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The Catholic Shakespeare: An Interview with Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce needs no introduction. He has been among the foremost experts on England’s Catholic literary heritage for over two decades. As a Homeschool Connections instructor, he is one of my colleagues! Today, I talk with Joseph about one of his favorite subjects: the great English playwright William Shakespeare.

What is it that fascinates people about William Shakespeare? Why is he still a fixture (possibly the preeminent one) in the canon of Western literature so many centuries later?

Quite frankly, it’s all about his brilliance, which is matched, if at all, only by two other possible contenders: Homer and Dante. He is brilliant as a dramatist, as a poet, as a keen observer of human nature, and as one who sees the difference between the transient and the permanent things. It is his exposition of the latter which keeps him perennially relevant.

You are the author of three books about William Shakespeare and his works (The Quest for Shakespeare, Through Shakespeare’s Eyes, and Shakespeare on Love). Why have you written so much about the Bard of Avon?

I don’t feel that I’ve written enough! Were I to have the time, I’d like to engage with all the plays, as well as the poems and sonnets, on the level of engagement that characterized the approach I took in Through Shakespeare’s Eyes, i.e. several chapters on each play. I could envisage writing separate books on the early history plays, the Elizabethan comedies, the Henriad, the Roman plays, the Jacobean comedies, the great tragedies, the late romances, and the poems and sonnets. That would be eight more books in addition to the three I’ve written already. I feel that I’ve hardly scratched the surface.

In Through Shakespeare’s Eyes and Shakespeare on Love, you argue that you can see the Catholic presence in the plays. Some might argue that there is also evidence to the contrary and that one can’t discern details about an author’s life based on the fictional characters and situations he depicts. How
do you respond to that?

You are asking two distinctly different questions, which mustn’t be conflated. The Catholic presence in the plays is discernible from a reading of the integrity and entirety of the texts themselves and is distinct from the biographical details of Shakespeare’s life. One could discern a Catholic presence in the plays if we knew nothing about Shakespeare’s life. This is why I wrote separate and distinct books on the plays and on his life.

The Quest for Shakespeare focused on the evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism from the facts that we know about his life. Through Shakespeare’s Eyes and Shakespeare on Love focused on the clear and present evidence for his Catholicism discernible in the texts of his work. It is true, of course, that an author’s most deeply held convictions will be present in the plays. If Shakespeare is a Catholic, we would expect to see evidence of it in the plays. The point is, however, that the deep Catholic dimension is present in the plays, irrespective of what we know about Shakespeare’s life.

As for those who argue that there is evidence to the contrary, I would ask to see the evidence. All the “evidence” that I’ve seen is based upon woeful and prejudiced misreadings, coupled with a selective blindness to the clear Christian moral presence. These misreadings are addressed in my books. I have seen no convincing evidence of anything but a Catholic presence in the plays, the latter of which is discernible in the presentation of good and evil in orthodox Christian terms and in the presence of a Christian theological and philosophical understanding of the cosmos.

Why does it matter whether or not Shakespeare was Catholic?

It matters historically and literarily. To begin with the former, knowing what people believed is at least as important as what they did and how they did it. These distinctions are crucial. They are what might be termed the motivational, chronological, and mechanical dimensions of history. We will not understand history if we only know when things were done and how they were done but do not know why they were done.

In fact, since action is predicated on motive, what we believe theologically and philosophically dictates what we do and how we do it. A Christian will be motivated to do things that the cynic would not be motivated to do, and vice versa. This brings us to the literary importance of Shakespeare’s Catholicism. If he were a Catholic, his motives for writing the plays would be radically different from what they would have been had he been a cynic.

Furthermore, his beliefs would motivate what he chose to write and how he chose to write it. In this sense, it is perilous to divorce a literary work from the personhood of its author. Severing the one from the other is to take a sola scriptura approach to reading in which we replace the authorial authority with our own subjectively motivated pride and prejudice. To read objectively is to seek to read through the eyes of the most authoritative “other”, i.e. the author, as far as this is possible.

