Shakespeare and the Franciscan Order

Shakespeare’s most famous Franciscan character is Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. … Friar Laurence indirectly relates tragic paradox to divine power; grace so fills the world that evil can be brought out of good, yet, good can also devolve into evil.


Like the present Holy Father, William Shakespeare channeled an “inner Franciscan.” Despite Elizabethan persecution of Roman Catholics, the dramatic genius—who, according to Harold Bloom, invented the human personality—gave several pivotal roles to characters from an order that had virtually disappeared from England several generations earlier during Henry VIII’s first dissolution of the monasteries. These characters, while not leading protagonists, were much more than bit parts. Shakespeare took a political risk in overtly portraying them in their traditional garb onstage, where the royal censor, the Master of the Revels, might well have objected, demanded their removal, and even prosecuted the playwright’s company. What reasons, dramaturgical, political, or religious, might have led Shakespeare to take such a risk to his livelihood and person?

Shakespeare’s most famous Franciscan character is Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. He appears first in his cell, not praying lauds, but ready to gather medicinal herbs at first light, like that great natural philosopher, the Franciscan proto-scientist, Roger Bacon of Oxford. Filling up his “osier cage” with both “baleful weeds and precious-juicèd flowers,” he muses on theological paradoxes:

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities;
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified. (2.2.15-20)

In this short soliloquy, Friar Laurence indirectly relates tragic paradox to divine power; grace so fills the world that evil can be brought out of good, yet, good can also devolve into evil. The simple herbs and stones themselves have their divine quiddity or “special good.” While moral good can fall from grace, moral evil can result in good through efficacious action. This thesis is no idle disputation. It foreshadows the play’s central thematic movement: sincere but imprudent love in a valid but clandestine marriage, leads to Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, from which springs reconciliation or “jointure” and “gloomy peace” (5.3.298, 306) between the Montagues and Capulets. The good friar is square in the middle of that transformation from the beginning, when he decides to marry Romeo and Juliet:

For this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your households’ rancor to pure love. (2.3.91-92)

Despite the grace that gives medicine pharmacological “power,”
“poison hath residence” (2.3.24),

Friar Laurence maintains, in man’s fallen nature:

Two such opposèd kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs—grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant. (2.3.27-30)

He speaks these lines while holding up the “infant find” of a “weak flower,” just as Romeo comes onstage after his famous balcony serenade of Juliet; “infant” and “weak” clearly also describe the fickle youth. Of course, it is neither as a theologian, nor as a literary commentator, that Friar Laurence functions. He is the loyal confidant, and spiritual confidant, of two rash young lovers whose well-meaning ministrations are ruined by fate, but trumped by Providence.

As a representative of the Church, he is so exemplary, and so thoroughly Catholic, that it is surprising that an ambitious playwright would risk offending Protestant sensibilities, the most extreme of which, such as Philip Stubbs, railed against the theater itself as an occasion of sin, and called for its closure; or Anthony Munday, who hissed, “The chapel of Satan, I mean the theater.” 1  In fact, the source of Romeo and Juliet contains a preface by its author, Arthur Brooke, which explicitly condemns friars as “superstitious” and “naturally fit instruments of unchastity,” and calls “auricular confession” “the key of whoredom and treason.” 2  Friar Laurence is, by contrast, the guardian of reckless virtue; he provides valid shriving not to forgive fornication, but to prepare the marriage sacrament:

For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone
Till holy church incorporates two in one. (2.5.36-37)

His insistence on confession for both betrotheds shortly before marriage is consistent with the Tridentine insistence on confession prior to marriage. At the same time, the fact that banns are not announced three times before marriage, and that the confession is a rushed job, coming neither strictly before the betrothal contract, nor three days prior to the consummation of marriage, shows the Elizabethan impossibility of a wedding conforming to Catholic canonical norms, which may have been the case in Shakespeare’s own marriage. 3 He distinguishes between “doting” (2.3.82) and “pure love” as Romeo’s “assistant” (2.3.90). Shortly before he performs their valid marriage, he gives sage counsel:

