Monday, August 7, 2017

William Shakespeare and Robert Southwell

Brad Miner writes at The Catholic Thing about a new TV series, Will:

Would that I were such a booster of our Faith that I might recommend Willunreservedly just for being respectful of Catholicism, but faith here is mostly a veneer, even though it lacquers everything. And although Will goes further than any previous dramatic presentation in emphasizing Shakespeare’s faith, it goes too far. It takes threads of true history and weaves them into an absurd tapestry of fantasy. Of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, scholars have no doubt. Of his devotion or crypto-activism, however, there is little evidence.

So, then, in fair London where we set our scene: In 1592, actor Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood) will star in Richard III by Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) but actually be portraying Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremmer), Elizabeth I’s Catholic hunter and torturer: a sort of embarrassment of Richards.

Topcliffe’s main obsession is capturing a cousin of Shakespeare, the Jesuit priest/poet Robert Southwell (Max Bennett). Topcliffe, unaware of Shakespeare’s relationship to Southwell, has actually commissioned the play from Will, thinking it will be a paean to Topcliffe himself.

So the series adapts the "Secret Catholic Code in Shakespeare Plays" theory! It is true that Topcliffe was obsessed with Southwell: he seems to have hated him, to have enjoyed torturing him, and to have continued to attack him through Southwell's trial as Father Henry Garnet described it:

“The Chief Justice asked how old he was, seeming to scorn his youth. He answered that he was near about the age of our Saviour, Who lived upon the earth thirty-three years; and he himself was as he thought near about thirty-four years. Hereat Topcliffe seemed to make great acclamation, saying that he compared himself to Christ. Mr. Southwell answered, ‘No he was a humble worm created by Christ.’ ‘Yes,’ said Topcliffe, ‘you are Christ’s fellow.'”

What vitriol! And this exchange on Southwell's torture:

Southwell: I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times. I had rather have endured ten executions. I speak not this for myself, but for others; that they may not be handled so inhumanely, to drive men to desperation, if it were possible.
Topcliffe: If he were racked, let me die for it.
Southwell: No; but it was as evil a torture, or late device.
Topcliffe: I did but set him against a wall.
Southwell: Thou art a bad man.
Topcliffe: I would blow you all to dust if I could.
Southwell: What, all?
Topcliffe: Ay, all.
Southwell: What, soul and body too?

This blog notes the salutation to the printed edition of Southwell's Saint Peter's Complaint, published on the Continent after the martyr had suffered, "To My Worthy Good Cosen Master W.S." and the conjecture that the W.S. is indeed William Shakespeare. Southwell remonstrates with his good cousin about the abuse of poetry: "Worthy cosen, Poets, by abusing their talent, and making the follies, and faygnings of love the customary subject of their base endeavours, have so discredited this facultie, that a Poet, a Lover and a Lyar, are by many reckoned but three words of one signification."

America magazine also highlights the series and Southwell's prominent role in it, but errs in one statement: "Among the victims of Elizabeth’s Protestant zeal are the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, canonized by Paul VI in 1970." Not all of the Forty Martyrs suffered under Elizabeth I!

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