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Monday, February 25, 2013

Shakespeare and the Essex Execution

This is Part Five in a series of stories about the Essex Rebellion, which began with these stories:

1. Shakespeare in January 1601

2. Shakespeare's Richard II on 7 February 1601

3. Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Essex Rebellion

4. Shakespeare and the Essex Trial

Part Five:

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was executed on 25 February 1601.

He was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to death.

He was beheaded on the Tower Green. He was the last person to be beheaded in the Tower.

He knew his executioner, Thomas Derrick.

Derrick had once been convicted of rape, and he was allowed to escape execution as long as he agreed to become an executioner himself.

The man who pardoned him was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

What a strange twist of fate.

It must have been a very sad day in London that day.

I think there were many who would hear the news and it would break their hearts. Some more than others.

When William Shakespeare received the news I think it brought him to tears.

He had known Essex, who had been his artistic patron. They were probably friends, as close as a patron could be to his artist.

Essex, in tilting armour. Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. 1587

Shakespeare was the greatest playwright of the period, and he had gone out of his way to support and celebrate Essex.

In return, Essex would have protected Shakespeare from his critics at court, and would have no doubt promised Shakespeare a greater reward in the future.

That was gone. Essex was dead.

By Nicholas Hilliard. Thought to be a painting of Essex.

Shakespeare was vulnerable.

He had not only performed his Richard II play the night before the Essex Rebellion as a signal to rise up against the queen, but he had continued to perform it day after day -- for 40 performances in all.

If this is true -- then Shakespeare would have performed the play yet again on 25 February, and for some days after.

Why would he do this, even after Essex was dead?

Essex by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1596

I think it would have been something of a funeral mass, something to remember Essex by, a way to cope with the grief and the loss of such a popular man.

Shakespeare was taking another risk by performing the play, even after the execution.

He had to have known that he could lose everything.

At some point after the Rebellion, on 8 February, the authorities questioned Shakespeare's acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

We don't have a record of when it was or what was said. Shakespeare's fellow actor Augustine Philips seems to have done all of the talking, perhaps because he was more responsible for the finances of the Men.

Essex, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1588

There is no record of any of the actors being imprisoned, or tortured, or anything else of that nature.

I don't think that was necessary. Shakespeare and his Men got the point.

They had to stop what they were doing, and anything else they did to stir up the public would be unwise.

Shakespeare must have been terrified of what might happen to him and his fellow actors.

But there was some good news.

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's other great patron, and who had conspired with Essex, was not executed.

It is unknown when it was clear that he would not face the executioner, but be sentenced to life in jail.

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton
Imprisoned in the Tower

But by the time Essex was executed it may have been clear to Shakespeare and others that Southampton would not die.

This might have emboldened Shakespeare to keep playing his plays, even Richard II, and might even have given him some hope that there was a future for him in London and on the stage.

For Shakespeare, Essex and Southampton represented the future of England -- enlightened and energetic.

That future was gone.

Shakespeare was facing a new and uncertain future.

For much of the next two years, the last days of Queen Elizabeth, he would not know if the future would be bright or dark.

But he didn't turn away, he didn't give up and he didn't cave to the political uncertainty.

He fought the only way he knew how. He wrote and he acted.

And in that year, he would write the greatest of all his plays, Hamlet.

It would be his response to the Essex Rebellion and Essex's execution.


David B. Schajer

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Hamlet and The Massacre at Paris

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