I doubt anybody ever went broke publishing books contending that Shakespeare was Catholic. This theory is not up there in popularity with Dan Brown’s inventions, the assorted JFK grassy-knolleries, or Council on Foreign Relations/Bilderberger/Freemasonry “exposés,” but it’s a hardy perennial, and one I have observed basically with amused skepticism. (In general, my view has been that Catholic references in Shakespeare are perfectly explicable by the fact that he had lived in a culture that had been Catholic for roughly 950 of the previous 1,000 years. They do not prove that Shakespeare himself was Catholic, any more than the fact that the writings of a Hispanic professor of U.S. history might contain more references to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington than to Cesar Chavez or Marco Rubio would prove that the professor was not Hispanic but a WASP.)
But now comes a noted federal judge, John T. Noonan Jr., with Shakespeare’s Spiritual Sonnets, an interesting new reading of a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and of his poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” The extent to which some of these works are susceptible of a religious, and specifically Catholic, interpretation, is quite remarkable; in some cases, indeed, I am persuaded that it is the most plausible interpretation. I would even like to supplement one of Noonan’s arguments. In his discussion of Sonnet 122, “Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain,” he points out that the “tables” in line 1 are the commandments of God’s law that are inscribed on human hearts. But I would point out that Shakespeare’s use of “tables” further down in lines 11 and 12 may have yet another religious interpretation. “Therefore to give them from me was I bold / To trust those tables that receive thee more”: I would contend that the tables that receive God more are a reference to the Table of the Lord’s Supper. It is a commonplace of Christian theology that God is more truly present in the redemptive sacrifice of the Eucharist than in the communication of the Law. (When you see the phrase “Real Presence” — both initials capitalized — in Catholic theology, the reference is always to the Eucharist, never to the speech of God in Bible texts concerning the Ten Commandments or other moral legislation.) A polemicist might object that it was Protestants who referred to the “Lord’s Table,” while Catholics would be much likelier to say “altar”; but given what we know of Shakespeare’s love of wordplay, I think the double meaning of “table” would have been irresistible to him even had he been 100 percent Catholic.
The reader of this book may not come away convinced that Shakespeare was Catholic — I remain agnostic, though slightly more disposed to entertain the idea — but he or she will have enjoyed a vivacious engagement with some great poems.