St. Robert Southwell, Jesuit priest and martyr, was hanged, drawn and quartered on February 21, 1595. To commemorate the anniversary and to celebrate the legacy of this great Catholic saint and poet, Joseph Pearce was interviewed by Jan Franczak for the Polish journal, PCh24.pl. This is the interview’s first publication in English.
Franczak: Robert Southwell (1561-1595) was a poet, a Jesuit missionary in his own country, a martyr, a saint and Shakespeare’s distant cousin (the last fact seems not to be mentioned at all or rarely mentioned if I’m not mistaken). Which of these roles was the most important and why?
Pearce: Strictly speaking, the fact that he was a martyr is the most important because it opened the gates of heaven, leading to Southwell’s canonization as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. The fact that he was a poet, and a very fine poet, is important because Southwell exerted a considerable literary influence upon Shakespeare. This is more important than the fact that he was Shakespeare’s distant cousin.
Franczak: Let’s then begin with Southwell’s martyrdom. To put our readers in the picture could we briefly describe the situation of Catholics in England at that time, particularly the situation of Catholic priests?
Pearce: Southwell, a contemporary of Shakespeare, lived the entirety of his life during the long and brutal reign of Queen Elizabeth I. During the reign of “Bloody Bess”, it was a crime to be a Catholic priest or to shelter a Catholic priest from the authorities; and it was not merely a crime but a crime punishable by death. Robert Southwell went into exile in order to study for the priesthood. When he returned to England as a Jesuit missionary priest to minister to England’s persecuted Catholics, he knew that he would face torture and death if he were caught.
Franczak: Reading memoirs by John Gerard or William Weston I couldn’t stop thinking how brave these men were. All of them seemed to be aware of the possiblity of one of the most gruesome deaths they could face. And yet they were ready to face it for reasons that must seem incomprehensible to many readers today, especially if these readers have been taught by some particular Catholic priests. Could you say something about the courage of these men and the sort of death they faced, if arrested?
Pearce: You are correct that the courage of these holy priests is astonishing. The usual death sentence passed on those convicted of being a priest in Elizabeth’s England was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This involved the priest being hanged by a noose, then cut down while he was still alive; then, while the priest was still conscious, he was castrated, after which he was cut open so that his vital organs could be removed, one by one, the last of which was the heart. These were then thrown on a fire. The priest, now mercifully dead, was then decapitated and his body cut into quarters. The decapitated head and the pieces of the priest’s body were then displayed in prominent places as a gruesome warning to England’s Catholics of the punishment that would be inflicted upon priests. The fact that many young men still went abroad to study for the priesthood with the intention of returning to England to minister to the Faithful says a great deal about the strength of their faith, in addition to the depth of their courage.
Franczak: You called Southwell in your book Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet “the most famous and feared Jesuit in England.” What was he especially famous for at that time and why was he “feared”?
Pearce: Robert Southwell was famous for his poetry in defence of the Faith, and for his polemical prose. We need to remember that in the 1580s and 90s, poets were the bestselling writers. The age of the novel was in the future. Everyone read poetry. Southwell’s verse was widely known and widely read, even by his enemies. It seems that the queen herself was familiar with his poetry. The power of his voice, coupled with the fact that he was a Jesuit outlaw, known to be in England but managing for several years to stay one step ahead of Elizabeth’s spy network and her priest-hunters, meant that he became a sort of Robin Hood or Scarlet Pimpernel figure in the eyes of the public, especially in the eyes of the Catholic population.
Franczak: The story of those “Jesuit outlaws” is really fascinating. Personally I think that for example John Gerard’s adventures are better than any James Bond movie, first of all because they are true. But I guess with the present atmosphere in Hollywood we won’t see any movie based on his captivating memoirs any time soon. Do we have any accounts of Robert Southwell’s equally dramatic adventures?
