PMGenesis: Chapter 29

Peter Milward's Autobiography: Genesis of an Octogenarian (2008)


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Who is Peter Milward?
0. About PM Genesis of an Octogenarian
1. Attempt at an Autobiography
Pre-conscious World
Local Patriotism
Wimbledon in Wartime 
Pastoral Peace
Pastoral Philosophy
7. Life at Oxford
Between England and Japan 
9. A New Language and Culture
10. Rural Japan
Pastoral Theology
12. Teaching Shakespeare in Japan
13. A Missionary in Japan
Student Revolt  
A Floating University  
16. Literary Pilgrimages  
A Scholar's Paradise  
To and Fro in Japan  
Words, Words, Words  
Annus Mirabilis  
21. Renaissance  
Lost Years  
Two Papal Pilgrimages  
Two Peninsular Pilgrimages

More American Adventures
26. In the Footsteps of Hopkins and Newman  
Two International Conferences  
Catholic Shakespeare  
Last Words  
Bibliographical Afterword  




  Shakespeare's Birthplace




 Ann Hathaway's Cottage





Blog Brittonia

All About Francis Xavier


Who are the Jesuits?

Joining the Jesuits in Japan





 A Lifetime with Hopkins  by Peter Milward




     Jacobean Shakespeare
by Peter Milward





Shakespeare the Papist by Peter Milward 









 Mystical Journey, the autobiography of William Johnston, S.J., author of Mystical Theology and many other works on mysticism













All About Francis Xavier (Articles on Japanese Catholic History and Jesuits) 














29. Catholic Shakespeare


  What have I got to do with Shakespeare or what has Shakespeare got to do with me, that I should give him such pride of place in this attempt at an autobiography?  The simple answer is, Little short of everything.  The very lecture I delivered as my “last lecture” at Sophia University, according to the time-honoured custom of retiring professors in Japan, bore the title, “Shakespeare and I”.  In it I recalled the question put to me by one of my students in connection with a book of mine I was using in class entitled Shakespeare’s View of Life.  He wanted to know what, if any, difference there was between Shakespeare’s view of life and mine.  All I could tell him was that I really didn’t see any difference.  At times I even feel as if Shakespeare is living in me, by a kind of “transmigration of souls”, though I have no right to claim that any of my books bears any comparison with the plays of Shakespeare.  What I feel is that I understand almost exactly what he felt in his plays, and so far as I have read among the many writings on Shakespeare and his plays, I have yet to find any scholar who feels what I feel or knows what I know.  To me, in short, it is so obvious that Shakespeare was not just a Catholic recusant – that is, one who, being Catholic by conviction, refused to accept the newly imposed Anglican religion with all its ceremonies – but also gave expression to this conviction of his as best he could in all his plays.  There are, I know, others who agree with me in this general idea and have written books on the subject, especially from a biographical viewpoint, but none of them go so far as I do.  In this respect, I may claim to be, as one of Shakespeare’s characters says, “myself alone”.


   In this respect, moreover, I am a rank “heretic”, an arch-heretic or heresiarch, from the viewpoint of today’s Shakespearian “orthodoxy”.  This is the accepted viewpoint of the present-day Shakespeare establishment as centred on the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford.  It was, ironically, from there that I myself set out on my own researches, while it was still located in Birmingham.  Not that I have always explicitly maintained that Shakespeare was a Catholic, though for many years, and in my book on Shakespeare’s Religious Background (1973), I maintained that the dramatist was a Catholic at least in sympathy.  At least, no one could possibly say with any degree of plausibility, as Newman himself pointed out in his Idea of a University, that he was a Protestant.  Yet even this “at least” was unacceptable to many leading Shakespeare scholars, who weren’t prepared to tolerate any discussion on the taboo subject of “Shakespeare and religion”.  Theirs was no doubt the idea of strict separation between literature or drama and religion, as between Church and State.  Theirs was, moreover, the idea that literature and drama had to be treated as basically secular, unless the author himself – like John Donne in his Holy Sonnets, John Milton in his Paradise Lost, and John Dryden in his The Hind and the Panther – had chosen an explicitly religious topic.  As for Shakespeare in his plays, he seemed to be so pervasively secular, that it might well be considered un-Shakespearian even to propose a religious interpretation of them.  Yes, I admit, the dramatist does appear to go out of his way to be secular, in common with almost all the dramatists of his age, even such a notorious recusant as his friend Ben Jonson.  But he also goes out of his way in play after play to warn his spectators and readers against being misled by appearances.  “So may the outward shows be least themselves,” says Bassanio at a critical moment in The Merchant of Venice, when presented with a choice among three caskets for the hand of the lady Portia, “the world is still deceived with ornament.”  He also goes on to warn us against “the seeming truth which cunning times put on to entrap the wisest.”  These words of his I can’t help applying to the world of Shakespearian scholarship, in which so many have been deceived by the false glitter of the Elizabethan court and entrapped by “the seeming truth” put out so cunningly by the propaganda machine of the Elizabethan government.


