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These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Friday, May 3, 2013

Shakespeare and Henry Garnet's Execution

Henry Garnet was executed on 3 May 1606.

He was the Superior for the Jesuit priests in England.

For many years he had traveled in England, actively practicing his faith in secret with an underground Catholic community.

Henry Garnet

He had been implicated in the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, to assassinate King James and blow up the Parliament.

Garnet had met with the Gunpowder Plot’s chief architect Robert Catesby in a room on Thames Street in London earlier that year. 

In that conversation, Catesby had asked about the morality of “killing innocents.”

Garnet answered, based on Catholic theology, that in wartime “such things were done.” Garnet explained that in capturing an enemy position for example, there might be the death of women and children.

Garnet later testified that there was no conversation about killing King James or gunpowder. He testified that he thought that Catesby’s question was just an “idle” one.

In the years before the Gunpowder Plot, Garnet had actually lobbied Pope Clement VIII to instruct all Catholics not to engage in violent rebellion.

Garnet met Catesby again the next month, but still did not learn the full truth of the plot.

The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, including Catesby

Several days later Father Oswald Tesimond told Garnet about the Plot, which he had learned about during Catesby’s own confession to him. 

Garnet met Catesby again and advised him against taking any violent action.

Garnet also wrote to the Pope warn against taking any violent actions.

Garnet later testified that he did not warn the authorities about the Plot since he had learned about the Plot from a private confession, and he was prohibited from violating the seal of the confessional.

The Plot was nearly successful, and was discovered the night before the planned explosion of gunpowder.

At Garnet’s trial, in which even King James attended (but was hidden from view), one of the most damaging pieces of evidence was Garnet’s use of the doctrine of equivocation.

Garnet had even written a book about it called A Treatise of Equivocation (1598). 

Equivocation was a way of lying to the English authorities while staying true to one’s Catholic faith.

As far as the council at his trial was concerned, equivocation was considered outright lying. If Garnet was a master at lying, then how could anyone trust him to tell the truth?

It only took the jury fifteen minutes to render a verdict. Death by hanging, drawing and quartering.

He was strapped to a hurdle and taken by horse to the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

This was to be one of the most famous executions in England’s history, and certainly one of the most significant public executions. 

Henry Garnet right before his execution

I have to think that William Shakespeare was in the crowd. 

He would have wanted to see this moment in his country’s history. 

And I doubt he could have gathered a large enough crowd at The Globe Theatre to put on a play that day -- everyone would have wanted to see Garnet’s last moments.

What would Shakespeare have thought as he watched this event?

I think he would have had a torrent of emotions and thoughts.

He was living through one of the most tumultuous moments in England’s history.

Shakespeare must have been relieved that the Plot had failed and lives had not been lost.

He would have been satisfied that the Gunpowder Plot conspirators were all killed during their capture and others had been executed. They had paid for their crimes with their lives.

But as he witnessed Garnet’s execution -- as he watched him being hanged, and how the crowd gathered to pull at his feet so he wouldn’t suffer so much at the subsequent drawing and quartering -- Shakespeare may have felt something more like anxiety and fear.

Anxiety because Garnet was not entirely innocent in the Gunpowder Plot, but he was not entirely complicit.

Shakespeare was witnessing an execution that was more politically and religiously motivated.

I am not saying that Shakespeare was sympathetic to Garnet, or shared his views. I am not saying that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, or that he wanted to see King James assassinated.

But I do think that Shakespeare could hold the opinion that the trial was not entirely transparent. Some people think that the trial was for show, and his death sentence was a foregone conclusion.

Shakespeare may have felt fear, too. Fear that this execution may inspire more religious violence, violence that never seemed to end in Reformation England, violence that Shakespeare had lived with his entire life.

When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth later that same year, he mocked Garnet as a man “who hanged himself on the expectation of plenty” and as an “equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.”

We can’t accept the notion simply that Shakespeare was anti-Garnet and pro-James when he wrote these mocking words. 

Shakespeare was a King’s Man, the official playwright to James. Shakespeare was entertaining his monarch.

But that is not to say that Shakespeare was not sympathetic to Garnet.

When Shakespeare watched Garnet in his last moments, he probably felt like many in England who wanted to live in an England without fear of religious violence like the Gunpowder Plot and without trials and executions of any men, especially priests.


Related Article:

Did Shakespeare Know Robert Catesby?

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