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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Did Shakespeare know Robert Catesby?

On 8 November 1605 the chief architect of the Gunpowder Plot, to kill King James and blow up the House of Lords, was hunted down and killed.

His name was Robert Catesby. He was descended from Sir William Catesby who was one of Richard III's councillors, and as such appeared in Shakespeare's Richard III play.

Did Shakespeare know Robert Catesby?

The Gunpowder Plot had failed three days earlier, and Catesby was on the run. He holed up in the Holbeche House in Staffordshire, and on the morning of 8 November, the Sheriff of Worcester with 200 men closed in on the house, and in what looks like a shoot-out, Catesby was fatally shot.

He and the other dead conspirators were buried, but then the bodies of Catesby and another chief plotter, Thomas Percy, were exhumed -- and their heads were cut from their bodies.

The heads were taken to London, and displayed outside of Parliament.

"Catesby and Percy Slain at Holbeche"

Catesby, it would seem, was deeply Catholic and despite his best efforts to adapt to the Reformation in England, to the day he died he never gave up his faith -- his body was reported to have been found with a gold crucifix, and he was clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary.

Catesby was born in 1572, only 8 years after Shakespeare, in Lapworth, not far from Stratford. He was from a prominent Catholic family, which was not surprising, as Warwickshire was known for its strong Catholic community.

His father was imprisoned for many years for his religious activities.

He was related to Francis Throckmorton, who was executed for plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth in 1584.

He went to Oxford, which was a magnet for Catholics. He did not complete his studies there, since he would have to take the Oath of Supremacy, and deny his Catholic beliefs. He obviously could not do that and subsequently left Oxford.

His marriage to a Protestant woman may have been for love, for money, or for religious cover -- or for all of these reasons. I think he did love his wife, because when his father and his wife both died in 1598, he was so upset that it drove him to take part in the Essex Rebellion in 1601 against Queen Elizabeth. I don't think he would have become so motivated against the Queen if he had not truly cared for his wife.

For his part in the Rebellion, he was subjected to a crushing financial penalty by the Queen.

Shakespeare was not complicit in the Essex Rebellion, as far as we know. But Shakespeare's two patrons, the Earls of Essex and Southampton were the leaders of the Rebellion. I explore this in my version of Hamlet, and examine just how much Shakespeare did or did not know what his patrons and friends were up to.

After the Essex Rebellion, Catesby was still active against the Queen, and was financing the activities of Jesuit priests.

This leads us to the Gunpowder Plot, which I wrote about at length earlier this week.

So, did Shakespeare know Robert Catesby? I am not suggesting that Shakespeare was involved with the Gunpowder Plot. But is it conceivable that they met? I think it very likely they knew each other.

Shakespeare wrote Richard III in about 1593. I find it hard to imagine that Catesby would not take the time to see a play that depicted the most famous moments in his ancestor William Catesby's life as King Richard III's councillor.

If Catesby was involved with the Essex Rebellion, then he would have been in the company of the Earl of Essex and therefore perhaps in the company of Shakespeare at one time or another.

The Earl of Essex was famous for how often he went to the theatre, and I wouldn't be surprised if he invited Catesby to join him one day to see this play in particular.

I have never read any scholarship which explores this possible relationship between Shakespeare and Catesby. That is surprising.

Also, Shakespeare's family were Catholic until the Reformation, and there has been much written about to what degree Shakespeare was influenced by his family's Catholic past.

Shakespeare did not go to university. It is commonly believed that his father fell on hard financial times and could not afford to send his son to Oxford, which would make the most logical sense, since it was so close to Stratford.

I have never heard it suggested that Shakespeare may not have gone to Oxford for the same reason that Catesby did not finish Oxford. What if Shakespeare was in fact Catholic and did not want to violate his faith by taking the Oath of Supremacy?

I cannot prove that Shakespeare was Catholic. But this question is worth asking.

I cannot prove that there was a link between Shakespeare and Robert Catesby, but there seems to be a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that they were familiar with each other.

Richard III in the First Folio

8 November was a special day for another reason. It was the day in 1623 when the First Folio was entered in the Stationers' Register. This was the first official published edition of any of the plays.


David B. Schajer

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