Letter to Peter Beal (on Shakespeare and Essex)

(Director and English Manuscript Expert at Sotheby's)


previously unpublished © the estate of eric sams


 20 November 1992


Dear Dr. Beal.

How kind of you to send me a copy of your Hulton papers catalogue, which I've read with absorbed interest. It comes very à propos, as I'm now working on a Shakespeare book for Yale University Press; and it's clear, I think, from the extant documents, that Shakespeare was intimately involved with Southampton, the Friend of the main-sequence sonnets c.1592-5, as Southampton was intimately involved with Essex (as you say, p. 11 from that period until the latter's death.

   It seems rather readily inferable to me that Shakespeare was also in some sense pro-Essex; hence the tribute you mention (in the Chorus before Henry V Act V, I take it – it's the only identifiable reference to any contemporary political figure ever discovered throughout the entire works, end there must have been some powerful motive for it). As a cradle Catholic, like Southampton (again the documents are unequivocal), Shakespeare might be forgiven for thinking of Elizabeth as a cruel tyrant; and the Richard II performances and reported comments also need more consideration and explanation than they have yet received. Thus the deposition scene might have been specially written for that occasion. If so, no wonder lames I was later pleased to write Shakespeare a letter in his own hand; and almost his first act on accession was to pardon Southampton.

   But the Possible corollary which might be of special interest In connection with the Hulton letters is one to which your catalogue almost but not quite draws specific attention – namely that Essex, in composing his epistles, had some help from Shakespeare via Southampton. Essex's prose 'adopts various roles' (pp. 9, 17. 18); these are 'literary outpourings' or a 'literary panoply' recalling 'an Elizabethan sonnet-sequence' with its 'almost verse-like cadences' (pp. 11, 18); their 'strains...anticipate Shakespeare's Henry V' and evince 'intense drama' (pp. 13, 17); and so on. Shakespeare, as a leading court actor and poet from 1594 and perhaps much earlier still (as a Queen's Man) was well placed to know what styles and forms of address might best please his sovereign, and it would be of interest to know whether the letters Essex wrote to other correspondents were actually distinguished as works of art (p.18). At least it's plain that when he is away on active service he expressly eschews 'a windy style in entertaining you with professions and compliments' (p.23).

   So some detailed comparisons between the letters and the Spevack concordance (end especially perhaps the Sonnets, which were still not public property at the time) might be just be thought worthwhile, if indeed that task hasn't already been undertaken.

Best wishes and regards,


Eric Sams