The fact that Shakespeare was a believing Catholic in very anti-Catholic times can be proven beyond any reasonable doubt. The evidence is convincing in terms of what is known about his life and from what can be seen in his plays and poems. Since this is so, it’s intriguing to consider Shakespeare’s response to the infamous Gunpowder Plot, the so-called “papist plot” to blow up the king and Parliament which was discovered in November 1605.
Let’s look at the events leading up to the plot and the way that Shakespeare responded to them, commencing with the Essex Rebellion in 1601. Led by the Earl of Essex and supported by Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, this abortive attempt to seize control of Queen Elizabeth’s government from the faction led by Robert Cecil almost certainly had Shakespeare’s support. This is evident in the first instance by the fact that the Earl of Essex’s sympathizers went to the Globe Theatre on the eve of the rebellion to persuade the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theatrical company for which Shakespeare wrote many of his plays, to stage Shakespeare’s Richard II, stipulating that the deposition scene be included. This scene, which had been banned by the government, shows sympathy for those nobles, such as Bolingbroke, who had rebelled against King Richard, dramatizing the king’s forced abdication. It was clearly hoped that the staging of the play might prove to be political dynamite, igniting the people of London against the queen and her ministers. Even though the rebellion failed, Queen Elizabeth was in no doubt that the staging of Shakespeare’s play had been intended to turn the people against her. “I am Richard II,” she told Sir William Lambarde, “know ye not that?”
As the Earl of Southampton languished in the Tower of London, imprisoned for his part in the rebellion, Shakespeare vented his spleen against the Elizabethan regime in the writing of Hamlet. There is a veiled reference to the queen herself in the allusion to her notorious use of thick white paint to mask her age. “Now get you to my lady’s chamber,” Hamlet says to the skull of Yorick, “and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come [i.e., to death]; make her laugh at that.” It is, however, Elizabeth’s spy network, overseen by her spymaster, Sir Robert Cecil, which takes the brunt of Shakespeare’s anger, rather than the queen herself. Cast in the role of Polonius in the play, Cecil is shown to be a self-serving Machiavellian relativist, as are those spies who do his bidding. This anger against Elizabeth’s spy network, which is vented throughout the play, is expressed in theological terms in the famous graveyard scene in which Hamlet presents us with a memento mori resonant with intertextual references to a poem, “Upon the Image of Death”, by the Jesuit martyr, St. Robert Southwell, whom Shakespeare knew well and whose betrayal by one of Elizabeth’s spies led to his arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution.
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