Therefore, love moderately: long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow. (2.5.14-15)

In fact, in a play characterized by passive reaction to sudden, arbitrary movements of fate (infatuation, family animosities, youthful aggression), his is the prudent hand. While he occasionally bumbles, he proposes the most mature, stable solutions possible in the midst of passionate recklessness, and irrational hatred, a hatred that may well be a transposition for the religious animosity between Catholics and Protestants in England at the time. For Montague is no less than the name of a great English Catholic family on the maternal side of Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton. 4 His duplicity aims at the good of souls brought to his care. Secret, short-shrift marriage threatens the community, but his community is already broken, and his charges are head over heels: better to shrive and wive than to perpetuate an occasion of sin. The hasty marriage is, perhaps, defective in not announcing public banns, but the more crucial point of canon law is that this upright churchman upholds the freedom of the contracting parties against family interference, a continuing problem in early modern Europe. His independence is possible because he is not part of the secular clergy, which had more pressure from state and family power.  Shakespeare overturns his audience’s anti-papist sympathies, moreover, by planning Juliet’s forced (and bigamous) marriage with Paris to take place at “Saint Peter’s Church,” which she opposes with an oath “by Saint Peter’s Church, and Peter, too” (3.5.115-117).  Far from Brooke’s friar, who used “auricular confession” for “whoredom” and “treason,” Laurence uses it to moderate and legitimize youthful passion, and to overcome civil discord. His idea of marriage has a generous Catholic goal of “incorporating” not only “two in one” by “holy church,” but also of replacing bloody conflicts with peaceful communion. With impetuous Romeo groveling on the floor of his cell, and threatening suicide with a knife in the wake of banishment from Verona and his new bride, Laurence rouses him with a curious comparison:

Fie, fie, thou shamest thy shape, thy love, thy wit,
Which, like a usurer, abound’st in all,
And usest none in that true use indeed,
Which should bedeck thy shape, thy love, thy wit. (3.3.122-125)

He invokes the classic Catholic aversion to usury, grounded in the belief that the increase of interest appropriated natural value (“thy shape, thy love, thy wit”) without adding anything to it: it demanded something for nothing, and rejected “true use” of the divine gifts, the source of natural value. Comparing suicide to usury may seem strained at such a moment, but it reveals a traditional cast of mind. In Cantos XIII and XVI of the Inferno, by Dante Alighieri (who was believed to have been a Franciscan Tertiary), the suicides are above the usurers in the seventh ring of hell, the plain of fire reserved for the violent, who destroy God’s gifts of life and art. Laurence reminds his immature charge, without the slightest hint of Puritanical preaching, that manliness abides in the active use of human, heavenly, and natural endowments: “birth and heaven and earth, all three do meet / In thee at once; which thou at once would lose” (3.3.120-121).

Shakespeare departs, not only from the fiery Protestant author Arthur Brooke’s association of “whoredom” and “treason” with the friar, but also from other satirical associations within the Catholic tradition itself. Chaucer accuses his worldly “Frere,” for example, of philandering, confessional fraud and abuse, avarice, extravagant dress, frequenting taverns, affected speech, merry-making in harp and song, and fleecing widows (“The General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales, ll. 207-269). Friar Laurence possesses none of these faults. Chaucer does not make his Frere specifically Franciscan, as Shakespeare does Laurence, who invokes “Holy Saint Francis!” (2.3.65) upon learning of Romeo’s sudden forgetting of Rosaline, and infatuation with Juliet. His fellow brother, John, addresses him as “Holy Franciscan friar, brother” (5.2.1) and reminds the audience of the traditional Franciscan charism of the corporal works of mercy, executed in Gospel charity and poverty at a moment of utmost need: “barefoot brother…one of our order” who accompanies him “visiting the sick” (5.2.5-7) during a plague.

