The religious beliefs of William Shakespeare have preoccupied many writers. The mere possibility that he held to one branch or another seems to have an almost magnetic attraction for some who feel that claiming his adherence brings prestige to their church.
One of the most noted of these was Edgar Fripp (1861-1931) a clergyman and scholar. The Minutes and Accounts of the Corporation of Stratford-Upon-Avon and Other Records 1553-1620 is a monumental four-volume work, the result of sifting the Borough’s records chiefly by Richard Savage. Fripp edited and wrote long explanatory introductions to the first three volumes. These were in addition to his other books regarding other aspects of the Shakespeares, their friends and the Stratford of their time. In Shakespeare Man and Artist, published posthumously in 1938, he wrote:
‘my endeavour has been (and it is but an endeavour) to see Shakespeare in his context – to study and interpret him in the light of his environment, geographical, domestic, social, religious, dramatic, literary.’
A noble goal, modestly expressed, by a man who probably was closer to the actual records of Stratford than almost anyone else, before or since. Yet why does he not rank with the “greats” of the scholarly world in such publications as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography from which he is absent? C.J. Sisson in his review of Shakespeare Man and Artist made the observation
‘Mr Fripp will surely gain common consent to his thesis that Shakespeare should be approached mainly from his antecedents, in the light of an older England of which he was the heir. Yet such consent will be more difficult if these antecedents are glossed, as by Mr Fripp, with a predominantly Protestant and “Liberal” bias, the inevitable concomitant of Mr Fripp’s own strong convictions.'(Modern Language Review, 34, no. 3.).
If there were credible evidence to hand on the matter of the Shakespeare family’s religious beliefs we would all have heard of it by now. Barring the discovery of more new material, the question will surely remain in limbo.
Another author of a two-volume biography of Shakespeare was E.K. Chambers. In 1923 he wrote of Henslowe that whether he “was a good or a bad man seems to me a matter of indifference. He was a capitalist” (The Elizabethan Stage, vol. 1, p. 368).
I personally hold that the same observation should be applied to both John and William Shakespeare. Regarding their beliefs, a central one certainly was money. They were most definitely capitalists. William manifestly cared more about his investments than his literary legacy. Fripp had perhaps the best explanation of all for the Shakespeare family’s apparent fall from financial grace in the 1570s – never happened. What we do know is that there are no records that father or sons ever paid any taxes thereafter.
If Fripp’s religious bias distracts some readers then surely his clear-sighted knowledge of the documented facts surrounding the Shakespeares more than compensates.
From a modern perspective religious divisions may appear clear cut, but the reality of the time was considerably more confused. Orthodoxy could sweep into heresy and then reappear a few years later as dogma as Henry VIII’s children moved in and out of power. It is hardly surprising then that records demonstrate that mutual survival and prosperity often eclipsed religious nicety. The Shakespeares had lifelong friends of every religious hue.
Deeply held belief is never a “small question” but let’s stop tearing at the issue of Shakespeare family religion where there is so little fact and “follow the money” where we know so much more about what they actually did.