By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

9. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. 223-267

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareFourth Age: Soldier, Chapter 13, The Famous Victory of Queen Elizabeth; Chapter 14, Essex Man? A Political Tragedy in Five Acts
War was a constant in Shakespeare's age: "He began  his career in the wake of the Spanish Armada. As he wrote through the last decade of the old queen's reign, England was overshadowed by military campaigns in the Netherlands and Ireland." As far as we know he was never a soldier himself, but he seems to have been acquainted with them.

The defeat of the Armada was also a central event of his age, reinforcing the "enduring myth of the English underdog" that had a revival in Churchill's World War II speeches. Like Churchill, Elizabeth I gave a famous speech in 1588 at Tilbury to encourage the troops to "a famous victory over these enemies of my God and of my kingdom." It was a speech that might have been written for the stage.
The leading theater company of the 1580s was a group under the patronage of Elizabeth herself: the Queen's Men. One of their most popular plays was entitled The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. Possibly the earliest history play in the professional stage repertoire, it tells the story of King Harry's growth from rebellious youth in the company of "Ned" and "Sir John Oldcastle" to triumphant victor against the odds in the battle of Agincourt. The material was so good that a decade later William Shakespeare would develop it into three whole plays.
After Elizabeth's death, Thomas Heywood wrote a two-part play about her, in the second part of which the defeat of  the Armada is the climax. "The path from The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth in the repertoire of the Queen's Men to the 'famous victory' speech at Tilbury to Shakespeare's Henry V to a dramatization of the queen's speech in Heywood's play beautifully reveals the symbiotic relationship between the theater and history in the late Elizabethan era."

But the interaction between theater and politics also involved risk to the playwrights. Shakespeare seems to have narrowly escaped that risk during the downfall of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex. In the afternoon of February 7, 1601, a group of noblemen associated with Essex attended a performance at the Globe Theatre. One of them, Sir Gelly Meyrick, the earl's steward, later told interrogators that the play "was of King Harry the fourth and of the killing of King Richard the second, played by the Lord Chamberlain's players."

Essex and his followers had planned "to march on the court, protect the queen's person, arrest his enemies, and commit them to trial. They never got near the court.... The rebellion was over almost before it was begun." Eleven days later, Essex and Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton, were tried for high treason and found guilty. Essex was executed, as were four more of his followers. Southampton was reprieved and sent to the Tower.

Meyrick, who told the interrogators about attending the play, was hanged, drawn and quartered. The case against him included the fact that he had arranged for the performance of "the play of deposing King Richard the Second ... and when it was told him by one of the players that the play was old, and they should have loss in playing it, because few would come to it, there were forty shillings extraordinary given for it, and so it was played." Bate observes that "The case of Sir Gelly Meyrick is the first instance on record of a person being executed for commissioning the performance of a Shakespeare play."

Shakespeare apparently was not interrogated and was never in real danger, but that may have been because the plot itself was so inept and so easily foiled. The intent was not in fact to depose Elizabeth but merely to weaken Essex's enemies at court. If it had been more serious, however, it might have been pointed out that Shakespeare had dedicated his poems to Southampton. And Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, a leader of the anti-Essex faction, might have held a grudge against Shakespeare because he "had written a so-called stage history full of gross insult toward his revered ancestor, the Lollard martyr Sir John Oldcastle. Shakespeare had been forced to change the name to Falstaff."
Imagine this: Shakespeare's career coming to an ignominious end in February 1601. Not only would Measure for Measure, Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and the other later plays never have been written, but John Hemings and Henry Condell would not have hung around to create a collected Folio of the plays that had been. The only survivals would have been a few quarto editions: the narrative poems, half a dozen history plays (some in garbled texts), four comedies, and two tragedies. No Hamlet or Twelfth Night, no Julius Caesar or As You Like It. The whole course of English literature, indeed of Western culture, would have been different.
The performance of Richard II seems to have been the idea of Charles Percy, not the unfortunate Meyrick. He and his brother, Sir Joscelyn Percy, had gone to the players at the Globe to request the performance, according to the company manager, Augustine Phillips. The play was first performed in 1595 or 1596, published in quarto in 1597 and reprinted twice in 1598. Those printed versions do not include about 160 lines in which Richard formally hands over the crown that were added in the 1608 reprinting of the play and appear in the 1623 Folio. "Arguably, the sequence in which King Richard says 'With mine own tears I wash away my balm, / With mine own hands I give away the crown' makes the play less subversive, turning a deposition into an abdication." It's possible that the Essex affair led Shakespeare to add these lines.

Charles Percy was a younger son of Henry Percy, eighth earl of Northumberland, and a close friend of Essex, having served under him during the siege of Rouen and been knighted for his valor. He had also fought during Essex's campaign in Ireland. Percy was also an admirer of Shakespeare's history plays, alluding to characters from them in his private correspondence. "The references to Justice Shallow, Justice Silence, and Gloucestershire are those of a spectator (or reader) who has greatly enjoyed Henry IV Part 2. His pleasure in these plays is hardly surprising, given the central role they give to his own family, the Percys. A real-life soldiering Percy would have every reason to count his ancestor Harry Hotspur as his favorite dramatic character." Both Sir Charles and Sir Joscelyn were imprisoned for several months in the Tower and fined £500 each for their parts in the Essex affair.

