What did Shakespeare believe? He lived and created his work during a period of religious turmoil; and scholars are left to guess at his true spiritual worldview, despite his association with Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the fact that he was baptized and buried there.
And so it was appropriate that Holy Trinity Church, the location of Shakespeare’s grave, should be the venue for the first performance in England of the play Shakeshafte by Rowan Williams which I went to see a few days ago. During the course of the play, a teenage Shakespeare debates with the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and I found this portrayal by the Trinity Players thought-provoking, poignant and inspiring.
The only reason why we think Shakeshafte may be our William Shakespeare is because a young man of that name is referred to as an in-house entertainer in the will of Alexander Hoghton of Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1581. And it is known that Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, John Cottam, an ardent Catholic, recommended his pupil Will Shakeshafte and another boy, Fulk Gillom, to Alexander, for employment as tutors in his house and to provide entertainment. Alexander and his family were strong Catholics in Lancashire, a county renowned for being faithful to the “old religion” in a dangerous time of persecution against Catholics (and a county which was to see the infamous Pendle Witch trials in 1612, just 4 years before Shakespeare’s death).
So former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams works with the theory that this young Shakeshafte was indeed our William Shakespeare, during what scholars call one of the two “lost periods” of Shakespeare’s life. And that he met, talked and maybe even argued with Edmund Campion, the Jesuit priest who returned to England in 1580, spent time undercover at Hoghton Hall, was eventually betrayed, tried, and hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581.
Scholars cannot tell what Shakespeare truly believed. Some think he was a closet Catholic and others that he was an atheist. The latter can cite quotes like:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven.
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
So in this play, the young poet – who is portrayed by actor Louis Osborne as wild, passionate and unruly – and the devout priest, played by Tim Raistrick, come face to face, and swap their views of life. And the poet’s view of life is clearly one that Rowan Williams shares, despite having been Archbishop of Canterbury: he as a poet wants to experience life in all its richness and diversity. He ‘holds a mirror up to nature’, listening to a variety of voices in his head and heart, unable to reduce them all to just one interpretation of the truth. And the play asks the question: Should we understand the truth as one grand central narrative to be imposed on life, or something that emerges in the dialogue between tradition and experience?(programme note by Anthony Woollard).
I think that Rowan Williams himself holds that view of life in tension with ‘the grand narrative’ of evangelical Christian belief. And this to me is a beautiful expression of what Shakespeare himself would have believed; a world view with which I too can empathise. And Shakespeare the poet would have held this view in amongst the dangerous religious turmoil of Elizabethan England, and it would be one that could only be hinted at in his poetry and plays, but never explicitly stated.
Which is probably the reason for the veiled remark to Horatio:
There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.