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Please see Be All My Sins Remembered - my web-based book with the latest version of these Hamlet essays

Hamlet’s mind was a kind of purgatory for his father and for his uncle. But what does Purgatory have to do with William Shakespeare’s "motive and cue for passion?" Everything. For centuries, rich men had bequeathed land to the Catholic Church in exchange for shortened stays in Purgatory. Martin Luther believed that the selling of passes out of Purgatory was the primary corrupter of the Church. Furthermore, the land which the Church had thus acquired was a tempting prize for any king who decided to break away from the Catholic Church. When Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, he seized the lands of English monasteries, then sold those lands. Thereafter the English Reformation was irreversible. England could never again be Catholic because too many Englishmen had a vested interest in Protestantism -- all those owners of former monastery lands.

In 1565 (the year after Shakespeare’s birth) William Allen wrote "A Defense and Declaration of the Catholike Churches Doctrine touching Purgatory, and Prayers of the Soules Departed"

Before the Reformation, the primary social, economic, and religious institution in many English hamlets was the local guild. These town guilds (not to be confused with the craft guilds in large cities) had been formed for the primary purpose of praying for the souls of deceased members, in order to shorten their time in Purgatory. With the Reformation, the Anglican Church declared the idea of Purgatory heretical, prolonged praying for the dead was outlawed, and the town guilds were ostensibly secularized. However, the guilds continued to be the main social and economic institutions in many towns. Furthermore, many guild members continued, openly or secretly, to be Catholics.

Shakespeare’s father began his rise through Stratford politics during the reign of Queen Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII. Mary’s reign was five years of Catholicism in the midst of the English Protestant Reformation. Wiliam Shakespeare went to the Stratford Guild school. One of his teachers was Simon Hunt, who later became a Jesuit priest and leader of the Catholic English College in Rome. It is reasonable to speculate that Shakespeare’s father and some of his teachers tried to indoctrinate him to pray and work for the restoration of the Catholic Church in England. But, partly because Henry VIII had redistributed the monastery lands, and partly because the Catholic Church would not formally relinquish its claim to those lands, the Catholic Church could never again become the dominant Church of England. Thus the relationship between Shakespeare and the Catholic Church was very much like the relationship between Hamlet and his father’s ghost. Like the ghost, the English Catholic Church was dead but would not give up its claim to the lands it once owned -- that extorted treasure in the womb of earth.. But Hamlet just wanted to go back to school in Wittenberg; and Shakespeare just wanted to write plays.

You the judges bear a wary eye[]

Some of the Stratford alderman were devout Protestants, some were open Catholics, some were secret Catholics, others had been secret Protestants in Mary’s reign. This peaceful co-existence of Catholics and Protestants on the Stratford town council tells us much about the character of England and about the mind of William Shakespeare. Most of the religious persecution and murder came from the central government. The people of England were happy to live and let live, to associate with and trade with their neighbors of whatever faith. The sudden shifts of religion dictated by the royal government -- Henry’s split from Catholicism, Mary’s reconcilation with Catholicism, Elizabeth’s shift back to Protestantism --- gave the people (and Elizabeth) a sort of inoculation against religious intolerance. They had no desire to express their religion by murdering their neighbors. On the other hand, they condoned repression of their neighbors by the central government. They judged government by different standards than they judged themselves. Kings and Queens and Popes ruled by divine right -- they were not ordinary humans. William Shakespeare’s genius was the ability to show the humanity of kings and cardinals -- thus bringing their actions back down to the sphere of human judgment.

Internal Links[]

Dangerous Conjectures in Ill-Breeding Minds - The Prophesy (previous article in biography)

The Strange Baker's Daughter - The Politics of Purgatory (next in biography)

Where Truth Is Hid - A Speculative Biography of Shakespeare (main article)

--Ray Eston Smith Jr 16:52, 6 March 2007 (UTC)