In fact, Shakespeare's play attracted less attention from the authorities than did Sir John Hayward's The First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry IV, a book published in 1599. The book was suppressed and Hayward was imprisoned in the Tower as a result of Essex's plot. Hayward and his publisher, John Wolfe, made the mistake of dedicating the book to Essex. The dedication "was written in Latin, but translated into English it reads, 'great thou art in hope, greater in the expectation of future time,' a phrase easily (mis)interpreted as implying that Essex would one day be king." When the book was first published Essex's enemies took note of the dedication, so it was cut out of subsequent copies in the print run. But the authorities still weren't satisfied, and the bishop of London had every copy of the second edition burned. "Wolfe got fourteen days in prison and was also obliged to bear without remuneration the heavy cost of the paper and other production expenses of both editions."

Essex's enemies had been trying to make a case for treason against him even before the events of February 1601. In the previous summer they had put together an "Analytical abstract of the evidence in support of the charge of treason against the Earl of Essex," which included not only mention of the Hayward book, but also a reference to "the Earl himself being so often present at the playing thereof, and with great applause giving countenance to it." Some scholars have taken this to mean that there had been a dramatized version of Hayward's book, but Bate says that the reference to "the playing thereof" means "almost certainly that the ear of Essex was often present at a play that told the same story as Hayward. The fascinating inference would then be that Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, more than once witnessed Shakespeare's Richard II and made a point of loudly applauding it."

Essex was a representative of the old baronial order that was constantly in conflict with the monarchy, and had manifested its insistence on limiting the monarch's power in 1569 when the northern earls, including the Percy family, had rebelled against Queen Elizabeth. 
Again and again, Shakespeare's history plays enact the progress from the old code of honor to the new politics of pragmatic statecraft. Looked at from one point of view, the ruinous civil war that makes England bleed through the whole sequence of plays, only to be brought to an end with the marriage of red rose and white as Henry VII emerges as savior at the end of Richard III, suggests that the plays fall in with the Tudor myth of the emergence of a modern, unified nation..... But looked at from another point of view, there was plenty to applaud in these plays if you were Essex or one of his men with a nostalgic taste for the martial code.... Shakespeare brilliantly kept both sides happy, offering a Talbot and a Hotspur for those of an Essexian disposition, but Falstaff's great deconstruction of the code of honor for those who were pragmatic Cecilites.
In Richard II, he paints a heroic picture of Bullingbrook triumphantly riding through London, hailed by the people, "to establish a contrast with the deposed Richard, who follows after with no man crying 'God save him,' and dust and rubbish being thrown out of the windows on his head." But the Bullingbrook of the Henry IV plays is no longer a popular figure, sulking and brooking in the palace, racked with guilt for his usurpation. "The horseman and populist is his son Hal, who goes on to become Henry V, leading his men to triumph in battle." In the fifth act of Henry V, performed in the summer of 1599, "Shakespeare chose to make the boldest, most specific topical allusion in his entire work," referring to the campaign in Ireland led by Essex and the applause that may greet him if he succeeds, and echoing not only the acclaim for Henry V after Agincourt, but also the image of the heroic Bullingbrook of Richard II.
Regardless of Shakespeare's semiconcealed political intentions in making the allusion -- one gets the sense that he is only a little over halfway to being an Essex man -- it is easy to see how the two remarkably similar passages in Richard II and Henry V could have been perceived as pro-Essex. If I am right that Bullingbrook on his noble steed being cheered through the city at the end of Richard II was one of the images that led Essex to give "great applause" whenever he saw the play, it is possible that Shakespeare did influence the events of February 8, 1601.
In any case, although Hayward's book and Shakespeare's play became linked in the prosecutors' mind, it was Hayward who underwent scrutiny. His defense was that he was only following the chronicles that were his sources, and "he would not have admitted under interrogation that his sources included something so vulgar and fictive as a play book." But Bate finds plenty of evidence -- verbal parallels and the like -- that Hayward was familiar with and borrowed from Shakespeare in writing his book. But Hayward "effectively took the rap on Shakespeare's behalf, leaving the dramatist free to write more plays. For that, much thanks.... On the eve of Essex's execution, the Lord Chamberlain's Men were back performing a play before the queen and the court at Whitehall."

One footnote to the story remains. In August 1601, William Lambarde, the keeper of the rolls and records in the Tower, has an audience with the queen and presents her with his Pandecta Rotulorum, "a digest of rolls, bundles, parchments, and parcels of historical documentation." The queen reads aloud from it, and when she comes upon Richard II, says to Lambarde, "I am Richard II. Know ye not that?" Lambarde, catching the allusion to Essex, replies, "Such a wicked imagination was determined and attempted by a most unkind Gent, the most adorned creature that ever your Majesty made." She says, "He that will forget God will also forget his benefactors; this tragedy was played forty times in open streets and houses."
Many commentators unquestioningly assume that Lambarde and Queen Elizabeth must have been referring to the Essex faction's commissioning of the performance of Richard II on the eve of rebellion, even though that took place in a paying theater, not an open street or house. The trouble is, we do not know for sure that the encounter ever took place. And even if it did, there are good grounds for doubting the veracity of the dialogue.
Bate goes on to ask all the right questions about the origins of the story, the manuscript on which it was based, and the details recorded in it, and concludes that there are good reasons to doubt both that the conversation happened as recorded or that if it did, the queen is necessarily referring to Shakespeare's play; "It seems to me that she is more likely to be talking about the fickleness of everyday life -- court life especially, given the Essex connection -- than alluding to some otherwise series of forty or more extratheatrical performances of Shakespeare or Hayward.... could the 'tragedy' played in the 'open street' have been a reference to Essex's march through the city on Sunday, February 8, 1601? And could it have been made with the implication that Essex as engaged in a piece of real-life street theater?"

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