WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: CATHOLIC PLAYWRIGHT
The case for the First Quarto of Hamlet
The popular and academic world continues to reflect on Shakespeare’s support of Recusant Catholic England, and so far this has done nothing to damage the near universal agreement that he is one of the greatest writers of all time, if not the greatest writer of all time. The purely biographical proof of Shakespeare’s familiarity with Recusant life is now quite well established. He was active as a tutor to a well-known Recusant Catholic family and a supporter of the banished old rite mass, dying a "papist". He knew and loved the Jesuits, particularly St. Robert Southwell, the poet. As a Catholic his heart must have been broken by the failure of the Babington Plot, the Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, the failure of the Spanish Armada, the Essex Rebellion and the Gunpowder Plot, all of which lead to an intensification of militant anti-Catholic propaganda and seriously weakened any confidence in the hope of a restoration. The punishments, arrests, imprisonments, executions, fines and general fear and misery in the daily life of ordinary Catholics meant that morale was low, especially under King James I and his Government, who were a great disappointment, as intent on a systematic campaign to extinguish the Faith in the "dowry of Mary" as Queen Elizabeth I. The virulent propaganda was directed at lay Catholics in general but also the Jesuits in particular, who had of course been instrumental in keeping the Faith alive, and had lost about twenty-three of their men as martyrs for the Faith at Tyburn, starting with St. Edmund Campion. In a contemporary historian’s account of the Jesuit presence in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Shakespeare is explicitly identified as the ally, the "papist friend" of the Jesuit Fr. Robert Persons: "the one ever feigning, and the other ever falsifying the truth". That Shakespeare was in league with the Jesuits, spiritually if not physically, should make us receptive to the possibility that his plays have more than just an incidentally Catholic component.
movement has always made its own, seemingly idiosyncratic contribution
to the question of the greatness of Shakespeare, by claiming that
the works published under the name of Shakespeare were actually written
by Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth I, or
Christopher Marlowe, most of whom were patently hostile to the ‘old
faith’. How can the biographically Catholic Shakespeare coexist with
an imposter Shakespeare, apologist for Protestant Reform and the Ascendancy?
At first sight it does not seem uncharitable to want to dismiss this
speculation as nonsense, unless the claim is being made that the Catholic
Shakespeare’s works were edited by anti-Catholics to purge them of
the ‘old faith’ and thus help to keep England confirmed in the new?
An interesting conspiracy theory, perhaps.
The attempt so far to link William Shakespeare’s works with orthodox Catholic doctrine in the twentieth century has been very modest, but this is changing rapidly, perhaps because so many Catholics today who defend the traditional Faith to which the bard was devoted, are currently experiencing exactly the same kind of agony felt by Recusant Catholics in Elizabethan England as they try to save the old rite of Mass and preserve the integrity of Catholic doctrine and practice, against considerable odds. On the positive side, in 1846 John Henry de Groot published an account of the Shakespeares and the old faith, followed in the early twentieth century by the works of Clara Longworth, Comtesse de Chambrun, and in 1952 by Mutschmann and Wentersdorf on Shakespeare and Catholicism. Other Catholic scholars are Roy Battenhouse and Peter Milward SJ. The latter’s recent The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays (1997) and Shakespeare’s Apocalypse (2000) are now available in paperback from The Saint Austin Press. Many of these Catholic critics make the Catholic content of the plays absolutely central in quite a simple way, whilst the majority of non-Catholic critics typically tend to ride slip-shod over all the Catholic allusions. Anyone interested in reading an excellent account of all of this, together with a brief review of all the references to Holy Scripture, to Catholic doctrine, to the liturgy, to the sacraments, to the ten commandments, to the seven deadly sins, and to the role of priests in saving souls in Shakespeare’s work should read Ian Wilson’s Shakespeare: The Evidence (1993). Professor Allen White has produced a series of tapes on Shakespeare’s work and the question of his Catholicism, which are available from the Society of St. Pius X seminary in Winona in America. On Good Friday this year the Times Literary Supplement published an essay by Clare Asquith about Shakespeare’s mysterious poem ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, showing that it meditates on the Catholic doctrine of the Mass and the Priesthood. Finally, the much discussed sympathetic portrayal of pre-Reformation England from a Catholic point of view, Eamon Duffy’s Stripping the Altars (1992), is vital in this new debate and all who have not yet read this should do so.
