Who Art Thou O Shakespeare!

I have never understood the debate that surrounds the particular Christian faith of Shakespeare. Oh sure, if we knew that Shakespeare was a Catholic that would shed new light on his plays, but is it really worth fighting for? To me, Catholics have always come off a little silly by trying to hammer Shakespeare into a awkward fitting Catholic mold. Perhaps Shakespeare was Catholic. Or maybe he wasn’t, and we have been right all along. We will likely never know, but are we really so much the worse off for not knowing?

In his latest book, Joseph Pearce has apparently taken up the old issue with new vigor. Much loved in Catholic circles for his work on the many great Catholic writers of the early 20th century (Chesterton, Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, etc.), it is sad to see that Mr. Pearce has taken such a beating in FIRST THINGS for his latest book, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome (Ignatius 2008) (Amazon Link).

Robert S. Miola in his review of The Quest for Shakespeare has this to say about Pearce’s latest work:

In The Quest for Shakespeare, Joseph Pearce claims that the “real Shakespeare” was a secret Catholic. Pointing in the preface to his own “robust muse” and “Bellocian bellicosity,” Pearce goes on to mock contemporary writers on Shakespeare as “vultures,” “carrion critics,” “gossip and gutter-oriented ‘scholars,’” and “silly asses of academe.”

A promising beginning, you might think. Unfortunately, The Quest for Shakespeare proves to be a patchwork of other people’s work, indiscriminately selected, hastily stitched together, and served up with self-congratulatory fanfare. Seldom has such a slight book managed to combine ignorance and arrogance on such a grand scale.

The review does not get any kinder to Mr. Pearce. Attacked for its astonishing lack of scholarship, The Quest for Shakespeare does not fair well in Moila’s critique. At one point Miola says, “What he [Pearce] does not know about Shakespeare and the Catholicism of his times would fill several large libraries.” Ouch. In the end, it seems Miola is just fed up with Pearce’s apparent arrogance:

At a conceptual level The Quest for Shakespeare repeatedly exhibits the logical fallacy of association—the idea that identification of Catholic associates constitutes evidence of Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. It never occurs to Pearce that a survey of Protestant associates could just as easily lead to the opposite conclusion. His work also exhibits the biographical fallacy—the unqualified conviction that one can read the author’s life from the work and vice versa.

This fallacy is widespread in Shakespeare studies, true enough, but the business of wrenching passages out of dramatic context as evidence of the playwright’s personal beliefs usually reveals more about the critic than about Shakespeare. Pearce endorses this method for himself—and then vents his spleen on anyone else who dare use it for different conclusions. Thus, for example, he ridicules the “doyens of postmodernity” for writing into the plays their own “prejudiced agenda.” As Pearce notes about much contemporary work on Shakespeare: “For the proponents of ‘queer theory’ he becomes conveniently homosexual; for secular fundamentalists he is a proto-secularist, ahead of his time; for ‘post-Christian’ agnostics he becomes a prophet of modernity.”

Quite right, one wants to say. But what shall we do when Joseph Pearce comes along to say, in essence: “You’re all stupid to think that Shakespeare is just like you. Actually, Shakespeare is just like me”? There is a parable about a mote and a beam that applies somewhere here.

Hopefully, the scholarship of Joseph Pearce isn’t as bad as all that. Having not too long ago expressed great interest in his new critical edition series from Ignatius Press, I still hold out hope that his scholarship in the arena of literary criticism will be able to stand on its own two feet. After the review in FIRST THINGS (a journal which is sympathetic to all things Catholic and conservative, mind you) I have my doubts. Nonetheless, I will withhold my judgement, and I look forward to Pearce’s rebuttle to Miola in the Correspondance section of the next issue of FIRST THINGS. At least, I hope a rebuttle is forthcoming. If not, I shall not know what to think of our beloved Mr. Pearce.

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