Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed—wash every mote out of his conscience. And dying so, death is to him an advantage, or not dying the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained.Henry v
The last decade has witnessed a renewed interest in Shakespeare’s religion. Not many now doubt that William Shakespeare had Catholic sensibilities and an imagination rooted in the fifteenth century, rooted there perhaps as in a safe vantage point from which he could praise an older England without raising the hackles of his Tudor contemporaries. Whether Shakespeare was actively a recusant, one who sought out Jesuit missionaries for confession and communion while occasionally conforming as he played before the Queen, is a question that cannot be decided on present evidence. All we can know certainly is that if he had openly displayed Catholic sympathies, he might well have been, like his Arden grandparents, imprisoned in the Tower, tortured, and executed. But for Shakespeare’s biography, we have little other than the evidence of the plays. What they display is a poet of deeply Catholic sensibilities, possessed of a surprisingly profound grasp of the theological complexities of war.
Our chief witness is Henry v, act iv, scene 1. It is the night before the battle of Agincourt, and the King walks incognito among his soldiers. Williams, a private soldier, reflects that if the king’s cause is not good, Henry bears the burden of many deaths and maimings, the heaviest burden being the likelihood that many soldiers the king has led into battle may not die well, having the hope of heaven, because they do not die charitably disposed, in a state of grace, a condition which, Williams points out, is difficult to maintain when “blood is their argument.”
Here Shakespeare is assuming the Christian doctrine that a just war cannot be pursued out of malice, but must be inspired by a desire for justice and accompanied by a charitable disposition. To Williams’ charge that the king will lead an army of sinners whose deaths, not in state of grace, will be the king’s responsibility, Shakespeare’s Henry makes an answer taken straight from the fifteenth-century doctrine of double effect. That doctrine teaches that the undesirable, even evil, byproducts of good and necessary actions may be tolerable as long as they are secondary effects of some just action and are not directly willed. When the king wills his soldiers’ service he does not will their death. Shakespeare knew that the Christian soldier fought not to kill and maim, but was reminded to love his enemies even as he sought to reestablish peace.
In the opening lines of Richard ii the king asks Henry Bolingbroke if, in his feud with Thomas Mowbray, he challenges the duke “on ancient malice or worthily as a good subject should, on some known ground of treachery in him?” King Richard will not countenance a conflict fed by “inveterate malice,” but only battle justly directed against treason. Malice will not do; the soldier must be charitably disposed. The army before Agincourt, we are told, was shriven, soldiers confessing their sins, returning to a state of charity, before the battle.
If we never find any evidence that Shakespeare practiced the Catholic faith overtly in his maturity, this text is enough. As to his thoughts as he met his end in 1616, we must be content with the observation of a Church of England diarist Richard Davies, who wrote, many years after Shakespeare’s death, “William Shakespeare died a papist.”