Shakespeare lived during a period of enormous religious upheaval known as the Reformation. For centuries Europe had been united under the religious leadership of the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church. In the early 1500s, however, a new religious movement known as Protestantism broke with the Church. Unlike Catholics, who believed salvation was achievable through good works, Protestants believed salvation was only possible through true faith. The whole of Europe divided along religious lines, with most of northern Europe becoming Protestant while most of southern Europe remained Catholic. Henry VIII took England out of the Catholic Church in the 1530s, when Shakespeare’s father was a small boy. By the time Shakespeare was born, most of England was solidly Protestant, although many English people continued to practice Catholic worship in secret. Catholic radicals plotted to assassinate both Elizabeth I and James I, while the Catholic nations of Europe threatened to invade England in order to overturn Protestant rule. As a result, Catholics were feared and hated by many people in the Protestant majority.
We don’t know what Shakespeare believed in private. His plays often make fun of Catholic beliefs and rituals. In The Tempest , the drunken servant Stephano holds out a bottle of liquor and demands that Caliban “kiss the book,” in a mocking reference to the Catholic practice of kissing the Bible during mass. When Shakespeare portrayed very religious Catholics, however, he usually did so in a sympathetic light. Isabella in Measure For Measure is a novice nun. Nunneries were a feature of Catholicism which the Protestant Church of England abolished, but Isabella is the most virtuous character in a play full of sinners and hypocrites. Romeo and Juliet ’s Friar Lawrence also belongs to a Catholic religious order which was abolished in England. While the other characters in Romeo and Juliet are concerned only with their own passions, Friar Lawrence’s main goal is to put an end to the violent feud that shapes the society he lives in.