In stunning contrast, the monastic cell carries satanic connotations in the Calvinist poet Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen (1596). It shelters Archimago, the evil figure representing Roman Catholic Hypocrisy, who thwarts the hero, the “Redcrosse Knight,” throughout the Book of Holiness, the first in Spenser’s epic. While Archimago is not disguised as a friar per se, he has the attributes of a hermit, dresses in “black weedes,” possesses black magic pharmacological powers, lives a routine of self-flagellating penance in a “little lowly Hermitage” next to a holy chapel, prays the rosary, and speaks of saints and popes, strewing Ave Marias “after and before” (The Fairie Queen, Book I, Canto I, Stanzas 29,30,34). The Redcrosse Knight’s Lady, Una, separated from her champion by Archimago’s lustful false dreams, spends a night in a desert cottage hermitage occupied by Abessa, and her blind-hearted mother, Corceca, whom Kirkrapine (“church-robber”) uses in whoredom, and lavishes with stolen gold from priests, and the purloined fat of the land from poor men’s boxes, all the while that they hypocritically fast and pray “nine hundred Pater Nosters every day / And thrice nine hundred Aves” in ashes and sackcloth (Canto III, Stanzas 13,14,17,18). This satirical depiction of Catholic ritualistic futility and hypocrisy is far from Shakespeare’s respect for Catholic practice.

At the beginning of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus (late 1580s or early 1590s), the German scholar conjures Mephistopheles out of a circle with a Latin incantation, holy water, and the sign of the cross. The devil appears in the shape of a dragon, which Faustus cannot abide:

I charge thee to return and change thy shape,
Thou art too ugly to attend on me.
Go, and return an old Franciscan friar;
That holy shape becomes a devil best.  (1.3.25-28)

In the third act, Mephistopheles brings Faustus to the papal court of the corrupt and abusive Pope Adrian. His attendants include friars, who are in charge of the excessive merriment and feasting.  The devil and papacy as Franciscan friars obviously fulfills one popular anti-Catholic Elizabethan stereotype, but Shakespeare associates his friars neither with diabolical blasphemy nor worldly excess.

Friar Laurence’s service is not only to the holy care of young souls, but also to the dutiful advancement of the plot. His collection of simples at his first appearance establishes his pharmacological credentials later in giving Juliet a sleeping potion that mimics death, an imitation that will spare her from a forced marriage and bigamy, and endow her, instead, with a new name and a new life in Christ, a sacramental marriage with her beloved. Thus, far from trafficking in superstition and wantonness like Brooke’s original friar, Friar Laurence is a minister of grace. His vial bears not black magic, but actual graces, those twitches and nudges of the divine toward the good. Not restricting infused grace to the seven sacraments, medieval schoolmen identified as many as 32 occasions of infused grace. 5 Shakespeare is employing the broad, traditional Catholic understanding of grace expressed by that Jesuit Victorian medievalist poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Strict Protestants would have probably seen Friar Laurence’s handling of the vial as Catholic superstition behind the material accidents of the sacraments, particularly in holy unction, baptism, and the Eucharist; but Shakespeare neither parodies such associations nor backs away from them. He puts them front and center in the hands of a sympathetic, even heroic, Catholic cleric, who celebrates “evening Mass” (4.1.37) in the only mention of the perfidious Catholic ceremony, the source and summit of Catholic life, in all of Shakespeare. Evening Mass was even condemned by Trent, but was common, nonetheless, in Catholic Europe, especially in Italy, and especially by the religious clergy; the practice was, therefore, marginal, or out of the mainstream.6 The soporific vial, indeed, brings resurrection, newness of life, and a local end to earthly animosity—“glooming peace” (5.3.306) between Montagues and Capulets, who have become brothers (5.3.297).  “O, mickle,” indeed, is the powerful grace that lies in plants, herbs, and stones.

