This was arguably the worst moment in Shakespeare's life, second only perhaps to the premature death of his 11-year-old son Hamnet in 1596.
It must have had a profound effect on Shakespeare, an effect which has not been properly understood.
|The Ghost of Hamlet's father, from the Olivier film|
At the beginning of the year, his friend and patron, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex was plotting a rebellion against the Queen -- fortifying his house, and enlisting followers. He would get 300 men to join him, many of them from very good families.
Shakespeare may not have conspired with him, but I think it is impossible that he was not aware that something very bad was going to happen.
Put another way, Shakespeare could not be completely unaware that Essex was up to no good, because Shakespeare and his actors agreed to play Richard II -- about the deposing and death of a king -- the night before the Essex Rebellion.
I find it hard to believe that Shakespeare would be so naive not to see what was happening.
On the morning of February 8, the Rebellion was led by Essex, and his great friend and ally Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Southampton was another patron of Shakespeare's.
Essex was arrested, tried and executed.
Southampton was sentenced to death, but was then imprisoned indefinitely.
The next recorded performance by Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain's Men was for Christmas that year. They performed Twelfth Night.
What was Shakespeare doing from February to December? There is evidence to suggest that he and his actors traveled the countryside, to get out of London.
Shakespeare may have gone home to Stratford.
So, imagine Shakespeare in Stratford after the Rebellion. He must have been afraid.
Essex and Southampton, the two most powerful and important friends and patrons he had could no longer protect him from the likes of Robert Cecil and others who would consolidate their power at court, now that Essex and Southampton (and so many others) were gone.
|Shakespeare's nemesis Robert Cecil|
Will they close the theatres? Will he be allowed to write plays again? Will he be allowed to write at all?
Will he be arrested?
Shakespeare must have been out of his mind with worry, and nothing his wife, his mother or his children could do would have given him any hope for the future.
Then, as if that was not bad enough, Shakespeare's father dies.
What a blow that must have been.
His father, who had been successful and then fallen on hard times, and who had no doubt enjoyed the fact that his son was a respected and relatively wealthy man, was now gone.
John Shakespeare was the inspiration for the character Falstaff, and I'm sure that his father found his way into many other characters and in many lines of dialogue.
To lose such a father must have been a terrible loss.
What did Shakespeare do?
How did he respond to this tragedy?
I think he wrote Hamlet.
|Olivier as Hamlet|
This period in September/October 1601 is the most convincing date, and this is the most logical sequence of events.
He had written versions of the Hamlet play before and there are records of it being performed in the years prior. But I think those were failed attempts to grapple with the story.
It took the Essex Rebellion and the death of his father for Shakespeare to confront it and shape it into the play we know today.
Therefore, with the failed Rebellion, the death of Essex and the imprisonment of Southampton and others, and finally with the death of his father, 1601 was the worst year in Shakespeare's life.
But it was the year in which he gave life to the greatest expression of his talent.
Hamlet is a play about fathers and sons, the duty a son has to his father, a son who doesn't know if he can go on any longer but resolves to fight on, only to die a terrible death.
I think Shakespeare wrote it right after his father's death -- it was his way of working through the grief -- and quickly staged it in London.
It could have been the end of him. Literally. But he did it anyway.
Was he imprisoned for staging Hamlet? Was he interrogated? Tortured?
We know that he was not executed for it. He would go on to write more plays, and eventually work for King James.
I explore these events in my version of Hamlet, and show that Shakespeare's life is much more dramatic than we have come to believe, and the birth of Hamlet is much more compelling than we have thought.
David B. Schajer
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