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Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

Was William Shakespeare Catholic? Is “Romeo and Juliet” a Christian parable?

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

O Romeo, Romeo, what doth thou story teach us? Romeo and Juliet are, perhaps, literature’s most iconic lovers — but does their story reflect a specifically Christian world view. Literary biographer Joseph Pearce says yes — because their creator William Shakespeare was a closeted Catholic (at at time when Catholicism was illegal in England) who believed in his Creator.  In his new book, Shakespeare on Love, Pearce examines the star-crossed lovers and how their story argues in favor of the Catholic Church’s teaching on tension between sexual passion and reason. According to Pearce, the play is not an ode to romance but is, rather, a cautionary tale about the dangers of unbridled youthful desire and the potentially dire consequences of poor parenting. He says the Bard’s classic characters and their oft-quoted lines are rich in symbolic meaning that points us in a counter-cultural direction toward the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church.

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JWK: Would you describe Romeo and Juliet as something of a parable?

JOSEPH PEARCE: In the broadest sense of the word, Romeo and Juliet can certainly be seen as a parable. It is a cautionary narrative warning against the dangers of adolescent passion, the follies of romance when divorced from morality, and the disastrous consequences attached to a lack of good parenting.

JWK: What does the story have to say regarding such things as love and human sexual desire — particularly from a Catholic perspective?

JP: The play serves to highlight the difference between a Catholic understanding of love and sexual desire and the worldly understanding of these things. It does so explicitly in the advice that Friar Laurence endeavors to give to the young lovers, counseling prudence and temperance and the necessity of self-sacrifice; it does so implicitly in the denouement of the plot, in which the failure of the lovers to heed the Christian wisdom of the Friar unravels with disastrous and deadly consequences.

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JWK: Is there evidence that William Shakespeare was Catholic?

There is overwhelming evidence that Shakespeare was a Catholic. I have assembled the biographical evidence in my book, The Quest for Shakespeare, and have shown some of the textual evidence in my new book, Shakespeare on Love, and in the preceding volume, Through Shakespeare’s Eyes. The Quest for Shakespeare shows the documentary evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism from the facts of his life; the latter two books show the evidence to be gleaned from his plays, especially Hamlet, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet.

JWK: Does Shakespeare’s religious faith reveal itself in any of his other plays? Can you give some examples?

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JP: Although I have yet to make a systematic study of all of Shakespeare’s plays, I am confident that his Catholic sympathies and sensibilities will be seen in all of them. Apart from the Catholic presence that can be readily detected in the plays mentioned above, of which I have written myself, other scholars have uncovered the Catholicism in numerous other Shakespeare plays. I would refer to the groundbreaking work of the Victorian scholar, Richard Simpson, and the more recent scholarly studies by Peter Milward SJ.

JWK: What can modern writers learn from Shakespeare?

Shakespeare, alongside Homer and Dante, is one of the triumvirate of literary giants who stand head and shoulders above all other writers in the history of humanity. As such, modern writers ignore Shakespeare at their literary peril. He has so much to teach us in terms of literary style, characterization and character development, and in terms of plot development and dynamics. Most importantly, he shows us how to subsume the allegorical dimension of a literary work with a subtlety that was necessary in his time due to the state censorship of literature.

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JWK: I understand you’re a convert to the Catholic faith. Would you care to share your conversion experience?

 JP: I am a convert to the Catholic faith, making the long journey from racial hatred and anti-Catholic bigotry to the arms of Mother Church. I was the member of a white supremacist organization in Britain and was involved with the Protestant terrorist organizations in Northern Ireland. I am currently writing a book charting my journey to the Faith, which is tentatively titled “Race with the Devil: A Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love,” which will be published by Saint Benedict Press this summer.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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