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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Shakespeare and Essex's Last Ride

On 27 March 1599, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and his men gathered at Tower Hill, near the Tower of London.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

He and his soldiers were preparing to ride off to war.

Essex was the newly appointed general in command of Queen Elizabeth's army, to fight the war in Ireland.

Thousands of people turned out to cheer his name and see him go.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon, and it was a gloriously beautiful day.

Outside the Tower of London from Tower Hill

The night before, Essex had danced with the Queen at a party.

In the ten years before, Essex had been a rising military and political star -- popular with the people and the Queen's Favorite.

But he had also made enemies at court, and in the last year, he had been losing his standing at court.

Only the year before, in 1598, he was in a heated argument at court.

The Queen boxed his ear publicly.

Essex let his temper get the best of him. He drew his sword on the Queen!

Essex knew what a disastrous mistake that was. I think he offered himself as general for the army in Ireland as a way of repairing his relationship with Elizabeth.

She accepted and made him general.

So, on 27 March 1599, a lot was riding on his success in Ireland.

Elizabeth and Essex, from Benjamin Britten's opera Gloriana

If he was successful, he could be Elizabeth's Favorite again, and press her for more power and property. She was old, and if he played his cards right he might be king one day.

He probably didn't even want to think of what would happen to him if he was unsuccessful in Ireland. It was too scary a thought.

Essex did fail in Ireland.

He upset Elizabeth even more, and fell even farther from her favor.

These events led to his failed Rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601. This Essex Rebellion, and Essex's execution, inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

In March 1599, when Essex was riding off to glory in Ireland, Shakespeare had written his Henry V play.

Essex was the inspiration for the character of Henry V. He was the inspiration for the character of Hamlet.

Henry V was written in 1599 to celebrate England's newest and greatest military leader, and potentially their new king. Hamlet was written so audiences could come to terms with his death in 1601.

In professor James Shapiro's excellent 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare he explores how the events of Essex's military campaign inspired Shakespeare to write Henry V.

The public in England was concerned about this seemingly never-ending war in Ireland, and Shakespeare wrote the play to inspire them.

As professor Shapiro writes, what the critics of the play "overlook is that all the debate about the war is the real story" of Shakespeare's Henry V play.

Also, even if they didn't support the war, Shakespeare wanted to rally support for Essex personally.

Essex was Shakespeare's patron, and not only did they use each other politically, they probably liked each other.

Essex could use a propagandist like Shakespeare (the greatest and most popular playwright in London by 1599) to increase his popularity and chance at becoming king.

Shakespeare used the popularity of Essex to increase attendance at the Globe theatre. Essex was a heartthrob military war hero. Shakespeare would have been crazy not to feature him in his plays.

Essex was the biggest box-office draw Shakespeare could have wished for.

I like to imagine that Shakespeare and his company of actors gathered on the streets near the Tower of London on 27 March 1599 to see Essex ride off to war.

Normally, on any other day at two o'clock, Shakespeare would have been starting a play at The Globe.

But that was no ordinary day. They left The Globe to witness history.

Shakespeare would have hoped that Essex was victorious in Ireland. As his patron Essex's fortunes rose, Shakespeare's fortunes would rise as well.

Little did they know that at that moment, around two o'clock, when Essex started to ride off for Ireland, that this was the best they would ever have it.

That was the last time fortune favored Essex. It was all downhill from there.

As soon as he started to ride off, there was a "strange thunderclap" in the clear skies over London. It began to rain, and for the rest of the day there were storms. The day had begun clear and bright, and ended with darkness and rain.

It was thought to be a bad omen, of Essex and the rebellion in Ireland.

What did Shakespeare think, as he hurried out of the rain, probably back to his flat, or perhaps to The Mermaid tavern to celebrate Essex?

Did he think that Essex was fated to meet his doom in Ireland? Or did he think that Essex would return a conquering hero?

I think Shakespeare was too clear-eyed to think that Essex would get everything he wanted.

But if the heavy and dark pessimism that pervades Hamlet is any indication of how sad Shakespeare was when Essex was executed in 1601, then Shakespeare must have been drunk on hope for his friend and England's hero Essex, in 1599.


David B. Schajer

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