The Internet has been watching the new TNT show "Will" so I don't have to--and pretty much everyone has remarked on how committed the creators are to the idea that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic in an age when it was dangerous to be so. This is a theory that has been around for a long time, but until recently it wasn't an idea that the average Shakespeare reader had encountered. Now, though, it's the kind of thing I get asked occasionally: is it true that Shakespeare was Catholic?
I have some theories about why.
The obvious explanation is that a dozen years ago two pop-Shakespeare books made this claim: Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World (2004) and Clare Asquith's Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (2005). They're very different books, but the evidence both present is pretty thin. Still, their interest in religion doesn't come out of nowhere; literary scholarship as a whole is much more interested in religion now than it was even in the 1990s.
But not every scholarly trend makes it into the pop-culture mainstream, nor does every idea in a Shakespeare biography strike a chord, and this one has.
So here's my theory: the Shakespeare-as-Catholic meme appeals to a whole bunch of different American constituencies (I have no idea how well it plays in Britain, or if it's even a thing there). It has some of the same conspiracy-theory appeal as the "authorship controversy," but it also figures Shakespeare as an outsider, as somehow marginal, and there's nothing Americans love more than that story. Those who feel ambivalent about the category of dead white male can build a case for a Shakespeare who's naturally sympathetic to other outsiders (women, Jews, racial and sexual minorities), while all readers can see in him a version of our collective immigrant ancestors: torn between old world and new, needing to assimilate while still hanging on to their faith or culture at home.
And among those immigrant ancestors, let's not forget just how many of them were ethnic Catholics who left Catholic or culturally-Catholic descendants. Some of those descendants are already invested in a persecutory narrative ("Don't you know the Irish in America were like slaves??"), while others are simply nostalgic for the separate tribal identity of their parents' and grandparents' days. I imagine, though, that a version of this appeal might work for non-Catholic Christians (again, whether because of a persecutory fantasy or a more benign nostalgia), as well as for elite, well-educated conservatives of that peculiar Ivy-League type, drawn to Catholicism, at least intellectually and aesthetically, as a symbol of reactionary traditionalism.
In other words, ShaxCath has something for everyone: left and right, populist and elite.
I don't have a problem with the ShaxCath meme, particularly, though I'm not deeply interested in it. This might seem odd, since I work on religion and literature and I've written about Shakespeare (and I'm Catholic), but biography isn't really what most literary scholars do. Nor is religion on a yes/no binary model how the field thinks about the subject these days: I'm a lot more interested in religion as cultural practice and lived experience. It's pretty clear that in the Early Modern period religious identity was a vexed and unstable thing, formed of many component parts; there's what you call yourself, and there's how others see you, and then there's what you actually do in the world.
That's likewise true to the American experience. So if I were trying to sell America on a Shakespeare-and-religion story, it'd be that one.