Shakespeare may have had not just traditional Catholic leanings, but also personal memories behind his portrayal of Friar Laurence. Heinrich Mutschmann and Karl Wentersdorf suggest that Fr. Frist, the Roman Catholic priest of Temple Grafton (the likely venue of Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway), was the biographical model for Friar Laurence. Frist was also interested in medicine and healing, and the famously rushed marriage that he would have performed for the Warwickshire couple was by license rather than by the usual banns. 7 A second personal Catholic association may also loom in Shakespeare’s memory in forming the Church regular. In Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire, a religious community, called the Guild of St. Anne, flourished prior to the Reformation. Its registry contains 16 brothers and sisters named Shakespeare, one of which was an abbess, Isabella, who bears the name of the Poor Clare heroine of Measure for Measure. Isabella Shakespeare may have been an aunt of William, the poet. 8

In Much Ado About Nothing, written perhaps four years after Romeo and Juliet, a second follower of St. Francis, bearing the order’s holy founder’s name, intervenes with an irregular marriage, and a falsified death, to effect a reconciliation. Friar Francis plays a minor but crucial role, and enjoys many of the same qualities as his overtly Franciscan predecessor: an ability to bring good from evil, to see innocence when others see guilt, to act irregularly, even duplicitously, in order to solve a sudden crisis made by human wickedness. Once again, the plot turns on a Franciscan’s improvised prudence, tricky counsel, and psychological acumen. He is asked to marry Hero, the noble Leonato’s daughter, to Claudio briefly, “in the plain form of marriage” (4.1.1-2), only to be shocked, along with Leonato’s household and all his guests, by Claudio’s accusation on the marriage altar that she has lost her maidenhood. While everyone leaves the maligned girl in a swoon, Friar Francis immediately recognizes “strange misprision in the princes” (Hero’s false accusers) and seizes an opportunity to change “slander to remorse,” to achieve “some good,” by “maintain(ing) a mourning ostentation” (4.1.205-210). He imagines Hero’s restoration to good reputation in resurrection terms: “on this travail look for greater birth” (4.1.212). Taking Hero for dead, Claudio, the Friar proposes, will “rack her value” (4.1.219):

And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come appareled in more precious habit,
More moving, delicate, and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul
Than when she lived indeed.(4.1.225-229)

If the plan of seeming death to make the heart grow fonder doesn’t work, then Hero can retreat to “some reclusive and religious life” (4.1.241). Friar Francis’s knowledge of souls and of the soul proves correct, Hero’s innocence is proved in a trial of seeming death, Claudio marries resurrected virtue, and there’s been much ado about nothing.

As many as five more Franciscans appear in a play written during Shakespeare’s high tragic period, the so-called problem play and tragicomedy, Measure for Measure, perhaps the most overtly Christian play that Shakespeare penned. Its title, the only one in the entire canon that borrows from scripture, comes from Luke 6:38: “With the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.” Besides two minor Franciscan messengers (Friars Thomas and Peter), and one minor cloistered Poor Clare (Francisca), the heroine is Isabella, a Franciscan novice who wants “a more strict restraint / Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of St. Clare” (1.3.4-5). Offered an opportunity to save the life of her brother, Claudio, who has been sentenced to death for the crime of fornication (a law on the books in Calvin’s Geneva, and proposed for England by radical English Protestants), she refuses to break her vow of chastity. The setting of the play is Vienna, the Catholic capital of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, a safe setting for a Catholic-leaning playwright to parody.  Vienna’s Duke opens the play by announcing a leave of absence, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, but, in fact, in order to substitute as his deputy an austere religious, Angelo, who will tighten “strict statutes and most biting laws / The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds” that the former ruler had “let slip” (1.3.19, 21). The Duke then proceeds to stay in Vienna doing corporal works of mercy to visit prisoners, himself disguised as a Franciscan friar! While Thomas, the name of the brother with whom the Duke discusses his plan to moderate Angelo’s surrogate rule, which he fears will be “too dreadful,” might suggest the Dominicans, a late reference in the play to the “cord” (3.2.41) in the Duke’s habit confirms the Franciscans. The Duke, who takes the name of Brother Ludovico, hears the confessions of both the imprisoned Claudio, and his pregnant fiancé, making the Catholic distinction between imperfect and perfect contrition (“sorrow” for sin out of “fear” versus sorrow out of “love” 2.3.31-34) as “a brother of gracious order / late come from the See / In special business from his Holiness” (3.2.220-221). Why would Shakespeare locate him so specifically and openly with the Pope, and is there also an allusion to England’s new ruler James I, who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, by the change in rule of Vienna? The play was first performed before James on December 26, 1604.  The Pope at the time was the devout Clement VIII, who hoped for James’s conversion and the return of England to the True Faith. 9

