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To assist your study of the plays, we have incorporated a range of supporting pages that you may find useful. Click any of the links below to access these pages. Note that material is split according to general contextual information related to all four plays, or that which is specific to each text.

The Politics of the Catholic Church

The rise of Protestantism during the 15th and 16th centuries precipitated enormous changes within the Roman Catholic Church as the Vatican, faced with Lutheran, Calvinist and English Reformation movements, struggled to redefine religious dogma. For Shakespeare, questionably a ‘Closet Catholic’, Vatican power provided plenty of social and religious undertone material for plays.

The Council of Trent (1545-63) marked a upheaval in 16th century Catholicism. Prior to Trent, Michelangelo completed David in 1504, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling was commissioned and painted between 1508 and 1512. The papacy reigned powerful, and Julius II (1503-1513) earned the name ‘The Warrior Pope’ for his military expeditions. With this power, however, came a dark underbelly of corruption and a restrictive bureaucracy which few outside the Vatican found appealing [1]: indulgences were sold to ensure the souls of the faithful were guaranteed a place in heaven, nepotism, the corruption of bishops and cardinals was commonplace and some earlier popes had even fathered illegitimate children.

The Council of Trent sought to repair many of the issues Catholicism faced while Protestantism grew. Renaissance ecclesiastics, were required to visit and meet with their diocese frequently. The Nicene Creed (1545-47 council) emerged as one of the strongest developments to re-establish the piety of Catholic Europe. When Trent concluded after 18 years, the Catholic church believed it had a ‘Counter-Reformation’ ready to face the growing Protestant threat.

For all the reform efforts of Trent, little in practice changed. For nearly two hundred years after 1540, only Italians rose to papal power. During Shakespeare’s era, only two Popes were of humble origin [2]. In 1520 the Church sold 2,232 offices worth some 2.5 million ducats, yet in 1565, 3,635 office sales accumulated 3.5 million ducats for Church coffers [3]. Each diocese was meant to hold annual synods (conferences) between the bishops and their parish priests. Few came close to even meeting every five years, however. [4]. On the other hand, for the Italian diocese of Macerata, with only 2 churches and 10 priests, an annual meeting would be unecessary. [5].

The decaying Holy Roman Empire and Counter-Reformation provided Shakespeare with a wealth of material. Othello and The Merchant of Venice were set in a city constantly at odds with the Pope [6]. The Ghost in Hamlet would signify many evil omens for Catholics, since the spirit world was associated with communion with the devil [7]. Understanding the underlying religious concepts in otherwise non-secular tragedies, Shakespeare carefully presented the audience with theatrical interpretations that safely avoided political issues [8]. These theatrical representations of the Church, and the moral struggles of independent minds, also mirrored reality. The size, scope and diversity of states, monarchs and pious followers throughout Catholic Europe made a centric, all-powerful Vatican nearly impossible [9].

In the absence of any autobiography, scholars are unsure if Shakespeare himself was secretly a Catholic. Many authors have debated the subject, and the discovery in 1757 of Shakespeare’s father’s Catholic Spiritual Testament only adds to the arguments. [10]. Without any overt evidence, only the plays remain to demonstrate how theatre may mirror reality, mask religion, and safely examine complex and dangerous issues.

Gregory Sheridan


1. Christine Shaw. Julius II: Warrior Pope. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 1. Return to text.

2. Pius V (1566-72) and Sixtus V (1585-90). R. Po-Chia Hsia, The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540-1770. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998:2005), pp. 96-97. Return to text

3. Hsia, Catholic Renewal, p. 105. Return to text

4. Christopher F. Black, Church, Religion and Society in Early Modern Italy. (New York: Palgrave, 2004), pp. 29, 229-249. Return to text

5. Black, Early Modern Italy, p. 75. Return to text.

6. See the Othello essays. Return to text

7. See The Ghost in Hamlet in the Hamlet section. Return to text

8. See Theatre Politics in the General section. Ivor Morris. Shakespeare’s God: The Role of Religion in the Tragedies. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1972), p. 31. Return to text.

9. Black, Early Modern Italy, p. 225. Return to text

10. There are many books and articles regarding the religious background of Shakespeare and his family. Scholars debate Shakespeare may have been Anglican, Catholic or even Puritan. However, there is no hard evidence to support any of religious claims definitively. For more information readers may search for current debate on the scholarly listserv: or reference the following books:

Ian Wilson. Shakespeare, the evidence, unlocking the mysteries of the man and his work, [1993]
Eric Sams. The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, (1564-94).(1995)
Thomas Carter. Shakespeare Puritan and Recusant. (1897)
Peter Milward. Shakespeare’s Religious Background. (1973)
Richard Simpson & Henry Bowden. The Religion of Shakespeare. (1899)
Samuel Schoenbaum. Shakespeare’s Lives.
Return to text


Black, Christopher F., Church, Religion and Society in Early Modern Italy. (New York: Palgrave, 2004)

Morris, Ivor. Shakespeare’s God: The Role of Religion in the Tragedies. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1972)

Mullett, Michael A., The Catholic Reformation. (London: Routledge, 1999)

Po-Chia Hsia, R. The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540-1770. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998:2005)

Shaw, Christine. Julius II: Warrior Pope. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993)



General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
The Wife as Property in Othello