April 23, 2002
volume 13, no. 77

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Hamlet - Alien amidst apostates

By Bishop Richard Williamson

Today is the 438th anniversary of the birth of Catholic-born William Shakespeare in 1564 and the 386th commemoration of his death in 1616, both at Stratford-on-the-Avon. This literary genius gave the world the God-given treasures of literature for generations to come. His tombstone at the Church of the Holy Trinity at Stratford reads: "Good friend for Jesus' sake forebeare, to digg the dust encloased hearse. Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones, And curst bey he yt moves my bones." (Old English prose, not typos or misspellings.) Shakespeare was torn by the torment of the Reformation; his heart and soul were aligned with Rome while his life and political needs were tied to the Church of England and its rulers. This is evident as Bishop Williamson gives insight into the Catholicity of this greatest of English writers. In "Hamlet" he finds a microcosm of what the great poet faced, what modern man faces today, and, in a sense, what faithful Catholics echo in the refrain of the Bard's Richard III's words "O call back yesterday, bid time return."

    "...even if the plays [Shakespeare's] are not explicitly Catholic, they are implicitly Catholic, by for instance the accusation of spiritual darkness in “Hamlet”. Now if “Hamlet” were explicitly Catholic, could it have got through to numberless young men in the darkness since? No, because a large part of that darkness consists, precisely, in the automatic rejection of anything that is explicitly Catholic. And so Providence, knowing from etemity into what a tunnel mankind waa plunging itself at the time of the Reformation, arranged for this dark sign-post to point towards the light. Modern moles cannot bear sign-posts that are too bright..."

    Today’s anti-Christendom has so untaught history and literature that even Catholics who have the Faith can think that engineering and chemistry are more important. But let such readers allow a recent book from Germany claiming Shakespeare was an underground Catholic to give them a keen insight into many troubled souls of today.

    The life of William Shakespeare, 1564-1616, is a major crossroads of literature, history and religion. He towers over Engtish literature, as no other poet or writer in the English language comes near him for the varied and rich use that he makes of our mother tongue. He is a giant of world literature, as hardly another dramatist in the world can rival the breadth and depth of his stage dramas. History explains the depth. He wrote for the stage of Elizabethan England, poised between the Middle Ages and the modern world, when Elizabeth I and James I were finally wrenching England away from Rome, with enormous consequences for world history. And at the heart of that disastrous wrench was of course the question of religion: England was apostatizing. The Reformation so-called had wrought an earthquake in English souls. Faithful Catholics were in real pain, and many were being martyred for their pains. lt makes sense that Shakespeare was wrestling in depth with the meaning of life. It makes particular sense of the turmoil of “Hamlet”.

    However, if Shakespeare was shaken, he did not go as far as the martyrdom of a number of his canonized contempo­raries. From 1592 when he began his brilliant career on the London stage, until 1612 (or 1613) when he retired to his home­town of Stratford-upon-Avon, in all his 37 or 38 plays one can find the traces of Catholicism only if one knows what one is looking for. They are there, but so well concealed that if the Protestant government knew Shakespeare was a Catholic, as they most likely did, they must have felt no need to make a martyr of him. He was a superb propagandist for the Tudors, a most popular entertainer of Court and people, and as a Catholic he was keeping a sufficiently low profile...

    ln fact Shakespeare in his plays and in his life so cleverly disguised his Catholic Faith that it needs to be proved that he had it at all. Scraps of evidence have for a long time pointed in that direction, for instance the known Catholicism of his parents, wife and daughter; the Catholicism of fellow-actors; his purchase of an important Blackfriars building as a haven for Catholic recusants just before he finally Ieft London. However, not onIy did Shakespeare so paint himself out of the picture that he has been absurdly identified with a variety of more famous Elizabethans by modern critics unable to accept that such significant works could have come from such an apparently insignificant personage, but also all England since Shakespeare’s time, proud of its greatest writer but repudiating his religion, has not sought to tear away the disguise. And the plays let them get away with it...

