a belief; and these beliefs obviously inform our opinions. Shakespeare may or may not have been a believing Catholic, but he clearly could not have been "without beliefs". Such men do not exist.

Perhaps Ackroyd was trying to say, and saying badly, what the philosopher George Santayana had said much better more than a century earlier. "Shakespeare is remarkable among the poets", Santayana claimed, "for being without a philosophy and without a religion", adding that "the absence of religion in Shakespeare was a sign of his good sense". With unremitting logic, Santayana concluded that the absence of religion in Shakespeare's plays, as he perceived it, led inevitably to the implied triumph of nihilism: "For Shakespeare, in the matter of religion, the choice lay between Christianity and nothing. He chose nothing; he chose to leave his heroes and himself in the presence of life and of death with no other philosophy than that which the profane world can suggest and understand." [5]

Against this "profane" interpretation of Shakespeare's works, there is a long tradition of belief that Shakespeare's plays betray an element of Catholicism. In 1801 the French writer François René de Chateaubriand asserted that "if Shakespeare was anything at all, he was a Catholic". [6] Thomas Carlyle wrote that the "Elizabethan era with its Shakespeare, as the outcome and flowerage of all which had preceded it, is itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages". [7] Carlyle's great Victorian contemporary John Henry Newman was even more emphatic about the Catholic dimension, stating that Shakespeare "has so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able, without extravagance, to claim him as their own". [8] Hilaire Belloc, echoing the verdict of Newman, insisted that "the plays of Shakespeare were written by a man plainly Catholic in habit of mind". [9] G. K. Chesterton stated his own belief in Shakespeare's Catholicism in his book on Chaucer, published in 1932: "That Shakespeare was a Catholic is a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true." [10] Years earlier, in 1907, Chesterton had compared the chasm that separated Shakespeare the Catholic from Milton the Protestant:
Nearly all Englishmen are either Shakespearians or Miltonians. I do not mean that they admire one more than the other; because everyone in his senses must admire both of them infinitely. I mean that each represents something in the make-up of England; and that the two things are so antagonistic that it is really impossible not to be secretly on one side or the other .... Shakespeare represents the Catholic, Milton the Protestant .... Whenever Milton speaks of religion, it is Milton's religion: the religion that Milton has made. Whenever Shakespeare speaks of religion (which is only seldom), it is of a religion that has made him. [11]
Not surprisingly perhaps, Chesterton was asked to clarify the rationale behind his assertion of Shakespeare's Catholicism:
A correspondent has written to me asking me what I meant by saying that Shakespeare was a Catholic and Milton a Protestant. That Milton was a Protestant, I suppose, he will not dispute .... But the point about the religion of Shakespeare is certainly less obvious, though I think not less true .... These impressions are hard to explain .... But here, at least, is one way of putting the difference between the religions of Shakespeare and Milton. Milton is possessed with what is, I suppose, the first and finest idea of Protestantism—the idea of the individual soul actually testing and tasting all the truth there is, and calling that truth which it has not tested or tasted truth of a less valuable and vivid kind. But Shakespeare is possessed through and through with the feeling which is the first and finest idea of Catholicism that truth exists whether we like it or not, and that it is for us to accommodate ourselves to it .... But I really do not know how this indescribable matter can be better described than by simply saying this; that Milton's religion was Milton's religion, and that Shakespeare's religion was not Shakespeare's. [12]
Chesterton's comparison of Shakespeare with Milton is intriguing, indicating that, in Chesterton's judgment, the former belonged to the old England of Catholicism whereas the latter belonged to the new England of Protestantism. He is saying that Shakespeare, living during the crucible of religious change, was rooted in the Old Faith, whereas Milton, as a genuine modern, had embraced post-Catholicism, with the implicit relativism of a custom-built or personalized faith, in much the same way as his successors would embrace "post-Christianity", with the explicit relativism of faithless individualism. Milton is the missing-link between the Christian past and the "post-Christian" future; Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a remnant of the Christian past in defiance of the very same emergent and embryonic "post-Christianity". Milton is "early modern" in the sense that he was the herald of much that was to follow; Shakespeare is only "early modern" in the sense that he was responding to, and reacting against, the emergence of the modern "enlightened" mind.

