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Finding Shakespeare and Reclaiming the Classics | An Interview with Joseph Pearce, author of The Quest for Shakespeare | Carl E. Olson

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Joseph Pearce is the prolific author of several acclaimed biographies of major Catholic literary figures, including G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Hilaire Belloc, as well as several other works. He is a Writer in Residence and Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University in Florida, Editor-in-Chief of Ave Maria University Communications and Sapientia Press, as well as Co-Editor of the The Saint Austin Review (or StAR), an international review of Christian culture, literature, and ideas published in England (St. Austin Press) and the United States (Sapientia Press).

Pearce's most recent book is The Quest for Shakespeare, due this month from Ignatius Press (website). He is also editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, a tradition-oriented alternative to popular textbook series such as the Norton Critical Editions or Oxford World Classics, designed to concentrate on traditional readings of the Classics of world literature. The three initial volumes of the Ignatius Critical Editions—King Lear, Frankenstein, and Wuthering Heights—will be published this spring by Ignatius Press.

Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently spoke to Pearce about his book on Shakespeare, the Ignatius Critical Editions, and the importance of reading classic literature.

Ignatius Insight: When did you first start reading Shakespeare and fall in love with his writing?

Pearce: I fell in love with Shakespeare at first sight, appropriately enough, upon reading Romeo and Juliet as part of my high school English classes. I realized instantly that he was far superior to the other writers on the liberal-oriented curriculum. My young passion for the Bard was also inflamed by my father who could declaim whole swaths of Shakespeare from memory.

Ignatius Insight: There has been a tremendous amount of debate in recent years about Shakespeare's identity and the nature of his religious beliefs. Can you provide a basic overview to those debates?

Pearce: I give an overview of the various aspects of this debate in the opening chapter of my book. I show that the claims of those who say that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays are fundamentally flawed and are rooted in an ignorance of the real William Shakespeare. I then show that the claims of those who believe that Shakespeare was a Protestant or that he was an agnostic or atheist can be refuted by a clear look at the facts of Shakespeare's life. In my research I have built upon the solid historical detective work carried out by a host of scholars going way back to the seventeenth century. Building upon the scholarship of Richard Simpson, John Henry de Groot, Karl Wentersdorf, Heinrich Mutschmann and many others, I demonstrate, beyond all reasonable doubt, that Shakespeare was born into a devoutly and defiantly Catholic family, at a time of great persecution, and that he almost definitely remained a Catholic until his dying day.

Ignatius Insight: What sort of reaction do you expect to the arguments you put forth in The Quest For Shakespeare?

Pearce: I expect that the arguments in my book will receive a negative reaction from the secular academy which is desperately trying to hang on to its own woefully distorted reading of Shakespeare and his works. Unfortunately for these secular fundamentalist misreaders of the Bard, the facts are solidly on the side of those who claim that Shakespeare was a Catholic. I expect to see these "scholars" squirming uncomfortably on the spike of objectivity!

Ignatius Insight: How did you go about researching the book? Did you uncover new evidence or findings in the process?

Pearce: There is of course a veritable mountain of books about Shakespeare and I set about climbing this mountain diligently. I have, however, relied on these secondary sources and have not gone rummaging through sixteenth and seventeenth century documents. I believe, however, that several of the conclusions and logical deductions in my book constitute "new evidence" in the sense that I arrive at conclusions that differ from my predecessors. The Quest for Shakespeare is, therefore, more than a mere summary of all the evidence; it is a reading of the evidence that leads to some radical conclusions.

Ignatius Insight: Why does Shakespeare continue to fascinate people today?

Pearce: With the possible exception of Dante, Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived. As such, his works continue to speak to us across the centuries, evoking timeless truths about ourselves and about the God who made us. Added to this, the continuing fascination about the mystery surrounding his true identity has fuelled the curiosity about all things Shakespearian.

Ignatius Insight: What do you hope your book will accomplish?

Pearce: I am hoping that my book will serve as a weapon in the culture wars, exposing the pride and prejudice, and the nonsense and insensibility, at the ignorant heart of the postmodern academy. In the case of Shakespeare, the Catholic truth is quite simply staring any honest scholar in the face. If we can prove that Shakespeare was a Catholic it will force Catholicism back on the "menu" wherever Shakespeare's works are studied. It will constitute a major coup for objective truth in the midst of the lies and half-truths that pass as Shakespeare "scholarship".

Ignatius Insight: How did the Ignatius Critical Editions [ICEs] come about?

Pearce: The idea for the Ignatius Critical Editions arose from the frustration I felt at the pernicious nonsense that is published as "criticism" in the standard critical editions of great works of literature. Specifically I was annoyed at the plethora of feminism, "queer theory" and "gender studies" that is seemingly omnipresent in mainstream editions. I resented ordering these editions as set texts for my students at Ave Maria University. Why should my students be affronted with this rubbish? Such were my thoughts and this was the genesis of the idea for the ICEs.

Ignatius Insight: What is the main purpose of the ICEs? What particular need or niche do the books fill?

Pearce: It seemed to me that what was needed was a new range of critical editions in which tradition-oriented criticism would take precedence over the fads and fashions of postmodernity. Such a series would offer a real choice to Christian and other non-secularist professors and students. Thankfully, Father Fessio and his colleagues at Ignatius Press shared this vision and gave me the go-ahead for the series. I would add, however, that I hope that Ignatius Press's customers will also buy these editions. They are an excellent way of becoming introduced to the great works of Christian culture, enabling them to read the text of the work with the assistance of an introduction and a selection of critical essays on the work by leading academics.

Ignatius Insight: How are the books for ICE being chosen? What are some future titles?

Pearce: We aim to publish six titles a year in the hope that we can have ICEs for most of the "Great Books" of western civilization in twenty or thirty years. It's an ambitious project! At present, the plan is to publish two Shakespeare plays and four other works each year. The first three titles, launched this spring, are King Lear, Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. The next six are Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Pride and Prejudice, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn. Other titles planned in the near future include Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Romantic Poets, The Canterbury Tales, A Tale of Two Cities, Robinson Crusoe, Beowulf, The Consolation of Philosophy, and The Metaphysical Poets.

Ignatius Insight: Are you writing all of the commentary/introductions, or are others involved? What sort of format is being used?

Pearce: I have written the introductions to four of the first six editions but we will be finding the most appropriate scholars to write the introductions. This project is much bigger than any one individual. For example, I am honored to have enlisted the talents of Mary Reichardt, editor of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Catholic Literature, as the editor of The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, and I have enlisted the gifted and widely-published medievalist, David Williams, as the editor of The Canterbury Tales, The Consolation of Philosophy, and Beowulf. The format consists of an original introduction, the full newly-annotated text of the work, and a selection of new critical essays. Some editions will also include a selection of older "classic" criticism.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Interviews, Articles, and Book Excerpts:

Ignatius Insight Author Page for Joseph Pearce
The Quest for Shakespeare website
The Attraction of Orthodoxy | Joseph Pearce
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Modern Art: Friend or Foe? | An excerpt from Literary Giants, Literary Catholics | Joseph Pearce
The Power of Poetry | Interview with Joseph Pearce about Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse
Escape From Puritania | An excerpt from C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church | Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An interview with Joseph Pearce
Chesterton and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason
| An interview with Joseph Pearce
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde | An interview with Joseph Pearce

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.

He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, their two children, their two cats, and far too many books and CDs. Visit his personal web site (now undergoing a major overhaul) at www.carl-olson.com.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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