Richard Wilson. Secret Shakespeare: studies in theatre, religion and resistance. Manchester, U.K. : Manchester University Press, 2004. x+326pp. ISBN 0 7190 7024 4.

James Ellison
University of Dundee

Ellison, James. "Review of Richard Wilson,Secret Shakespeare: studies in theatre, religion and resistance." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 17.1-10 <URL:>.

  1. In the renewed debate over Shakespeare's religion, one thing seems certain: he was unquestionably a moderate in questions of faith, deeply mistrustful of religious extremism. But was he a Protestant moderate or a Catholic moderate? In Secret Shakespeare, Richard Wilson investigates the latter possibility with characteristic verve, unearthing much rich and fascinating detail along the way. Wilson suggests that Shakespeare's celebrated reticence and seeming impersonality was shaped by his upbringing in a secretive 'church-papist' environment in Stratford, and by the 'Counter-Reformation culture of self-effacement' (15) developed in Cardinal Borromeo's Milan (a city which crops up repeatedly in Shakespeare's works), and promulgated by the Jesuit missionaries in England. Shakespeare drew back from this world, however: like many English Catholics, he retreated to a politique position, seeking a quiet tolerance for the Old Religion, rather than a complete return of the apostate nation to Rome. His reaction to the personal pressures created by the demand of the Elizabethan state for its subjects to declare themselves in matters of religion was to adopt a mode of secrecy, to withdraw into hidden spaces of the mind analogous to the priest-holes and Catholic closets with which contemporary Warwickshire was now riddled. Some of the most significant moments in his plays are silences: Gertrude on the subject of Claudius, Cordelia and Hermione, Isabella's lack of response to the Duke's proposal of marriage. Equally, his dramas continually focus on questions of allegiance, reflecting continuing concern about the loyalty of the English Catholic nobles.

  2. Wilson begins a chronological account of Shakespeare's development by reminding us of the importance of Warwickshire in the mission of Campion and Parsons which began in 1580, and of the Catholicism of Alexander Hoghton, who may have employed the young dramatist at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire. He adduces a little-known but intriguing play by the obsessive priest-hunter Anthony Munday, Fidele and Fortunio (1585), as the pattern for Shakespeare's interest in scenes of spying and overhearing, although in the latter's hands they are much more qualified and uncomfortable events. Venus and Adonis becomes an important work in this account: the poignant description of Adonis's bloody end is interpreted here as a warning to the young Catholic Earl of Southampton about the dangers awaiting a man in his position at Elizabeth's court, and cautioning against any attempt to seek the kind of religious and political martyrdom being courted by Campion and Southwell. In a chapter on A Midsummer Night's Dream, Wilson notes the persistence of the old Catholic world in Shakespeare's imagination, from the holy water which will consecrate the lovers' marital beds at the end of the play, to the ubiquity of saints in the plays, amounting to around 150 references in all.

  3. Wilson's account of Jacobean Shakespeare begins with increasing doubts about the Jesuits, to the point where they can be portrayed as monsters and Machiavels. This might seem a somewhat unlikely turn in an exploration of Shakespeare's Catholic leanings, but it is well attested that relationships between the Jesuits and their more moderate English co-religionists had by now deteriorated into extreme acrimony: many of the latter were by now convinced that the Jesuits were a liability, whose efforts had only succeeded in greatly worsening the living conditions of the vast majority of English Catholics. It is, therefore, just conceivable that the attack on the Jesuits in Macbeth is written from this perspective, as Wilson claims, rather than being a more straightforward expression of the widespread revulsion felt by English Protestants of all shades of opinion at the Gunpowder Plot; and some interesting new material on the connections between witches and Jesuits is presented here. Equally, Iago can be interpreted as a portrait of a Catholic Machiavel, as other critics have recently noted: Iago's devilry does seem to be intended as some sort of anti-Catholic jibe, recalling the great Spanish saint St. Iago de Compostela whose intercession was supposed to have helped defeat the Moors, and Wilson makes some fine comments on the liminal status of Venice, poised between Catholicism and a move to something approaching the via media of the Church of England.Wilson goes on to read the statue scene in The Winter's Tale very attractively, as a staged religious event whose language is precisely tailored to be acceptable to both Protestants and Catholics. But in The Tempest, he puts excessive weight upon Prospero's chance mention of 'indulgence' in the epilogue (as other critics of this persuasion have done): Prospero is a living person, not a soul in purgatory, and his remarks are some way removed from the discredited Catholic practice of indulgences and prayers for the dead. Furthermore, any Catholic aura one might find in these words may have more to do with the remarkable resemblances between Prospero and the Emperor Rudolf II noted by Robert Grudin and David Scott Kastan and mentioned with approval by Wilson himself earlier in the book: Shakespeare may thus be more concerned to allegorize the extremely tense religious situation in central and southern Europe in some way, rather than to make a personal statement of faith.

  4. The work's final chapter is in many ways the most interesting. Inquiring into what might have recommended King Lear for performance by a recusant troop of players in Yorkshire in 1610, Wilson has some fine comments on another play in their repertoire, the remarkably ecumenical Travels of the Three English Brothers by Day, Rowley, and George Wilkins (1607); and his argument that Cordelia's exile to France has something to do with the disillusionment of English Catholics in the early years of James I's reign seems broadly convincing. He also points out most intriguingly that the Catholic Cholmleys, the players' patrons, were long-time local rivals of the notorious Sir Thomas Hoby, who may be satirised as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, and adduces some fascinating material on the subsequent prosecution of the players.