The fact that Shakespeare has much more in common with the mediaeval past than with the postmodern present has been stressed by modern Shakespearian scholars, such as Gene Fendt, who states that the "Renaissance and medieval are arguably closer to each other than, for example, we (post)moderns are to either of them". As such, he continues, "it is more licit to read Shakespeare next to Aquinas than next to Freud, Jung, Lacan, Foucault, et al." [13] Taken to its logical conclusion this means that all (post)modern readings of Shakespeare are inevitably, and by definition, awry.

Heinrich Mutschmann and Karl Wentersdorf, in their comprehensive study Shakespeare and Catholicism, documented the numerous "references to Catholic dogmas, ideas and customs" in Shakespeare's works and concluded that "we are in every respect justified in accepting these as irrefutable testimony of the poet's personal views, views which are quite clearly pro-Catholic." [14] Take, for example, Shakespeare's condemnation of each of the seven deadly sins. Pride: "Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye." [15] Envy: "I sin in envying his nobility" [16] Sloth: "Hereditary sloth instructs me." [17] Gluttony: "Let him be damned like the glutton." [18] Avarice or covetousness: "My desire of having is the sin of covetousness." [19] Anger: "It hath pleased the devil of drunkenness to give place to the devil of wrath." [20] Lust: "My blood is mingled with the crime of lust". [21]

Shakespeare did not merely condemn each of the seven deadly sins; he ordered them in conformity to the teaching of the Catholic Church, as reflected in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and as echoed by Dante in his Thomistic masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. In league with his great mediaeval forebears, Shakespeare condemns the sin of pride, i.e., the sin of Satan and the sin of Adam, as the most grievous of all the sins: "Self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the canon." [22] And he describes lust or "unchastity" as the least grievous: "Of the deadly seven it is the least." [23] Yet even the "least deadly" of the mortal sins is still deadly, a fact that Shakespeare is at pains to illustrate. When, for example, Claudio, in Measure for Measure, makes the crucial error of suggesting that unchastity, as the least grievous of the deadly sins, is perhaps not a sin at all, Shakespeare exposes his flawed logic. He does so in the wisdom of the profoundly orthodox words of Claudio's sister, Isabella, uttered in the
Better it were a brother died at once
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die for ever. [24]
The virtuous Isabella knows that actions have eternal consequences and that it would be better for her brother to lose his earthly life than that she should suffer eternal punishment for committing a mortal sin, i.e., a sin that kills the soul and condemns the sinner to "die for ever". She knows that it would be wrong to "redeem" her brother temporarily, i.e., to save him from the sentence of death with which he is condemned, if, by doing so, she was condemning her own soul to eternal punishment.

Mutschmann and Wentersdorf are very insightful and lucid in their balanced analysis of the invocation of the saints in Shakespeare's plays:
What traces of the Catholic veneration of saints, condemned in Elizabethan England, are nevertheless to be found in Shakespeare's works? It would not be wise to attach too much importance to the exclamations such as "by Saint Paul", "by Saint Anne", "by'r Lady", etc., which the poet often puts into the mouths of his characters. The same applies to such expressions as "by the holy rood" or "by the mass". It must be borne in mind that such and similar asseverations, although Catholic in origin, remained in popular use in England after the schism; it cannot be assumed that they were used in a religious sense, much less that the speakers were aware of their dogmatic significance. And yet it is noticeable that asseverations of this kind are hardly ever used by Protestant writers in their works; where exclamatory phrases are introduced, they are mostly of a neutral character such as "by heaven", "by God", or "by the cross". Furthermore, it is noteworthy that expressions such as "by'r Lady" and "by the mass", which occur in the old Quartos, i.e., the editions nearest to Shakespeare's manuscript, were almost entirely expunged in the First Folio edition, which quite clearly demonstrates that they were regarded as "offensive" or even unlawful. [25]
Mutschmann and Wentersdorf also stress "the highly significant fact that Shakespeare ... reveals a very exact and detailed knowledge of Catholicism", and they quote Father Sebastian Bowden's conclusion that the repeated allusions to Catholic rites and practices "are introduced with a delicacy and fitness possible only for a mind habituated to the Church's tone of thought". [26] The accuracy of Shakespeare's depiction of Catholic practices contrasts with the proliferation of errors that emerge in the plays of his contemporaries, such as in the anonymously authored The Troublesome Raigne of King John (printed in 1591) or in John Webster's The White Devil (1612). This woefully inaccurate depiction of Catholicism by non-Catholic writers has continued to plague literature down the centuries, from Schiller's Maria Stuart (1800) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) to Dan Brown's inanely ubiquitous Da Vinci Code.

• "Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up?" | Part 2


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