What do you make of the theory (if I can be so generous as to grant it that status) that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were actually written by several different people?

These theories are addressed in the opening chapter of my book, The Quest for Shakespeare, which is entitled “Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up?” I would refer people to that chapter. Unfortunately, there’s not the space within the constraints of an interview to expose the fundamental fallacies upon which these absurd theories are based. Needless to say, all the real factual historical evidence points to Shakespeare’s plays being written by Shakespeare himself. It was Chesterton who quipped that “Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else.”

How did your personal experience of Shakespeare develop? Were you familiar with his work in your younger days, or did you come to him later in life?

My father idolized Shakespeare and would quote swathes from the plays to me, including whole speeches. Therefore, it could be said that I grew up with Shakespeare. However, it was not until I was in my forties that I became curious about who he was as a man. It was then that I began to write about him.

You are the general editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series and editor of the particular volumes covering some of Shakespeare’s plays. Can you tell us a little about the series, its genesis, and why it is important to understand literature without imposing modern revisionist interpretations on these works?

The idea and inspiration for the Ignatius Critical Editions came from my experience of using the Norton or Oxford editions of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights in a course on Romanticism that I was teaching at Ave Maria University almost twenty years ago. I objected to the anti-Christian, feminist, Marxist, and “queer theory” critical essays and introductions in these editions, which clearly served warped agendas and did not reflect the views or intentions of the authors of either work.

I didn’t feel comfortable putting this subjective and objectionable nonsense into the hands of my students and decided that tradition-oriented teachers and students needed an alternative to this poison. What was needed was a tradition-oriented approach that aimed to see literary works objectively through the perspective of the authors and not through the prism of modern and postmodern critical theory. I suggested the idea of the series to Father Fessio of Ignatius Press, and the Ignatius Critical Editions were born.

Sometimes, it seems that Shakespeare is a particular target of such revisionism or foisted modernization. Think of how often his plays are produced on stage and set in “modern times” or “the not-too-distant future” rather than the period for which he wrote them. Why are his works fiddled with in this manner?

I have no particular objection to directors being creative with what might be termed, philosophically, the accidental elements of the play, as long as they don’t tamper with the substance. Thus, for instance, setting Julius Caesar in Napoleonic times or Romeo and Juliet in modern dress does not violate the meaning or substance of either play, each of which presents perennially relevant moral dilemmas that are as applicable to the time of Napoleon as they are today.

The problem arises when a play is inverted or perverted so that the substance of the play is vandalized or violated. An example of such Shakespeare-abuse was a presentation of The Merchant of Venice in which all the Christian characters were cast as skinheads who punctuated their lines by punching and spitting. or otherwise physically abusing Shylock.

Back in 2018, Kenneth Branagh released the film All Is True, which contends that Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton were lovers. Is this an example of modern “hang-ups” being foisted upon William Shakespeare?

This truly awful film makes no effort to remain true to the known facts of Shakespeare’s life, preferring instead to follow the path of pride and anti-Catholic prejudice, reinventing Shakespeare in the image of our own deplorable epoch. All is True is so “inventive” with the truth that one wonders if the filmmakers really believe the lie they are telling in their depiction of Shakespeare’s last years. One wonders if they really believe that Shakespeare was an advocate of the bizarre gender agenda with which they are themselves clearly obsessed.

Do we believe Ben Jonson, who said that Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time? Or do we believe Ben Elton, the atheist and hardline socialist who wrote the screenplay for the film, who seems to be saying that Shakespeare was not of his age but ours? Was Shakespeare trapped in a tyrannical England in which people whom he knew were put to death for being Catholics? Or was he trapped in his Jacobean closet, wishing for a distant future in which he could be part of a Pride parade?

Is there anything else you would like to add?

There’s always so much more to add! Perhaps, God willing, I will find the time to write some more books on Shakespeare before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

NOTE: Professor Pearce teaches Shakespeare courses online for high school students at Homeschool Connections. (Adults may take the recorded versions through Unlimited or Single Access.)

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