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Hooker and Shakespeare

Douglas Wilson has written an imaginative article on the “real Shakespeare” (see pgs 6-19).  Adopting the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearian authorship, and particularly that of Mark Anderson, Wilson advances the claim that Shakespeare was a Puritan by examining relationships between Edward de Vere and the Martin Marprelate tracts.  Wilson sees a similar satirical wit in “Shakespeare” and Marprelate, and this then is seen to strengthen the Oxfordian theory.  His argument is basically a combination of the acceptance of de Vere as the true Shakespeare and then an argument for the possibility and perhaps likelihood that de Vere was the author behind Martin Marprelate.

Wilson’s argument is speculative, short, fun and meant to be taken in good spirits. And so we hope our refutation will also be taken in good spirits too. But the truth must be told. William Shakespeare cannot have written the Marprelate tracts because “William Shakespeare” was actually Richard Hooker.

Alright, well, maybe he wasn’t exactly Richard Hooker himself.  But he certainly thought very much like him, as CS Lewis observed. But Richard Hooker, unlike Mr Marprelate, whomever that gentleman might have been, promoted submission to bishops. More precisely, Hooker believed that the rightful duty of the individual was proper submission to social and ecclesiastical authorities in the temporal kingdom.  Individual freedom was best realized through adherence to the proper laws.

The editors of this forum are fairly persuaded by the orthodox Stratfordian position overall, and this for a variety of very good reasons.  For the purposes of this post, however, we’ll be jumping straight to thematic content as a means of rebutting the Marprelate association.  Ken Jacobsen, writing for Animus (whose most recent issue, we should point out, is wholly devoted to Shakespeare), has examined the shared view of social order between William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.  He concludes that Shakespeare was sympathetic with Hooker, even relying on his arguments against the Puritans for the logical coherency of the relationship between Petruchio and Katherina.  In short, Petruchio represents the Church of England and the Crown, whereas Katherina represents the Puritan movement.  Or at least each character represents the respective parties’ philosophy of the common good and the art of governance.

Jacobsen writes:

While the intellectual and literary influence of the Laws on Shakespeare’s histories, tragedies, and problem plays has long been established, little has been said about its relevance to the comedies, and nothing, to my knowledge, about The Taming of the Shrew.  The two works are almost exactly contemporary. Hooker published the first four books of the Laws in 1593, and the writing of Shrew has been dated between 1590-1594, so it is possible that Shakespeare read Hooker’s work prior to or during composition. I am not expressly concerned, however, about proving direct literary influence. Rather I treat these texts as analogous treatments of the same issue – the problem of dissent in early modern England which both pose the problems and resolve them in strikingly similar terms. By employing Hooker’s Laws as a kind of interpretive key to Shrew, I hope to illuminate the play in a variety of ways but particularly to show that its treatment of conjugal strife has broad implications which transcend the more limited contexts of “early modern marriage” or the “woman question”…

Jacobsen argues that Petruchio makes a sort of natural law argument for Katherina’s need to marry him and bear children.  “Women are made to bear, and so are you (2.1.200).”  “Nature,” Jacobsen adds, “has designed them as ideal mates for one another; in Hooker’s terms, they are mutually suited to help each other achieve ‘such a life as our nature doth desire, a life fit for the dignity of man’ (Laws 1.10.1).”

Jacobsen also shows that the social vision of The Taming of the Shrew is bound up in the tension between persuasion and coercion in the face of dissent.  He elaborates:

Like Hooker’s Laws, however, the play acknowledges the genuine difficulty of transforming dissenting subjects into “conformable” ones. For Hooker half-measures will not do; he proposes to identify the root causes of his opponents’ intransigence, proposing a return to first principles in order to achieve deep, constructive insight: “to see wherein the harm which they feel consisteth, the seeds from which it sprang, and the method of curing it” (5.1.1)…

Throughout the remainder of the play, a process of negotiation and adjustment occurs in which the various claims of individuality and collectivity, public role and private reality, are worked out. This process can be characterized as rhetorical and polemical: Petruchio, like Hooker, methodically undermines his antagonist’s objections, offering an alternative vision of society, marriage, and the good life.

Hooker and Shakespeare also present mediating views on the relationship between change, individuality, and the status quo.  Jacobsen says, “The Taming of the Shrew, like Hooker’s Laws, manifests a sustained tension between conservative precept and radical methodology.”  Both texts are “anti-Utopian.”

Shakespeare’s presentation of marriage, that of a free subordination (even if some rather unmodern persuasion is employed along the way), is the ultimate picture of Hooker’s shared society. As Jacobsen says, “reciprocity, mutuality, and community outweigh but do not negate the claims of individuality.”

In the end, perhaps Jacobsen’s essay is also somewhat speculative.  No tight connections between Shakespeare and Hooker are conclusively proved.  His point about the social philosophy of The Taming of the Shrew, however, seems sound.  Shakespeare is not giving the classical “Puritan” view of dissent and individual liberty, but rather the slightly more authoritarian, or communitarian, view of personal submission to order for the common good.

Can William Shakespeare be called a “Puritan”? He was certainly, contra recent speculation, a Protestant writer; the political plays especially are, as this writer notes (citing the definitive work of Daniel Wright), unquestionably “suffused with the rhetoric and spirit of the Reformation.”  But it seems impossible that he was a Puritan in the strict sense (he was a playwright after all!), though perhaps if the definition of the term is broadened as wide as it can go, you might just be able to shoehorn him into it. The Marprelate thesis however seems incredible, and the marriage of Petruchio and Katherina seems a fit rebuttal to it. Taming rather than rebellion, and harmony rather than separation, are the heart of the Shakespearian program.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.