May 29, 2011
William Shakespeare was probably a Catholic, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury in an exploration of spirituality and secularism in the Bard's plays.
Dr Rowan Williams discussed the themes with Simon Russell Beale, the great Shakespearean actor, in one of the most eagerly-anticipated talks of the Hay Festival .
Little is known of Shakespeare's life and there is no direct evidence of his religious affiliation, but Dr Williams said he believed him to be a Catholic. "I don't think it tells us a great deal, to settle whether he was a Catholic or a Protestant, but for what it's worth I think he probably had a Catholic background and a lot of Catholic friends and associates.
"How much he believed in it, or what he did about it, I don't quite know. He wasn't a very nice man in many ways - it's always very shocking, that. The late Shakespeare was hoarding grain and buying up property in Stratford - it was not terribly attractive.
"If he was a Christian, he wasn't a saint."
However, Dr Williams went on: "The extent to which I want to call him a Christian is not trying to kidnap him for the tribal trophy wall, but a) because everybody at that time was some sort of Christian, and b) there are things in his plays you can't understand without understanding the notions of forgiveness and free grace.
"He wrestled with human questions and he ends up saying there is a great deal more to all this than some might think. That mysteriousness is part of what the plays are about. That seems impossible without something of the sacred."
While Dr Williams is a Hay regular, Russell Beale was making his first visit to the festival. The town of Hay itself, however, holds very special memories for him after a visit 10 years ago.
"Just before my mother died, we decided to have a day out, just her and me. She said, 'Where do you want to go?' - we lived in Wiltshire - and I said, 'Well, I've never been to Hay'. So we drove up and had the most wonderful day here.
"Last night I decided to go into the town and went into a bookshop, and suddenly got a terrible rush of grief. I remembered that bookshop. I have very fond memories of that day so I am very pleased to be here."
Asked which Shakespearean character he found most compelling, Dr Williams chose Macbeth, but quickly added the caveat: "That's not to say I identify with him, because you don't really want a serial killer as the Archbishop of Canterbury."