Shakespeare and the Jesuits: “no collusion”?

June 19, 2021 in Featured News, News

‘Shakespeare and the Jesuits: “no collusion”?’ was the title of a presentation made by Michael Kirwan SJ at the Political Theology seminar at Goldsmiths College, London, on Thursday 27th May, 20021, 6.00 to 7.30. Dr Kirwan is Associate Professor at the Loyola Institute School of Religion, Trinity College Dublin. (See short notices for their upcoming conference, ‘The Power of the Word’, 28 June–2 July.)

In his talk, he sought to address a question that has been the subject of debate amongst academics down the years, namely ‘What are the resonances between Shakespearean political theology and Jesuit political thought and practice?’ A consensus on the answer has yet to be reached, according to Michael. “There is still,” he says, “no undisputed verdict as to the existence or non-existence of Shakespeare’s ‘collusion’ with the Society of Jesus.”

Read below his adapted version of the paper he gave at the seminar in which he suggests a possible answer to the vexed question.

Shakespeare and the Jesuits: “no collusion”?

What are the resonances between Shakespearean political theology and Jesuit political thought and practice? The question continues to fascinate scholars, with still no undisputed verdict as to the existence or non-existence of William Shakespeare’s ‘collusion’ with the Society of Jesus.

I would like to investigate one possible answer to the question. First, I will set the scene by considering Thomas Mann’s important novel, The Magic Mountain (1924). The novel is set in a sanatorium in Switzerland, in the years leading up to the First World War. Mann introduces us to two of the most colourful patients: Leo Naphta, a Jesuit who has been invalided out of ministry, a fanatically misanthropic convert from Judaism; and Luddovico Settembrini, a shabbily chic rationalist and freemason. ‘Both talkers’ says Mann, ‘the one luxurious and spiteful, the other forever blowing on his penny pipe of reason.’ Their heated disputations are like a kind of morality play, in which they compete for the ‘soul’ of the novel’s protagonist, the naïve and impressionable Hans Castorp. In the end, Castorp rejects the arguments of both men  one intoxicated with the mysterious dark, one in enlightened denial of it. He describes their quarrels as a mish-mash, a guazzabuglio of God and the devil, a ‘confused noise of battle’.

But ‘how much more powerfully the darkly insinuating Naptha speaks to humanity’s ordinary soul’! (Fernie 2015: 6) Settembrini, the man of progress, is in denial about the demonic nothingness to which, ultimately, his bourgeois complacency (his Bürgerlichkeit) leads him. Naphta, his clerical adversary, persistently brings this to his attention. They argue heatedly until, finally, Naphta challenges the other to a duel. Settembrini, the pacifist, thinks the whole business is ridiculous, but he goes along with the preparations. When they face each other with pistols at dawn, Settembrini fires his shot into the air, and braces himself for his opponent’s turn. Naphta angrily demands that Settembrini fire again, properly. When Settembrini refuses, Naphta shrieks ‘Coward!’- and shoots himself in the head.

We shall return to this legend of the ‘knife-edged little Jesuit and Terrorist’. I will note here that the confrontation between Settembrini and Naptha has been described by Ewan Fernie as a ‘Shakespearean moment’, a clash between paradigms of renaissance and reformation. William Shakespeare continues to be significant for contemporary political theology, as someone who literally dramatizes the violent techtonic political shifts of the early modern period. The ‘translation’ of political legitimacy, from a divinely appointed and protected monarch, to a sovereignty invested in the will of the people; the collapse of Christendom and the emergence of the nation-state; the migration of political thought from theology to ‘statecraft’, and what we would call Realpolitik; all of these traumatic developments are chronicled in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories. Shakespeare holds up the mirror to our own political concerns.

Inevitably, the scholars of the newly emergent Society of Jesus, for good or ill, were caught up in the fundamental political questions which convulsed their age. In his account of Jesuit political thought (2004), Harro Höpfl asserts that there was no single, cohesive, or exclusively Jesuit political doctrine. Their thinking arose from Thomist premises, and they shared with their contemporaries the conviction that monarchy was the best form of government. Nevertheless, the authority of any ruler or regime was limited by fundamental laws, natural and divine law, and the natural and legal rights of subjects, as well as the right or threat of tyrannicide.