If the play is making contemporary political and religious comments, they would come from the behavior of these two Franciscan protagonists, one a lay ruler in religious disguise, the other an over-zealous religious. The Duke attempts to find the virtuous mean in public morality between rigorism and laxity. He himself has lapsed into the laxity, along with Claudio, Lucio, the whore Mistress Overdone, and the bawd clown Pompey. Rigorism is represented by Angelo, a pharisaical hypocrite, and Isabella, who places chastity above saving her brother’s life. The bawd Pompey curiously follows, yet again, the Thomistic taxonomy in making lechery less sinful than usury; in fact, he calls it the “merriest” of high-interest usuries (3.2.7).  Friar Ludovico, the Duke in disguise, goes further in duplicity than any other Franciscan in Shakespeare by substituting for Isabella Angelo’s betrothed, Mariana, whom he has dropped because she lost her dowry. The Duke’s point is to teach mildness to Angelo, and to counsel moderation and mercy to the realm and audience by a lesson in moral frailty. The measure of mercy that we all enjoy as fallen creatures we should administer to our brothers and sisters. Once again, marriage is more than a personal solution to a family crisis; the political leadership of a realm threatened by moral laxity uses a Franciscan disguise to promote marriage as a middle way between laxity and rigorism—better to marry than to burn. The Duke threatens Angelo, Lucio, Claudio, and Bernadine all with death, but then summarily pardons them; the first three are forced to marry. He offers Isabella herself marriage with him, instead of the austere cloister, but the text does not include her response to his proposal.

Two Franciscans, prototypes bearing names later used, are mentioned in one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Friar Laurence, who wanders through the forest “in penance” (5.2.38), and Friar Patrick, to whose cell Sylvia, the banished daughter of a powerful duke, goes, once again, for “holy confession” (4.2.46), seeking refuge in flight because she will not, like Juliet, marry the man chosen by her father. These merely mentioned friars do not appear on stage, but they show that Shakespeare’s earliest association of Franciscans is with a holy moral authority against brute power.

Shakespeare was not an historian, but when he invoked the Franciscans, he would have been thinking more of their traditional presence in Merry Old England than of their literary appearance in continental sources. A community of Greyfriars established itself in 1224 at Canterbury, and they numbered 73 friaries and 600 friars throughout England by the time of Henry VIII’s Dissolution in 1538, 10 one of which was as close to Stratford-upon-Avon as Coventry. 11 There were as many as 1300 friars at their floruit. The famous First Order English greats included Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, and Alexander of Hales, who taught Bonaventure and Aquinas. Catherine of Aragon and Thomas More were Tertiary Franciscans. A group of Franciscans of the Regular Observance, made famous by St. John Capistran, was among the first to challenge Henry VIII’s divorce and primacy of the Church of England, for which several paid with their heads. The friaries were taxed, confiscated, and dissolved by 1534, and the friars were persecuted, martyred, and banished, many of them regrouping at the English College at Douai in the Spanish Netherlands. They briefly reestablished themselves at Greenwich during Queen Mary’s reign, but were banished again by Elizabeth in 1559. Throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, some brave Franciscans returned incognito, like the more notorious Jesuits, to convert and administer the sacraments to the Old Faithful, and some never left, living in their mendicant spirit of poverty without the habit,  a scattered few living with Catholic gentry, fewer still benefiting from popular sympathy. One of the latter, a certain Fr. John, was so known for his virtue and holiness that Elizabeth even permitted him to continue to wear his habit in public. 12 On the other hand, one of those who returned from the continent, from both Douai and the Ara Coeli friary in Rome, John Buckley, known as Fr. Godfrey, was, despite the protestations of a mob, hanged, drawn, and quartered in London in 1598 for saying Mass. 13 In 1608, at the time of Shakespeare’s late romances, the Franciscan John Gennings, a convert from Protestantism, and educated at Douai, returned to England to reestablish the English province slowly during the Stuart reign. Thus, it is safe to say that Shakespeare was not alluding to a remote Mediterranean practice in sources but to an enduring, if marginalized, English reality in presenting Franciscans as holy men and women of penance, poverty, and subversion in his plays. That view lingers on in England, with even a small group of Anglican Franciscans persisting. 14