    But research is being done today, a Shakespeare scholar tells me, by which the truth is coming out. That much is certainly indicated by the book which appeared earIier this year in Germany. “The hidden Existence of WiIIiam Shakespeare”, by Mrs. Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel. She has assembled all known pointers towards Shakespeares Catholicism, studied them with a Germanic thoroughness, added the fruits of her own research, and succeeded by the concordance of all this circumstantial evidence in making what looks (at least to a non-Shakespeare scholar) like a conclusive case that he was a “rebel in the Catholic underground” of Elizabethan and Jacobeen Ertgtami. Not all the details need concern us here, because we are more interested in her conclusion for the light which it throws on “Hamlet” in particular, and on the ways of God in the modem world in general. So two examples of the kind of evidence she adduces will have to suffice.

    She begins with the previously known fact that a 1966 X-ray of the 1608 Flower-Portrait of Shakespeare showed that it had been painted over a picture of the Madonna with Child and St. John. She speculates that the over-painting was not from a shortage of canvas but from a desire to hide from anti-Catholic authorities a possession they made so dangerous. She concludes with her own discovery of three entries in the guest register of the English College (England’s priestly semi­nary) in Rome: from April 1585, “Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis’; from 1587, “Shfordus Cestriensis”; and from 1589, “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis”. The three entries are easily decipherable as pseudonyms of Shakespeare: (King) Arthurs (compatriot) from Strabford (in the diocese) of Worcester, Sh(akespeare from Strat)ford (in the diocese) of Chester (where he spent two years), and William clerk-secretary from Stratford, respectively. All three entries fall within the - for Shakespeare biographers - “missing years” between early 1585 when he is known to have left Stratford, and 1592 when he began his career as playwright in London. From a close knowledge of ltaIy shown especially in Shakespeares early comedies, Mrs. Hammerschmidt-Hummel speculates that he spent in Italy these years, which were among the fiercest of the anti-Catholic persecution in England. For some 60 mentions of London in the 37 or 38 plays, she says there are 290 mentions of Rome!

    But let us assume, from her wealth of detail not to be quoted here, that Mrs. Hammerschmidt-HummeI has made her case. What follows for a Catholic today? Almost final light, I would venture to say, on Shakespeare’s fascinating but puzzling presentation in “Hamlet” of the predicament of many a modern soul. The medievaI solution” presented in one of these Letters four years ago to Hamlets famous riddle (“To be or not to be”), by the highlighting of the clash between the Catholic and modern elements in the play, was good as far as it went, but to suppose that Shakespeare was driven to be an underground Catholic takes the solution further. Let us see the Prince of Denmark’s story by numbers, to make clear the parallel both with Shakespeare’s own case as a consciously disguised Catholic, and with many a spiritual young man’s case ever since, as an unconsciously smothered Catholic. Here goes:

The Sequential circumstances of Hamlet:

    1. Hamlet is Prince of Denmark and rightful heir to Denmark’s throne.

    2. But his villainous uncle murdered his father, the king, incestuously married his mother, usurped the throne and is corrupting and rotting Denmark.

    3. Hamlet is an exile at home. His world has crumbled about him. He is virtually isolated. He is all but overcome by his death-wish.

    4. Finally, he lashes out. Of course his uncle resists. Hence a blood-bath.

    5. He was right to resist, because Denmark was rotten, but he was wrong to resist, because of the blood-bath. “To be or not to be?”

The Parallels in Shakespeare's own life:

    Next, the parallel with Shakespeare’s own case, as illuminated by the assumption that he was an underground Catholic:

    1. Shakespeare is Catholic, and rightful heir to a Catholic England.

    2. But Protestant heretics have virtually murdered the Catholic Church in England, turning it incestuously into the Church of England. They have hi-jacked England in the process, and are spiritually ruining it in depth.

    3. Shakespeare has been made a stranger in his own land. Catholic England has collapsed. Nearly all people around him are going along with Protestantism. Shakespeare is tempted to despair (in “Hamlet” as in no other of his plays).