   Such at least has been the situation up till comparatively recent times.  But, as Shakespeare observes in Julius Caesar, “There is a tide in the affairs of men.”  So the tide in Shakespearian scholarship seems to be turning away from the old orthodoxy towards my new heresy.  There have seen signs of this turning of the tide here and there, from time to time, in articles and even books over the past two decades, not least in a unique life of Shakespeare by Ian Wilson, entitled Shakespeare, The Evidence (1993), which has also been translated into Japanese.  This is a biography of some 500 pages presenting what is known of Shakespeare’s life with some consideration of his plays from an unusually Catholic standpoint.  It is indeed one of the best biographies of the dramatist I have yet come across.  With so many others I take exception even on basic matters, but with Wilson I whole-heartedly agree.  Then a further turning of the tide was evidenced at a certain Shakespeare conference held at the University of Lancaster in the summer of 1999 under the title of “Lancastrian Shakespeare”.  The whole point of the conference being held in such a place depended on the theory that Shakespeare had not only been, according to the old tradition, “a schoolmaster in the country”, but also and more precisely a tutor in a Catholic gentleman’s household in the county of Lancashire – namely, Alexander Houghton of Lea Hall, near Preston.  This is a theory that goes back to the 1930s, when it was put forward by the leading Shakespeare scholar, Sir Edmund Chambers, so it isn’t entirely new.  But its probability, together with what we know of Shakespeare’s Catholic upbringing within his family back in Stratford, has become more widely accepted, and this is what I found accepted by the majority of some two hundred scholars who came for the conference.  I myself presented a paper with the somewhat sensational title of “Shakespeare’s Jesuit Schoolmasters”.  The content was even more sensational than the title.  I showed how many of the young William’s masters at Stratford Grammar School had both Lancastrian and Jesuit connections.  I even showed that Shakespeare had been personally associated with the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion during the couple of months they would have been together in the same place (Lancashire) at the same time (the spring of 1581) under the same family auspices (the Houghtons).


   Nor did the turning of the tide come to an end with this conference.  The following year even that bastion of Shakespearian “orthodoxy”, the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford, proposed for the subject of their next biennial conference “Shakespeare and Religions”.  I was so astonished, I could hardly believe it.  Yet there was the announcement, with my invitation to attend.  So I attended the conference and presented a paper on “Shakespeare and the Reformation”, showing how his plays could only be understood in relation both to the English Reformation under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and to the dramatist’s reaction.  This was only a minor contribution to the conference as a whole.  It wasn’t even presented in a plenary session but merely limited to the members of one seminar.  Still, in the conference as a whole there was an almost painful confrontation between what may be called the Catholic position, as defended by contributors to the previous Lancastrian conference, and the Protestant or secular position.  So I came away more or less satisfied.  What is more, I had also offered a paper for more general presentation on the physical setting of both the conference and the play of As You Like It under the title of “Religion in Arden”.  I was delighted when the director of the Institute accepted this paper of mine for publication in the forthcoming issue of The Shakespeare Survey 54 (2001), which included many of the proceedings of the conference.