We will attempt to illustrate that Shakespeare wrote with the intention of consoling Recusant Catholics in their distress at a time when they were being persecuted for their beliefs. Given that the power of censorship in his day was great, and that the Government’s agencies were waging a war against Jesuits and all practicing Catholics, Shakespeare had to address his audiences in ways which acknowledged the range of denominational factions amongst spectators. He had to produce a successful illusion that he was not subverting the political status quo; was not an outright critic of the sovereign; did not intend to cast aspersions on the legitimacy or not of reigning monarchs; and yet evolve a secret language of signs, signals, symbols and associations, probably not fully meaningful to non-Catholics, cryptic references to the contemporary, and the struggles of Catholics under a reign of terror, which would be well received and understood in silence by those who were having to adapt to the strategy of subterfuge and silence in order to preserve the Faith. Virtually none of Shakespeare’s plays is set in contemporary England. He repeatedly chose places and settings either far distant from England or at periods in history far removed from immediate post-Reformation England, in order to make it seem that his work was not relevant to his present day.
One edition we will call the master-text, known as the Folio edition or Q2. This is the edition in popular use at schools and universities, and one with which we are all familiar. It was first published in 1604-5, an interesting date, given the drama of the Gunpowder Plot. It was performed to Jacobean audiences, and to James I at Hampton Court. This Hamlet appeals broadly to a modern, atheist sensibility because the figure Hamlet is a rebel; he is prepared to overthrow the moral order; he suffers; he cannot understand the meaning of life; is passionate in everything he does; he longs for faith but suffers from doubt and nihilism; produces a coherent apology for skepticism and stoicism; hates and loves both his mother and the beloved Ophelia; is capable of destroying life without feeling much remorse (Polonius), and depriving souls of eternal salvation (his uncle); and whose residual Catholic faith is permanently at war with a savage, amoral, vindictive barbarism.
For instance, in the standard edition Hamlet positively considers suicide, at one time considered a virtue in a man in pre-Christian thought: "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,/That and resolve itself into a dew,/Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter". He is restrained in his desire to overthrow the moral order by his respect for the sixth commandment, which he nonetheless regrets, so he has become slightly estranged from the laws of God. Knowledge of his attraction to suicide colours the way we then interpret the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy: one of Hamlet’s options is to end his own life, because it seems so worthless. Peter Milward suggests that the idea of taking up "arms against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing end them" relates to the dilemma of all Recusant Catholics, who must have reflected on the recourse to arms to end their woes. However, the argument of the rest of this soliloquy is actually incoherent. Hamlet talks of an "undiscovered country", a land from which no traveller returns after he has cast off his "mortal coil", by which he means some anonymous place that one might visit after death: importantly this place has no name, and it is thus certainly not either Heaven or Hell. Because there is no evidence of what the undiscovered country is like, Hamlet argues it is better to stay with the evils and injustice of the world, rather than flee them, which would be to take a risk, given the unknowability of ultimate truth. He then recommends the ‘virtue’ of endurance, in the face of all the injustices of the temporal world. This manly, secular, agnostic ‘virtue’ has no transcendental value, does not promise to provide relief or comfort in the face of tribulation, and it thus links Hamlet with pre-Christian stoicism and scepticism. There are no traces of any kind of Christian faith in the meaning of life or life after death.
At the heart of the play, then, we have a man who admits that there is nothing. It is all of a piece that the very last scene of the play, when the stage is littered with corpses, is saturated with references to Roman scepticism and stoicism. Horatio takes his own life, and Hamlet seems to recognize the virtue of this. His last words are "the rest is silence" suggesting the cosmos is a kind of empty void in which human voices are not heard. This is the modernity, that the universe of the play is close to meaningless because the moral order provided by the medieval Catholic world view is no longer fixed by faith in God, in creation, in the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the Redemption: the fact that some of the text echoes the liturgy of a requiem, that there are countless quotations from Holy Scripture, does not really obscure this insinuating truth.
