In the same spirit that led St. Nicholas Owen to build “priest-holes” to hide Catholic priests from the anti-Catholic authorities in Shakespeare’s England, Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale to conceal an extensive Catholic allegory about the trials and hopes of his fellow Catholics under the reign of King James I. This short article cannot come close to describing even half of the details of this allegory, but it should be enough to convince most serious readers that Shakespeare left us a remarkably devout plea to make England Catholic again.
For those who have not read (or might have forgotten) the play, the following brief summary from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust provides sufficient background to explore the allegory:
“The jealous King Leontes falsely accuses his wife Hermione of infidelity with his best friend, and she dies. Leontes exiles his newborn daughter Perdita, who is raised by shepherds for sixteen years and falls in love with the son of Leontes' friend. When Perdita returns home, a statue of Hermione ‘comes to life,’ and everyone is reconciled.”
This short summary necessarily omits several characters and plot points. For purposes of exploring the allegory, though, we should notice that it omits the two characters who direct almost every good action in The Winter’s Tale: Camillo (a lord of Sicilia) and Paulina (wife of Antigonus, another lord of Sicilia).
“Authority over the keys” was the primary point of religious contention in Shakespeare’s England from the moment Henry VIII rejected the papacy, so the fact that Shakespeare emphasizes that Camillo had the “authority over the keys” cannot be considered accidental.
Camillo and Paulina never appear on stage together until the final scene, but Shakespeare gives us many indications that they are united throughout the play in their efforts to bring the drama to its happy ending. Among the most significant indications of this is the way in which Shakespeare portrays them as spiritual physicians, diagnosing and curing the evils of the play:
Camillo (to Leontes): “Good my lord, be cured/ Of this diseased opinion, and betimes,/ For ‘tis most dangerous.” (1.2.295-297)
Camillo: “There is a sickness/ Which puts some of us in distemper, but/ I cannot name the disease; and it is caught/ Of you that yet are well.” (1.2.383-386)
Paulina: “I/ Do come with words as medicinal as true,/ Honest as either, to purge him of that humor/ That presses him from sleep.” (2.3.36-39)
Paulina: “Good my liege, I come –/ And, I beseech you hear me, who professes/ Myself your loyal servant, your physician,/ Your most obedient counselor, yet that dares/ Less appear so in comforting your evils.” (2.3.52-56)
Florizel: “Camillo,/ Preserver of my father, now of me,/ The medicine of our house.” (4.4.588-589)
For most members of the play’s audience in Shakespeare’s time (or readers of the play today), these details may not have signaled the intent to pair Camillo and Paulina. Shakespeare makes his intent abundantly clear, though, in these lines from the last speech in the play, from King Leontes:
Oh, peace, Paulina!
Thou shouldst a husband take by my consent,
As I by thine a wife. This is a match,
And made between’s by vows. Thou hast found mine,
But how is to be questioned, for I saw her,
As I thought, dead, and have in vain said many
A prayer upon her grave. I’ll not seek far –
For him, I partly know his mind – to find thee
An honourable husband. Come Camillo,
And take her by the hand, whose worth and honesty
Is richly noted and here justified
By us, a pair of kings.
It should strike us as odd that the final speech in The Winter’s Tale directs the marriage of two characters who have not exchanged a word in the entire play. If this were any other playwright or author, we might dismiss it as nonsensical. But this is Shakespeare, so we know that our efforts to understand the significance will be rewarded if we can discern his meaning.
While there may be other ways to unlock the mystery of Shakespeare’s Catholic allegory, the simplest is to discover it by noticing something that seems out of place, much like one might eventually find a priest-hole designed by St. Nicholas Owen. As a few Shakespeare scholars have noted, Paulina resembles St. Paul both by her name and her role. However, if Paulina truly represents St. Paul in some allegorical sense, we would have expected Shakespeare to give her counterpart a name reminiscent of St. Peter, like Pietro.
James I called his subjects traitors for supporting the Catholic Church, and Leontes makes similarly baseless accusations against all who support Hermione in opposition to his will.
We are not left disappointed with Shakespeare’s choice of the name Camillo, though, when we realize that Pope Paul V was named Camillo Borghese. Indeed, Pope Paul V happened to be the pope when Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale. These interesting details may not amount to much in isolation, but they do invite us to look further.
Before considering Pope Paul V’s role in Shakespeare’s England, we can first explore whether Shakespeare gives us any other hints that Camillo could be seen as a pope. Although Shakespeare gives several such indications, we can consider the two most prominent here.
First, Leontes describes Camillo as similar to a priest hearing confession:
I have trusted thee, Camillo,
With all the nearest things to my heart, as well
My chamber counsels, wherein, priestlike, thou
Hast cleansed my bosom. I from thee departed
Thy penitent reformed.
Second, Camillo claims he has the authority to command the keys to the posterns (gates) of Sicilia:
It is in mine authority to command
The keys of all the posterns.
