23a. Shakespeare, Southampton, Essex, Elizabeth and Richard II 1595-1601


previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams


(Numbers in bold refer to the Documents section and bibliographical citations refer to the Bibliography of The Real Shakespeare II, on-line edition)    



     The bonding between Shakespeare and the Southampton circle began with family and religious ties (RS1 103f), which are deep and durable. Nor would they in any way weaken when Southampton most needed support, namely in his involvement with the equally headstrong Earl of Essex. On the contrary, commonsense expectation as well as clear evidence places Shakespeare at and on the side of those two close friends, even though their smouldering resentment against Elizabeth could so easily flare into outright rebellion. The two earls had no doubt first met in their teens, when they were both placed under the guardianship of the queen's chief minister Sir Robert Cecil. They both resented the restrictions imposed upon them by their sovereign, for whose favours they vied in 1595 and from whom they both became estranged (Akrigg 1968, 47-9). Southampton had already antagonised the Queen by courting her maid of honour, Elizabeth Vernon (Essex's cousin), whom he later married, and by his complicity in the escape to France of the Danvers brothers, who were wanted for murder (ibid. 41-6). In 1596 Essex was forbidden by royal decree to take Southampton with him on his expedition to Calais (ibid. 56-7). But the two seem to have become comrades in arms later that year, in the successful raid on Cadiz. A MS translation of Jorge de Montemayor's pastoral romance Diana by Thomas Wilson dated that year was 'dedicated to the Erle of Southampton who was then uppon ye Spanish voiage wth my Lord of Essex' (ibid. 57); and Diana, if not indeed that same MS, was a source of The Two Gentlemen of Verona(Halliday 2/1964, 321), a play which arguably (Rowse 1989, 61-4) dramatises the poet-patron-mistress triangle of the Sonnets. In 1597, Southampton commanded a ship in a further expedition against the Azores, and was knighted in the field (Akrigg 1968, 59-66). In 1599, despite his further bitter conflicts with the Queen, he again served under Essex with the army dispatched to put down rebellion in Ireland, and was appointed General of the Horse; when the Queen ordered his dismissal from that post, Essex demurred at length before finally complying (ibid. 75-87).

    In 1601 the two earls recklessly rebelled, and were condemned to death. Essex was duly executed, while Southampton's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after the intervention of his guardian Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth's Secretary of State. He, in the interest of good government, favoured James VI of Scotland as her successor in due course. So presumably did Sir Edward Hoby, whose Westminster home James often visited in the 1590s. The loyalty of those two knights to their queen has never been impugned. But the text of Hoby's 1595 letter to Cecil (211) is worth citing and pondering:

     'Sir, findinge that you wer not convenientlie to be at London tomorrow night I am bold to send to knowe whether Teusdaie may be anie more in your grace to visit poore Channon rowe where as late as it shal please you a gate for your supper shal be open: & K. Richard present him selfe to your vewe' (Halliday 2/1964, 229, with the gloss 'probably Richard II'). If so, here already is the Shakespeare play about a monarch's dethronement and assassination which six years later would be deliberately staged by conspirators, again in paid private performance, as a topical political manifesto if not indeed a call to arms against a tyrant. And in 1595 it was apparently being played before the friends of her clandestinely-designated successor, and very possibly that successor himself. Prima facie Shakespeare himself as actor-author would be playing a part among the company of Chamberlain's men on that occasion. He would be well aware of the notional 'parallels between the reigns of Richard II and Elizabeth' (ibid. 413) which figured among the topical talking-points of the time.