Even the name of Saint Francis serves as a term of resolution in Shakespeare. In All’s Well That Ends Well, the heroine Helena, rejected by her selfish husband Bertram whom she has captured in marriage by means of her dead physician father’s pharmacy, goes on a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela to amend her faults “with sainted vow,” and she finds refuge in an inn named “Saint Francis.” Her fault is failing to respect the freedom of her beloved, and neither is ready for the total self-giving of holy matrimony. In the canonical jurisdiction of Saint Francis, as it were, Helena consummates her marriage by a wholesome bed trick: Bertram sleeps with her, thinking she is a maid (named after the cold goddess Diana) whom he is seducing, the daughter of the widow who keeps the inn. When the trick is revealed at the end of the play, the cad appreciates her stratagem, is transformed, and promises to “love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” (5.3.316).  All’s well that ends well. Once again, the Franciscan blessing, here by the mere mention of the name, has mediated a true marriage: two characters are raised into a sacramental state through the Franciscan way. Who ever deserves a spouse’s fidelity?

What can we conclude from Shakespeare’s use of these 10 followers of the via Franciscana?  First, he departs from the satirical tradition, both Catholic and Reformed, with universally sympathetic portrayals of Franciscans. He associates the Poor Clares with austerity, the friars with prudence and cunning. In fact, the friars operate somewhat in the reputed manner of Jesuits with their shadowy access to powerful aristocratic families, their confessional exactitude, and their deceptive tactics. 15 Second, in all three plays in which they have major roles, they take extraordinary means to move couples, and indeed, the entire small world of the drama, toward holy matrimony, which is seen as a means of reconciling conflicts, both between families and within the hearts of characters. Marriage resolves social enmities and the inner war between flesh and spirit. Third, the friars are instruments of moderation, wisdom, and peace; they know canon law with respect to marriage and confession; they move far more freely onstage than they did in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, where they were banned, persecuted, and pursued. Fourth, since they are the only order of regulars specifically depicted in the Shakespearean canon, and, except for the churchmen in the history plays, the only identifiable Roman Catholic characters, they are a strong clue to Shakespeare’s friendly feelings toward that bane of Elizabethan-Jacobean political rule, Roman Catholicism. He is unique among playwrights of the time in presenting in a positive light, and in the daylight exposure of a universally recognized habit, the dread enemy of the realm, the whore of Babylon, in a dangerous, even suspect, public space.  

So, why, then, Franciscans, and why such positive roles, on a stage where Catholic clergy would be so suspect, even threatening to the court?  First, dramaturgically, a Franciscan would be quickly, easily, and inexpensively identified by his simple habit. Second, popular respect for Franciscans as close followers of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience must have persisted in the popular imagination despite the centuries-old anti-fraternal tradition—obedience to moral authority, not power, being the emphasis. Third, as an order quasi-independent of the hierarchy, the Franciscans would not have been necessarily associated with the hypocrisy, corruption, venality, and thirst for power of the papacy feared and hated by the English court.  Fourth, Shakespeare, the consummate dramatist, sensed that the serious, even sacral theme of marriage as an instrument of peace could be reinforced by a highly visible “objective correlative,” to use T.S. Eliot’s term, of characters in religious habit independent enough of the hierarchical Church to not threaten Protestants and, yet, also representative of the best in traditional Catholicism. Dominicans were also associated with Spain and the Inquisition; Jesuits, also having a Spanish founder, also implicated in treason; the other orders, too obscure. While Franciscans come ready made in Shakespeare’s source material, he probably saw them immediately as robed crowd pleasers, even as Cardinal Bergoglio intuited their popularity on the anti-clerical world stage.

