Queen Elizabeth I caught smallpox in October 1562 -- less than two years before Shakespeare was born -- during one of the worst outbreaks in England. She was only 29 years old.
She was not alone. Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Stalin, and George Washington are among some of the notable historical figures to have suffered from the disease.
The Queen would have had a high fever, and she would have suffered from vomiting, excessive bleeding, and scabs.
Her doctors thought she would die. This created a great crisis as far as who would succeed her, since she was not married and had no children.
The Parliament was in turmoil.
Elizabeth wanted her "favourite" Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester to be the Lord Protector of England should she in fact die.
He was an unpopular choice within the court, and her Privy councillors, and with many in the public. They did not want him as Lord Protector nor as a king consort.
One of Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting was Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney -- who was Robert Dudley's sister. She was also the mother of Philip Sidney, the famed courtier poet.
Mary Dudley also contracted smallpox at the same time.
The Queen would survive the smallpox, of course. But her face was scarred and she lost her hair.
She would live her life wearing thick make-up, made from white lead and egg whites, and she would have to wear wigs.
Mary Dudley also survived, but she was ravaged by the disease, and her beauty was disfigured.
The Parliament asked her to consider marriage, to secure a successor to the throne. She stalled them, for the rest of her life.
In the years that followed, Parliament meet to discuss her succession and marriage, and she fought back, and in one case she imprisoned one politician, Peter Wentworth, in the Tower of London for not remaining quiet.
The question of succession would continue until her death in 1603, and it was a question that was on everyone's mind, especially in the 1590's -- a period when Shakespeare went from being the least known to the most known playwright in London.
Shakespeare would only ever have known the Queen in her later years. If we assume that he saw in her in person for the first time in 1593, she would have been 60 years old.
He would have been familiar with all of the stories -- from the true stories to the questionable gossip -- of her life, and her family, and her court.
He would have had a front row seat to the last days of her life, and he would have seen her beauty and power fade. He would have been familiar with the tradition that as the Queen grew older, her courtiers would praise her beauty even more.
But there was perhaps only one man, besides her doctors, who ever saw the Queen without her make-up and her head bald -- Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.
After Robert Dudley died, Essex became the Queen's "favourite" and during one of their spats, Essex upset the Queen by entering her bed-chamber before she had been properly made up. This was in 1699, when she was 66 years old.
This event would go a long way towards explaining why the Queen was so upset with him over the next two years, and why he would go to the drastic lengths that he did, when he led a Rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601.
As I did research for my version of Hamlet, and discovered that the play was written in response to the Essex Rebellion, I came back to one line in the play that seemed odd and out of place.
Hamlet holds Yorick's skull and says: "Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that."
I take this to mean "tell your lady that no matter how much make-up she puts on her face, she will one day look like a skull. Let's see if she finds it funny."
It begs the question -- what was Essex's reaction, upon seeing the Queen's body naked and ravaged by the effects of smallpox?
Did he laugh? What if he laughed nervously?
Even if he didn't laugh, he must have been surprised and uncomfortable at the condition she was in, especially when he was used to seeing her in her dresses and make-up and wigs.
I can think of few things that would have shaken the Queen to her core and infuriated her more than having been seen in her natural state by a man she admired more than any other -- and have him laugh, nervous or not.
Did Shakespeare really write this line in reference to this real historical event? What other meaning could it have?
What do you think?
David B. Schajer
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