Friday, January 30, 2009

Shakespeare's catholic connection

Edmond Campion, honourable, but ultimately just another victim of the age of faith

For something completely different, I've been watching a DVD, In Search of Shakespeare, being the first two episodes of a series by that name. The second episode deals among other things with the lost years, now found, according to some scholars. It really is intriguing and highly plausible. It all seems to have started with a book written by E A J Honigmann, The Lost Years. He takes a fresh look at some intriguing old evidence from Lancashire, a town called Lea [which I've possibly tracked down as a part of Preston]. There, a gentleman named Alexander Hoghton mentions one William Shakeshaft in his will, written in August 1581 when Shakespeare would've been about seventeen. The will intriguingly speaks of play clothes and players, and the mention of Shakeshaft fits well with what we know of Shakespeare at the time:
And I most heartily require the said Sir Thomas to be friendly unto Fulk Gyllome and William Shakeshafte now dwelling with me and either to take them unto his service or else to help them to some good master, as my trust is he will
Hoghton was a Catholic, and in those difficult times, Catholics helped their own - for it's likely that John Shakespeare was a Catholic [evidence in fact having been found of this in the form of a Catholic tract secreted in the walls of his home.

Difficult times - the country having switched from Catholic to Protestant under Henry VIII and Edward VI, then back to Catholicism with a vengeance under Mary, and back to Protestantism under Elizabeth. Many Catholics naturally hoped that the tide would swing their way again. Meanwhile the Queen was demanding religious fealty, while the likes of Edmund Campion were demanding that Catholics declare themselves as those of the true faith. It was a tragic period, poisoned by religion. 

The story goes that young Shakespeare was a brilliant pupil, probably at Stratford's best school, King Edward VI Grammar, and destined to go on to university, like his precise contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, but for reasons unclear his father, who had been a prosperous glover and mayor of Stratford, suffered a collapse of fortune, which rather dampened Will's prospects. The theory has it that one of Will's schoolmasters, John Cottam, was an associate of Hoghton who returned to Tarnacre, only a few miles from Lea, probably in 1582 [Tarnacre seems also to be incorporated into Preston]. He is also mentioned in Hoghton's will. Cottam appears to have recommended Will as a tutor with impeccable Catholic credentials, one who could be trusted. Not that this is meant to suggest that William Shakespeare was then or at any time a strict Catholic. He was young and a survivor, and would've been happy to grab this opportunity, for the time being. 
It's an intriguing story, which fills out some of Shakespeare's life, to set against the Earl of Oxford legends etc. I'm vaguely wondering how the religious intrigues can be used by me in VersusReligion. Essentially these are political squabbles, but the religious passions make it all cut so much deeper, as in Northern Ireland. The beauty of Shakespeare's work and his gift, is that he seems so effortlessly to rise above it all. 


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