    4. A handful of fellow-Catholics (some relatives and possibly friends of Shakespeare) lash out, for instance in the Gunpowder Plot (1605). The Protestants trap, torture and execute all the plotters.

    5. Shakespeare was right to dream of killing off the Protestants (they were rotten heretics), but he was wrong to do so (his friends merely got killed). “To be or not to be?”

The Parallels of Hamlet with Modern Man:

    And now the application to the case of any young man with no CathoIic Faith but with any spiritual awareness that something is deep down wrong in the dazzling modem world:

    1. As a human being, he is, since the Incarnation, rightful heir to Christendom (“Going, teach all nations” said Our Lord).

    2. But the modern world has virtually extinguished Christendom, and is replacing it incestuously with secular humanism. Mankind has been taken over and is being deeply corrupted from some, to him, unknown cause.

    3. But the young rnan well knows that he is surrounded by hollow men, and he feels very much alone. His world is unlivable, yet everybody seems to be going along with it. He is all but overcome - or he is overcome - by rock, drugs, immorality, etc..

    4. Or he takes whatever arms are at hand against his sea of troubles and lashes out. Of course the world around him resists, so he too is physically - or psychiatrically - crushed.

    5. He was right to resist (he was affirming some divine spark). But he was wrong to resist (it all turned out to be pointless). “To be or not to be?”

    According to this reading of “Hamlet” as the conscious but disguised cry of agony of a Catholic seeing his country drive itself into a tunnel of darkness, Shakespeare has caught the unconscious and undisguised cry of agony of numberless souls who would follow him at all stages further down the tunnel, where they would be buried in a world of spiritual darkness. Shakespeare could only have such a clear view down the centuries because he was Catholic, but was it because he was a disguised Catholic that he lost at least for a moment the clearness of his Catholic sight and lashed out in “Hamlet”? Let us blame Shakespeare if we wish, but let us admire the ways of God.

    As for blaming Shakespeare for hiding his Faith and perhap for that very reason momentarily wavering in it, let him who has never in any way disguised his Faith in public cast the first stone. Late Elizabethan England persecuted unto blood, by torture, hanging, drawing and quartering. Today’s “Western civilization” may be strongly anti-Catholic, but it is not yet persecuting unto blood. [An exception being the unborn.] Let us pray now for the strength of martyrs if - or when – the blood does flow.

    As for the ways of Providence, let us admire how it works with the weakness of men. Let us suppose that Shakespeare was not as brave as he could have been. Let us suppose that he was not a full hero like St. Edmund Campion, whom he may easily have met in Lancashire in 1580 when he was 16 years old. Let us suppose he was only a half-hero who wrote only implicitly Catholic plays. Do not two things follow? Firstly, that we have any Shakespeare plays at all. Had he run straight into the martyr’s death when he came back to London, perhaps from ltaly, in 1592, we would have none of them. Cornmon sense says that that would be an enormous Ioss to the hurnan race. Because secondly, even if the plays are not explicitly Catholic, they are implicitly Catholic, by for instance the accusation of spiritual darkness in “Hamlet”. Now if “Hamlet” were explicitly Catholic, could it have got through to numberless young men in the darkness since? No, because a large part of that darkness consists, precisely, in the automatic rejection of anything that is explicitly Catholic. And so Providence, knowing from etemity into what a tunnel mankind waa plunging itself at the time of the Reformation, arranged for this dark sign-post to point towards the light. Modern moles cannot bear sign-posts that are too bright...

    Thankyou, Shakespeare! Thankyou, Providence! “O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incompmehensibie are His judgments and how unsearchable His ways!” (Rom XI, 33).

+ Richard Williamson

Taken from the Traditionalism List at Subscribe to the Traditionalism List

For previous articles regarding matters that affect the Ecclesia Dei commission, see www.DailyCatholic.org/2002ecc.htm

Tuesday, April 23, 2002
volume 13, no. 77
Exspectans exspectavimus Ecclesia Dei
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