On the contrary, the Jesuits, on the whole, were instructed to stay out of issues of statecraft and to devote themselves to pastoral and spiritual ministry. Even so, they find themselves, along with their Reformed contemporaries, at a sixteenth-century crossroads, the crisis of ‘how to be ruled, by whom, and to what end.’ (Wilson 2004: 19). In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, so Richard Wilson argues, rival jurisdictions of Church and State created a type of agonizingly divided subject; a type recognizable in both the disguised Jesuit, moving clandestinely across England, and the self-effacing playwright, whose plays are universally known and loved, but whose personal life and existential commitments largely remain a mystery. An attempt to reconstruct the encounter between Shakespeare and the Jesuits – if there were such – is a worthwhile endeavour, therefore; even if, as most scholars admit, it is likely to end in failure.

Part I of this paper, ‘A Dialogue across Modernities’ will expand on the point made above, that Shakespeare is very much a conversation partner in current political theology. It is not simply that Shakespeare dramatizes traumas and dilemmas which can be otherwise expressed in theoretical form; the crisis of political legitimacy is itself a crisis of aesthetics, spectacle, and ‘representation’. Richard II, is the focus of this discussion, as the play chosen by Ernst Kantorowicz to illustrate his doctrine of ‘the King’s Two Bodies’.

Part II, ‘Shakespeare: Catholic … and Jesuit?’ will examine more closely the plausibility of the claim that Shakespeare and the Society of Jesus were in collusion. The range of views on this is vast, but I will explore here the argument of Richard Wilson, that Shakespeare’s refusal of the Jesuits’ call to costly subversive action is a ‘resistance to the resistance’. I will finish with some concluding remarks, largely agreeing with Wilson’s hypothesis, but pushing back on his characterisation of the ‘fanaticism’ of the Jesuit martyrs.

Part I. A dialogue across modernities

Shakespeare fascinates us still, because his drama illuminates the shared ‘systematic structure’ which links religious and political forms, not just in early modernity, but also in the late modern polity. More than any writer, he holds up a mirror to our efforts. One of the most influential figures in this dialogue between early and late modernity is Ernst Kantorowicz, whose classic work, The King’s Two Bodies: a Study in Medieval Political Theology (2016 [1957]) traces the shift in political legitimacy, from divinely-ordained monarchical absolutism to constitutionally-embedded popular will. He reconstructs the medieval doctrine of the ‘two bodies’: the king’s suffering and imperfect physical body, but also the mystical and legal body of the king’s office, which ‘gave quasi-divine legitimacy, presence, and enduring substance to governmental authority… across the succession of generations’. (Santner 2011: 34-35)

This intuition of monarchy as a fusion of mortality and transcendence confirms the Christological nature of Shakespearean political theology. The ‘Christ-centred kingship’ of the monarch’s double nature, of mortal and sublime bodies, is modelled on the Incarnation of the God-Man. According to Kantorowicz: ‘the image of the twinned nature of a king, or even of man in general, was most genuinely Shakespeare’s own and proper vision’. (25) The play in which this is most stunningly represented, and which Kantorowicz considers in detail, is Richard II: a ‘drama of (royal) destitution’.

Richard II has often been regarded as a dramatization of the historical transition from a feudal to an early-modern world-picture: Richard, ‘a divinely sanctioned monarch’ against the rebel, Henry Bolingbroke (who usurps and kills Richard, and is crowned Henry IV. Bolingbroke is ‘a Machiavellian “new man” whose power resides not in the heavens but in sheer wilfulness’ (Cavanagh, 104). The play’s action marks a shift, therefore, from a medieval divinely-ordained feudal order, to a more modern dispensation that concerns itself solely with the pursuit and preservation of power.

