Sh, Earl, Jesuit


Oxquarry Books


Acknowledgments Introduction








Bibliography  Index   


John Klause




This study, which began with the promise of biography, has told no detailed story. Although it moves through time, refers to history, and speaks of personal and political change, a narrative rich in circumstance is beyond its reach. What has been discovered are discrete facts, potentially correlative, that enlarge the area of inquiry for serious searchers who question the assumption that we shall never learn anything more of significance about Shakespeare than is already known. New readings of his works have been attempted, open to the possibility that he experienced the anguish of conscience which many of his contemporaries felt as the world of faith divided itself into worlds at war. The facts might well be summarized now, distinguished from the speculations into which they shade, and weighed for their suggestive value.

The most obvious and the most certain conclusion to be inferred from the preceding essays is that Shakespeare “knew” Robert Southwell: possessed his works, almost all of them; had them so densely yet broadly folded into his memory that they could become, like the bible for a dévot, instantly and bountifully available at the slightest hint of their relevance to his task at any moment of composition. Such moments of influence were remarkably frequent, suggesting both the author’s extended memory of Southwell’s texts and his rereading of them. Instances can be observed throughout the poetry and drama that we have examined, works that for more than a decade seem to have addressed special concerns of the earl of Southampton. Indeed, the influence of Southwell on Shakespeare can be shown to extend much beyond the signs of it in these poems and plays.[1] It is also clear that Shakespeare must have had access to Southwell’s work through secret and privileged channels, since the poet and playwright made use of a prohibited book (The Epistle of Comfort) and manuscripts available only in close circulation in the Catholic underground. Shakespeare may have obtained them, as someone who could be entrusted with precious contraband (and here conjectures begin), from any number of his Catholic relatives or connections, perhaps even from Southampton, who was an enthusiastic collector of Catholic literature even late into his life, when he publicly identified himself as a Protestant.

It is also possible that Shakespeare could have received Southwell’s writings from his Jesuit “cosen” himself. There is hardly any reason to doubt that Southwell sent copies of his poems to his kinsman “W.S.,” who had “importune[d]” the author to write them, and from whom, in return, the author had asked for help in producing better “Musicke.”[2] Was “W.S.” William Shakespeare? Even before it could be claimed that Southwell’s writings had Shakespeare in their grip, there was no other known plausible candidate. Now, with a significant literary relationship between the two men established, the possibility that Shakespeare was the addressee is greater by many degrees. And yet if we are to assume the identification, we must also suppose that Southwell did not fully appreciate the differences of temperament and principle between himself and a cousin who would not only defy an exhortation to prefer Christ to Venus as a literary subject, but would spend years responding to the gifts that had been given him by his martyred relative as an adversary as well as a friend. Whether Shakespeare was acquainted personally with Southwell or not, he could not let go of, nor could he acquiesce to him.

Herbert Thurston, the Jesuit who demonstrated that Cardinal Borromeo’s Testament of the Soul was the basis for what may be John Shakespeare’s Spiritual Testament, was quite wary about attributing anything but “a Catholic tone” to William Shakespeare’s mind, and perhaps a sympathetic and tender feeling “about the creed in which his father and mother had been brought up.” Thurston could not ignore what he believed to be Shakespeare’s accommodation to the demands of the English state-church, nor “the loose morality of the Sonnets, of Venus and Adonis, etc. and of passages in the plays.” He wondered about Shakespeare’s “atheism,” finding that a “number of Shakespearean utterances expressive of a fundamental doubt in the Divine economy of the world” seem to go “beyond the requirements of his dramatic purpose and . . . are constantly put into the mouths of characters with whom the poet is evidently in sympathy.” Prospero’s musing, for example, that “life / Is rounded with a sleep” was theologically suspect.[3] The late-Victorian Jesuit, strict in his sense of orthodoxy, narrow in his hermeneutics, and perhaps oversensitive to indications of misbelief, could not approve of, much less tolerate, the ambiguous or skeptical “utterances” of Shakespeare, nor the poet’s apparent nonchalance toward moral and credal imperatives. Elizabethan and Jacobean Christians, however, both Protestants and Catholics, may well have approached their crises of faith in ways that have become difficult for their descendants to comprehend. Shakespeare the “sinner” may have found extraordinary ways to condemn and forgive himself for “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame”; his Lear-like challenges to the gods could have meant that he took deity seriously enough to be pained and perplexed by its silence, its invisibility, and its apparent indifference to triumphant evil. The Shakespeare who emerges from this study shows no strong signs of preference for specific doctrines that divide one faith from another; perhaps he was of a mind with Lucio on at least one point, that “Grace is grace, despite of all controversy” (MM 1.2.25). Yet, uncommonly knowledgeable of things Catholic, he is quite intent on creating Catholic worlds in poetic and dramatic spaces, both where one might expect such an environment (medieval Denmark, “modern” France, Italy, and Vienna) and where one might not (ancient Rome, ambiguously antique Ephesus). He does so not merely for art’s sake, but to dramatize experiences and explore issues that arise in a Catholic situation, which he does not fear to present with sympathy as well as criticism. He shows every sign of sympathetic interest in the torments of conscience, good conscience and bad, that divide human beings from one another. His interest in civil war, brother against brother, sustained as it is throughout his career, from Henry VI to The Tempest, is therefore not an inexplicable obsession but an outgrowth of his sensitivity to the religious conflict that Robert Southwell and Henry Wriothesley helped define for him.

