So shaken as We Are, So Wan with Care

In the summer of 1595 the Lord Chamberlain’s Men went on tour. In June they were at Ipswich and at Cambridge, in each place receiving the not inconsiderable sum of 40 shillings. There had been a time when a university town such as Cambridge had shunned the presence of common players, but their status and prestige had risen. William Shakespeare already had, as we have seen, an eager audience among the educated young; it is not too much to suggest that he might have been a “draw” for the members of the various colleges.

They had left London for the very good reason that the theatres had once again been closed. There had been a number of food riots, over the soaring costs of fish and butter, in the late spring and early summer; there were twelve affrays in June alone. The apprentices had taken over the market in Southwark, and then subsequently the market at Billingsgate, to sell the staples of food at what they considered to be an appropriate rate. Then, on 29 June, a thousand London apprentices marched on Tower Hill to pillage the shops of the gun-makers there, clearly with nefarious intent. The pillories in Cheapside had been torn down, and a makeshift gallows was erected outside the house of the Lord Mayor. There were pamphlets circulated on the “rebellious tumults” and in subsequent legal proceedings the apprentices were charged with attempting to “take the sword of auchtoryte”1 from the mayor and aldermen of the city. Five of their leaders were hanged, drawn and quartered, thus incurring an unusually severe punishment. So London was placed under the Elizabethan version of martial law, and of course the theatres were out of action.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had in any case begun their career in London during a generally troubled period. One alderman complained to the Privy Council in 1596 of the “great dearth of victual which hath been continued now these three years, besides three years’ plague before.”2 Weavers’ apprentices were part of the summer riots of 1595, and a silk weaver was incarcerated in Bedlam for accusing the mayor of insanity. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Bottom, the leader of the artisans, is himself a weaver. It has been suggested that Shakespeare was transforming violence into farce and comedy. Certainly this would resemble his practice on other occasions. There are, of course, many other contemporary allusions in his plays that are now irrecoverable. He may also have taken advantage of the interval of closure to travel back to Stratford: there is a local record of “Mr. Shaxpere” purchasing “one book” from “Jone Perat”3 at the end of August. Aubrey reports on unknown authority that he “was wont to goe to his native Country once a yeare.”4

When the company resumed acting in London at the end of August the Lord Mayor demanded that their resident theatres, the Curtain and the Theatre, should be pulled down in order to avoid the threatening presence of crowds and disorder in that neighbourhood. The virtues of the players, however, were more widely appreciated by the gentry than the City fathers. At the beginning of December Sir Edward Hoby wrote to his first cousin, Sir Robert Cecil, member of the Privy Council, asking “your grace to visit Canon Row; where as late as it shall please you a gate for your supper shall be open, and King Richard present himself to your view.”5 This may allude to a late-night performance of The Tragedy of King Richard III but it has generally been interpreted as referring to The Tragedy of King Richard II that had just lately been written. It is in certain respects a contentious play, concerned as it is with the forced abdication and murder of a legitimate sovereign, and Cecil may have been invited to check its suitability for the court. The scenes directly concerned with those events may have been acted within the lifetime of Elizabeth I, but they were never printed in the period. That would have incurred too great a risk.

The censored play was a popular success, however, with three quarto editions printed in the space of two years; the last two of them included the name of William Shakespeare as author. Its popularity may in fact have helped to promote the life of Richard II in the public imagination. There is a letter from Raleigh to Robert Cecil written in the summer of 1597, shortly before the publication of the play in quarto form, in which he states that “I acquainted my L: generall [the Earl of Essex] with your letter to mee & your kynd acceptance of your enterteynemente, hee was also wonderfull merry at ye consait of Richard the 2.”6 Here the name of the dead king is a joking pseudonym for the living queen.

Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of King Richard II in verse, and it has all the splendour of his lyric impulse. That is why it is associated with A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as Romeo and Juliet. The verse shimmers and soars as the history of England is mingled with enchantment—not the enchantment of legend or of faery, but of a theatrical and lyrical sovereign who laments the end of his reign in soliloquies of dust and desolation. He is the monarch of metaphor and simile. His is in every sense a wonderful performance. Shakespeare has followed the symbolic logic of his dramaturgy by combining king and actor in one role, with all the spectacle and vainglory the combination implies. That is why it is also a play of ritual and rhetoric, with elaborate effects of staging as well as language. Richard finds his deepest being while musing upon his role or part within the world. He is depicted here as a highly self-conscious and dramatic monarch; he is the only person in the play to be granted soliloquies while his enemy and supplanter, Henry Bolingbroke, remains resolutely unyielding and external. The declining king seems to grow in interest as he approaches his defeat and death—or, rather, Shakespeare becomes more interested in his temperament and situation. At the beginning of the play he is depicted as somewhat callous and avaricious but, as he figuratively and literally bends lower to the earth, he inspires some of Shakespeare’s greatest verse. The dramatist is always engaged by failure, especially failure on such a cosmic scale. It summons up all the grace and sympathy of his nature, which may in part be connected with some tenderness towards his father, and in this play he proves himself beyond doubt to be the master of pathos.

