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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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Monday, March 18, 2013

Shakespeare and Walter Raleigh's Last Voyages

Sir Walter Raleigh was released from the Tower on 19 March 1616.

He was arguably the most famous courtier of the Elizabethan period, and for a time he had been the Queen's Favorite.

Sir Walter Raleigh in better days

She had sent him to the New World to create a Tudor Empire in North America, and enrich her crown. He was one of the very first to discover the New World, and the area where he first landed he named Virginia, after the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth.

While he was exploring and killing and plundering he became obsessed with the legend of a lost city of gold, El Dorado.

Hernan Cortes had conquered the Aztec empire. Francisco Pizarro had conquered the Incans. Surely there must be one more great city to conquer, a city with wealth beyond imagination.

El Dorado must exist.

The Muisca Raft, in gold
It depicts the Zipa ruler of Bogotá offering to the gods, which is believed to be origin of El Dorado myth

Raleigh went looking for it in 1595, with 14 ships and 1000 men. He didn't find it.

When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and King James succeeded her, Raleigh was no longer in favor. Not that long before, Raleigh had questioned King James's succession in Parliament.

Within weeks, Raleigh was implicated in the Main Plot to kill King James. He was famously put on trial and sentenced to death.

King James intervened and commuted the sentence to life in prison. Raleigh ended up in the Tower, for life.

But in the next 12 years he continued to lobby for yet another expedition to find El Dorado.

By 1616, King James was game. He could send Raleigh to find this lost golden city. If he succeeded, then James would enjoy a tremendous financial windfall. If Raleigh failed, then James would have even more reason to finally send him to the executioner.

So, on 19 March 1616, Raleigh was released. He was 62 years old.

in later years

It would be another year before he set sail and sadly did not find El Dorado. Their quest met with terrible failure. Raleigh would meet the executioner not long after.

What does this have to do with Shakespeare?

Well, by 19 March 1616, Shakespeare was at home in Stratford, and he didn't have long to live. He would die one month later.

I wonder what he would have thought of Raleigh's release. I doubt anyone in England didn't hear the news that Raleigh was free.

I don't think that he and Raleigh had much to do with each other, but there is every reason to think that they saw each other from time to time, at court.

It's hard for me to believe that Raleigh never went to the theatre. If he went to the theatre with any regularity, he would have seen a play by the greatest playwright of the period, William Shakespeare.

I doubt that Shakespeare wanted to have much to do with Raleigh, especially since Raleigh and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex were rivals at court -- and Essex was Shakespeare's patron.

Tower of London

But when Raleigh was imprisoned in 1603, I think Shakespeare felt that this sentence was unjust. In a sense, to imprison Raleigh was to shut the door on the Elizabethan era.

I think Shakespeare felt like many in England -- Raleigh was many things, and not all of them good, but he didn't deserve to rot in jail.

So, when Raleigh was released, I wonder what Shakespeare thought. I think he would have been pleased, and relieved that so great a man was no longer in shackles.

But I also think that Shakespeare, who had himself been abused by the court of King James from time to time, was no fool. He knew that Raleigh had to find gold and lots of it. Shakespeare must have known that while Raleigh's death sentence had not been averted, it was just being postponed.

Shakespeare knew that Raleigh's time was not long. He might sink with his ships, be killed at sea while fighting the Spanish, die of disease, or never be heard from again.

Raleigh was 62 when he was released on 19 March.

Shakespeare may have envied Raleigh, getting ready for one last adventure. Shakespeare probably crossed his fingers and hoped that Raleigh made it back safely.

Sadly, Raleigh made it back, only to be executed in 1618.

Shakespeare was 52 years old when Raleigh sailed away on his voyage. He was probably aware of the fact that he didn't have long to live.

I like to think that Shakespeare did not suffer in his last days, but rather faced his end with dignity and courage, because he was getting ready for his own adventure, the the greatest of all adventures -- to that "undiscover'd country" from which "no traveler returns."


David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Shakespeare's Last Days

The Beginning and End of the Elizabethan Era

Shakespeare and Francis Bacon and Walter Raleigh

Books from Google Play

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