In the next scene, Leontes laments that Camillo has been able to use his authority over the keys to the posterns (2.1.52-56). Thus, the priestlike Camillo has the authority to command the keys, which should remind us of Jesus’s words to St. Peter:
“Thou art Peter, and it is upon this rock that I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16.18-19)
This “authority over the keys” was the primary point of religious contention in Shakespeare’s England from the moment Henry VIII rejected the papacy, so the fact that Shakespeare emphasizes that Camillo had the “authority over the keys” cannot be considered accidental.
It seems certain that Shakespeare intentionally links Camillo — one of the play’s most virtuous characters — with both St. Peter and Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese). The allegory becomes much more interesting when we consider the role of Pope Paul V in Shakespeare’s England.
Based on these connections alone, it seems certain that Shakespeare intentionally links Camillo — one of the play’s most virtuous characters — with both St. Peter and Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese). The allegory becomes much more interesting when we consider the role of Pope Paul V in Shakespeare’s England. As we will see, all aspects of the historical synopsis that follows are reflected allegorically in The Winter’s Tale’s first three acts.
In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot (November 5, 1605), Parliament enacted several measures making it more difficult to practice Catholicism in England, including the promulgation of the Oath of Allegiance to James I:
“I, do truly and sincerely acknowledge . . . that our sovereign lord, King James, is lawful and rightful King . . . And I do further swear that I do from my heart abhor, detest, and abjure, as impious and heretical this damnable doctrine and position, that princes which be excommunicated by the pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or by any other whatsoever. And I do believe that the pope has no power to absolve me from this oath. . . ”
Pope Paul V responded to the Oath with a letter to English Catholics, exhorting them to remain steadfast in the Faith and avoid taking the Oath:
“The tribulations and calamities, which ye have continually sustained for the keeping of the Catholic Faith, have always afflicted us with great grief of mind. . . . For we have heard how you are compelled, by most grievous punishments set before you, to go to the Churches of Heretics, to frequent their assemblies, to be present at their Sermons. . . . As likewise you cannot, without most evident and grievous wronging of Gods Honor, bind yourselves by the Oath, which in like manner we have heard with very great grief of our heart is administered unto you.”
Archpriest George Blackwell, who was responsible for the secular priests in England, supported the Oath and thus refused to spread Pope Paul V’s letter to English Catholics. This prompted another letter to English Catholics from Pope Paul V, as well as a letter to Blackwell from St. Robert Bellarmine.
James I responded to Pope Paul V and St. Robert Bellarmine with a lengthy defense of the Oath, which included an impassioned attack on the Catholic Church. For purposes of the allegory, two of James I’s most meaningful accusations against the Church were as follows:
The Church is an Adulteress: “[H]ere is the Head of his adulterous Spouse or false Church represented also by a woman, but having a cupful of abominations in her hand; as her self is called a whore for her spiritual adultery, having seduced the Kings of the earth to be partakers of her Spiritual fornication.”
The Church is a False Queen: “For she glorifieth herself living in pleasure, and in her heart sayth, she sitteth as a Queen (outward prosperity being one of their notes of a true Church) and is no Widow; for her Spouse Christ is bound to her by an inviolable knot . . .”
With James I’s blasphemous description of the Church as an adulterous queen, Shakespeare had enough material to develop the dramatic relationship between Leontes (King of Sicilia) and Hermione (Queen of Sicilia).
Shakespeare represents James I’s attacks on the Church by having Leontes falsely accuse his queen, Hermione:
She’s an adult’ress; I have said with whom.
More, she’s a traitor, and Camillo is
A fedarie with her, and one that knows
What she should shame to know herself.
As the play’s characters other than Leontes understood, Hermione was exceptionally virtuous and completely innocent of the allegation of adultery. By calling Hermione an adulterous queen, Leontes echoes the unjust insults James I had for the Catholic Church. Leontes also claims that Camillo was a fedarie (accomplice) with Hermione, just as James I considered the pope as an accomplice to the supposed misdeeds of the Church.
By having Leontes unjustly persecute Hermione and condemn her to death, Shakespeare was making the argument that James I’s opposition to Catholicism was in fact opposition to Christ.
Moreover, James I called his subjects traitors for supporting the Catholic Church, and Leontes makes similarly baseless accusations against all who support Hermione in opposition to his will: Leontes exclaims “Traitors!” (2.3.73) when Paulina presents Perdita; and he calls those present “a nest of traitors!” (2.3.82) just a few lines later.
If Hermione represents the Catholic Church in the allegory, then Leontes must represent James I. The strongest allegorical connections between James I and Leontes come through the alignment of the play’s plot with the English king’s persecution of his Catholic subjects, but Shakespeare provided us with a few clues related to names. James I’s coat of arms included several lions, so “Leontes” is a fitting name for the allegorical figure of the English king.
Shakespeare gives us another connection by identifying Leontes as “our sovereign lord the King” in the indictment read against Hermione:
“Hermione, Queen to the worthy Leontes, king of Sicilia, thou art here accused and arraigned of high treason, in committing adultery with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and conspiring with Camillo to take away the life of our sovereign lord the King, thy royal husband; the pretense whereof being by circumstances partly laid open, thou, Hermione, contrary to the faith and allegiance of a true subject, dids’t counsel and aid them, for their better safety, to fly away by night.” (3.2.12-21)
This is the only time Shakespeare uses this precise phrase in his plays, and it happens to match the way in which the Oath refers to James I: “our sovereign lord, King James . . .”
