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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Shakespeare's 9 Popes

William Shakespeare was an eight year old boy in May 1572.

Sometime in that month he would have heard the news that Pope Pius V had died, on 1 May.

Pope Pius V

Pius had held the office since 1566, and he was arguably the one Pope who most shaped Shakespeare's mind regarding the Catholic Church.

In 1570, Pope Pius -- who preferred the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots over the Protestant Queen Elizabeth -- had issued the Regnans in Excelsis.

This letter, a papal bull, excommunicated Queen Elizabeth, and released all of her English subjects from allegiance to their heretic queen.

Anyone who continued to obey her was threatened with excommunication.

This papal bull -- since it supported armed revolt against Elizabeth like the Northern Rebellion of 1569 -- had the effect of inspiring assassination attempts against the Queen, such as the 1571 Ridolfi Plot.

In response to Pope Pius’s official letter, Queen Elizabeth cracked down on the Catholics in England. The divide between Catholics and Protestants would grow ever wider.

This was the England into which Shakespeare was born.

By 1572, as Pius died, people in England (and Europe for that matter) asked themselves would the new Pope be more or less tolerant of the Protestant Reformation? Would the new Pope continue to fight with Queen Elizabeth, or would they come to some kind of understanding?

Pope Gregory XIII did nothing to reverse the course that Pius had set, and in fact he supported the plans of Philip II of Spain to dethrone Elizabeth.

Pope Gregory XIII

For people like young William Shakespeare, this religious tempest was far from over.

Pope Gregory died in 1585, when almost 21 years old.

By this time, the Catholic and Protestant factions in England had been in a cold war. However, this cold war turned hot in 1585. England and Spain went to war, and they would fight off and on for twenty years.

Shakespeare, like any young man in England, must have been terrified that he would be swept up into this war.

Pope Sixtus V succeeded Gregory. He began his Papacy on 24 April 1585 -- about the time when Shakespeare celebrated his 21st birthday.

Pope Sixtus V

Sixtus continued the antagonistic policy against Queen Elizabeth.

At this moment in time, Shakespeare was already married to Anne Hathaway. He had a daughter Susanna who was almost 2 years old. Anne had just delivered twins on 2 February 1585 -- Hamnet and Judith.

Let us stop and look at this moment, and put ourselves in his shoes: No matter whether he was more Catholic or more Protestant in his personal beliefs -- I doubt he could see an end to the battle between these two sides.

At a moment when Shakespeare’s whole life was changing, one thing just would not change. There would have been little reason to hope for religious toleration. He may have given up any hope of religious peace in his lifetime, or his children’s lifetimes.

Pope Sixtus died in 1590. He was succeeded by Urban VII, who quickly died from malaria.

Pope Urban VII

He was Pope for only 13 days!

It still holds the record as the shortest papal reign in history.

Pope Gregory XIV succeeded him in December 1590, but he only lived until October of the next year.

Pope Gregory XIV

He is perhaps most famous for excommunicating Henry IV, the new king of France.

In his short time as Pope, Gregory XIV fanned the flames of the French Wars of Religion -- which would inspire assassins to try and kill Henry IV in 1593 and 1594. Henry would ultimately be assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1610.

When Gregory XIV died in October 1591, he was succeeded by Innocent IX.

Pope Innocent IX

But Innocent died on 30 December 1591, another one of the shortest papal reigns in history.

But even in the few weeks of his reign, he still worked at supporting Spain’s Catholic ambitions, and worked at defeating Henry IV’s ambitions.

Pope Clement VIII followed after, and his papal reign lasted until 3 March 1605.

Pope Clement VIII

Clement’s papal reign saw the reign of Queen Elizabeth end, and the reign of King James begin.

Clement seems to have wanted to put out the flames of this religious war.

In late 1595, he absolved Henry IV of France, and ended the wars of religion which had lasted thirty years.

By 1595, Shakespeare was the most popular and successful playwright in England.

When Clement absolved Henry, Shakespeare must have been very happy. It suggested that there might soon be peace in England between Catholics and Protestants. 

In this time when Shakespeare may have allowed himself to hope again for religious peace, his son Hamnet died. He was only 11 years old.

Even more cruel was the fact that any religious toleration Shakespeare anticipated did not come, and was not coming any time soon.

When Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice not long after, I think he was expressing not only the grief of having lost his son, but he was also venting his frustrations at Catholic Rome. His portrayal of conniving and lewd Venetian Catholics is very bawdy and funny, but also very cynical.

Queen Elizabeth died in March 1603. 

Many people in England, and Europe for that matter, were hopeful that King James would finally settle the matter of religious toleration once and for all. He would bring a peaceful conclusion to all the years of fear and violence.

But James made the situation even worse.

After the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty of 1604, many Catholics in England were losing hope for any support from Spain and from Rome.

Clement died in March 1605 and was succeeded by Pope Leo XI.

Pope Leo XI

His papal reign lasted only 26 days, and he died on 27 April 1605.

Shakespeare had just turned 41 years old. He was a very well established man. He was a King’s Man -- a royal player to King James.

He had money, fame, and considerable property in Stratford.

Shakespeare may have considered Clement’s papacy a real chance at some kind of peace between Rome and London, between Catholics and Protestants.

It must have been like a cruel joke, when Clement died and yet another Pope dies within mere days.

Pope Paul V was next. His Catholic diplomacy is described as “hard-edged.” He obviously was not interested in following in the footsteps of Clement, and preferred to follow in the footsteps of  Pius V.

Pope Paul V

Men like Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes were spurred into action, and resulted in the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November 1605.

This Catholic plot to kill King James, his family and blow up Parliament shook England and all of Europe.

It must have shaken Shakespeare to the core.

I don’t think Shakespeare had any part in the plot, and I don’t think he sympathized with the plotters.

But Catesby was born in 1572, in Warwickshire. Shakespeare may have met him, or even known him personally. Fawkes was born in 1570, in York.

These men were born were in Shakespeare’s generation. They were born in the same era of religious violence and fear.

It would not have come as a surprise to Shakespeare, or any person born in the second half of the 16th Century, that religious violence like the Gunpowder Plot would occur.

Pope Paul V sent a letter to King James on 9 July 1606. It did nothing to decrease tensions between Catholics and Protestants. It only made it worse. King James cracked down on Catholics, and a new era, a new cold war between Catholics and Protestants began.

For Shakespeare, who lived his whole life fearing religious violence, there seemed to be no way out.

Shakespeare died in 1616, while Paul V was still Pope.

From the day he was born to the day he died, from Pope Pius V to Pope Paul V, Shakespeare was trapped in an England being torn apart by religion. 

The fear of religious violence, like the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris, or the Massacre at Vassy, haunted every last man, woman and child.

Shakespeare wrote many plays that included ghosts. It suggests to me at least that Shakespeare hoped one day to live in an England that could come to terms with its Catholic past -- and not be haunted by it.


David B. Schajer

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