Through the Franciscans, we can see Shakespeare’s attitude toward organized religion in general, and toward the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Religion serves to civilize the sexual instinct through institutionalized marriage, which is seen not only as the solution to a specific and local conflict, but also as the strongest bond in society overall. In all three plays that figure Franciscans in pivotal roles, Shakespeare follows much more than the narrow Pauline line that it is better to marry than to burn (1 Corinthians 7:9). Since lechery will persist both as fornication and prostitution, even in cold-blooded souls, traditional marriage offers an ordering of wayward eros into a civilization of love. Marriage functions as sexual justice, the first act of social justice. The good life requires a sacral management of the soul. The civil authority will be sometimes too lax, sometimes too severe, partly because it deals with the soul through the blunt instrument of the law.  Canon law administered by holy men has both nuance and authority. The regular clergy thrive precisely by their rule (“regula”), which is their authority, functioning in opposition to temporal power and even, at times, to the family itself: Shakespeare’s Franciscans are free-lancing power brokers, operatives not dependent upon a prior’s command, each in a tiny quasi-autonomous Church cell that diffuses in almost guerilla fashion the related sacraments of penance and marriage.  It is difficult to see Protestant ministers serving this role, especially since no Protestant denomination considered marriage or penance or holy orders a sacrament; paradoxically, the sacramental system and rule yield clerical autonomy, authority, and prestige. Indeed, as a Protestant divine, Measure for Measure’s deputized duke Angelo is found not merely less than an angel, but positively unworthy as a man. Lucio accuses his faith of making him insensate:

…a man whose blood
Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
The wanton stings and motions of the sense;
But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge
With profits of the mind: study and fast. (1.4.57-61)

And later Lucio tells Friar Ludovico that “this Angelo was not made by man and woman after this downright way of creation” (bodily procreation) (3.2.104-5).  By contrast, the friar is the man who can, and sometimes must, prudentially apply “craft against vice” (Measure for Measure, 3.2.277).

The friar also overcomes human frailty and sinfulness with confession. Both Friar Laurence and Friar Ludovico prepare souls for marriage and death by means of this sacrament lost in Elizabeth’s Church of England. In contrast, Angelo’s proposal for Isabel to trade her virginity for her brother’s life at a secret assignation in his study may be seen as a perversion of spiritual direction.  Confession is part of the Church’s sacramental prudence. The Duke prepares his people for a holier way of life first through severe legislation, then personal auricular confession, and finally holy matrimony. Since men will put down eating and drinking before they will extirpate lechery, according to Lucio, they must have a means of putting it behind them. This spiritual wisdom flows from the Church through its ordained ministers: their “craft” perpetuates counter-cultural sapience.

And yet, there is something openly clandestine, and perennially popular, suggested by the Franciscan way: it facilitates holiness under the cover of a meek robe that hearkens back to Gospel simplicity, a simplicity that still attracts even a hostile audience, if we are to judge by the welcome that the media have recently shown Pope Francis. The very name of Francis itself spawns a quasi-sacramental life of its own: laid down, it calls forth at once authentic religion, sincere faith, simple poverty, guileless penance, commonsensical cunning, forgiving anti-Pharisaism, respect for creatures, clerical anti-clericalism—a disarming way to throw off the hoary charges of venality and worldliness against the established church by means of a canonically approved regular order that offers even the laity nearly clerical status. It is possible that Shakespeare’s unconscious art reveals Bergoglio’s rhetorical strategy: the Franciscan mantle is a way to reform without rupture, to revitalize tradition, to perpetuate a restoration. It offers the Church a way to go undercover on herself. As the present Holy Father is a Jesuit with a Franciscan name, Shakespeare’s Franciscans acted like clandestine Jesuits. The non-conformist, yet traditional, Catholic mind and heart of Shakespeare flourish in his depiction of the holy and ancient Franciscan order, which might yet appeal to today’s individualistic spirituality of the “Nones,” those who generally resist the notion that organized religion can minister to human needs and frailty.

