Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”: A Warning to Elizabeth?

For most readers, “Romeo and Juliet” is a lesson to overly-passionate lovers. But Shakespeare may have had a much deeper message for Queen Elizabeth concerning her rule over her Catholic and Protestant subjects.

Cover  Part one of a three-part article

For writers of real literature there are two inalienable truths. First, a writer wants to get out a certain message, which they hope the predominance of readers will either believe or at least consider. Second, the writer must write about what he or she knows. This usually means borrowing from their own background and personal experiences, although a writer may do a tremendous amount of research to make a story believable.

This essay is an attempt to explore the motivation behind William Shakespeare writing Romeo and Juliet. Yes, he was the resident playwright for The Globe and its players, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (called the King’s Men after the ascension of James I in 1603), so he was charged with producing manuscripts. Believed to be written between 1591 and 1595, Romeo and Juliet was one of Shakespeare’s first plays. Perhaps because he was still young and fiery, it is clear he had certain messages in mind when he took earlier works (the poem “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet” by Arthur Brooke in 1562, based on one of the stories in Matteo Bandello’s Novelle, (Zakharov and Gaydin, 2008) and later as a story in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1582, all of which were based on the Greek tale of Pyramus and Thisbe) as his basic story and revamped it completely.

The Thesis

When Elizabeth I came to power, England was still suffering from the aftershocks of the War of the Roses. Like her father, Henry VIII, who had been forced to deal with a long and bloody civil war not of his making, Elizabeth found herself inheriting a new civil conflict that Henry had created. This one was also partly due to a question of succession, but was greatly complicated by a “holy war” between the traditional Catholic Church and the upstart Protestant sects. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign, this uncivil infighting was perhaps less bloody, but much more pervasive as to a “witch hunt” type of persecution of Catholics who refused to convert to the new religion of the realm.

According to many scholars, one of those stubborn Catholics was John Shakespeare. A self-made man, John lost virtually all of his position and fortune during the latter period of his life. His son, William, also suffered personally from Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic policies. When he later became a famous and very wealthy member of the entertainment community in London, William was in a position where he could use his intellect and his access to the public to voice many of his social and political thoughts.

However, as Elizabeth could easily decide to imprison or execute anyone who voiced their opposing viewpoints too loudly and too directly (and did exercise that power on many occasions), William was intelligent enough to mask most of his opinions behind the thin curtain of the stage. In his “Response to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel”, E.A.J. Honigmann points out that “Shakespeare’s two greatest rivals, (Christopher) Marlowe and (Ben) Jonson, both were Catholics with underground contacts, and both experienced interrogation and imprisonment — and in Marlowe’s case probably murder.”

Because of Shakespeare’s background, I believe that Romeo and Juliet was a veiled warning to Elizabeth of the dangers and evils of continuing this policy of allowing persecution of her own citizens to go on in her name merely because of a difference in the way people chose to worship Christ. This was a rather silly feud, and if Elizabeth did not end this civil strife in some way that would show that all of her subjects were truly one nation, then all would be “punish’d”. Needless to say, this is all speculation, but I hope that historical evidence and some clear interpretation of his work may lend it some credence.

A Little History of the Church of England

In his article “Martin Luther in the England of King Henry VIII”, Charleston C. K. Wang tells us that, “From 1515 to 1520, Martin Luther, a German who was a Catholic priest, published three works that attacked the Catholic church, and the pope in particular. He and his followers broke away from the church and started the protestant religions.”

Henry VIII was raised a sincere Catholic and even authored a book strongly criticizing Luther (ibid), but he later found it expedient and profitable to break with the Papacy. The separation of the Church of England from Rome began under Henry in 1529 and was completed in 1536. It was driven initially by both his lust and certain political necessities.

England had gone through the Wars of the Roses between 1455 and 1485, a conflict between rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: Lancaster and York, whose heraldic symbols were the “red” and the “white” rose, respectively (Gormley, 2010). As his wife, Catherine of Aragon, bore him only a single living child, Mary, Henry feared that his lack of a male heir might jeopardize his descendants’ claim to the throne. Henry wanted an annulment in order to remarry with a younger woman. However, Pope Clement VII denied his request, so Henry decided to remove England from the authority of Rome. In 1534, the Act of Supremacy made Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England, which was Protestant. Between 1535 and 1540, under Thomas Cromwell, the policy known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries was put into effect. Many Catholic icons and ceremonies were banned. Monies that had gone to Rome now went to Henry, and huge amounts of church land and property passed into the hands of the crown and the nobility. This vested interest of many lords created a powerful force in support of the dissolutions.

When Henry died he was succeeded by his son Edward VI (by Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour), who had been raised as a Protestant. Edward was only nine years old at his succession (and not quite sixteen at his death), so the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Northumberland seized power as his “protector and councilors”. Through them, Edward ordered the destruction of images in churches and the closing of the chantries. While the reform of the Church of England was firmly established by many greedy lords, the majority of ordinary citizens remained faithful to Catholicism.