So the traces of modern atheism and agnosticism coexist with the remnant theology of the medieval world. Broadly speaking this elusive and rhetorical mixture continues to make the play the problem it is. Faced with the reality of regicide, fratricide, incest, adultery and a ghost from Purgatory asking him to take revenge on the evils committed, Hamlet’s nature in the master edition remains double, and his devotion to Christian doctrine overshadowed either by the barbarity of a ruthless desire to take revenge, or to stand above the human condition as if he were entirely detached from it, in the manner of a polished, self-conscious Renaissance man, asking purely rhetorical questions, as in the case of this speech from Act II,ii:
"What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"
There is an allusion here to the eighth Psalm, and to the Ash Wednesday liturgy of ashes to ashes and dust to dust - which is revisited in the "alas poor Yorick" scenes - but this is, importantly, a rhetorical question. Everything about the medieval world is now being questioned. Although Hamlet remains critical about the question of the ghost’s identity - and willing to regard him as an emissary from Hell if the play within the play does not succeed in affecting his uncle’s conscience about the murder - his famous lines as his desire for revenge increases are proof positive he has made an alliance with Satan:
the very witching time of night,
- as when he refrains from murdering his uncle when his uncle is confessing his sins and repents entirely, because he does not want him to go to Heaven, or when he describes himself as a scourge (from Hell, presumably) and minister (of salvation, presumably), and when he is full of self-hatred at the fact that he has not the courage to execute the bloody deed of vengeful murder. Similarly "O, from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth". This is not the recommendation of Our Lord, who preached forgiveness of sins! Further signs that he is a soul who has abandoned his moorings, desperately trying to legitimize the idea of murder which is merely personally repugnant to him, come with the two famous quotations from Holy Scripture. He tries to justify the decision to murder his father as willed by God and part of the overall design of the universe, a sign of Divine Providence, "There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them how we will". Later he piously cites St. Matthew with "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow", as if to convince himself his actions might have divine sanction. Hamlet here is suffering the consequences of disordered concupiscence, which is why he is more a man of volcanic passions than a recollected soul, and it is the reason why we regard with suspicion his attempts to legitimize his action by citing Holy Scripture. There is now a gaping chasm between thought and action, and the two are at war with one another.
THE FIRST QUARTO
I shall be arguing that it is a completely distinct play in its own right, and different to the play we all know and love, first and foremost because its Catholicism is absolutely central, and because the Faith is not engaged in a full-scale war of attrition with a Satanically inspired, amoral barbarism as is the case in the Hamlet we know better. Whereas the master-text is thought to be great and a "problem" play from the point of view of a coherent interpretation, we can show that the First Quarto is less ambitious in literary terms but more profoundly coherent; less a modern drama than a medieval mystery play, since it often expounds the eternal truths of Catholic doctrine in a simple, and uncomplicated fashion. It has not had the attention it deserves from Catholic critics. All the Catholic commentators of Hamlet like Fr. Peter Milward S.J., Fr. Christopher Devlin S.J., or Roy Battenhouse et. al. do not take the First Quarto seriously, which appears to be such a fund of unadulterated Catholic doctrine. They refer instead to the standard edition.
The First Quarto is
about half the length of the Folio edition. Its structure is more
simple and linear. The principle instigator of evil in the play is
still Hamlet’s uncle, who is only temporarily granted the respite
of repentance, since he goes on to set up the final scene in which
his wife, Hamlet and Laertes all die, his motive being to purge the
realm of threats to his illegitimate crown. Hamlet is still seriously
intent on taking revenge on his father’s murder, at the behest of
the Ghost from Purgatory and he also still kills Laertes’ father by
accident. But this Hamlet also positively believes in God; he can
be much more compassionate and merciful; he believes in the Four Last
Things; is instrumental in bringing his mother to repentance for her
sin of adultery; prevents Horatio from committing suicide; and dies
forgiving Laertes his sins. The signs of the disorder and tendency
to radical barbarism are nowhere in evidence. The play actually has
the virtue of simplicity. Hamlet respects the medieval world order
of the Catholic faith, and, importantly, is not seriously tempted
to overthrow it. The lines about him as scourge and minister are not
included. We can safely say that at times in the Quarto edition Hamlet
is not just in a state of grace, but able to redeem sin in the world
as a minister of salvation. In the famous "To be or not to
be" soliloquy the text is completely different to the one
we know, including a specific acknowledgement of a personal God; of
a personal judgment and Heaven and Hell, of the theological virtues