With this background, we can consider one of the most astounding aspects of the allegory. In addition to attacking the Church as an adulterous queen, James I criticized the Church for identifying itself as the Mystical Body of Christ:
“To herself she taketh it, in calling herself the visible Head of the Mystical body of Christ, in professing herself to be the dispenser of the Mysteries of God . . .”
The Catholic concept of the Mystical Body of Christ helps us resolve one of the allegory’s challenges: why did Shakespeare give Hermione several clear connections to Jesus — specifically, Jesus’s Passion in the first three acts, and the Resurrection and Holy Eucharist in the final scene — if he meant Hermione to represent the Church? By having Leontes unjustly persecute Hermione and condemn her to death, Shakespeare was making the argument that James I’s opposition to Catholicism was in fact opposition to Christ. This was the perfect rebuttal to James I’s attack on the Catholic Church for “calling herself the visible Head of the Mystical body of Christ.”
Shakespeare’s allegory also addresses the the Oath of Allegiance to James I. While in prison for her supposed crime of infidelity and treason, Hermione gives birth to Leontes’s daughter, Perdita. When Paulina brings the newborn Perdita to Leontes in attempt to assuage the king’s misguided anger, Leontes makes Paulina’s husband, Antigonus, swear to do his bidding in disposing of Perdita. Antigonus had initially opposed Leontes in defense of Perdita, but he capitulates when Leontes makes him swear to do his bidding: “Swear by this sword/ Thou will perform my bidding.” (2.3.167-168).
Shakespeare does not leave any room for doubt about his moral judgment of Antigonus taking the Oath. As Antigonus arrives in Bohemia at the end of Act III, he recounts the words Hermione had told him in his dream the previous evening:
Since fate, against thy better disposition,
Hath made thy person for the thrower-out
Of my poor babe, according to thine oath,
Places remote enough are in Bohemia;
There weep and leave it crying. And, for the babe
Is counted lost forever, Perdita,
I prithee, call’t. For this ungentle business,
Put on thee by my lord, thou ne’er shalt see
Thy wife Paulina more.
In his final moments, Antigonus admits the evil of the oath he took:
Weep I cannot,
But my heart bleeds; and most accursed am I
To be by oath enjoined to this. Farewell!
A few lines later, Antigonus perishes with the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare’s plays: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Shakespeare was a devout Catholic who believed that James I, like Queen Elizabeth before him, had banished not only the successor of St. Peter but also Christ from England. He wanted to make England Catholic again because he wanted it to be Christian again.
If we wonder at Shakespeare’s harsh judgment of Antigonus for complying with an oath to Leontes, we can consider St. Robert Bellarmine’s letter to Archpriest Blackwell rebuking him for his support of James I’s Oath:
“[I]f you will diligently weigh the whole matter with your self, truly you shall see, it is no small matter that is called in question by this Oath, but one of the principal heads of our faith and foundations of Catholic Religion. . . . so many years have you kept the faith: doe not therefore lose the reward of such labors . . . Do not make the faces of so many yours both brethren and children ashamed. Upon you at this time are fixed the eyes of all the Church: yea also, you are made a spectacle to the world, to Angels, to men; Do not so carry your self in this your last act, that you leave nothing but laments to your friends, and joy to your enemies.”
Thus, Shakespeare allegorically echoes St. Robert Bellarmine’s judgment on perhaps the most important issue facing English Catholics when the play was first performed in 1610. Given the drama surrounding Antigonus’s fate, one could reasonably argue that the primary “lesson” of the play was to not take an oath to a misguided king — and this would be a truly odd lesson if we do not understand the play’s Catholic allegory.
Fortunately, Perdita did not perish in Bohemia, despite Antigonus’s bad actions. The sequel to this article will consider the play’s glorious ending, with its Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the reunion of Saints Peter and Paul. But from the perspective of Catholics in Shakespeare’s England, they were indefinitely stuck in the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale, when Leontes was treating his subjects as traitors for not supporting his insanely unjust persecution of the innocent Hermione.
From what we have seen so far with this abridged analysis of the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale, it should be evident that Shakespeare was a devout Catholic who believed that James I, like Queen Elizabeth before him, had banished not only the successor of St. Peter but also Christ from England. He wanted to make England Catholic again because he wanted it to be Christian again. As we shall see in the next article, Shakespeare uses the play’s final two acts to show us a glorious picture of England returning to what St. Edmund Campion called “the isle of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.” Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us!
On a personal note, I am forever grateful to my godfather, Dr. David Allen White, for introducing me to both Catholicism and The Winter’s Tale. He has guided the most significant aspects of this study of Shakespeare’s hidden Catholic allegory and deserves the entire praise for anything worthwhile in it. May God bless and reward him!
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