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Apr 26 William Shakespeare's Baptism and hidden messages

Today we remember the earliest record we have of William Shakespeares life - April 26th 1564 the day he was baptised

in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford upon Avon. He is now widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and possibly the world's greatest dramatist. His legacy maybe unprecedented, it is estimated that he introduced upwards of 1,700 original words to the English language, and phrases such as “Wearing my heart upon my sleeve”, "breaking the ice" or "heart of gold" are colloquial now, but originated in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, and are amongst several dozen in common usage.


A large academic industry has developed around the study of his work and his life, including an interest in his personal history. We are not sure of the date of his birth but the baptism entry in the parish register for Holy Trinity Church, is the earliest public reference to William Shakespeare, It says in Latin "Guilielmus filius Johannes Shakspere," or, in English, "William, son of John Shakespeare." Next to the entry, are three "X"s added by a later hand to highlight its significance. According to the baptism register he was born just three months before a plague outbreak. “Hic incepit pestis,” or “Here began the plague” is appears next to the entry for a burial on June 11. This may give us an insight to why the baptism occurred mid-week rather than a Sunday. Shakespeare’s parents had lost their two first children already. With plague rampant throughout the town, it must have been an unnerving time for them.

The Church of England was in its infancy in a time of religious turmoil. The Book of Common Prayer, introduced by Edward VI following the break from Rome, had been suspended by Mary but reintroduced by Elizabeth 5 years before Shakespeare’s baptism. Slowly being embedded into the life of the church, it stated that infants should be baptized on the next Sunday or holy day following their birth, to allow the greatest number of people to witness the sacrament. This advice was not heeded by Shakespeare’s family, as the baptism was on a Wednesday, April 26, and was not a recognized holy day. The plague had not yet begun in Stratford, so there was no rush, so why did they want to avoid Sunday?

It was a time of great religious turmoil. The historian Eamonn Duffy, in his work The Stripping of the Altars, points out that the Roman Catholicism was in lively health prior to the English Reformation. This challenged the prevailing belief that it was a decaying force, theologically spent and unable to provide sufficient spiritual sustenance for the population at large. Duffy argues that this is not so, taking a broad range of evidence (accounts, wills, memoirs, rood screens, stained glass, joke-books, graffiti, etc.) demonstrating that every aspect of religious life prior to the Reformation was undertaken with well-meaning piety. In 1559, five years before Shakespeare's birth, the Church of England had fully broken from the Roman Catholic Church. Still traumatised by the rule of ‘Bloody Mary’ and here attempts to reinstate Catholicism, in the ensuing years, extreme pressure was placed on England's Catholics to accept the practices of the new Church. Recusancy laws outlawed any service not found in the Book of Common Prayer. Things seems so volatile, that in Shakespeare's lifetime there was widespread quiet resistance to the newly imposed reforms.

Shakespeare’s family lived at this time of an accelerated implementation of Protestantism and quiet resistance. Outwardly, they were conforming members of the Church of England. Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, was from a conspicuous and determinedly Catholic family in Warwickshire. His father John Shakespeare was a glove maker and wool dealer, a successful small businessman and they lived in a large house in Henley St, that was divided in two parts to allow him to carry out his business from the same premises. It was important to him to conform to the prevailing tides, and as an upstanding local craftsman, he was elected to several municipal offices, which required being a church member in good standing. At one point acting as town chamberlain, he was required to remove "all signs of superstition and idolatry from places of worship", and covered over the wall-paintings of the Chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross. However, a tract, apparently signed by John Shakespeare, in which he pledged to remain a Catholic in his heart, was found in the 18th century in the rafters of his home. This has since been lost, but the reported wording of the tract is linked to a testament written by Charles Borromeo (Catholic Archbishop of Milan) and circulated in England by the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion.

A play written by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, called Shakeshafte, explored the playwrights “lost years”. Historians talk about the period (1585–1592), when Shakespeare was between 21 and 28 years old as his "lost years". However, a will that was unearthed in 1851 shows that a Will Shakeshafte, on the recommendation of a John Cottam, was acting as a schoolmaster for a Catholic family in Houghton Tower, Lancashire. Cottam is said to have been Shakespeare’s last schoolmaster in Stratford-upon-Avon. On writing the play, Anglican Archbishop Williams said, “I think Shakespeare did have a recusant Catholic background. My own hunch though is that he didn’t go to church much.” In the play, Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest travelling incognito from one household to another, meets a young Will Shakeshafte who has been hidden at the request of a schoolmaster in Stratford.