of faith, hope and charity. This is the most significant example of
a contrast and is proof positive that the Hamlet of the First Quarto
is a profoundly Catholic man and the play a vehicle to promote the
Catholic faith. Before examining this soliloquy in detail, we can
begin by acquainting readers with the scheme of the first Quarto to
provide evidence for the general claim that this Quarto is saturated
with a familiarity and sympathy for Catholic doctrine and a profound
sense of sympathy for the sufferings of Recusant Catholics in Elizabethan
1. Hamlet laments his father’s death and his mother’s swift second marriage
At the beginning of the play Hamlet is entreated by his mother and step-father not to return to Wittenberg. This concrete allusion alone implies that Hamlet was dabbling with the ‘new’ faith, as Wittenberg was the German University associated with Luther at the time of the Reformation. Later on in this edition he says he is reading ‘heresy’. This could have a period meaning in only one way. Hamlet’s father was a King, a divine being according to the medieval world view and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Now Hamlet’s father has been murdered. What greater sign of hatred of divinity than to assassinate the representative of God in society? The usurper King is in a state of mortal sin because he has committed regicide and fratricide. This loss of moral order at the apex of society becomes in turn the trigger which causes the hierarchical order to disintegrate. And this causes confused souls to reach out to novel alternatives, given the apparent failure of the Catholic faith to uphold and protect society as a whole. Vulnerable and confused souls entertain conversions to the Protestant ‘faith’. If we bear in mind that many in Shakespeare’s audience were suffering for the Faith as Recusants, because of the sins of their monarchs, living with considerable internal and external pressures in order to preserve the Faith, it is obvious that the new ‘Church of England’ represented a grave temptation. Indeed families were rent asunder by the conflicting loyalties and the purely worldly pressure to conform. Some suffered to preserve the old Faith, and others converted for all the material benefits and security that membership of the State church would confer. Our Lord’s prophecy that brother would betray brother and a father his child, that children would betray their parents and have them put to death was literally true in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, as families were often divided by the very question of truth and allegiance.
In his first soliloquy we are encouraged to see Hamlet as in a state of despair, a mortal sin, because of the collapse of the old world order:
His first major speech does not include the reference to suicide, as discussed above. Instead it identifies the attraction, not of the Protestant faith, but of something worse, nihilism (the desire that Heaven could intervene to turn all into chaos), in the face of moral anarchy. Here, the fact that his beloved mother - a Queen - has defied all modesty in two ways: by marrying so swiftly after the death of her husband, and by marrying her brother-in-law, which was tantamount to incest, according to Leviticus, as Hamlet says: "O wicked, wicked speed, to make such/Dexterity to incestuous sheets,/Ere yet the shoes were old.." The allusion would have had other echoes in Shakespeare’s day. Henry VIII maintained to the Pope that he was living in an incestuous union with Catherine of Aragon, who had previously been married to his brother, a claim the Papacy said had no validity because the Church had already granted Henry the right to marry Catherine on the grounds that her own marriage to Henry’s brother had not been consummated. The Church had not overturned the Scriptural injunction in Leviticus not to marry incestuously because marriages are to be consummated and when they are not the Pope has the right to declare them null and void. Henry VIII’s insistence on ‘sola scriptura’ was a Protestant position at war with the Catholic view that the Faith is made up of Holy Scripture and Tradition, leaving interpretation of Holy Scripture to the living tradition made up of Church Fathers, Doctors and Popes. Rev. Fr. Nicholas Sanders’ classic account of the Anglican schism of 1581, available to Catholics of Shakespeare’s day (recently reprinted by TAN), and on which St. Alphonsus of Liguori draws in his Refutation of the Heresies, also included the claim, widely believed at the time, that Henry VIII had been sleeping with Anne Boleyn’s mother before he embarked upon his more celebrated adulterous (and thus incestuous) affair with his own daughter, a tour de force of moral depravity. Hamlet’s revulsion at his mother’s behaviour would have struck a number of clear chords with his audience.
Hamlet wishes to dissolve into nothing, although, significantly, not necessarily to take his own life in an act of suicide as the first line in the soliloquy reads in the Folio edition. Hamlet here universalizes his personal despair and presents the attractions of Hell and the temptations of the Devil to the anguished soul when he wonders whether Heaven could intervene and turn all into chaos. So his first soliloquy hardly produces any evidence whatsoever for the claim that the man Hamlet in the First Quarto play is Catholic. On the contrary. And yet the temptation to nihilism is not in the ascendant, as it is in the other edition. Indeed, as we will show, it is finally eclipsed by a true, Catholic faith.
