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The Jesuit martyr who inspired Shakespeare

Remembering the poet and missionary St. Robert Southwell, one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, who was hanged, drawn and quartered on February 21, 1595.

Left: Saint Robert Southwell, S.J. (1561-1595), depicted in an Illustration from the frontispice of "Saint Peter's complaint"; right: The Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare. (Wikipedia)

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, 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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About Joseph Pearce 34 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of Faith of Our Fathers: A History of 'True' England (Ignatius Press, 2022), as well as of numerous literary works including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare and Shakespeare on Love,Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN Books) and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press), and the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A native of England, he is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at


  1. Thank you for sharing this. That was very interesting and I had no idea that Southwell and Shakespeare were related.
    We’ve been blessed to enjoy religious freedoms over the past few centuries but I think we’ve hugely taken that for granted. If our society became as intolerant to Catholics as Robert Southwell’s was, would there be many priests left with his courage and resourcefulness?

  2. Another nice article on the bravery of past Catholic martyrs and saints dedicated to speaking the truth/God’s words in a hostile world. Interesting contrast to today, if one preaches the Truth instead of being drawn and quartered your banned from Twitter, Facebook and You Tube. However that seems to work or maybe too many are not dedicated to speaking the Truth.

  3. A very informative interview by Jan of Joseph.

    Probably there was not space to mention the international tensions between Elizabeth’s newly Protestant Britain and the fiercely Catholic nations of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France. The Brits were in mortal danger of being over-run and they took desperate measures against all those they saw as agents of foreign powers. We think for example of the Spanish Armada.

    Maybe there was no time to mention the almost inconceivable atrocities committed by Elizabeth’s predecessor, Mary 1st. Anyone interested can find a graphic account of these in ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’, describing how hundreds of loyal men, women, and children were burned alive for the simple ‘crime’ of reading The Holy Bible in English.

    The question we need to ask ourselves is whether ‘christians’, Catholic or Protestant, who killed and tortured (or approved or tolerate this) had anything whatever to do with Our Lord Jesus Christ or His Father or The Holy Spirit.

    No doubt there were many gentle, humble souls who listened to Jesus and followed His Way. obeying the Commandment not to hurt or kill; and the New Commandment to love others as Christ has loved us: that is to respond in kindness to all who harm us. Heaven is full of those little one’s whose Christ love could not be corrupted.

    One might wonder how many of the more well-known partisan disputants made it.

    Please, King Jesus, preserve us from making these same fatal mistakes today.

    • Dr.Rice,
      St. Robert Southwell surely was among those gentle, humble Christian souls that you mentioned?
      You are correct that there was terrible bloodshed during that period and martyrs on more than the Catholic side. Praise God that is no longer the case in Britain. The danger the British and the West face now is indifference.

    • Interesting post. I have had some similar questions about Thomas Moore under Henry VIII. He stood for his own convictions at the cost of his life, but many people died as a result of his zeal.

  4. Shakespeare’s genius lends his words to comparative interpretation, Merchant of Venice, Puritans and English martyrs feasibly among them. Scholars believe Shakespeare wrote with that surreptitious intent to comment on the times. Similar to the Apostle John’s Apocalypse written in a style unrecognizable to his persecutor Domitian. Catholic Bloody Mary is frequently portrayed as bloodier than Protestant Bloody Bess. But that luxury for a Catholic apparently belongs to being an Englishman. What impressed me lastingly when studying for the priesthood were visits to Rome’s English College called the College of Martyrs. Where men prepared for what they knew meant death in England. Several of us from the Beda invited first time for camaraderie [inducement McEwan’s Scotch Ale] entered the long vestibule lined with 40 paintings of martyrs. Unexpected, leaving a lasting impression on the real meaning of Catholic priesthood and its identity with Christ. Death, whether figurative in dying to oneself and the world spoken by the Apostle or when that prospect is real purifies and steels the soul. When faced with that ultimate truth we either fade or define. That thought is in mind when consecrating bread and wine ut nobis corpus and sanguis fiant Domini nostri Jesu Christi. That defining act of shared divine love is what makes the weak strong perhaps heroic.

  5. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs? Seriously, you use that as a source for your historical views?

    Maybe try William Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation in England. It’s a couple centuries newer. Or better still (and more recent), Eamon Duffy.

    “loyal men, women, and children were burned alive for the simple ‘crime’ of reading The Holy Bible in English.”

    Twaddle. Reading the Bible in English was not a crime. Reading a bad translation replete with editing and editorializing contradicting Church teaching might have been a symptom that brought one under the heresey laws, but that’s a different matter.

    “Maybe there was no time to mention the almost inconceivable atrocities committed by Elizabeth’s predecessor, Mary 1st.”

    Those “almost inconceivable atrocities” being what exactly? Burning is a horrible death, but I doubt that many people would consider it more of an “inconceivable atrocity” than the penalties carried out under Elizabeth.

    And why stop there? Henry VIII killed tens of thousands of people. The circa 300 under Mary pale by comparison.

    “The question we need to ask ourselves is whether ‘christians’, Catholic or Protestant, who killed and tortured (or approved or tolerate this) had anything whatever to do with Our Lord Jesus Christ or His Father or The Holy Spirit.”

    That is a different question entirely; though you might try reading the Old Testament to see whether God did or did not consider death an appropriate punishment for blasphemy.

    “obeying the Commandment not to hurt”

    Which one would that be?

    • Many thanks, dear Leslie, for responding so openly to my humble comment.

      Many are keen to defend the indefensible: who say they follow Christ but, blind-folded by religious passions, follow the age-old spirit of this world, who stirs-up violent antagonisms. According to Jesus’ teaching (Mt 18:7 & Lk 17:1); and, in line with ‘Ethical Encounter Theology’, such offenses: “have to be”. Why?

