Shakespeare's Testament Print
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 04 December 2007 07:48
Another glimpse of the world of Recusant Catholicism:


In 1757, a gang of workman working on the roof of the Shakespeare home, found "a small 'paper-book', or pamphlet, tucked between the old tiling and the rafters. Its six stitched leaves turned out to contain fourteen hand-written articles amounting to a profession of Roman Catholic faith by John Shakespeare, William's father in 1580.

It's full significance was not grasped until 1923 when a Jesuit scholar uncovered a remarkably similar document in Italian buried in the British Museum: "Borromeo's 'Last Will of the Soul, made in health for the Christian to secure himself from the temptations of the devil at the hour of death' was composed during a virulent bout of the plague in Milan in the 1570s, said to have claimed 17,000 Catholic lives. His Testament, which became a mantra of the Counter-Reformation, was clearly the original of the English translation found hidden in what had once been John Shakespeare's roof."

In 1580 Borromeo was visited in Milan by a group of Jesuit missionaries, led by Father Edmund Campion, an English recusant who two years later would be tried and gruesomely executed for treason. Campion and his colleagues brought back with them to England numerous copies of Borromeo's testament, which was now circulating around Catholic Europe in huge quantities. 'Three or four thousand or more of the Testaments' were ordered from Rome by Campion and his colleagues, 'for many persons desire to have them.'

Once back in England, Campion passed through the Midlands — specifically Lapworth, just twelve miles from Stratford — en route to Lancashire, where he was again to play a significant role in the life of young William Shakespeare.

Campion's host at Lapworth was Sir William Catesby. Shakespeare's father might well have been one of the furtive souls invited by Catesby, his Catholic wife's Catholic kinsman, to meet Campion at Lapworth, and to carry away one of the secretly made English translations imported by the thousand from Rome.

Three years later, a Catholic cousin of the Shakespeare's, devised a plan to assassinate Elizabeth I in a fit of insanity. . . . in his rented room, he must "...evidently have been talking aloud to himself in bed, and thus have attracted attention, for again his room became filled with startled auditors of his frenzied exclamations that he was going to London to shoot the Queen through with his dagg or pistol, that she was a serpent and a viper, and he hoped to see her head set upon a pole" (courtesy Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet):

Many Catholic homes in Warwickshire were searched and numerous Catholics arrested. And John Shakespeare seems to have thought it prudent to hide his testament in his roof.

This Crisis article from 2002 by Paul Voss outlines the case for Shakespeare's very Catholic background and imagination:

"The Catholic imagination-the imagination that allowed Shakespeare to sprinkle his plays with references to Catholic religious beliefs and practices in meaningful ways-also helped to create the fictive worlds of Denmark, Rome, Verona, Venice, and Illyria. The imagination that made him Catholic also helped make him the greatest writer in the English-speaking world.

. . . Not only does the Catholic imagination allow for great art, music, and literature to flourish, it allows Catholics today to use the transcendent truths of our faith in profound ways. We, as Catholics, need not observe the world with the blinders of fundamentalism, rejecting everything not found within a narrow worldview. Moreover, the Catholic imagination mitigates against an unfettered relativism that is skeptical of any truth, no matter how obvious. The Catholic imagination, anchored in the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth, seeks connections between God and His creation, between His truth and our understanding Shakespeare's plays grant us a glimpse of that imagination at work."