The new, usurper King
is also linked with other signs of disordered concupiscence. His court
has become a centre of carousing and revelry. In historical accounts
of the impact of Luther on German life these points about the overthrow
of traditional, orthodox doctrine were regularly made: there was a
drastic and dramatic increase in sin of all kinds. Drunkenness is
always a mortal sin, and in the new world order it is being flaunted
by the King and his court, as if it were not. "At night we’ll
feast together" the new King says.
2. The character
Polonius is Corambis
Before Hamlet is introduced to the ghost of his father in this version – that scene came later in the Folio version – the character Corambis enters, who is identical with the later version’s Polonius. The word Corambis is punningly derived from the well-known Latin proverb "Crambe bis posita mors est" - which means cabbage served up twice is death, a cryptic comment on Shakespeare’s low view of the man, whom most commentators believe was based on Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s first minister, of the Cecil family.
Corambis is a courtier, referred to later as "the chiefest pillar of our state", possibly in league with the new king on the condition that he not reveal the truth about how he illegitimately gained the throne. Corambis, like Polonius nearly word for word, produces his same masterpiece of secular wisdom, the truisms for his son Laertes about how to be wise in the world. A Catholic audience, bearing in mind Our Lord’s words that "what is folly in the eyes of God is wisdom in the eyes of man, and what is wise in the eyes of God is folly in the eyes of man", would have immediately recognized the subversive quality of the new world order’s view that: a. survival is the principle of life, and, b. that truth is not derived from Revelation, but a product of human reason and experience. Corambis produces the classic apology for opportunism, probably an attempt on Shakespeare’s part to pour scorn on all the handbooks in circulation on how to be a successful courtier. The pious "This above all, to thy own self be true" means only one thing, coming as it does after a series of banal warnings about taking the safe, middle path of non-commital "values" designed to secure personal advantage and survival.
Corambis believes that life is a performance art; that we do not know or need to know either ourselves or each other in any meaningful sense; that God is irrelevant; that "values" are personal choices and constructs; that the life of a courtier is merely a game of deceit and cunning. What friends need to be forced to be friends? Why should Laertes be told to "grapple them to thee with a hoop of steel"? The language of coercion and force suggests the new friendships are contrary to nature. These precepts cannot hide their own bankruptcy and are largely negative. Laertes is told not to argue, not to dress too flamboyantly and so on.
Now Shakespeare had witnessed the rise of a new class, those courtiers who had supported the new monarchs in their quest to break with Rome and establish an autonomous Church. He had seen the creation of a new class of men who were professionals at the game of life, motivated by personal ambition and rivalry, rather than the feudal idea of selfless service to a monarch viewed as divine. Indeed, feuding between rival families became ubiquitous under James I. He had seen the creation of a new underground and overground network of Government spies who had infiltrated the English College of Rome and the seminary at Douai to find out the names of those Jesuits who were willing to risk their lives, acting as undercover priests, to take the sacraments to the faithful in a state governed by terror. Most Catholics must have been revolted by Walsingham, Coke, Bacon, the Cecils, and all the other ‘new’ dynasties who owed their new found influence and wealth to an apostate monarch. In their own pseudo-urbane way Corambis’ battery of precepts founded on the principle of self-love were a powerful and cynical insight into the new, godless world of English politics, and the hatred of Christ which was fuelling it. The "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" idea directly applied to England. Once again, this part of the play supplies no direct evidence of Catholic doctrine. On the contrary, Catholic doctrine is being overtly subverted before our eyes. Yet Catholics would not have been seduced by the self-conscious but deeply boring ‘wit’ of Corambis; they would have known that it represented a corruption of Our Lord’s teachings about true wisdom. When he is dead Hamlet removes him from the stage saying he is a "foolish, prating knave" - rather a charitable comment, all things considered.
(To conclude in the next edition)
Dr. Murphy is a lecturer in German and European language and literature. She has taught at University College Dublin, University College Cork and Warwick University. Her last contribution to Christian Order was "Curriculum Wars and the New Philistinism" in the October 2000 edition.