Methinks King Richard and myself should meet
With no less terror than the elements
Of fire and water (III. iii. ll.53-5)

The shift in legitimacy moves along an arc: from divinely-ordained monarchical absolutism to constitutionally-embedded popular will. Richard plummets from divinely-appointed omnipotence to wretched abasement:

In three crucial scenes (III.ii, III.iii, and IV.i), ‘we encounter the same cascading: from divine kingship, to kingship’s “name” and from the name to the naked misery of man. (Kantorowicz 2016 [1957]: 27)

Critics have been wary of Richard II’s place in the canon since it was a cornerstone of Tudor providentialism: Richard’s deposition unleashes the anarchic civil strife that finds resolution temporarily in the idealised King Henry V, and ultimately in the figure of Henry VII. They are wary, in other words, of a narrative of Fall and Redemption, which is certainly suggested by the persistent references to an ‘Edenic’ England, and to the atoning power of blood sacrifice.

Richard Ashby is wary of this view, while asserting that the play Richard II does indeed trace a significant change in historical perception though it is reflected in the shift of optics. Briefly, Richard’s ‘fall from grace’ is depicted in his growing realisation of the impotence of the ‘royal gaze’. Richard is translated from one who sees, powerfully and panoptically, as it were, to one who has become an object of sight, a spectacle. The distinction recurs in both Henry Bolingbroke and his son (Prince Hal, later Henry V), when they muse upon the importance of presenting the right image to the people.

This reversed dynamic, of seeing and being seen, is reflected in Richard’s self-dramatization, and in the scene where he asks for a looking-glass. Bolingbroke comments on the poor spectacle which Richard now presents:

As in a theatre the eyes of men
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage
Are idly bent on him that enters next
Thinking his prattle to be tedious,
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard. (V. ii. ll. 23-8).

Richard is destabilized by being looked at. His kingship has been turned into a desacralized masquerade, a performance staged for the eyes of others. By seeing himself from the perspective of these others, Richard comes to understand that his identity as King is not ‘essential’ but contingent, and can even be taken away; the crown is no longer regarded as sacred, but as a means to an end. Paradoxically, however, Richard becomes more influential by this process. We become rivetted and sympathetic by the sheer force of his suffering; he becomes Ecce homo. As Ashby observes, the King is turned into a woeful pageant of himself by his adversaries; but this allows Richard to transform himself, from an impetuously tyrannical despot into a sacrificial martyr.

A related theme here is Giorgio Agamben’s identification of the need for glory and acclamation in politics: ‘Why does power need glory? If it is essentially force and capacity for action and government, why does it assume the rigid, cumbersome and “glorious” form of ceremonies, acclamations and protocols? (Agamben, xii) The fact is that power needs to be acknowledged: whether this is the spectacular pomp of majestic ceremonial or the authority of inauguration crowds and Twitter followers (mentioning no names …). ‘The glory of God’ (as we find in the Bible) is tied to the manifestation of that glory, and its creaturely acknowledgement.

This is reflected in Baroque theologies of glory, specifically in the Jesuit formula, ‘for the greater glory of God’. ‘Glory’ in the objective sense, cannot be increased; but it demands infinite increase in the second, subjective sense of ‘glorification’. Like the theatrical acclamation bravo, it suggests ‘a peculiar, almost magic efficacy: that of producing glory’. (Agamben 2011: 232) Divinely-sanctioned majesty is not, after all self-sufficient. It requires liturgical acclamation and echo, as Richard realizes, despairingly:

God save the King! Will no man say, amen?
Am I both priest and clerk? Well then, amen.
God save the king! Although I be not he;
And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me. (IV.1.172-175)

We see a similar despairing appeal for an answering echo of recognition on the part of King Lear, who sought to divest himself of the trappings of monarchy while retaining its essence. Hence his anguished cry: ‘Can anyone tell me who I am?’

I have outlined two themes: the politics of theatrical spectacle, and (following Agamben) the related theme of politics as glory and glorification. I would assert that these and other theo-political motifs in Shakespeare can be explored in terms of Jesuit influence: the Christological understanding of enfleshed monarchy; the tension between inner resistance and outer conformity; and the tension between idealism and cynical statecraft or realpolitik.

