“Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was someone else.” G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
In 2008, Joseph Pearce tackled the daunting task of trying to decode the enigma of Shakespeare’s religious identity. An Englishman by birth, Pearce is acutely aware of how intriguing and important the Shakespeare religion debate is to English culture. In another period of history, the Bard’s religion would have been a mere footnote in a biography. Shakespeare’s life, however, coincided with a time of intense religious torment. As Pearce so carefully chronicles, most of Shakespeare’s family and friends were recusant Catholics, yet the Bard was a favorite of the anti-Catholic queen. Because of his proximity to those who hated Catholics and his relationship with prominent Catholics, Shakespeare’s religious identity has been the subject of heated debate since shortly after his death. The Bard, his plays, and the legends that surround him are regarded as sacrosanct in English culture.
In The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome, Pearce makes the scholarly assertion that we can reasonably guess much more about Shakespeare’s beliefs than modern scholars would like us to believe. Over fifteen chapters, Pearce tells the story of Shakespeare’s life more or less chronologically. Using clues from the plays, accepted biographical details of Shakespeare’s life, historical facts about major events and major persons of the period, Pearce applies critical analysis to all of the major scholarship on the matter. With a friendly voice, a flair for storytelling, and a love of logic, Pearce carefully responds to the more reputable claims about Shakespeare’s character and beliefs.
Pearce, a convert to Catholicism from racist agnosticism, has a clear bias towards Shakespeare being a Catholic. Even though I am a Catholic, however, I approached this book and his assertion with skepticism. I was a theatre minor in college, have been to Stratford-upon-Avon, travelled to the Stratford Festival in Canada several times, and generally love Shakespeare. I wanted to read this book mostly to learn more about the Bard and gain insight into his plays. While I learned very interesting things about some of the plays, Pearce didn’t spend much time with them. Instead, Pearce did what he is truly excellent at, he wrote a biography that researches the research. It is clear that Pearce has read nearly all of the most compelling scholarship on Shakespeare and in so doing, discovered a thread that runs throughout that body of work that he can illuminate for us.
Pearce’s defense of Shakespeare’s Catholicism is staggeringly compelling. Grounded not in nuance, but in historical facts, cultural prejudices, and keen knowledge of how resistance movements work (presumably from Pearce’s political past), Pearce treats us to a well defended thesis.
Interestingly, Shakespeare’s alleged recusancy to Elizabethan Anglicanism is interesting but isn’t the most interesting aspect of this book for me. What I found far more intellectually satisfying was how Pearce pulls together so many other people and events that I was only vaguely familiar with and places them in their historical and intellectual context. I really enjoyed touring the period itself.
Classic Pearce, this is well researched and told beautifully. This fascinating story is an intellectually satisfying puzzle to play with. If I were not already committed to a specific path for my 2017 reading, this would easily have inspired a substantial rabbit trail to follow.