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Shakespeare for the Masses


For [Joseph Pearce], the facts speak for themselves. But the secularists also claim a monopoly on the facts. The problem is that the facts themselves are notoriously slippery. Did Shakespeare's father, John, retire from civic life because of debt or because of his Catholicism? Is the "testament" confirming his Catholicism genuine or a crafty fake? Did his famous son avoid paying taxes out of stinginess or because of his religion? Did Shakespeare purchase New Place in Stratford to assist its bankrupted recusant owners, or was it simply an opportunist investment? How reliable is the famous pronouncement by a 17th-century Anglican clergyman that Shakespeare "died a Papist"?In similar fashion, Pearce sharpens the focus on Shakespeare's retirement purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London, making clear that this costly acquisition was a known "safe house" for Catholics both before and after Shakespeare's investment The Catholic who leased the building was, in the words of Ian Wilson, "not so much Shakespeare's tenant as his appointed guardian of one of London's best places of refuge for Catholic priests."Pearce's next book will deal with the textual evidence. This area is potentially the most convincing, and a brilliant concluding essay on "King Lear" gives a tantalizing foretaste of his approach. His reading of Sonnet 23, however, "Like an imperfect actor on the stage," omits the typically Shakespearean twist to this confession of covert Catholicism. It is not a straightforward tribute to Henry VuTs chancellor, Thomas More-"More than that tongue that more hath more express'd"-who died for resisting the English Protestant Reformation. It is a delicately ironic plea to the discerning reader to notice that in one sense Shakespeare the reluctant conformist is superior to the courageous More. Cowardice and frustration have driven him to plead the Catholic cause with more "eloquence" than More, the great advocate, ever did. In Shakespeare the persecution has created, if

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