Religion was central to the society for which Shakespeare wrote. Queen Elizabeth made attendance at Church of England services mandatory, even though many church-goers had to travel long distances. People who did not attend—for any reason except illness—were punished with fines. (Shakespeare's father and sister were reported as absent, though his father's debts probably were the cause of his inability to attend church.)
While it was not a crime to be Catholic in Elizabethan England, there was no legal way for Catholics to practice their faith. It was illegal to hold or to attend a Mass. Powerful people, however, were less likely to be punished than others. Many of the upper classes were exempt from the new oaths of allegiance to the Church of England, and often wealthy Catholic families secretly maintained private chaplains. Elizabethan policy allowed freedom of belief as long as English subjects did not openly flout the law or encourage sedition.