August 8th, 2012Chesterton & Shakespeareby Joseph Pearce
I've received an e-mail from someone requesting information about Chesterton's apparent belief that Shakespeare was a Catholic. I'm pasting the text of the relevant part of the e-mail below. My reply follows.
I have another question (or two, truly four) for you that came to mind while reading your book Wisdom &Innocence. In the chapter on Shaw and his relationship with Chesterton (Chestershaw) you mention that Chesterton had written that part of his problem with Shaw’s reading of Shakespeare had to do with Shakespeare being “spiritually Catholic.” Then you mention that Chesterton was forced to recant his big ‘C’ use of the word.
My questions are, your argument that Shakespeare was Catholic, was there something to this even back then, to which Chesterton would have been privy or open? Or was Chesterton indeed speaking less in terms of identity or faith than in terms of artistic or philosophical disposition? Then also, was this reading an early catalyst to you looking into the argument? And finally, I assume you came across the Ian Kerr biography of Chesterton and I was wondering how you felt it compared with your interpretation.
Arguments for Shakespeare's Catholicism were certainly around in Chesterton's time. Indeed such arguments have been around since the seventeenth century. Richard Simpson's pioneering scholarship in the nineteenth century, published in 1899, would have been known to Chesterton. It seems, however, that Chesterton was referring to the Catholic sensibility of Shakespeare's work rather than asserting that the Bard was a believing and practising Catholic.
My awareness of Chesterton's view of Shakespeare's Catholicism was not a significant influence upon my own approach to the issue. At the time of my writing of the Chesterton biography in the early-nineties, I agreed with Chesterton that Shakespeare's sensibilities were Catholic but I was skeptical of claims that the Bard was a formal Catholic. It was almost ten years later that the weight of evidence forced me to revisit the issue, prompting my own research.
I am pleased that Father Ker has added his own formidable presence to the growing body of work on the great GKC. I am, however, still of the opinion that my own literary biography is the best available introduction to Chesterton's life and work.