It may be that the role of the declining king was played by Shakespeare himself, while the part of Bolingbroke was taken by Burbage. Yet, characteristically, Shakespeare does not judge between the deposed monarch and his supplanter. Henry Bolingbroke emerges as the victor, but there is no hero in this race. That is why Shakespeare only alludes to the possibility that Richard II was responsible for the murder of his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, even though it was the pivotal plot of a very successful contemporary play entitled Thomas of Woodstock, which may have been part of the Lord Chamberlain’s repertory; it is clear that Shakespeare relied upon the audience’s knowledge of it as a preliminary to his own less partisan drama. It was not a question of right or wrong; it was a question of magnificence. The English loved spectacle and rhetoric; they loved sweet and powerful orations. That was what the sixteenth-century stage was about.

It has been surmised that there is some lost source play for Richard II, but the material for the tragedy was already to hand. There were of course the chronicles of Hall and of Holinshed, from whom he lifts some lines almost verbatim. But there was also the particular example of Samuel Daniel’s The Civile Warres betweene the two houses of Lancaster and Yorke, published in 1595, although it is not altogether clear who borrowed from whom. Daniel was a poet of courtly, rather than theatrical, circles; his sonnet sequence, Delia, had been published in 1592 and had some influence upon Shakespeare’s own ventures in that medium. There was a further association with the dramatist. Until this time Daniel had been part of the household of the Countess of Pembroke, at Wilton; he was tutor to her son, William Herbert, with whom Shakespeare may have had a direct connection through those same sonnets. Daniel was also the brother-in-law of John Florio, whom Shakespeare knew well. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Earl of Essex; once more the Essex affinity emerges in this narrative.

If Shakespeare borrowed from Daniel, then in turn the poet borrowed from the dramatist; some effects from Antony and Cleopatra become part of Daniel’s verse drama on the same theme. So there was, in a sense, a meeting of minds. Samuel Daniel is an image of what Shakespeare might have been—a writer of obscure country origins who, by dint of learning and skill, fashioned a career for himself as poet and retainer. There is even the story that, in 1599, Elizabeth had chosen him as unofficial poet laureate in succession to Edmund Spenser; whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt that Daniel was considered highly at court.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men returned to that court for the Christmas season of 1595 about three weeks after their performance at the house of Sir Edward Hoby in Canon Row. It is not known whether they played Richard II before the ageing queen. Six years later she told a visitor to Greenwich Palace that “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” and complained that the tragedy “was played fortie times in open streets and houses.” It is not clear what she meant by “open streets” but by “houses” she must have been alluding to private performances of the play, indirectly providing further evidence that the players were indeed hired by nobles or rich men. So, at the very least, she was aware of the play’s existence. Could it have been acted at court at the end of the year?

There was a gap in their performances from 28 December to 6 January, in which interval they travelled to Rutland. In the household of Sir John Harington, at Burley-on-the-Hill, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men gave a performance of an old favourite, Titus Andronicus, as part of the New Year celebrations of 1596. They acted on the evening of their arrival, and left on the following day. Presumably they were well rewarded. It may seem unusual for an entire company to travel over a hundred miles into the heart of Rutland, in order to give one performance of an old play, but as is so often the case in the sixteenth century there are relations and affinities that help to explain the journey. Sir John Harington was an intimate friend of the same Hoby of Canon Row, with whom he had been at Eton. In addition the French tutor in the household, Monsieur Le Doux, was later financed by the Earl of Essex on various expeditions to the continent as an intelligence agent. The mystery deepens in the knowledge that Anthony Bacon’s confidential secretary, Jaques Petit, was also at Burley-on-the-Hill this Christmas and was according to one report posing as Monsieur Le Doux’s valet.7 It was he who wrote a letter describing the performance of Titus Andronicus.

So we have Shakespeare and his company paying an especial favour, or tribute, to one of Essex’s affinity. It reaffirms the suggestion that Shakespeare himself was close to the circle of Essex’s supporters, most notable among them the young Earl of Southampton. The familial association between Hoby and Cecil—Hoby’s maternal uncle was William Cecil, Lord Burghley—renders this whole network of friends and relations even more significant, especially since in this period Essex and the Cecils were on friendly terms. Shakespeare, if only briefly, was moving in a world of confidential agents and secret missions, of plot and counter-plot. It was a world that many of his contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe chief among them, knew very well. It must have been a world that Shakespeare himself understood.

So there is an air of unfamiliarity, and perhaps mystery, about his appearance in the grand house at Rutland. It has even been suggested that “Monsieur Le Doux” was a pseudonym for an English secret agent, and perhaps even a pseudonym for a resolutely undead Christopher Marlowe.8 On a more prosaic note we may simply record that Jaques Petit said in his letter that “on a aussi joué la tragédie de Titus Andronicus mais la monstre a plus valu que le sujet.”9 The “monstre” or spectacle was more interesting than the plot. The same might be said of this particular gathering. The stage of Rutland is suddenly lit, and Shakespeare is glimpsed in the company of people with whom he is not ordinarily associated. If ever there was a “secret Shakespeare,” as a hundred biographies testify, it lies in obscure moments such as these.

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