A debut work of literary criticism analyzes The Winter’s Tale as a Roman Catholic allegory.
Though it is not often remembered, Shakespeare was born only a generation after the English Reformation, when the Church of England split from the Catholic Church and began to violently repress any who attempted to continue practicing Catholicism. Many have argued that Shakespeare himself bore latent Catholic sympathies, which are subtly alluded to in a number of his plays. Morrison takes it a step further by claiming that one play in particular, The Winter’s Tale (probably written in 1610 or 1611), is a hidden religious allegory presenting the beliefs and fears of Catholics living in secret under the oppressive reign of James I. While that might at first seem like an extreme claim, the author makes a textual argument “that relies upon surprisingly numerous and straightforward correlations between the language, themes, and plots in the play and the generally unambiguous and well-documented political realities of religious life in Shakespeare’s England.” The Winter’s Tale tells the story of a paranoid king who destroys his family, forcing his followers to make the difficult choice of whether to obey his orders or do what is right. Morrison argues that the play, which is at first tragic but ultimately has a happy ending, provides not only a criticism of the English crown’s treatment of Catholics, but also a model for reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants that Shakespeare hoped would one day come to pass. By examining the dialogue as well as some of the more idiosyncratic narrative choices and uses of geography, Morrison attempts to resurrect one of Shakespeare’s less popular works and reveal it for what it actually is: an ingenious act of political subversion and censorship evasion that only history’s greatest playwright could have pulled off.
For a piece of literary criticism, Morrison’s prose is accessible and fluid: “When Leontes asks Camillo to poison Polixenes, Shakespeare illustrates one of the chief threats to Catholic doctrine and sacraments: pressure from secular powers to influence church policies and practices.” He takes care not to assume that readers know much about the play, its author, the time period in which it was written, or the backstory of the Anglican-Catholic schism. Readers do not need to have read The Winter’s Tale beforehand, and Morrison kindly recounts the plot first in summary and then in great detail. (In fact, being unfamiliar with the play may make readers more susceptible to his thesis.) But even readers who have previous associations with Leontes, Camillo, Antigonus, and the other characters should find it easy to become invested in Morrison’s argument, and will likely be flabbergasted by the connections he draws. The author’s claims are ultimately quite persuasive, though his theory may be the type that leads people back to the conclusions they already wanted to believe. Nevertheless, mysteries have long been a part of Shakespeare appreciation and Morrison identifies plenty of new places to look for clues.
A well-argued Shakespeare theory that could strengthen the case for his Catholic sympathies.