  5. Richard Wilson has done more than any other critic in this field to contextualise Shakespeare's persistent contact with Roman Catholicism, and this marks a major step forward in our understanding of the poet's religious and political attitudes. However, those uninitiated in the current debate over Shakespeare's religion should be warned that it represents a somewhat one-sided account. The very notion of a 'secret Shakespeare' is highly debatable. A penchant for personal secrecy is no infallible sign of Catholic leanings at this time: Christopher Marlowe is far more secretive and elusive figure than Shakespeare for example, but he is most unlikely to have had Catholic sympathies. The exact religious position of many Renaissance lay authors, secretive or otherwise, can be remarkably hard to tie down, and of course may change over time. Furthermore, it is an oft-repeated truism that we actually know a remarkable amount about Shakespeare by comparison with many other writers of the period; he didn't cover his tracks specially well, and circulated a sequence of sonnets which strike most readers as remarkably frank and confessional in tone by comparison with those of many of his contemporaries. Secret Catholics had no monopoly on interiority: Protestant writers could be just as inward-looking, meditative, and politically alienated as Catholic ones, as the long and often rather distinguished tradition of vernacular psalm translation frequently tells us. Patronage connections are scarcely more helpful to Wilson's argument. A great deal is made in this book of Shakespeare's associations with the Earl of Southampton and the Catholic Montagues of Sussex, but this tells us little about Shakespeare's own position: George Gascoigne, for example, was quite happy to compose entertainments for both the Montagues and the Earl of Leicester. Furthermore, Southampton converted from Catholicism to the Church of England at around the high-point of Shakespeare's dramatic career (c.1600-1604), and subsequently pursued a career as a pillar of the strongly Protestant Virginia Company, and later as a warrior for the Protestant Cause in the Low Countries; little of this is discussed in Wilson's book. And Shakespeare's precise relationship with Southampton (and the Earl of Essex for that matter) is still lamentably unclear.

  6. The logic of Wilson's exploration of a politique Shakespeare leads him to several unlikely judgements. Thus the dramatist's supposedly craven silence on the Catholic martyrs is somewhat harshly equated with the notorious refusal of the politique Duc d'Alenšon to lift a finger to save Campion, during the middle of the former's marriage negotiations with Elizabeth (37). And it is hard to imagine Shakespeare making common cause with the crypto-Catholic Lord Henry Howard (subsequently Earl of Northampton), as Wilson suggests (283): he is more likely to have satirized the unlovely Howard as Wolsey in Henry VIII. Furthermore, if Shakespeare's plays are dramas of religious allegiance, English Catholics were by no means the only group to represent a threat to national stability. During the latter 1580s and the 1590s Elizabeth was just as worried about allegiance among her Protestant noblemen such as Leicester and the Earl of Essex as she was about Catholic unrest: anyone entrusted with command of one of her great armies was potentially a powerful threat.

  7. Some of the work's occasional lapses in scholarly accuracy reveal a similar bias. For example, the Stanleys (Henry and Ferdinando) are incorrectly described as third and fourth earls (they were in fact fourth and fifth earls respectively), and Wilson's assertion of their Catholic leanings is questionable. Another crucial figure in this debate is Sir Edwin Sandys (incorrectly cited as Sir Edward): as the man who is credited with having converted Southampton to Protestantism, and the author of the greatest work of moderate and eirenic Protestantism of the period (his Relation of the State of Religion in Western Europe, 1599), Sandys surely deserves to be taken more seriously in a study of this nature. And I found it disconcerting to be informed that the fable of Shakespeare's deer-poaching from Sir Thomas Lucy should be interpreted as deriving from a real incident prompted by Catholic resentment against the Protestant Lucys: 'So, though trivialised by biographers, Shakespeare's participation in this religious riot looks ominous in the light of Catholic resistance' (114). As with many of Wilson's observations, this one (deriving from the nineteenth-century critic Richard Simpson) is intriguing but wildly speculative. Personally, I'm still on the side of the kill-joy biographers so roundly chided here.

  8. The nature of the middle ground of faith in Elizabethan England remains puzzling to modern historians and literary critics alike. The question I began with - was Shakespeare a Protestant moderate or a Catholic one? - may very well not be the right one to ask. There are other strands in Shakespeare's religious writing which seem to lie completely outside sectarian debate: the Erasmian ideals recently explored by Jeffrey Knapp, and the hermetic imagery which, as Frances Yates long ago noted, is such a powerful force in the last plays. In the extraordinary spiritual moments of these final masterpieces, Shakespeare often seems closer to the intellectual world of Marsilio Ficino and his heirs than to a genuine Catholic politique poet such as Henry Constable.

  9. But for a final comment on the issue of Shakespeare's Catholicism, perhaps we should attend to recent comments by the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor of English at Loyola College in Maryland, whose distinguished Shakespearean writings remain a model of impartiality and scholarly precision. As Robert Miola S. J. notes, 'even if Catholics number among Shakespeare's schoolmasters, friends, or family members, they do not, ipso facto, provide any evidence about his particular religious persuasion'; equally, 'one can easily find as many anti-Catholic passages, moments, and characters, as pro-Catholic' in Shakespeare's plays. Ernst Honigmann, whose original work re-kindled interest in this area, judiciously concluded that although Shakespeare may have come under all kinds of Catholic influences, by the early 1590s the Henry VI plays and King John promote a Protestant viewpoint. Other critics, such as Knapp, Arthur Marotti, and Richard McCoy, have incorporated recent evidence about Shakespeare's Catholic contacts into a centrist and eirenic model of his religious beliefs, sympathetic to moderates on both sides of the schism.

  10. Secret Shakespeare is nonetheless a challenging and stimulating book. Just falling short of claiming that Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic, at his best Wilson reveals the extraordinary persistence and closeness of the dramatist's contacts with the harsh realities of religious division in early modern England, and his continual profound reflection upon the subject throughout the extant body of work. Any work which encourages fresh research in this still poorly understood area is to be welcomed.

    Works Cited

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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).