Was Shakespeare a Catholic, a Protestant or an atheist? Does it matter what his faith was?
It would have mattered to Shakespeare. For in his lifetime, atheism was equated with immorality, and Catholicism in England was equated with treason. Queen Elizabeth I had executed Edward Arden, a relative of Shakespeare’s mother, for his supposed Catholic treachery. Religion was a matter of life or death; and Shakespeare, like everyone else, walked a precarious denominational line.
What were the Bard’s religious beliefs? When Shakespeare died in 1616 at age 52, he was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, which would have been an impossibility for a known atheist. Yet questions about his religion arose early, some 70 years after his death, when Richard Davies, an Anglican clergyman, wrote from local legend that the poet had “dyed a Papyst.”
The controversy continued. In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson  considered Shakespeare a brilliant but irreverent poet. Consider the Bard’s lines: “Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once/ And He that might the vantage best have took/ Found out the remedy.” So speaks the Franciscan novice Isabella to the cruel judge Angelo in Shakespeare’s black comedy “Measure for Measure” (1604). Is the poetry here biblical or merely “universal” in its meaning? A century later Samuel Taylor Coleridge found the Bard’s comedic forgiveness of the judge Angelo to be morally abhorrent. While literary critics believed Shakespeare too “fanciful” and “rustic” to be orthodox, many popular authors noted Shakespeare’s encyclopedic use of the Bible. In 1899, the Rev. H. S. Bowden collected the evidence in The Religion of Shakespeare, using the work of Richard Simpson to compile his pro-Catholic compendium.
It was not until G. Wilson Knight successfully argued in The Wheel of Fire  (1930) for a Christian and biblical Shakespeare that this view was accepted by what might be called the “Shakespeare establishment.” For the first time in over 200 years, the problem of how the poet of “fancy” could also be a serious, Bible-loving Christian was considered solved. Yet this Shakespeare was the Protestant Shakespeare of the British Empire, not the Catholic poet of Father Bowden.
The “Catholic Shakespeare” thesis entered mainstream English criticism with E. A. J. Honigmann’s book, Shakespeare: The Lost Years (1985). It demonstrated how a butcher’s son from Warwickshire triumphed in London through connections with an aristocratic Catholic family in Lancashire, without implying that the Bard had a continuing allegiance to Rome. The full development of the Catholic thesis, however, came in the seminal work of Peter Milward S.J. (Shakespeare’s Religious Background , 1973), with further work by Ian Wilson (Shakespeare: The Evidence , 1993), which meticulously researched Shakespeare’s literary and political ties to Catholic patrons and politics.
Despite this, the Catholic recusancy thesis—that the plays have a pro-Catholic political subtext—has never received broad acceptance. Is this due to some lingering anti-Catholicism, or does it reflect legitimate concerns?
The answer lies in this: The theater seeks to entertain, preparing the heart and mind for reflection, while the purpose of sermons is to preach and instruct. Drama is never a sermon. And this would apply to the portrayal of Shakespeare as a proselytizing Protestant, papist renegade or atheist subversive. When ideology reduces a living drama to apologetics, voices of protest will inevitably be raised.
The other problem with claiming that Shakespeare was a Catholic recusant is the historical record: He lived and died a member of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. Other close ties to the Reformed Church include his lodging with Huguenots when in London, and the marriage of his daughter Susanna to a Protestant doctor, John Hall, after she was fined for being a Catholic recusant. That record need not contradict what appears to be sympathy for Catholicism, clearly evident in his plays; but Shakespeare also tried to present an objective approach to Rome. For example, Franciscans are depicted for their honest vocations, although cardinals are notoriously portrayed as murderous cowards.
One possible explanation for this apparent inconsistency may lie in the fact that the English Reformation was still in progress during Shakespeare’s lifetime. England remained Catholic in spirit and practice long after 1534, with parts of Lancashire still practicing the “old faith” openly. It is possible that the post-Reformation Holy Trinity Church in Warwickshire was sufficiently traditional to allow a Catholic-sympathizer like Shakespeare to participate. If the Church of England authorities knew of the poet’s Stratford affiliation, then the fact that Shakespeare’s nonattendance at Puritan-leaning London parishes went unpunished could be explained.
The most promising avenue for appreciating Shakespeare’s Catholicity lies not in biography but rather in the recognition of his Catholic imagination, readily discoverable in his plays. Through metaphor, the poet enlarges the sensibilities through an encounter with inspired meaning. Reformed theology had posited an irreparable break between the divine and the human, whereas the Catholic imagination seeks and finds the divine in broken humanity, bridging the gap between nature and grace.
A reference to the passage “Why, all the souls…” from “Measure for Measure” demonstrates how a “Catholic” imagination functions poetically. The speaker, Isabella, is a devout if initially self-righteous novice with the Poor Clares of Vienna. In her first meeting with the Puritan Angelo, she pleads for the life of her brother, who is under a death sentence for impregnating his girlfriend. Angelo argues that mercy is impossible because her brother “is a forfeit of the law.” In a Pauline argument, Isabella asserts that all were condemned by sin (Rom 3:23) until the Son of God sacrificed his equality with God to achieve salvation for the world (Rom 3:24-26).
Other lines of hers, less well known, follow a similar theological theme: “How would you be/ If He, which is the top of judgment, should/ But judge you as you are? O think on that,/ And mercy then will breathe within your lips,/ Like man new made.” The novice points out that we need to forgive others’ sin in order to have our own sins forgiven, and once achieved, the “new man” of Christ drives out the “old Adam” of sin (Rom 5:15-21). It is untenable to call such complex religious ideas “universal.”
This interpretation can be understood in the context of the entire play. Isabella desires to prevent the unjustified execution, demonstrating her practical wisdom. Angelo will subsequently attempt to seduce her in exchange for freeing her brother, making Angelo as guilty as the man he condemns. Like the brother, Angelo too will be forgiven in Act V (to the disgust of Coleridge), as the comedic denouement delivers abundant mercy for the lost and fallen.
How does this relate to the historical circumstances? “Measure for Measure” was written in response to the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, where the Puritans sought to have fornication made punishable by death. The end result was that the new king, James I, kept premarital sex a noncapital crime. (Note: the 18-year-old Shakespeare impregnated Ann Hathaway in 1582, but was restored to the Church of England by loyal friends who paid the fine that made it possible for them to marry.)
Today most academics hold the view that Shakespeare had no religion at all. This agnostic thesis became influential after the 1980s, despite the growing evidence of Shakespeare’s Catholic family background and the chaotic state of religious identifications in England in the early 1600s.
A resolution of this debate is not to be expected soon, as writers so often look in the Shakespearean mirror and see their own faces. Critics with no biblical training insist that Shakespeare used the Scriptures only “decoratively,” while writers with no professional theater background claim the plays reveal a pro-papal political subtext. With the loss of familiarity with the Bible among academicians and the demise of a theater culture that knows Shakespeare, it is possible that the dictum “What is not understood cannot be recognized” is applicable here.