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These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Shakespeare and the Essex Trial

This is the Fourth Part in a series of stories. The other parts:

1. Shakespeare in January 1601

2. Shakespeare's Richard II on 7 February 1601

3. Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Essex Rebellion

5. Shakespeare and the Essex Execution

Fourth Part:

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex was tried for treason today, on 19 February 1601.

He was tried with his best friend and co-conspirator, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton

I strongly recommend you read the entire record of the trial. It's not all that long, and it is interesting in so many ways. While it may seem like distant history now, it was an enormously important trial at the time -- the trial of the century!

And while the record only gives us an insight into the trial indoors, I would imagine that there were many people outside who were clamoring for any news and juicy details from inside.

William Shakespeare would have had a very keen interest in the outcome of the trial. Essex and Southampton were his friends and most important patrons.

It is entirely plausible that he considered himself tied to them, and if they were condemned to death, then it could very well mean the end of Shakespeare, the greatest Elizabethan playwright.

The trial in Westminster Hall must have been a very dramatic affair -- many of the most powerful men in England, men like Sir Walter Raleigh, were gathered to witness Essex and Southampton pay the price for their treason.

A list of the noblemen present at the trial

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (who is the leading candidate as the "true" author of Shakespeare's plays) was at the head of this gathering of noblemen.

Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney General to the Queen was in charge of the case against them. I have written about him before, and how he went from being a lapdog to the monarchs, to leading the charge against the monarchy.

Essex and Southampton had enlisted a small army, of upwards of 300 young men, and had tried to rally public support to march on to Whitehall and demand an audience with the Queen.

Did Essex mean to simply make demands of her? Did he want to peacefully remove her from power and take the throne for himself?Did he mean to kill her? We may never really know.

In the trial there are many accusations against Essex, but there seems to be little to no effort to determine what he really intended to do. It almost seems like the trial was an empty exercise, or as it commonly called nowadays, kabuki theater -- just political posturing.

But there is a telling moment in the trial when Sir Francis Bacon compared Essex to the French Duke of Guise.

Henry I, Duke of Guise was infamous for having tried to assassinate a French Protestant Huguenot Admiral in 1572, and this led to widespread violence across France, in which upwards of 30,000 people were killed.

To compare Essex to the Duke of Guise was to accuse Essex of plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth.

The other highlight of the trial is when Essex made accusations against Robert Cecil, the Queen's right hand man, and Essex's chief nemesis at court.

Cecil was at the trial, but he had been hiding, and he emerged from behind a tapestry and defended himself against Essex's character assassination.

Robert Cecil

The trial was brief, and it didn't take them long to render a verdict -- Essex was guilty and was sentenced to death.

Essex took this verdict as well as any man could. He may have known that nothing would save him, but he did still beg the mercy of the Queen. I can't help but think that he still had a chance to escape the executioner.

Southampton received no verdict.

What happened outside the trial as soon as it concluded?

I think the crowds eagerly awaited the verdict. When they heard it, there would have been many who cried for Essex, a great outpouring of grief.

He was loved by many, and they would think that to execute him was a too severe punishment. They wanted their Queen to show leniency, and when she showed none, it would have upset many people.

Undoubtedly there would have been those who welcomed his verdict. These people did not like the idea of an Earl challenging the Queen, and leading a coup d'etat against her. They likely walked away from the trial satisfied that law and order had been upheld and the Queen's power had been preserved.

What about Shakespeare?

On the one hand he loved Essex. He had written plays in his honor (like Henry V), and Essex had been one of the most powerful friends and patrons he had. Without Essex, and Southampton, Shakespeare might not have climbed as high and as fast as he had.

Without these powerful patrons, Shakespeare was unprotected, and had no one to defend him. Shakespeare's audiences must have known how close he was to them -- and now that these Earls were traitors, and Essex was now sentenced to death -- would these same audiences still come to The Globe?

Would they want to patronize the theatre that was a hotbed of political dissidence?

After all, in the 11 days since the Essex Rebellion on 8 February until the trial on 19 February, Shakespeare had been performing his Richard II play over and over again.

This was the play that Essex had asked Shakespeare to perform the night before the Rebellion -- it was meant as a signal to the city that it was time, time to lead a rebellion against the Queen.

Shakespeare proceeded to perform the play again and again, up to the day of the trial. I think he did this to build support for Essex and as a demand that the Queen show leniency. Put him in prison, but don't execute him.

If we put ourselves in Shakespeare's shoes and walk a mile, it is hard to imagine a worse time in his life.

He had had many hardships, the death of his son Hamnet five years before must have been terrible. But the death of his patron, of Essex, could spell the end of Shakespeare's entire career.

Everything he had worked for could be gone.

He had been betting that his Richard II play would influence the Queen, and she would spare Essex's life.

On 19 February, with the verdict, he lost that bet. Essex would die.

But if Shakespeare did perform his Richard II play 40 times in this period, then he must have continued to do so even after the trial.

So, 412 years ago today, on 19 February 1601, William Shakespeare heard the news that Essex would die.

Did he run away? Run back to Stratford and never show his face in London again?

No, he stayed. He played his Richard II play again, to influence the Queen to change her mind and stay Essex's execution.

He doubled down on his bet.

And it is just possible that Shakespeare was already thinking of writing a play in response to these events. It would be the greatest play he ever wrote.

Somewhere in his mind he may have already been trying to find a way to have a character hide behind a tapestry -- an arras -- who is then killed by the play's hero.


David B. Schajer

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A Toast for the Premiere of Hamlet

Hamlet and The Massacre at Paris

King Henry IV of France and Shakespeare

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1 comment:

  1. Great work, I have much to say about Othello in my book The Master of the Ceremonies and on my website.