Placing Shakespeare, at an impressionable age in the orbit of the charismatic Campion, who was executed and revered as a martyr by Catholics is quite incendiary by also make give us a deeper insight to the inner life of the great wordsmith. It is thought that Campions library of books was recovered from Hoghton Tower after his execution and that Alexander Hoghton left money in his will to a certain "William Shakeshafte", We also know that four of the six schoolmasters at Shakespeare’s School in Stratford, were Catholic sympathisers, and one, Simon Hunt, later became a Jesuit priest. Archbishop Williams, widely respected for his erudite scholarship, would have been aware of a growing tradition of thought around these ‘lost years’. Richard Wilson a professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kingston University, published the theory of the lost Catholic years in Lancashire in the Times Literary Supplement in 1997, shaping a theory that had been first proposed in 1937 by Oliver Baker, and restated in 1944 by E. K. Chambers and later by Ernst Honigmann in a book ‘Lost Years’.

It maybe, as we heard in the podcast of Mar 31, Shakespeare like John Donne adapted his faith as he became more established and famous. When it was convenient, Shakespeare cooled his crypto-Catholicism, only relying on it at the key moments in his life. For instance, his marriage to Anne Hathaway was rushed because she was three months pregnant. Some surmise Shakespeare married in Temple Grafton rather than the Anglican church in Stratford in order for his wedding to be performed as a Catholic sacrament. And when he died, Richard Davies, an 18th-century Anglican cleric, who lived in the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire, wrote of Shakespeare: "He dyed a Papyst". Written in his private diaries, he may have be echoing a local tradition. Perhaps the most compelling pieces of evidence of the cintiunation of a cypto-catholicism is Shakespeare's purchase of Blackfriars Gatehouse, a place that had remained in Catholic hands and was notorious for Jesuit conspiracies, priest holes to hide fugitives, and covert Catholic activity in London. Intriguingly in the Venerable English College, a seminary in Rome which was set up to train Catholic clergy for Britain the ancient visitor records include the names "Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis" and "Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis" are found. Scholars have speculated that these names might be related to Shakespeare, who it is thought of having visited the city of Rome twice.

Understanding these complicated and intense religious currents of this time make give us a valuable insight into Shakespeare’s unusual ability with language. It was a time when Catholics were forced underground, and Francis Walsingham was developing England’s first spy network, to inform on dangerous Catholic subversives such as Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. What you said and how you said it could be a matter of life and death. How you used language in public places such as alehouses could be very dangerous, and so codes and hidden messages were necessary. An increasing number of scholars are looking to evidence from Shakespeare’s work, of double meanings and of hidden messaged and codes to Catholics. Particularly in Hamlet ‘ To be or not to be that is the question’ - the play can be read as filled with "cryptic allusions to the Protestant Reformation". There are sympathetic allusions to English Jesuit Edmund Campion in Twelfth Night, and many other instances that detect Catholic sympathies in Shakespeare's works.

In linguistics the secretive language used by a subculture is called a cryptolect. For instance, cockney rhyming slang developed originally from the cryptolects of London’s thieves and vagabonds. In Russia, these skills were often needed under communism, and Shakespeare scholar Vadim Nikolayev argued that Shakespeare skilfully avoided conflicts with censorship. Gay men developed a language called ‘Polari’ as a secretive language used to confuse and exclude others but affirm the character and solidarity of a marginalised subculture. Polari had begun to fall into disuse amongst the gay subculture by the late 1960s as the need for a secret code declined with the partial decriminalization of adult homosexual acts. Having dropped out of memory, recently Polari garnered attention again when a trainee priest in the Church of England attempted to use the cryptolect to “queer the liturgy of evening prayer” to honour the LGBTQ community during LGBT History Month. Possibly well meaning, the plan backfired.

It seems likely that Shakespeare blew hot and cold as many did during this time. There is some evidence of revision of older plays such as King John, King Lear with an anti-Catholic bias, and some have identified anti-Catholic sentiment in Sonnet 124, taking "the fools of time" in the last lines of this sonnet, "To this I witness call the fools of time, which die for goodness who have lived for crime", to refer to the many Jesuits who were executed for treason in the years 1594–95. The "equivocator" arriving at the gate of hell in the Porter's speech in Macbeth is widely seen as a reference to the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet, who had been executed in 1606. Shakespeare also become the godfather of William Walker in the Church of England, and he remembered his godson in his will with twenty shillings.


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