The dilemmas of conscience and integrity that Shakespeare wrote about are familiar to Christians today, especially to those suffering in the Middle East and Pakistan
Throughout the long reign of Elizabeth I, a stringent and, for many, intolerable oath – the Oath of Supremacy – was imposed on increasing numbers of English subjects. It demanded undivided loyalty to the Crown in both temporal and spiritual matters. It is difficult for us to grasp just how psychically invasive this was in an age of profound religious belief.
The Oath of Supremacy, devised under Henry VIII and revived when his daughter Elizabeth came to power, represented an abrupt and shocking conclusion to centuries of delicate negotiation between the relative claims of Church and state in England. It hit traditional Catholics, but also reformers, and indeed anyone who could not accept state sovereignty over spiritual matters. By the 1590s it was necessary to take it in order to go up to Oxford, to graduate from Cambridge, to teach, to become an MP or a justice of the peace, to enter the Inns of Court, or to hold any kind of public office.
The oath stipulated the renunciation of the spiritual authority of the Pope. By the time Shakespeare was writing, thousands of Catholics had sold, forfeited or mortgaged their possessions, ended up in prison or travelled abroad rather than take the oath. Thousands more took the oath, miserably certain that unless they died in the presence of a priest they would spend an eternity in Hell for doing so.