  1. H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1952), 100.
  2.  H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, 272.
  3. David N. Beauregard, Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press), 82.
  4. H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, 109.
  5. T.A. Lacey, “Sacraments,” Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 10. (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1927), 905.
  6. H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, 215-216.
  7. H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, 94, 274.
  8. Fr. Peter Milward, S.J., Shakespeare’s Religious Background (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1973), 22.
  9. Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 298.
  10. John R. H. Moorman, The Franciscans in England (Oxford: Mobraws Alden Press, 1974), 96-97.
  11. Fr. Thadeus, O.F.M., The Franciscans in England (London and Leamington: Art and Book, 1898), 15-16.
  12. Francis Borgia Steck, O.F.M., Franciscans and the Protestant Revolution in England (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1920), 202.
  13. Steck, 204-211.
  14. Moorman, 119.
  15. Much has been speculated about Shakespeare’s personal acquaintance with undercover Jesuits, including Edmund Campion. See: Michael Wood, Shakespeare (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books,  2003).
Ken Colston About Ken Colston

The former chairman of the English department at Thomas Jefferson School, a classical prep school in St. Louis, Missouri, Ken Colston is now retired. He was a regular contributor to the Baltimore Evening Sun from 1984 to 1992, and his articles on literature have appeared in academic journals, the secular press, and in Catholic periodicals, including Commonweal, The New Oxford Review, St. Austin Review, St. John's Review, LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, and Catholic Digest. Some of his published articles on the Catholic Shakespeare are collected at


  1. Thank you for the erudite essay on the Catholicism of the Stratford resident usually taken to be the playwright and poet Shakespeare. His family name was Shakspere in the more than two dozen entries in the parish record. He never signed as Shakespeare and never used a hyphen, nor did any literate member of his family. But it is quite correct he was a recusant like his father and daughter, who were both reprimanded and fined for not attending Protestant church.

    Perhaps a description of the true author, Edward de Vere, will put some of the puzzle pieces together. de Vere’s tutor was the illustrious Laurence Nowell, recognized as one of the great scholars of his time and highly knowledgeable in religious matters. John Gerard, de Vere’s gardener, wrote the definitive book on herbs, which was dedicated to his wife Anne Cecil Vere. de Vere spent over a year in Italy, particularly Venice, but also Verona, with which he was familiar, including the church mentioned in Romeo and Juliet, which still stands as a city building. The wonderful travel book, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy by Richard P. Roe brings out the many parallels between the de Vere journey and the Shakespeare canon. Each and every play of the Italian cycle takes place in a locale which de Vere had visited or lived. de Vere himself was known as a private Catholic believer, but in a conspiracy among other Catholics to overthrow Elizabeth I, he betrayed his fellows, deeming treason worse than Protestant unbelief. The plays, particularly Hamlet, contain passages that are straight out of the teachings of Jesus. “Leave the worser part and live the better,” is nearly a copy of the admonition, “Go and sin no more.” The over one-thousand references in the canon can be traced to the Geneva Bible. de Vere had that bible and marked the very passages that later were transfigured into the Shakespearean version of its wisdom.

    I write this in the interests of the full truth about Shakespeare, the artist, and Shakspere the Stratford recusant who could barely sign his name, but whose family resisted the Protestant regime of Elizabeth I.

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    This is an excellent paper by Ken Colston on these plays of Shakespeare where is shown quite exactly the truth of the Catholic church’s teachings on the Sacraments of Penance and Matrimony . Through the lines and scenes of the plays shown the Hriars uphold the sanctity of marriage. Romeo and Juliette, Much ado about nothing, Measure for Measure, Alls well that ends well, and the two gentlemen from Verona are explained clearly and lucidily with true to life ideas from the magnificent stage of Shakespeare.


  1. […] of the Reformation, I thoroughly enjoyed this article and I hope you will as well. Thanks to Ken Colston and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review for providing the […]