And there is, above all, the ‘decisive’ question of political legitimacy, and its corrollary: the legitimacy of deposing an unjust ruler, or even of tyrannicide.

One reason for hesitancy in identifying ‘Jesuitica’ more precisely, as Harro Höpfl points out, is that despite their reputation for shady dealings, there is little in Jesuit political thought that is distinctive, let alone distinctively disreputable. The problem of what to do about ‘ungodly’ rulers was common across the denominations. So tracing a distinctive Jesuit influence is not easy.

Can anything more precise be said, about Shakespeare’s alleged Jesuit connection?

Part II. Shakespeare: Catholic … and Jesuit?

There has been a considerably renewed interest in Shakespeare’s alleged Catholicism in recent years; the catalyst for this is undoubtedly Ernest Honigmann’s speculation about Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’, allegedly spent in Hogton Hall in Lancashire under Catholic patronage. Honigmann’s proposal, and Richard Wilson’s development of it, link Shakespeare’s early biography with two strongholds of Catholic resistance and recusancy, Warwickshire and Lancashire. We have papist signposts, at the beginning of Shakespeare’s life, and at the end of his theatrical career. Beyond this, we are at the mercy of any number of interpretations of the plays and poems, scrutinized for coded religious meanings.

Richard Wilson argues, by contrast, not from the texts, but from their silence, from ‘what Shakespeare did not write’. He is referring to the lack of explicit reference to the ‘Bloody Question’ of religious loyalty to Pope or Queen, and to Shakespeare’s total self-effacement from religious politics. This is because, says Wilson, Shakespeare’s Jesuit connection was profoundly ambiguous. In short, he decided upon a refusal of the more extreme recusant position, rather than an espousal of it. (Wilson, 1997, 2004, and 2006)

If recent scholars are correct, clandestine encounters between William Shakespeare and the Jesuits Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons (who had illicitly entered England in 1580), would have taken place in aristocratic households in Warwickshire and Lancashire. Campion, one of the most intellectually gifted men of his generation, exerted a charismatic fascination on his young Catholic audiences. His mission was in part a recruiting drive, to encourage fathers to send their sons to the continent for a Catholic education, and perhaps to join the priesthood. For Wilson, Campion’s gracious but self-deprecating aristocratism was not an affectation or a pose. Rather, this defensive deportment was required of a generation of Elizabethans, caught between two competing and exclusive jurisdictional claims on their souls, and therefore required to keep their heads down.

William Shakespeare was not immune to this contagious fascination. He too ‘appears to have lived the schizophrenia of his era’, between two opposed archetypes: gentleman-‘pragmatic, anti-heroic, old-fashioned in politics’, and priest- ‘intellectual, radical, idealist, and politically activist’. (Wilson 2004: 4; citing Bossy, 1962: 39-59). Shakespeare’s sympathies were finally to rest with the accommodationism of the gentry, Wilson argues, rather than the extremism of the Jesuit missionaries, and the fanatical version of Catholicism which they represented. The evidence suggests instead that Shakespeare opted for the politique position of moderate Catholics, a project which included freedom of conscience and mutual religious toleration.

‘Shakespeare’s plays were shaped as critiques of martyrdom, I argue, by resistance to the resistance into which he had been born, and by his politique respect for the secrecy of the human heart.’ (Wilson 2004: ix) Wilson is not very sympathetic to modern-day Catholicism, and he admits to his surprise at being drawn into the speculation about Shakespeare’s secret Catholicism. His persistent alignment of sixteenth-century Jesuit missionaries to contemporary religious terrorists is disappointingly clunky (he refers for example to the bombing campaign in London of the ‘Catholic IRA’). But precisely for this reason, since he is not a partisan apologist for a Catholic or ‘Jesuit’ Shakespeare, Wilson is a convincing devil’s advocate, though he does admit that the evidence remains forever inconclusive.


