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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Shakespeare Folio Found in Calais -- More Evidence of Shakespeare's Catholicism

Today's Washington Post reports that a librarian in Calais, France discovered a Shakespeare Folio on the library's shelves.  It was missing a few key pages, and as a result had been miscatalogued as an 18th century compilation of Shakespeare's plays.  In fact, it clearly was one of the original 1623 Folios, of which only 232 -- now 233 -- are known to exist (Washington Post's "223" is wrong here, although I'm not 100% sure of the exact number).

It's missing about 30 pages, and has seen better days.

But nevertheless, it provides us one more link between Shakespeare and the Jesuits.  Eric Rasmussen, a famous Shakespeare scholar, has this to say:

“[I]t 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. . . .  People have been making some vague arguments [about Shakespeare's possible Catholicism] but now for the first time we have a connection between the Jesuit college network and Shakespeare. … The links become a little more substantial when you have this paper trail.”

The Folio is inscribed with the name "Neville," which is taken to be code for the name of the owner of the book.  The New York Times writeup (from which the Washington Post writeup mostly derives) says that Rasmussen posited that the inscription meant that the book was brought to St.-Omer in the 1650s by Edward Scarisbrick "a member of a prominent English Catholic family who went by that alias and attended the Jesuit college" (quote from NYT, not Rasmussen).

I'm not a Catholic by any stretch of the imagination, but I tend to root for underdogs.  So I rooted for soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth and the Protestants during the reign of Bloody Mary, but I also rooted for Mary Queen of Scots, Edmund Campion, and the Catholics during the almost-equally bloody reign of Queen Elizabeth.  Since Shakespeare's writing career took place largely during Elizabeth's affirmatively anti-Catholic reign, I like to think of him as a subversive underdog during that time.  It adds another perspective to the reading of the plays.

Of course, we know next-to-nothing about Shakespeare's actual life, so any guesses about his religious beliefs are sheer speculation.  

This isn't quite the same as arguing that Shakespeare's works were written by someone other than Shakespeare.  That's a very different kind of argument, although it also stems from the scarcity of any verifiable biographical information about Shakespeare himself.  The authorship argument is difficult to make simply because the other candidates for authorship are so weak -- for example, the best one seems to be the Earl of Oxford, but he was dead before Shakespeare wrote many of his plays, and some of those plays clearly contain references to things that happened after Shakespeare's death.

I can't help noting (since nobody seems to have done so yet), that Sir Henry Neville has recently been put forth as an authorship candidate by James Goding and Bruce Leyland (code breakers) and Brenda James (Shakespeare scholar).  Proponents of this theory will doubtless consider the inscription "Neville" highly significant.  (On quick look, I see no evidence that Neville was Catholic, although of course he might have been just as Catholic as Shakespeare).

The Shakespeare-as-Jesuit argument also finds support in the plays here and there, and on the notion that one "William Shakeshafte" -- a person who might have spent time with Edmund Campion on his 1580 mission -- might have been the young William Shakespeare.

Connections to Shakespeare and the Jesuits can be found in the following sources:

Will In the World, by Stephen Greenblatt (an overrated and derivative, but very accessible, popular work by a famous Shakespeare Scholar)

Shakespeare and the Jesuits, by Andrea Campana (I haven't read it, and nobody's reviewed it, but it appears to contain a detailed review of the "evidence)

Here's a picture of the thing:

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