     Two years later, Richard II first appeared in print. It was not selected for the Queen's Christmas entertainment; that honour went to Love's Labour's Lost (236246), which deals with amorous rather than political intrigue. But this is manifestly a drame à clef, even if the key has been mislaid; and many commentators have identified its affiliations with Southampton and the Sonnets, including a Dark Lady ('black as ebony', IV.iii.243) and several sonnets of its own. The Essex-Southampton alliance has also been invoked (Wilson 1923, liii). The contemporary Merchant of Venice contains an obscure but recognisable allusion to that pair and their exploits; the 'wealthy Andrew docked in sand' (I.i.27) is still identifiable as the Spanish galleon St. Andrewcaptured during the Cadiz expedition of 1596 while aground in the harbour (Brown 1955, xxvi). That scene of beached treasure had been vividly painted in the poet's mind; he would surely have heard about it at first hand, perhaps from Southampton himself. Further, one of the participants knighted by Essex in Cadiz Cathedral was (Rowse 1965, 109) Captain William Harvey, possibly the author of the lines by 'W.Har' quoted above (206), and already a suitor to the widowed Countess of Southampton.

     In the same year of 1598 Richard II appeared in a second and third Quarto edition, which now added the name of its author (248). Next came Henry V, which contains another anachronistic and far more direct tribute to the Earl of Essex and his Irish expedition (256). On the triumphant return of the conquering Essex,


'How many would the peaceful city quit

To welcome him!'


     In fact, almost no one welcomed him in 1599 or joined his rebellion in 1601; and those words remained prudently unpublished until 1623, twenty years after Elizabeth's death. But they were perhaps often spoken on the public stage in a text 'sundry times playd' (282); and their author had clearly been an Essex sympathiser or supporter to whom the possibility of failure and disgrace must have been unthinkable. The inference is inescapable; the poet's own sympathies were strongly engaged. The connecting link is equally clear, namely Southampton. Both that Earl and his poet, admired and indeed idolised the erratic Earl of Essex. Both, furthermore, had also been indicted as assiduous but unsuccessful suitors of their sovereign, as Willobie his Avisa1594 already plainly implies (260; RS1 95-102). One cause of conflict was surely their shared Catholic faith, for which the poet's family and father had long been persecuted (and some kinsmen tortured and executed, RS1 32-8, etc.). There is further documentary evidence of friction and tension between Shakespeare and his sovereign. She is reported as admiring him and his work (632); but there are no corresponding grounds for supposing that such feelings were reciprocated beyond the line of duty and prudence. On the contrary; the data include not only overt protests at Shakespeare's Catholicism, from Greene and Nashe as well as from the satirists of Willobie andParnassus, but also reproaches or rebukes for his neglect to pay appropriate tribute.

     The hostility was always mutual, and by the end of the century intense. Shakespeare's alter ego Studioso in the Parnassus plays (266; RS1 86-94) announced his intention of enrolling in a Jesuit college. The dramatist's creation of Falstaff was either a deserved exposé (332) or a Papist travesty (412506) of the Protestant Oldcastle (Sams N&Q 1993). Indeed, Shakespeare traditionally 'died a Papist'. Together with the Catholic Southampton (in the Parnassus plays, RS1 loc. cit) or in his own right (by Nashe in Pierce Penniless, RS1 68-78) he was presented as Italianate, i.e. of the wrong persuasion. Essex though no Catholic was a natural ally because of his own quarrel with the Queen.

     Already in 1594 (206) there was a hint of disaffection; Shakespeare was enjoined to choose English not foreign subject-matter. Immediately after Elizabeth's death in March 1603, Henry Chettle, formerly Shakespeare's admirer and advocate, now roundly denounces him for not offering one syllable of regret, let alone lament. There is little doubt that Shakespeare is aimed at here; his was the honied and silver-tongued style she enjoyed and encouraged, for example by such well-attested interventions as the commissioning of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Furthermore, hardly a month had passed; there had been no opportunity to compose or publish any threnody. Chettle no doubt knew that none would be forthcoming, and why. Much the same applies to the author of Elizabeths Losse (331), who enjoins Shakespeare, by name, to deplore her death. That injunction was ill-informed; its writer was unaware that Greene, who is told to do the same, had been dead for a decade. But the tone of protest is plain; our poets, foremost among whom stands Shakespeare, are failing to mourn their late monarch. But he did write a world-famous and mysterious elegy at this very period, over which commentators have puzzled ever since, namely The Phoenix and the Turtle (304), perhaps written at the time when both Essex and Southampton, comrades in arms and sworn brothers, had been condemned to death and locked away in the Tower of London.