   Yet another Shakespeare conference took place at the University of Valencia in Spain in April 2001, under the auspices of the Shakespeare International Association, and I was again invited to offer a paper at another seminar on “Shakespeare’s Illyria”.  In my paper I aimed at showing how the same Catholic principle that guided the dramatist in his choice of setting for As You Like It was at work in his choice of Illyria as the setting for Twelfth Night.  Here it isn’t necessary for me to go into the details of what I said, as my paper was published in the proceedings of the conference under the title of Shakespeare and the Mediterranean (2004).  But I may mention that some time after my return to Japan I was approached by the former publishing house of Macmillan, now Palgrave, with a general invitation to submit any manuscript of a book on Shakespeare I might have on my hands or be willing to contribute in the future.  Of the three titles I proposed to them, they seemed to prefer that of “Shakespeare the Recusant”, as being the hottest topic of the moment.  So in view of its “heat”, I set to work and completed the manuscript.  What was unique about the manuscript was that it dealt with the subject of Shakespeare’s recusancy not, like Ian Wilson, from the biographical viewpoint, which is now widely recognized, but from the literary viewpoint, which is still widely rejected.  In this book I considered not just one or two plays, as I had already done in two books recently published in England, The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays (1997), and Shakespeare’s Apocalypse (2000), but all of them from first to last, from the three Parts of Henry VI to the partly Shakespearian Henry VIII.  There are not a few scholars who are ready to admit the dramatist’s Catholic formation and his presence in Catholic Lancashire, but who deny anything even sympathetic with Catholicism in his plays even from the beginning of his career.  Nor are they even ready to admit the other old tradition concerning Shakespeare, that “he died a papist”, unless by some sudden change of heart in view of approaching death.  It was, therefore, my aim to show how deeply the Catholicism of his formation may be shown to have entered into all his plays without exception.  That manuscript of mine was eventually published, not by Palgrave, who must have got what we call “cold feet”, but by the Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University in Florida under the slightly altered and even more sensational title of Shakespeare the Papist (2005).


   Thus I claim that, from the time of my original destination to Japan, when I changed horses in midstream from the Classics to English, I have been a dedicated fan, not to mention devotee, of William Shakespeare.  I make my own the claim he makes of himself in one of his sonnets, to write “all one, ever the same” and to “keep invention in a noted weed”.  Everyone now who knows anything about my academic work knows that I maintain “the Catholicism of Shakespeare” both as a man and as a dramatist.  Yet I can say that they don’t really know me, any more than they know Shakespeare, or for that matter what it really meant to be a Catholic in the time of Shakespeare.  When I say, “Shakespeare was a Catholic,” few people, even if they are Shakespeare scholars, know what I mean.  They can’t, as Hamlet defies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “pluck out the heart of my mystery”, even though I make no secret of it.  Here two things are hidden, the heart of Shakespeare himself and the heart of Elizabethan Catholicism, and to put the two things together one has to possess an intimate knowledge of both the one and the other.  Nor are Shakespeare scholars necessarily the ones likely to have this knowledge, according to the above-mentioned Confucian principle, “Rongo yomi no rongo shirazu” – “The expert on the Analects isn’t necessarily the person to understand the Analects.  Yet even an ordinary student who is at least familiar with one or two of Shakespeare’s plays and who knows something of Catholic teaching and the story of Elizabethan Catholicism, without prejudice, will understand what I say.  What I have just said about myself and Shakespeare may, I am well aware, sound extravagant.  It can’t be helped.  What I say doesn’t matter, but what I point to is in Shakespeare’s plays, and that does matter.  As I remarked in my lecture on “More and Shakespeare” in New York, Shakespeare’s plays have to be read as his lament for the tragic passing of Catholic England.  Of course, if a scholar or ordinary reader doesn’t regard the passing of Catholic England as a lamentable tragedy, exactly as Shakespeare’s King Lear is a lamentable tragedy, then I have nothing more to say.  At least, I would appeal to him to read my latest book, in which I explain my meaning in full detail.

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