It would have mattered to Shakespeare. For in his lifetime, atheism was equated with immorality, and Catholicism in England was equated with treason. Queen Elizabeth I had executed Edward Arden, a relative of Shakespeare’s mother, for his supposed Catholic treachery.
On Tuesday, word spread about the discovery of a "first folio" of the works of William Shakespeare, an artifact that news outlet placed somewhere between the holy grail and a black rhinoceros on the scale of metaphorical rarity. It was uncovered by some industrious librarians in St.-Omer, France, near the city of Calais, at a public library that already boasts possession of an even rarer Gutenberg Bible.
The folio, as the BBC noted, "collects 36 of Shakespeare's 38 known plays for the first time, and was originally printed in 1623, seven years after the playwright's death." As Jennifer Schuessler reported, the folio's unearthing brings the total number of known Shakespeare compendiums to 233.
So how did a public library in northern France come into possession of such an artifact? Well, the mystique is only enhanced by the fact that the folio was absorbed by the library from a collection held by a now-defunct Jesuit college. Add that flourish to an already semi-simmering theory that Shakespeare was secretly a Catholic and you've got yourself a mystery (or a Dan Brown novel).
For centuries, Shakespeare's status as an upstanding member of the Anglican Church was unimpeachable. His father held community positions that only Protestants could hold and his family's names appear in church registries. Throughout his life, Shakespeare was said to be a member of the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
But over the past century-and-a-half, based on his works and some biographical plot points, scholars and religious figures have begun to debate Shakespeare's faith. In 2011, the Vatican's official paper offered that Shakespeare "convincingly adhered to the Catholic faith," submitting his inclusion of purgatory in "Hamlet" as part of the evidence.
It may seem like small beer, but to many, the political and religious contexts of The Bard's life provide a crucial way into reading his work. Back in 2009, Kathleen Doherty Fenty summed up why the conversation matters:
Here's where the folio comes up. Remy Cordonnier, librarian at the St-Omer library (and possessor of one of the world's greatest names), explained the importance of its Jesuit connection to AFP: "What is really interesting is that it clearly came from the college of Jesuits in Saint-Omer, founded in the late 16th century during Queen Elizabeth's reign when it was illegal for Catholics to go to college."
As the Times report noted, the first page of the damaged folio bears the name Neville, an alias of "Edward Scarisbrick, a member of a prominent English Catholic family who went by that alias and attended the Jesuit college."
While there is no conclusive proof of Shakespeare's Catholicism, the folio's discovery certainly heats things up. Nevertheless, until more is known, "truth is truth, to the end of reckoning."