Because Mary lived with her mother after the divorce, she was raised as a very devout Catholic. The children that stayed in Henry’s household, Edward and Elizabeth (the daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn), were raised as devout Protestants. Religion being an extremely serious business in that era, the battle over which religion would prevail was just as divisive to England as the question of who would rule the country. Obviously, these two questions were intertwined. Simply because Edward was a male, not to mention he was the obvious heir to the throne, the problem undoubtedly would have been resolved with a lot less conflict had he lived.

For better or worse, Edward did not recover from his illness. Upon his death, there was a very brief interval (nine days) when Lady Jane Grey took the throne. Then Mary marched into London with an army and reclaimed her birthright. From 1553 to 1558, Queen Mary forcibly tried to restore Catholicism as the national religion, becoming known as “Bloody Mary” in the process. Upon her death, she was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, and the fate of England as a Protestant country was sealed.

The Influence of Religion in Shakespeare’s Early Life

In his essay, “John Shakespeare: A Papist or Just Penniless?”, Robert Bearman points out that: “William Shakespeare’s religious beliefs (are based) on the very reasonable supposition that the faith in which Shakespeare was reared would have had a significant, perhaps profound, effect on him.” In fact, Bearman makes a very strong case that John Shakespeare may well have been persecuted by the Crown because Elizabeth was very insistent on all of the nobility and societal leaders (especially the clergy) of England embracing the Protestant faith from early on in her reign.

Although obviously subject to interpretation by various scholars, Bearman demonstrates that the “evidence is plentiful” regarding “John’s religious convictions”, but that recently “there has been a vigorous development of the view that he remained true to the Catholic faith until his death in 1601.”
One of those scholars is Amanda Mabillard, who wrote a treatise entitled “William Shakespeare of Stratford”. In that article, Ms. Mabillard does not ascribe any reason for the rise and then fall of John’s fortunes, although she describes them in some detail. The timing coincides very closely with the “purging” of the Catholic faithful from England during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. I will add a few editorial comments to some of the information (I have edited this to deal directly with John, not William) which she provides:

“John came to Stratford from Snitterfield before 1532 as an apprentice glover and tanner of leathers. John Shakespeare prospered and began to deal in farm products and wool. It is recorded that he bought a house in 1552, and bought more property in 1556. John Shakespeare owned one house on Greenhill Street and two houses on Henley Street. Sometime between 1556 and 1558 John Shakespeare married Mary Arden, the daughter of the wealthy Robert Arden of Wilmecote and owner of the sixty-acre farm called Asbies. The wedding would have … been a Catholic service, since Queen Mary I was the reigning monarch.”
We assume neither John nor Mary could write … but it did not prevent them from becoming important members of the community. John Shakespeare was elected to a multitude of civic positions, including ale-taster of the borough in 1557, chamberlain of the borough in 1561, alderman in 1565, (a position which came with free education for his children at the Stratford Grammar School), high bailiff, or mayor, in 1568, and chief alderman in 1571. Due to his important civic duties, he rightfully sought the title of gentleman and applied for his coat-of-arms in 1570. However, for unspecified reasons the application was abruptly withdrawn, and within the next few years, for reasons just as mystifying, John Shakespeare would go from wealthy business owner and dedicated civil servant to debtor and absentee council member.

Well, perhaps it’s not all that mystifying. Following her ascension to the throne, the Queen created “The Act of Supremacy”, which gave Elizabeth ultimate control of the Church of England, and “The Act of Uniformity”, which attempted to establish a set form of worship that would meld the two churches. While not eradicating the Catholic Church, these acts were certainly meant to diminish its hold on the English people. The “religious settlement” began to be implemented in the summer of 1559 (Lee, 1916). During the first decade it was enforced, Elizabeth tried to be fairly tolerant of all of her subjects, including the Catholics. In those days, it would have taken several years for its mandates to be enforced in every town, including Stratford.

The Act of Supremacy also included an oath of loyalty to the Queen that the clergy were expected to take. If they did not take it, they would lose their office. A High Commission was established to ensure that the oath was taken, which stipulated that “the Queen’s Highness is the only Supream Governor of this Realm … in all Spiritual or Ecclesiastical Things or Causes, as Temporal; and that no foreign Prince, Person, Prelate State or Potentate, hath or ought to have any Jurisdiction”. The clergymen had to “utterly renounce and forsake all foreign Jurisdictions, Powers, Superiorities and Authorities” (ibid).