The author of a book on “Shakespeare’s Religious Frontier,” who like most scholars wrongly assumed that Shakespeare had read in his life only “once piece of polemical divinity” (Harsnett’s Popish Impostures), believed that the poet’s response to religion at war with itself  was an “incomparable aloofness from all partisan religious issues.”[4] Yet Shakespeare was not so olympian that he could view such contention with a happily suspended judgment. Church and state were for him individual human beings, not merely abstractions. Those who punished religious deviance, the deviant who suffered punishment, and those who evaded punishment by hiding or avoiding deviance were all liable to assessment. This estimate, which extended beyond the axioms of religious or legal casuistry, was harsh or compassionate depending on the moral intuition of a judge (Shakespeare was a judge!) as radical and discomfiting as the Sermon on the Mount could make him.

 From such a perspective Shakespeare considered the dilemmas of his patron and friend Southampton, who was linked to him as to Southwell by family ties and by a sense of what constituted momentous choice in the matter of religious allegiance. This claim is of course speculative, but not, in light of limited but suggestive evidence, unwarranted.  It is reasonable to believe, as has here been argued, that all three men understood Catholicism as the far from uniform practice of the Catholics they knew. The priest wished more uniformity; the two laymen were content with less, revealing, unlike their cousin, a flexibility in religious politics that need not be called indifference to its underlying principles. Whether or not Shakespeare and Southampton had “tender feelings” for the Catholic faith of their fathers and mothers, they knew the strong chances of suffering for it. The patron and his poet were aware that the persecutors were far from righteous, but also that the persecutorial spirit lived everywhere in “Christian” Europe. Towards the Lucretias and the heroic nuns of the world, “thrice blessed” but sometimes “self-loving,” they were ambivalent; towards the Tarquins, Tituses, and Tamoras, they were hostile. Like Southwell, Shakespeare was willing, in Hamlet, to view politics in the light of transcendence; but such a consideration could not tell Southampton, or others stricken with a sense of the world’s privileged and protected injustice, what to do or not to do about it. When Southwell was long dead and Southampton had moved farther then ever from importunities of Counter-Reformation missionaries, Shakespeare used the Jesuit’s words to imagine for the earl whose trespasses had been forgiven how an old fantasy of religious reconciliation (in the Comedy of Errors) might be succeeded by a new one (in Measure for Measure) with a better chance of being at least partly realized--if only a new prince of peaceable temper could be persuaded to seize it.

James missed this opportunity. The Gunpowder Plot would defer indefinitely hope for another chance. Southampton, again in Parliament after his pardon, might have been among those killed had the powder conspirators succeeded.  He had been given no warning, though some of his relatives (and Southwell’s, and Shakespeare’s) were involved in the plot. Yet he did not turn his back entirely on his former co-religionists, continuing to help some of them in their need. Shakespeare, of course, alluded to the conspiracy in Macbeth, singling out the “equivocator” Jesuit Henry Garnet for special opprobrium. As he wrote this play, however, Robert Southwell was still in and on his mind. That “fact” and many others are matters requiring new contexts for discussion. C’est toute une histoire.





To Conclusion

[1]. I hope to add to the evidence already cited in this book of the Jesuit’s presence in Shakespeare, looking eventually at striking instances of it throughout the playwright’s work.
[2]. McDonald and Brown, eds, Poems of Robert Southwell, 1-2.
[3]. The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “The Religion of Shakespeare.”
[4]. Stevenson, Shakespeare’s Religious Frontier, 62, 80.

Copyright © John Klause 2013.