      The necessity of these innumerable evils is that they are exposing themselves to be justly judged. Innumerable local apocalypses accumulate towards the long-prophesied cosmic consummating Apocalypse & eternal separation (‘Ethical Dialysis’).

      God is brilliant in creating a universe that enables the exhaustive exposure and separation of the evil of this world, to loose the good from evil’s maniacal embrace.

      It’d be so great if more Catholics decided to really get to know and love Our Ever-Living Lord by a lifetime of devoted study of the 27 texts by 9 largely eye-witness authors (The NEW Testament). That’d help us to realize we are children of The NEW Covenant, committed to hear and obey Christ and so not allowed to harm others.

      Please read Matthew 5, it is highly relevant to the article and our conversation. e.g. “I say to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Luke 6: 27-38 recalls the same teaching by Our Master Jesus Christ. e.g. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.”

      It hardly needs saying that we are commanded to love others as Jesus has loved us; that is in an unlimitedly sacrificial way, arising from an unshakeable faith that God is totally in-charge and well able and willing to reward our trust. Without faith in God’s supreme knowledge, goodness & authority, of course, no one can please God.

      There’s no doubt that if Catholics and Protestants faithfully studied and obeyed the Apostolic revelation of Our Master Jesus Christ, there would be no division. We would be where God has always wanted us to be: ONE body with Christ our head.

      As told: once we Christians subjugate our sectarianism and serve one another, THEN the world will believe that Jesus is The Messiah. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD. We will have done our job as faithful servants.

      Let’s ask ourselves: Who it is that does not want that; who uses every trick to incite us to hate and hurt and harm one another, and so put off the Glorious Day?

      Take care Leslie. Always in the love of Jesus; every blessing from Marty

      • “That’d help us to realize we are children of The NEW Covenant, committed to hear and obey Christ and so not allowed to harm others.”

        The New Testament is the fulfilment of the old; you can’t simply ignore it and say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter anymore.” Unless you’re a Marcionite.

        121 The Old Testament is an indispensable part of Sacred Scripture. Its books are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value,92 for the Old Covenant has never been revoked. [Catechism of the Catholic Church] Also 122, 123.

        You could try reading Scripture Wars, by Rod Bennet, on that point.

        “There’s no doubt that if Catholics and Protestants faithfully studied and obeyed the Apostolic revelation of Our Master Jesus Christ, there would be no division. We would be where God has always wanted us to be: ONE body with Christ our head.”

        Yes; and with the Pope as His Vicar on Earth. The earthly head of the Church, Which alone has the authority to interpret Scripture correctly.

        “‘Ethical Encounter Theology’”

        I’m sure you’re very proud of the theology that you’ve invented, but it’s not anything that I consider authoritative.

        Felicitatoins on blandly ignoring the points in my post.

        • Many thanks for taking the trouble to respond, dear Leslie.

          No one doubts, as you imply, the value of the Old Testament or of the authority of the Pope. Misrepresentative furphies should surely not distract us from our focus on the substantial matters of Christ’s revelation of truth and logic.

          In all of history, no legitimate Pope has ever suggested faithful followers of Our King Jesus Christ should disobey His clear instructions, such as: “If you love Me you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15). Likewise with: “If you keep My commandments you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and remain in His love.” (John 15:10)

          Jesus Christ – the Pope’s Master and our Master – commands that we love our enemies and do good to those who harm us. No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. That command is a key to the unity that Jesus prayed for so passionately (see John 17:23) and that the Church has so disastrously disregarded.

          The price of disobedience to our Glorious Master’s clear commands is all too evident. The enemy has been able to run amok among us: Eastern Orthodox schism; Protestant schism; Pentecostal schism; Pius X schism; Traditional Catholic schism; Independent Catholic schism; the tragic list goes on and on.

          Within the main body of Catholicism sectarian hatreds flourish. But, far more subtly and debilitatingly, Freemasonry, with its Siamese-twin Witchcraft, have infected both clergy (even some in the Roman Curia) and much of the laity.

          Syncretistic heretics never fail to fan the flames of ancient hurts between Catholics and Anglicans, etc.; often in scholarly and even poetic styles. Without The Holy Spirit’s gift of discernment to identify and abjure this ‘sugar-coated cyanide’ even the remnants of genuine Catholicism are done for.

          Yet, unshakeable, unbreakable, unbeatable the Pillars remain: “GOD IS LOVE and anyone who lives in love lives in God and God lives in them.” (1 John 4:16b).

          In 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 we’re all told in detail what it means to love.

          There is no legitimate Pope who has not taught that truth. The question only is whether we lay rejoice in the truth & do everything in our ability to obey it.

          As regards ‘Ethical Encounter Theology’: it is an unprofitable servants effort to bring science & philosophy & theology into a consonance able to speak to 21st century seekers after truth & holiness, under The Lord Jesus Christ. Anything valuable in it has been a gift from God.

          Dear Leslie, even in our differences, let’s agree on: ‘Soli Deo gloria’.


            Forgiveness isn’t something you feel. It’s something you do (especially when it’s hard). During Lent, we mirror the mercy of God when we forgive others.

            Texas church helps mosque damaged after winter storm
            A suburban Texas church is helping a nearby mosque recover from the devastating snowstorms that hit last week.

  6. Some of the information in this article makes me wonder regarding the ongoing debate (waxes and wanes every few years) concerning the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Perhaps Southwell wrote the plays and poems (or significant portions of them) attributed to Shakespeare, and his distant cousin simply acted as the author (or perhaps a minor co-author), and published them over time, some while Southwell was alive and quite a few more after his death.

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