This is pretty stringent stuff. Needless to say, it incensed the Pope. There was strong opposition to the Elizabethan settlement from the English Catholics, especially after Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570. This, along with the Catholics sending many Jesuit priests into England to stir up anti-Elizabeth sentiments, created terrible dissension. Throughout the latter part of her reign, there were many Catholic rebellions and assassination plots. In 1569 the Northern rebellion occurred, and there was an Irish Catholic rebellion in 1579. The Ridolfi Plot (1571), the Throckmorton Plot (1583), and the Babington plot (1586) were attempts to replace Elizabeth with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. Many English noblemen urged Elizabeth to crack down much harder on the Catholics, and to a certain extent she did. The authorities relied on spies and informers to identify suspected Catholic rebels, and naturally most of those arrested denied all charges. “Church papists,” who attended services in their parish church and also went to mass when they could, were not easy to identify. Ms. Mabillard continues:

“By 1578 (John) was behind in his taxes and stopped paying the statutory aldermanic subscription for poor relief. In 1579, he had to mortgage Mary Shakespeare’s estate, Asbies, to pay his creditors. In 1580 he was fined 40 pounds for missing a court date and in 1586 the town removed him from the board of aldermen due to lack of attendance. By 1590, John Shakespeare owned only his house on Henley Street and, in 1592, he was fined for not attending church. However, near the very end of John Shakespeare’s life, it seems that his social and economic standing was again beginning to flourish.

ws  “He once again applied to the College of Heralds for a coat-of-arms in 1596, and, due likely to the success of William in London, this time his wish was granted. The coat-of-arms’ … motto was “Non sanz droict” or “not without right”.

The message seems pretty direct and clear.

Under the Act of Uniformity, church attendance on Sundays and holy days was compulsory, with a twelve pence fine to be collected if people did not attend. Did John refuse to attend because he was devoted to the Catholic Church, or because he had really become slothful? Note that his rise back to respectability came as Elizabeth’s health was failing and she was only a few years away from her death. Did the country begin to persecute its Catholic citizens less, or was William’s fame really that powerful? We can only speculate. It is also interesting to speculate on what prompted John to choose the motto “not without right” after having been persecuted for so long for so seemingly little of a cause, and having finally received what he felt was coming to him.

Shakespeare’s Education

I do not include information about William’s education to foster the argument that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare”. I think that has been pretty well proven by now, especially in “Shakespeare: A Life”, by Park Honan. Instead, I again cite Ms. Mabillard because the circumstances of his education would give additional motivation to resent the anti-Catholic treatment under Elizabeth’s reign. I have edited out a lot of very interesting information because I want to focus on my own thesis.

“Shakespeare probably began his education at the age of six or seven at the Stratford grammar school. Although we have no record of Shakespeare attending the school, due to the official position held by John Shakespeare it seems likely that he would have decided to educate young William at the school which was under the care of Stratford’s governing body. The Stratford grammar school had been built some two hundred years before Shakespeare was born and, in that time, the lessons taught there were, of course, dictated primarily by the beliefs of the reigning monarch. During the years that Shakespeare attended the school, at least one and possibly three headmasters stepped down because of their devotion to the Catholic religion proscribed by Queen Elizabeth. One of these masters was Simon Hunt (b. 1551), who, in 1578, according to tradition, left Stratford to pursue his more spiritual goal of becoming a Jesuit, and relocated to the seminary at Rheims. Hunt had found his true vocation: when he died in Rome seven years later he had risen to the position of Grand Penitentiary.

“Like all of the great poets and dramatists of the time, Shakespeare learned his basic reading and writing skills from an ABC, or horn-book. Shakespeare would have studied primarily Latin rhetoric, logic, and literature. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, there is a comical scene in which the Welsh headmaster tests his pupil’s knowledge, who is appropriately named William. There is little doubt that Shakespeare was recalling his own experiences during his early school years. One can see that Shakespeare absorbed much that was taught in his grammar school, for he had an impressive familiarity with the stories by Latin authors, as is evident when examining his plays and their sources. Even though scholars, basing their argument on a story told more than a century after the fact, accept that Shakespeare was removed from school around age thirteen because of his father’s financial and social difficulties, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that he had not acquired a firm grasp of both English and Latin and that he had continued his studies elsewhere.”

In regards to that continued education, Hammerschmidt-Hummel speculated that, “The Shakespeares were strict Catholics and continued as such for the rest of their lives. It is unlikely that they did not make use of the only available Catholic [higher] education at Allen’s college at Douai, i.e. Rheims”. There is no evidence I know of to support that theory. However, it is interesting to note that one of William’s early teachers, Simon Hunt, was such a devout Catholic that he later became a very successful Jesuit priest. Whether or not he attended university, William had a very strong education under Catholic dogma. However, the documented evidence about Simon Hunt demonstrates that certain prominent Catholics were indeed persecuted in the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, and gives great credence to the possibility that John’s sinking fortunes might indeed have been under such circumstances.

I included this second paragraph of Ms. Mabillard’s essay because it showed two significant pieces of information: first, William was an avid student, as proven by the fact that he became a versatile and erudite writer. Second, he was removed from grammar school before finishing because of his father having fallen into disgrace, although he undoubtedly would have preferred to finish. The natural assumption, if all of this is correct, is that he would at least have resented the circumstances that prevented him from gaining his full education, as well as all of the other dramatic impacts in his life that his father’s fall from grace would have caused.

To come: Part Two

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