Was Shakespeare A Closet Catholic?
KU grad eyes the Bard's religion
by Julie Sachs

Photo by Kelly Heese/ University Relations
Carol Enos, who studied Shakespeare's religion for her thesis,
has been asked to present her findings in England.

In 16th-century England, Catholics practiced their religion in secret, hoping they would not be discovered by the Protestant monarchy. At the same time, William Shakespeare was writing drama and poetry that would mark him, in the minds of some scholars, as a closet Catholic cleverly protesting the English government's religious intolerance.

Carol Enos, a retired Free State and Lawrence High English teacher who received her master's degree from KU in December 1999, based her master's thesis on a study of Shakespeare's religion.

While researching at the University of Oxford, England, Enos came across The Seminary Priests, a book by Godfrey Anstruther containing biographies of Catholic priests who lived in England in the 1580s during the Counter-Reformation. The priests were trained in seminaries in Flanders and France and sent secretly to England to keep Catholicism alive in the newly Protestant country. In the course of reading, Enos realized that the priests frequently shared surnames with actors and playwrights. The repetition of names between the two groups suggested a possible connection between the theatre world and Catholic underground activity.

Enos also was reading Shakespeare: The Lost Years by E.A.J. Honigmann, a book prompted by the 1581 will of Alexander Hoghton, a Catholic whose home in Lancashire was a center for the secret activity of the Catholic missions priests. The will named a William Shakeshafte, who was a player (actor) in the home. Enos worked to corroborate the theory that William Shakeshafte was actually William Shakespeare. If Shakespeare spent his late teen years in this important Catholic center, he was very likely a Catholic, at least in his youth, Enos said. A focus of Enos' present research is to examine the plays from the perspective of an English Renaissance Catholic.

Enos said that, in his writing, Shakespeare seemed willing to risk violating government strictures against engaging in questions of religion on the stage. Examples include his depiction of old King Hamlet as suffering the torments of a purgatory that the Puritans had outlawed, and his characterization of a very religious Richard II, who publicly and on the stage tells his beads, a Catholic form of prayer that was outlawed.

"I think that the plays are written so skillfully that they are ambiguous," Enos said.
Enos said that her search for the truth behind Shakespeare was difficult, because there are virtually no written records from Shakespeare himself. Enos said that Shakespeare's life -- his beliefs, social life and family -- is a multi-dimensional puzzle that is missing many of the key pieces.

Despite Enos' difficulty, she managed to gather enough material to prove her thesis. She also was asked to present her findings at a Renaissance conference in Lancashire this past July.

Enos also has met Peter Milward, a Jesuit priest who writes about Shakespeare's possible Catholic ties and is considered the foremost scholar in that area.

"It was an unexpected honor to meet Father Milward, a scholar who had been kind of a god for me," Enos said. "Frequently, I reached conclusions regarding Shakespeare's Catholic connections and then later read something by Milward which corraborated my findings."

A few weeks after Enos returned home from the conference, she received a critique from Milward.

"I particularly value his opinion, because he is quite outspoken and aims to tell the truth, and he was happy to have someone support his views who is not Catholic," Enos said.

Shakespeare and the Catholic Religion, a slightly revised version of Enos' thesis, will be published by Dorrance this year.

Despite the coming publication, Enos said that she is not through with her interest in Shakespeare.

"It's wonderful to have this consuming interest and to have retired so that I have time to work on it," Enos said.

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July 14, 2000
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