Pearce: Due to the tyrannical nature of the times, those who were trying to elude the power of the state did not leave a paper trail, much as dissidents in the Soviet Union or in Poland during the communist era did not leave a paper trail. There is, therefore, little documentary evidence apart from that offered in the accounts of Frs. Gerard and Weston that you’ve already mentioned. We know from these accounts of some of his movements following his arrival in England in 1586 until his arrest six years later. The very fact that Southwell managed to avoid the priest-hunters and the spies for such a long period of time is itself astonishing, especially as he seems to have been based in London, the very heart of the beast and under the government’s very nose. We know of narrow escapes when houses were raided and of his hiding in priest-holes while homes were searched. There is also a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Southwell knew William Shakespeare, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Southwell might have been Shakespeare’s confessor. We know that he was the confessor of the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron. There is also undeniable textual evidence to illustrate Southwell’s influence on some of Shakespeare’s finest writing, such as Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice, as well as on Shakespeare’s early poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
Franczak: Fr. John Gerard managed to make a daring escape from the Tower of London in 1597. However Robert Southwell was caught and after tortures sentenced to death and executed on February 21, 1595. But that gruesome execution didn’t go exactly as it had been planned. Both his imprisonment and the tortures he suffered and finally his execution showed his courage and deep faith. We know from some accounts that the crowd didn’t even shout “Traitor!” which was normal in that case. What happened?
Pearce: Following his arrest, after eluding capture for six years, Southwell would face three years of brutal torture, never once divulging information to his torturers. His astonishing resilience and courage earned him the grudging respect of one of those who witnessed his excruciating suffering. “They boast about the heroes of antiquity,” wrote Robert Cecil, the son of Lord Burghley (William Cecil), Elizabeth’s chief minister, “but we have a new torture which it is not possible for a man to bear. And yet I have seen Robert Southwell hanging by it, still as a tree trunk, and no one able to drag one word from his mouth.” The same courage was present at the execution, especially in his words from the scaffold. Standing in the cart, beneath the gibbet and with the noose around his neck, he made the sign of the cross and recited a passage from Romans, chapter nine. When the sheriff tried to interrupt him, those in the crowd, many of whom were sympathetic to the Jesuit’s plight, shouted that he should be allowed to speak. He confessed that he was a Jesuit priest and prayed for the salvation of the Queen and his country. As the cart was drawn away, he commended his soul to God in the same words that Christ had used from the Cross: In manus tuas … (Into your hands Lord I commend my spirit.) As he hung in the noose, some onlookers pushed forward and tugged at his legs to hasten his death before he could be cut down and disemboweled alive. Southwell was thirty-three-years-old, the same age as Christ at the time of his Crucifixion.
Franczak: You mentioned that Southwell was famous for his poetry in his times. He is counted among the group of poets called “metaphysical poets”. What is his place in the history of English literature? His influence on Shakespeare must for sure place him very high, mustn’t it? On the other hand some of his poems even made their way to pop-culture. “The Burning Babe”, one of his best-known poems, was recorded as a song by Sting for example.
Pearce: Although “The Burning Babe” is the most popular of Southwell’s poems, its being the most often included in anthologies, he wrote several other poems of considerable merit. I include eleven of his poems in the anthology I edited, which is entitled Poems Every Catholic Should Know. At the time of his death, his poetry was widely known and widely read, even by his enemies. As Gary M. Bouchard shows in Southwell’s Sphere: The Influence of England’s Secret Poet, Southwell would influence many of the greatest poets in the English language, including Shakespeare, most notably, but also Michael Drayton, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The famous graveyard scene in Hamlet is influenced by Southwell’s “Upon the Image of Death” and Lear’s powerful speech in which the contrite Lear says to Cordelia that they should be “God’s spies” is an intertextual engagement with Southwell’s poem, “Decease Release”. The foregoing illustrates that St. Robert Southwell should not be revered solely as a Catholic martyr but also respected as one of the most important English poets.
Franczak: You have mentioned Southwell’s influence on Shakespeare. You also wrote about it in your three books on the Bard [Shakespeare on Love, The Quest for Shakespeare, and Through Shakespeare’s Eyes]. In the third of them, Shakespeare on Love, you even dedicated a separate section especially to Robert Southwell. It seems to me that two of Shakespeare’s plays, where you track these intertexual references, are particularly misunderstood and misinterpreted: Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. Could we say that noticing these references to Southwell’s poems in both of these plays (apart from other works by Shakespeare) enables us to fully appreciate the depth of them, to understand the hidden meaning (at least hidden to most of the modern critics), to open the right casket, so to speak?