There seems little reason to alter the perception of William Shakespeare as essentially a conservative monarchist, who nevertheless knew the need of constraints upon all power; and whose art is directed, obliquely but firmly, in protest at the cruel abuses of government. The Society of Jesus, officially, shared this implicit vision of order. However, I would contend that the most significant or radical aspect of Jesuit political wisdom concerns practice, rather than any theory of sovereignty or statecraft. This is the practice of martyrdom which, according to Wilson, Shakespeare refused in his ‘resistance to the resistance’, as he distanced himself decisively from Jesuit extremism.

According to Wilson (2004, 15), the charismatic Edmund Campion impressed Shakespeare because he embodied the ‘tactically-split’ personality of Elizabethan Catholicism: a ‘curious mix of self-assertion and self-cancellation’. Self-effacement is presented as a recusant, Counter-Reformation ideal, but it is an ideal which Shakespeare takes into his art, rather than into religious activism. The uncompromising religious stance of Campion and his companions was, Wilson suggests, as unacceptable to Shakespeare as that of the persecuting authorities. Shakespeare’s via media was the advocacy of religious co-existence and checked political power, such as argued for by Michel de Montaigne. For Wilson, both Montaigne and Shakespeare are ‘insiders outside’ the extremes of Catholicism.

Which brings us back to Leo Naphta. What are we to make of Thomas Mann’s ‘knife-edged little Jesuit and Terrorist’? In fact Naphta is unrecognisable even as a stage or caricature Jesuit. But he stands for the same fanatical irrationalism which Richard Wilson associates with his Jesuit forebear Edmund Campion; his suicide is the ‘terroristic deed of a desperate antagonist’ (Mann 709). As Hans Castorp, the naïve hero of The Magic Mountain, acknowledges with disgust: ‘that knife-edged little Jesuit and Terrorist … is nearly always right’. (Mann 478)

Leo Naphta’s spiritual intensity, his totalitarian rejection of liberalism, and his espousal of Terror, strike us as Marxist in provenance, rather than Christian (in fact, Mann modelled this perverse figure on the Marxist literary critic George Lukács). But the religious undertones are clear: Naptha presents the Civitas Dei in open and necessary antagonism to the decadence of its terrestrial counterpart, ‘to strike terror into the world for the healing of the world’.

According to Wilson, the young William Shakespeare found himself momentarily confronted with someone who combined the apparently opposed traditions, of ‘renaissance’ and ‘reformation’, of Settembrini and Naphta. Edmund Campion was supremely cultivated and literate, but also fiercely disputatious and zealous. The fusion was, no doubt, a heady one for the young Catholics who gathered round the Jesuit- Shakespeare included. If Wilson is correct, however, Shakespeare managed to escape the spell.

I conclude this paper with a protest, however, on behalf not of Leo Naphta, but of actual Jesuits who continue to be misrepresented, even in such thought-provoking studies as those of Wilson, and (more indirectly) Fernie, reading Thomas Mann. The alignment of sixteenth-century religious conviction with contemporary terrorism seems, alas, to be irresistible for modern scholars. Wilson name-checks the ‘Catholic IRA’, and Fernie ‘the epoch of Al-Qaeda’, as examples of the recrudescence of ancient sacred energies. The progressivist myth at work here needs to be challenged. The instances of martyrdom- which Shakespeare himself probably witnessed- are not ‘outside the walls’; that is, they are not outside or beyond the political realm. The deaths of the martyrs are not desperate acts of hatred, but the ultimate form of imitatio Christi. As with the passion of Christ himself, the martyr re-presents and re-figures the ecce homo; a judgement, then as now, upon the dominant political order.

What is skewed in Wilson’s account, I suggest, is his unsympathetic dismissal of the Jesuits, and their mission to England, as a sixteenth-century precursor of contemporary extreme jihadism or sectarian violence. Though such caricature does not damage the broad plausibility of his argument about Shakespeare’s ambiguous Jesuit connections, Wilson’s description of the Jesuit as the fanatical ‘other’ places the Society of Jesus outside political discourse. As a Jesuit, I would want to claim that these martyrs, who prayed for the Queen on the scaffold and hoped that they and their adversaries might meet again in heaven, were pleading for an expansion of our notion of the political, rather than an outright refusal or rejection of it.


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