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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Philip Sidney and Shakespeare

427 years ago, on 17 October 1586, Philip Sidney died.





Only 31 years old, he was the greatest courtier poet of the day.

He died from a wound he suffered at the Battle of Zutphen, in the Netherlands, where he was fighting in the service of Queen Elizabeth.


Battle of Zutphen


His death was a great loss, since he was commonly considered to be the noblest of Englishmen, and finest of courtiers.

But his life was not without its share of controversies.

In 1578, Sidney opposed the marriage proposal of the 24 year old French Duke of Anjou to Queen Elizabeth, who was 46 years old. Sidney quarreled with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who approved of the match.

It seems that Oxford was so angry that he called Sidney a "puppy."

Sidney replied that "all the world knows that puppies are gotten by dogs, and children by men."

Strong words!

Their argument almost became a duel, and the Queen had to intervene. She was displeased with Sidney.

Sidney also displeased the Queen in 1583 when he married Frances Walsingham, the 16 year old daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's spymaster.


Frances Walsingham


I think that Sidney and Frances were truly in love (they had 5 children after all) and the Queen probably wanted him to have a marriage which she could arrange.

By the time Sidney died, Shakespeare was either in London already, or well on his way.

Sidney's death would have been an important moment in Shakespeare's early life. Without a doubt, Shakespeare would have eagerly read Sidney's poetry.

I think that Shakespeare would have aspired to become the kind of man that Sidney was, as a writer and as a courtier to the Queen.

It is very unlikely that Shakespeare ever met Sidney in person, since Shakespeare did not begin his career in London until around 1587-8. However, he could have heard about him in great detail from Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

Essex would have known Sidney as early as 1584 when Essex entered Queen Elizabeth's court for the first time. Also, Essex was in command of the cavalry at the Battle of Zutphen, where Sidney served and died because of the wound he suffered there.


Memorial for Sidney at the location where he was fatally shot

Around 1593, Essex would become Shakespeare's artistic patron and friend, and there is every reason to believe that Shakespeare would have asked him about Sidney.

Shakespeare, like any good playwright at the time, would have read everything that Sidney wrote, and he would use his life and work as inspiration for his own.

In Shakespeare's King Lear, he borrowed from Sidney, for his subplot about Gloucester.

It is likely that Shakespeare was thinking of Sidney and his wife Frances, and her father Francis Walsingham, when he wrote of Hamlet and Ophelia, and her father Polonius.

We don't know if Francis tried to get his daughter to spy on her husband, and report those findings to the Queen -- but it would not be hard to believe it.

Also, I think Shakespeare would have had mixed feelings about Sidney, because Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester was Sidney's uncle.

From what I have studied, Shakespeare both feared and admired Leicester.

He would have admired him for having held the first patent for an acting company, and launching the careers of men like Will Kemp, who would later act with Shakespeare.

But Leicester, who had been suspected of killing the husband of the woman he would later marry, was one of the inspirations for the character of Claudius in Hamlet.

I think that Shakespeare, at the start of his incredible career, was cautiously optimistic that one day he could write and perform for the Queen, and perhaps fill the void that was left by Sidney.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


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