Pearce: Absolutely. Shakespeare’s intertextual referencing of the works of Southwell enables us to understand Shakespeare’s specifically Catholic approach to the plays. It’s as if seeing the intertextuality enables us to see the plays through Shakespeare’s eyes. Take, for instance, Portia’s words after the Prince of Aragon’s failure in the test of the caskets: “Thus hath the candle sing’d the moth.” (2.9.78) And compare it to lines from Southwell’s “Lewd Love is Losse”: So long the flie doth dallie with the flame,/Untill his singed wings doe force his fall.” Not only does the phraseology suggest Shakespeare’s indebtedness to Southwell but the very title of the poem from which the phrase is extracted suggests a connection to Shakespeare’s theme that lewd love is loss. Aragon’s love is lewdly self-interested and his choice leads to the loss of his hopes to marry Portia. Shakespeare is not simply taking lines from Southwell, he is apparently taking his very theme from him.
It is also intriguing that an expression ascribed by the Oxford English Dictionary to Shakespeare’s coinage was actually coined originally by Southwell, to whom Shakespeare was presumably indebted. The phrase is Shylock’s “a wilderness of monkeys” (subsequent to “a wilderness of Tygers” in Titus Andronicus), which owed its original source to Southwell’s “a wilderness of serpents” in his Epistle unto his Father.
There is not sufficient space to give further examples in an interview of this length but Shakespeare’s intertextual “borrowing” from Southwell is extensive in plays as diverse in theme as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and King Lear. Those wishing to explore further are invited to read my books on Shakespeare in which I discuss this “Jesuit connection” in much more detail.
Franczak: And the last question, about The Merchant of Venice. Usually critics mention the tragic fate of Doctor Roderigo Lopez which was supposed to inspire Shakespeare’s drama but I don’t remember anyone apart from you mention here Robert Southwell while describing the origin of the play. You say that The Merchant of Venice was written “shortly after Southwell’s execution … or during the period in which the Jesuit was being tortured repeatedly by Richard Topcliffe, Elizabeth’s sadistic chief interrogator.” And you add that “it should not surprise us therefore that we see Southwell’s shadow, or shade in Shakespeare’s play.” You also suggest that both, the figure of Bassanio and Antonio refer to the suffering of Robert Southwell. To sum up, could you briefly explain your interpretation to our readers who unfortunately still have no access to Polish translations of your books on Shakespeare?
Pearce: The key point to remember is that life in Elizabethan England was similar in many ways to life under communism. Dissident opinion was suppressed. It was, for instance, illegal in Shakespeare’s time for plays to comment upon contemporary religious or political issues. In such circumstances, great ingenuity was needed. Shakespeare found many ways of attacking the Puritans, who were not only enemies of the Church but enemies of the theatre. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s primary role is as a usurer. A close reading of the play shows that those who attack him do so far more for his usury than for his religious faith. There were no Jewish usurers in England in Shakespeare’s time, the Jews having been expelled from England three hundred years earlier. The usurers in England in Shakespeare’s time were the Puritans.
Whereas the Catholic Church still condemned usury, John Calvin had permitted usury and his disciple, Salmasius, had codified the rules by which interest-bearing loans were permissible. Thomas Cartwright, a contemporary of Shakespeare and one of the leading Calvinists in England, followed the teaching of Calvin and Salmasius and was consequently condemned for his defense of usury. This was a hot topic in Shakespeare’s day, and one which divided people on religious lines. This being so, it is clear that Shakespeare’s audience would have perceived Shylock allegorically as a Puritan, thereby enabling Shakespeare to condemn both Puritanism and usury, while circumventing the law banning the discussion of contemporary religion and politics. By extension, Shakespeare’s audience would also have seen Shylock’s desire to take Antonio’s life as a thinly-veiled depiction of those Puritans who sought the life of England’s Jesuit missionaries, including St. Robert Southwell. In this, as in so much else in Shakespeare, it is necessary to understand the tyrannical times in which the plays were written in order to see beyond the surface to the deeper Catholic elements. As the title of my second book on Shakespeare illustrates, it is necessary to learn to see “through Shakespeare’s eyes”.
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