Shakespeare in purgatory : a study of the Catholicising movement in Shakespeare biography
The twentieth and the twenty-first centuries have Catholicised Shakespeare. At the heart of this movement lie the so-called Lancastrian theories: that Shakespeare spent some time during his `lost years' in Lancashire and that he is to be identified with `Will[i]am Shakeshafte' in the will of the Catholic magnate, Alexander Hoghton of Lea. Although the proponents of the theories - aptly called `Lancastrians' - agree in terms of the identification of `Shakeshafte' with Shakespeare, their arguments vary and sometimes even contradict each other. We have, therefore, Lancastrian theories (plural). They are attempts to investigate the whereabouts of Shakespeare during the `lost years' and to find out the means by which he entered the London theatre. The Lancastrian theories can be seen in part as a counter-movement against recent Shakespeare scholarship that has been preoccupied with theory. Paradoxically, another stimulus for the revival of biographical studies is literary critics' interest in early modem history, which materialist criticism, especially new historicism, has brought in since the 1980s. Religion has become a major issue in Shakespeare studies. The modem historiography of the English Reformation, especially `revisionism', which emphasises the continuation of medieval Catholicism after the Reformation, has provided significant energy for the development of the Lancastrian theories. Furthermore, the Lancastrians have their own agenda - personal ambitions and motivations, some of which are not altogether scholarly. However, these theories are for the most part based on a chain of speculations, and tend to state them as fact. The biographers, whether Lancastrians or not, who believe Shakespeare and his family to have been Catholics are unfamiliar with the religious condition in Elizabethan England, including anti-Catholic acts and the penalties imposed on recusants. Their arguments also neglect other Elizabethan customs. These biographers' lack of profound knowledge of socio-political and religious history of Elizabethan England has produced inaccurate dramatisation of Shakespeare's life. One other disabling tendency among these biographers is to neglect negative evidence and disregard alternative interpretations. Their approaches to Shakespeare biography simplify the complexity of documentary evidence and produce narrowness of view. In Elizabethan England a series of continuous religious negotiations and renegotiations took place. Through this struggle, the clear-cut division between Catholicism and Protestantism was deconstructed, and there emerged `religious pluralism' -a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism. It was in this complex matrix that Shakespeare was born, grew up and wrote plays and poems. It is against this cultural background that we should study Shakespeare's life (or lives).