     So it is hardly possible to doubt (though no specialist ever mentions, let alone accepts) that Shakespeare was to some extent personally implicated in the 1601 revival of Richard II (293) deliberately designed by the conspirators to goad their London audiences into outright revolt if not indeed regicide. First, that performance was given by his own company. Secondly, it contained, as its actual raison d'être, a scene of abdication and deposition (now IV.i.154-318) which had never appeared in any of the three published Quarto editions 1597-8 (233249). Further, it featured a smashed looking-glass (an article notoriously banished from her presence by the ageing Queen). That scene is thus first mentioned in 1600, soon after the departure of Essex and Southampton on the Irish expedition prematurely lauded by Shakespeare, as cited above. Editors regularly suppose that this scene had always been there, but was 'omitted, probably as a result of official censorship' (Wells 1969, 12, 269). But there is no actual evidence for its prior presence (Chapter 12). On the known facts, these lines were added by Shakespeare before, or even for, the 1601 performance of Richard II commissioned by conspirators of the Essex-Southampton faction on 7 February 1601, the day before their unsuccessful uprising. Their overt aim was to arouse analogous anti-monarchical sentiments in the London of two centuries later. The actor Augustine Phillips of the Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company, was promptly called to account, together with an unnamed colleague. They must both have been in mortal terror as well as jeopardy. But Phillips was able to satisfy his accusers of the players' (and presumably the author's) innocence of any complicity in the plot. The trial transcript is worth citing verbatim:


'The Examination of Augustyne Phillypps servant unto the L. Chamberlayne and one of hys players taken the xviijth of Feruarij 1600 vpon hys oth.

   He sayeth that on Fryday last was sennyght or Thursday Sr Charles Percy Sr Josclyne Percy and the L. Montegle with some thre more spak to some of the players in the presans of thys examinate to have the play of the deposying and kyllyng of Kyng Rychard the second to be played the Saterday next promysing to gete them xls more then their ordynary to play yt. Wher thys Examinate and hys fellowes were determyned to have played some other play, holdyng that play of Kyng Richard to be so old & so long out of use as that they should have small or no Companye at yt. But at their [the conspirators'] request this Examinate and his fellowes were Content to play yt the Saterday and had their xls more then their ordynary for yt and so played yt accordyngly'.


     This special performance had been 'presented to an enthusiastic audience of Essex's followers, notable among them being Lord Mounteagle, Sir Gelli Meyrick and Sir Christopher Blount' (Lacey 1971, 283). Only a month later Meyrick and Blount were executed, and Mounteagle was fined £4,000, for their part in the Essex rebellion. Meyrick himself had testified that he and his companions 'went all together to the Globe over the water, where the Lord Chamberlain's Men used to play...the play was of King Henry the Fourth, and of the killing of Richard the Second, and played by the Lord Chamberlain's players'. Thus the identification of the theatre, company and play concerned all specifically inculpate Richard II, where the king is deposed by Bolingbroke who later becomes King Henry the Fourth.

     Perhaps Shakespeare was innocent of any involvement. He was bequeathed 'a thirty shillings piece in gould' (347) by Phillips only four years later, as if the two had remained the best of friends. But nobody asked whether this old and unfashionable play had always contained the unpublished deposition scene. If that was new, or newly supplied, then Shakespeare was still to some extent implicated in the anti-Elizabeth movement if not in the actual uprising of 1601. So he might also have been adjudged if the same scene had been extant and enacted in the 1595 performance promised to Sir Robert Cecil by Sir Edward Hoby; and so might they. The times were troublesome, and the official mood was grim. The plea that Richard II was so out of date that no one would have attended it was quite irrelevant; the players already knew perfectly well that they were being bribed to play it, and indeed agreed for that very reason. Nor need the authorities have been impressed by the defence that the play was in every sense history, based on the facts of two centuries earlier, and indeed designed to evoke sympathy with the murdered monarch. Fortunately, if fortuitously, there was a further mitigating factor; the 1601 revival had completely failed in its confessed purpose. There was no spontaneous rising; and indeed only a wild theatre enthusiast, such as Southampton, could have expected any such effect. So Shakespeare's undeniable personal involvement, as the admitted author, passed not only unpunished but unmentioned in any of the treason trials. But it was not unnoticed. The Queen herself must have known of his authorship; and she later complained bitterly to her Keeper of the Records at the Tower of London, William Lambarde, who noted that 'her Majestie fell upon the reign of King Richard II, saying "I am Richard II, know ye not that?'. The loyal Lambarde thereupon denounced Essex as 'a most unkind Gent.', and the Queen resumed 'He that will forget God, will also forget his benefactors; this tragedy was played 40tie times in open streets and houses' (299).

