November 4th, 2011Shakespeare and the Jesuitsby Joseph Pearce

Following our discussion of the new piece of Hollywood nonsense masquerading as fact about the life of Shakespeare, it was gratifying to receive some good solid scholarship on the real Shakespeare and his relationship with the Jesuits. I’m referring to an excellent new paper by Australian Shakespeare scholar, Colin Jory, on the solid evidence for the beneficial influence of the Jesuit Martyr, St. Robert Southwell, on the work of Shakespeare. This meticulous piece of scholarship, weighing in at 12,000 words, is too lengthy to be posted on this website but Jory has offered to send it to anyone interested in perusing it. Those interested should write to him at I am, however, pleased to post Jory’s excellent insights into the Jesuit connection to Macbeth and his comments regarding the mystery of John Shakespeare’s spiritual will and testament:


Here's a stray thought on Shakespeare and the Jesuits: a case of "the dog that didn't bark". As far as I can see, the case for Macbeth being published in 1606 after the trial of Fr Garnett is strong, even though "equivocation" had been an issue for decades. It has often been noted that Shakespeare was evidently seeking to dissociated himself from Fr Garnett on the "equivocation" issue, and I agree. The published reports of the trial indicate that Fr Garnett had a personal interpretation of legitimate "equivocation" which permitted fulsome lying, and the Venetian Ambassador's reports of the trial indicate that these quasi-official printed reports are not flat fabrications or outrageous exaggerations. Such being the case, what is especially significant is the fact that Shakespeare did not mention the Jesuits—which is to say, he did not play along with the government's "divide and conquer" strategy of getting the Catholics publicly to dissociate themselves from, and publicly deplore, the Jesuits. Nothing's safer for the Church's enemies than a "but-Catholic" ("I'm a Catholic but...").

The reason this significant silence struck me was that way back in 1969, when I was in my first-year-out teaching, I had a minor role in a local Macbeth performance. At some point—perhaps in the Porter's speech, perhaps in Macbeth's final dialogue—the term "Jesuit" or "Jesuitical" was slipped into the dialogue in connection with "equivocation", obviously to imply the connection to the Garnett trial. Because I was not then especially "into" Shakespeare in general or Macbeth in particular (my Honours course had been in History, and my Honours thesis on Australian Catholic History), I assumed that the term was in the authentic dialogue; and when I later studied Macbeth properly I was surprised to find that it isn't. My point is that it is significant that it isn't, because the omission of any imputation against the Jesuits shows that although Shakespeare was careful to dissociate himself from the type of "equivocation" for which Fr Garnett had suddenly become scandalously notorious, he was equally careful to avoid seeming to blame the Jesuits. (A decade previously in Fr Southwell's interrogations and at his trial the government had strenuously sought to get Southwell to make admissions which could be used to portray the Jesuits as proponents of an "equivocation" theory which permitted comprehensive lying, most notably vis-a-vis alleged intentions to preach treachery against the Queen if a rebellion started.)

Here's something else re (obliquely) Shakespeare and the Jesuits—this time regarding specifically the "Spiritual Testament". It's an observation I made many years ago and incorporated into my long MS on Hamlet, then resurrected when I saw an article by Dennis Taylor on the Web back in February regarding the Spiritual Testament. It would be interesting if the Henley Street rafters could be examined, and if it was discovered that a cavity had been chiselled into the top of one of them!

Malone reported in 1790 merely that the document had been found "between the rafters and the tiling"; however, in a 1797 pamphlet George Chalmers – an acquaintance of Malone's – spoke of its having been discovered "in the hiding-hole [Chalmer’s emphasis] of the house of Shakspeare." See the comprehensive account of the early Spiritual Testament controversy in John Henry de Groot, The Shakespeares and "The Old Faith" (NY: King's Crown Press, 1946), especially pp.64-65, 75.

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  • May 7 2012 | by Andrea Campana

    Perhaps we should see the porter's speech as a communique, rather than a comment. The reference to the farmer is certainly an allusion to Henry Garnet, as most everyone agrees, and the Jesuit "harvest" as they called their mission to "save souls." The reference to the "napkins" and the equivocator imply Robert Southwell and the well-known story of how he mopped his brow with a handkerchief and threw it into the crowd while being dragged on a hurdle to the scaffold for his savage execution in 1595. The third reference by the porter, to a tailor, could be an allusion to a Jesuit named Thomas Fairfax (alias Thomas Beckett), who posed as a tailor and would sneak Jesuits by boat out of England and to Calais in France on alleged cloth-buying missions. His boat was filled with chestnuts (probably for drainage purposes). In this sense, the porter's speech becomes a communique alerting other Jesuits that Garnet has gone through the same "hell" of execution as Southwell and one can escape England with the "tailor" Beckett. The second witch's statement about chestnuts may allude to Fairfax's escape boat, while her announcement that she has been "killing swine" may communicate the escape of the Jesuit Oswald Tesimond after Garnet's execution in a boat filled with dead pigs. These subtleties send out messages in an age in which there were no cell phones, no Internet. "The play's the thing." In other words, plays could serve as ways to communicate. I, for one, believe Shakespeare was helping the Jesuits. Of course, Shakespeare had to write words that on the surface appear to damn the Jesuits. His plays were being performed for a King with the authority to order an execution.