Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

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.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Essex Rebellion

This is Part Three in a series of stories. The other Parts are:

1. Shakespeare in January 1601

2. Shakespeare's Richard II on 7 February 1601

4. Shakespeare and the Essex Trial

5. Shakespeare and the Essex Execution

Part Three:

William Shakespeare must have been very excited and scared, in equal measure, on 8 February 1601.

He had performed his Richard II play the day before, as requested by his friends and patrons, the Earls of Essex and Southampton.

Both Essex and Southampton were there, at the Globe, with many of their closest friends and conspirators. The performance was a great success.

The crowd -- who did not know nor expect this of all plays to be performed and had no personal alliance with Essex -- was overwhelmed with the power of the play. 

They cheered Essex and cried his name! 

This inspired Essex and filled his heart with joy and hope. He welcomed and accepted their praise as justification for his actions and intentions.


But that was last night, and when Essex and Southampton parted ways with Shakespeare and his company, there was hardly a dry eye among them. 

It was very emotional, because they all knew that they might never see each other again, or they would be soon celebrating a glorious victory.

After Essex and Southampton left, Shakespeare said goodnight to his fellow actors, and embraced many of them, especially Richard Burbage, his closest friend among them. They hardly spoke, since no words could express what they were feeling.

Shakespeare walked to the Thames and was ferried across. As he walked back to his flat on the corner of Monkwell and Silver Street in Cripplegate, his head was filled with too many visions of what might be and what might happen. 

He had written far too many stories of love and death, of kings triumphant and kings defeated, murders of kings and murderous kings. 

Would Essex even get to see the Queen? 

Queen Elizabeth I, ca. 1601

Would the Queen allow him to speak and make his case? Would she listen to his grievances? Would she correct them? Would she punish Robert Cecil, the cause of so much discord in the court? Or would she defend him? 

Would Essex kill her?

He couldn't. He would not. 

But he just might.

He just wanted peace. Surely she would hear him out.

Would she embrace Essex? 

Or would she kill him?

It did not escape Shakespeare's notice that 8 February was the anniversary of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots 8 February 1587

Mary had been executed, killed on orders of her cousin Queen Elizabeth, in 1587.

Mary's son James was now King of Scotland, and it was clear that he wanted Queen Elizabeth either dead or deposed, in order for him to take the throne himself.

Shakespeare had heard the rumors that Essex was doing James's bidding, perhaps starting a conflict that James would end, by marching into England and succeeding Elizabeth.

8 February could not be an accident. Essex must have chosen this day on purpose, as a gesture to James.

Or was it James's idea, his brand of revenge?

King James

Shakespeare did not know if Essex chose the date on purpose, but he didn't like the coincidence.

If Elizabeth killed Essex, where would the killing stop? 

Who else would she round up and accuse of treason and have executed?

Would she kill Shakespeare? 

Forget for the moment that he was the most popular playwright in London, that wouldn't make him immune from treason.

She couldn't kill him. She allowed the freedom of expression in the playhouses, she defended them against the Puritans and other critics at court.

She liked her entertainment. 

She even liked Shakespeare, as far as she could like or trust a glove-maker's son from Stratford who didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge, and had a soaring and unquenchable ambition to write popular plays.

She couldn't kill him. 

But of course she could, and she just might.

Shakespeare hardly slept that night.

When he awoke that morning, he heard noise from the street.

He left his flat and walked the streets with caution. He could hear yelling, and the sounds of horses' hooves.

The streets were not busy. Some people here and there were making their way to St. Paul's. Shakespeare followed.

But some people, above him, closed their windows to shut out the noise and keep themselves safe.

Shakespeare was too curious, he had to see what was going on.

As soon as he got to St. Paul's he could see Essex and Southampton, atop their horses, wearing their armor, fit for battle.

St. Paul's as it would have looked in 1601

They rode with almost 300 armed men, many from some of the finest families in England.

Shakespeare could hardly believe his eyes, he had never seen such a thing -- and in London of all places!

But there was something wrong, Essex looked desperate, lost.

He was trying to inspire the crowds to follow and join him.

But no one came to his support. They watched him, and quickly turned and ran away, abandoning him.

And quickly Essex was abandoning all hope that his Rebellion would succeed.

As much as Shakespeare wanted to stay and watch, it was too dangerous, and it was too painful to see his friend suffer such a humiliation.

It broke Shakespeare's heart. 

He ran back to his flat.

He too had done what he could to help Essex, in performing Richard II the day before to inspire a popular uprising.

But he was not a soldier.

Shakespeare ran upstairs, gathered whatever papers he had, and hid them as best he could.

He waited out the day, beside himself with worry.

He couldn't help but think that Essex would fail.

Shakespeare was terrified, more scared than he had ever been in his life.

And the day had just begun.

What he didn't know was that Essex and his men rode back to his house, Essex House, and locked themselves up.

Soldiers soon came and after a long standoff, Essex surrendered.

Essex never even got close to seeing the Queen, let alone make his case to her.

Did he want to talk to her, or kill her?

We may never know.

But by the end of 8 February 1601, he and many of his co-conspirators, like Southampton, were in custody.

Shakespeare was not arrested. 

He must have sat in his flat, with the windows shuttered, all night.

He had weathered many storms in his life, and he hoped that this tempest would soon be gone.

Perhaps he thought the Queen's authorities would break down the door and arrest him, and drag him off to the Tower to be tortured and questioned.

But they never came.

At least not that night.


If you enjoy reading this, and want to learn more about how the events of the Essex Rebellion inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet, I have dramatized it more fully in my Shakespeare's Premiere of Hamlet.

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