   These brief utterances sound charged with meaning. Firstly they contain an accusation of irreligion; and the Puritan Essex, like the Catholic Southampton, had indeed both disavowed the Protestant faith of which Elizabeth was a born defender. Secondly her words as set down by the professional recorder Lambarde, spoken without reticence or preamble, seem to assume his awareness of the play, its author, and its significance to the Queen's opponents. It is noteworthy therefore that Lambarde's book Archaionomia bears the signature 'Wm Shakespeare', long recognised as authentic (Knight 1973), which deals in detail with the legal background and the Lambarde connection) and recently independently revalidated (Dawson 1989); see also RS1 194-5.

   One further reference remains to be examined. A prose historian (Hayward 1599) had already been accused of drawing a hostile parallel between Elizabeth I and Richard II in a book called The Life and Reign of King Henrie the Fourth, i.e. Henry Bolingbroke, Richard's deposer. No doubt this accusation had some substance, for Hayward had incautiously dedicated his work to the Earl of Essex as 'magnus...et presenti iudicio et futuri temporis expectatione', i.e. eminent both in the present government and in the expectation of future times, with the all too plain implication that he would replace Queen Elizabeth and indeed (as she might well infer) was already plotting against her throne if not her life. Essex himself prudently requested the removal of this inscription; but it was too late to erase it from all the copies. Further, the work soon became sufficiently popular to warrant a second edition, which was promptly suppressed by the licensing authorities; so it was taken to be topical by the government as well as the populace. Indeed, Hayward was arraigned and imprisoned; and testimony at his trial in July 1600 impugned not only this prose history and its reference to Essex but also indicted the Earl himself for 'being so often present at the playing thereof and with great applause giving countenance and lyking to the same'. Hayward's work is a prose history, not a play; so the quoted phrase, economically construed, seems to inculpate performances of Richard II as deliberately seditious, long before the Essex rebellion. These may well be the forty or so playings to which Elizabeth referred; history records no others. Their main if not sole achievement was to bring the Earl himself into further dangerous disrepute and thus heighten the likelihood of his death sentence when his intended coup d'état failed. But the scene he had apparently clapped and cheered so often and enthusiastically was surely the episode of Richard-Elizabeth's deposition by Bolingbroke-Essex.

