Shakespeare did write Lear; what is more, he was a Catholic

A detail from a painting believed to be an authentic image of the writer made from life. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The actor Sir Derek Jacobi is currently acting the part of King Lear to great critical acclaim at the Donmar Warehouse. I must get to see it before the production closes just to see if he gets my personal imprimatur or not. But there is one matter on which I cannot agree with Sir Derek: the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Apparently the knighted thespian takes a benighted view on this one: that a semi-educated country boy from Stratford couldn’t possibly have written the works of genius attributed to him.

Indeed, Jacobi has publicly declared, “The only evidence of Shakespeare’s literary life was produced after he died and is open to dispute. Nothing, apart from some shaky signatures, puts a pen in his hand. Legend, hearsay and myth have created this writer.”

This is bilge and balderdash, stuff and nonsense. But rather than rehearse his arguments at second-hand, may I direct readers of this blog to an excellent book, Contested Will: Who wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University. Shapiro demolishes all the far-fetched and tendentious theories advocated by Jacobi and others – Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain among them – who are too intellectually contorted to see the obvious: that if you are a genius you don’t have to experience at first-hand everything you write about; you use your imagination. After all, Shakespeare did not have to commit murder to be able to write Macbeth; nor did he have to go mad in order to write King Lear.

I understand that Jacobi was a grammar school boy. Presumably it delivered him a decent education. Why should Shakespeare be thought of as a country bumpkin when it is known that he enjoyed the rigours of an Elizabethan grammar school education in Stratford? Obviously, as a youth of preternatural poetic sensibility, he did not over-exert himself with the heavily classical syllabus; ‘little Latin and less Greek’, according to his friend Ben Jonson. Luckily there was no TV in those days, so that instead of slumping on the sofa, young William got much of his wisdom from the university of life.

Well, as I am sure readers will agree with me, I hardly need to preach to the converted. Just one other thing: the greatest poet and dramatist of all time (you can keep your Racine and your Goethe) was an Englishman – and a Catholic. I will readily admit that the evidence for this is disputed (unlike the authorship of the plays for 200 years after his death.) Shapiro does not go into this; he is simply concerned that prove that Shakespeare wrote the plays. But there is still enough contributory knowledge of his childhood influences, his family milieu and his acting circle to make his religious beliefs more than a conjecture. His parents were devout Catholics; so were his school masters; so were many of his friends, his acting troupe and his patrons. (Fr Peter Milward SJ has written about Catholic aspects in the plays themselves.)

Shapiro surmises that one of the reasons there is so little biographical documentation about Shakespeare during his life is that, as the follower of an outlawed faith (he did not want to be hanged, drawn and quartered after all, and who can blame him) he destroyed the evidence. Peter Ackroyd’s biography discusses this question in greater depth, as does Clare Asquith’s Shadowplay, which suggests that the plays are crammed with coded allusions for Shakespeare’s co-religionists.

At any rate, the dramatist is not the atheist that modern (atheist) scholars would have him be, Jonathan Bate and director Richard Eyre among them. Just because they inhabit a bleak, post-modern, Darwinian universe there is no reason to drag Shakespeare along with them. Yes – he could pretend to be a pagan and a cynic, as in the Roman plays, and convey every other position as he chose. But that is the power of his imaginative capacity. To throw out a final intriguing thought for sceptical Sir Derek: is Shakespeare really buried in Stratford parish church?

I have read a most plausible argument by the late Hugh Ross Williamson that suggests the enigmatic words on his tomb – “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear/to dig the dust enclosed here/blest be the man that spares these stones/ and curst be he that moves these bones” – were deliberately composed to stop people opening up the coffin. Why? Because as a loyal though secret Catholic, Shakespeare wanted the Church’s last rites and a Catholic burial – and not to lie in a Protestant church.