     As we have seen, Essex was executed and Southampton was imprisoned. But as s soon as James I succeeded, two years later, everything changed. The darkness lifted and lightened. Considered in that historical context, Sonnet 107 shines with new significance. The much-loved young lord was no longer 'supposde as forfeit to a confin'd doom'. On 5 April, the new King, even before he left Scotland for his London enthronement, sent ahead an order for the release of Southampton (322), who was to greet him on arrival, for 'yt is on us that his onlie hope dependeth...as wee knowe the comfort wilbee greate to him, soe yt wilbee contentment unto us, to have opportunity to declare our Estimation of him'. So Southampton had not been merely an appendage of Essex but, like him, an active supporter of King James's succession. By 16 May Southampton had received an effusive formal pardon for his part in the rebellion; in July he was reinstated to his earldom. His financial fortune was also restored. But Shakespeare, in his degree, was almost as soon remembered. 'Only ten days after his arrival in the capital, James had... instructed..."our right trusty and well beloved Counselor" Lord Cecil' (who had secured a pardon for Southampton and also apparently seen a special performance of Richard II) to prepare the royal warrant dated 19 May 1603 that needlessly licences the court acting company to continue its good work for their new monarch. They were restyled the King's Men accordingly. Several of them were named. The first was Lawrence Fletcher, who had special Scottish connections (Halliday 2/1964, 251); the next was William Shakespeare, who although he was no great actor took precedence over Richard Burbage. No doubt that promotion was duly noted; it may even have inspired the anecdote recorded at item 306 above. That would indeed have been a 'most balmie time' when 'my loue lookes fresh'; both poet and patron bask in royal favour, because 'the mortall Moone hath her eclipse endured'. With the succession assured, 'peace proclaims laurels of endless age'. Not only was Shakespeare reproached for offering Elizabeth no submissive epitaph; his sonnet culminates in exultation at the overthrow of tyrants, and the eventual extinction of their 'crests and tombs of brasse', contrasted with the survival of the poet's verse and his patron's immortalisation thereby. The monarch for whom Shakespeare in all probability wrote a respectful epitaph was Elizabeth's successor, King James (456: Wells 1986, 887). The figure there presented is all quasi-divine wisdom, like Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure, the play newly written for court performance before the new King at Christmas 1604. He had already commanded the court players to grace his ceremonial entry into London earlier that year (335); in the edict granting them a handsome supply of scarlet cloth for their liveries, Shakespeare's name leads all the rest. Already at the end of 1603 the bond between him and his new sovereign was apparently so close that the latter could in effect be summoned to Wilton House to see a performance of As You Like It. 'We have the man Shakespeare with us', and James reportedly hearkened and complied. In this most balmy time, not only Southampton but Shakespeare received a letter from James; and on extant evidence the poet's was by far the more personal, because handwritten. It has not survived, and it may even have been suppressed as too personal and revealing. But it is well avouched. 'That most learned prince and great patron of learning, was pleased with his own hand to write an amicable letter to Mr. Shakespeare; which letter, though now lost, remained long in the hands of Sir William Davenant, as a credible person now living can testify' (Lintot, c. 1709633). 'Mr Oldys, in a MS. note to his copy of Fuller's Worthies, observes, that "the story came from the duke of Buckingham [John Sheffield, 1648-1721], who had it from Sir William Davenant"' (Steevens 1778, 205). But there was grateful acknowledgement and reciprocation. The Measure for Measure tribute is disputed; but it is entirely orthodox (see e.g. Hunter 1967, 37-40) to accept that Macbeth was designed to please and impress the English King from Scotland who had written on witchcraft and introduced the practice of striving to cure by touch the victims of scrofula or King's Evil; cf.


'To the succeeding royalty he leaves

The healing benediction' (IV.iii.155-6)


    Thus the only two leaders whom Shakespeare identifiably commends at the politically turbulent turn of the century when the succession changed from Tudor to Stuart were the Earl of Essex and Essex's chosen sovereign King James. The conclusion could hardly be clearer; these were the leaders then preferred by Shakespeare, as by his much-loved lord Southampton. Those two in those times were Elizabethans in the historical sense only. Later, and perhaps also earlier, the poet dutifully hymned his first sovereign. The early Locrine, registered in 1594 as 'Newly set foorth, ouerseene and corrected, by W.S.' (214), contains lines datable to the following year, the 38th of Elizabeth's reign. Ate, the goddess of discord, incongruously invites the audience to


'pray for that renownèd maid,

That eight-and-thirty year the sceptre swayed

In quiet peace and sweet felicity'.


    If Shakespeare penned such phrases (RS1 163-6) it was surely tongue in cheek. But the later encomia to Elizabeth and James spoken by Cranmer in Henry VIII (V.iv.14-62) ring nobly true; that character's prophetical foresight and his creator's poetical hindsight see the same idealised vision of a century's peace and prosperity under God and good government. At the time, in propria persona, the reality must have looked distressingly different to Shakespeare and his much-loved lord.