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Friday, June 7, 2013

Shakespeare and the Lopez Plot

419 years ago today, on 7 June 1594, Queen Elizabeth’s personal physician was executed.



He had been accused of plotting to poison the Queen, and was found guilty.

But this is one of those moments in history that has more questions than answers.

Rodrigo Lopez moved from Portugal to London in 1559.

He was Jewish, but raised as a Christian. Was he a "Converso" --did he convert to Christianity?

Or did he pretend to convert but secretly still practice his Jewish faith? If that is the case then he would have been called a “Marrano” which means “pig.”

The fact that he left Portugal is significant, since the Portuguese Inquisition had begun not long before and was in full effect by 1559. It officially started in 1536, but it would have been a life or death matter for Jews in Portugal for much longer.

The Portuguese Inquisition was in response to the Spanish Inquisition which had begun in 1481. When Spain began forcing Jews to either convert or leave Spain altogether in 1492, many of them moved across the border to Portugal.

It is said that Lopez left Portugal to escape its Inquisition, which would indicate that he had not renounced his Jewish faith.

The fact that he left Portugal in 1559 is significant, since that was the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. 

Even though England had officially expelled all Jews from the country in 1290, Lopez may have believed that England was the last best hope he had as far as religious freedom was concerned.

He was not entirely wrong. In England he enjoyed great success as a doctor, including work at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

He treated many important people in those years, including Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Leicester was the Queen’s “favourite” and he must have told the Queen how well this doctor had treated him.

In 1586, he became the physician-in-chief to the Queen, and the Queen rewarded him handsomely for his work.

Did the Queen know that he may have been a secret Jew?

I think she did know, but preferred to keep him as her doctor than expel him from the country.

Did her court know he may have been a secret Jew?

One of Elizabeth’s Privy Councillors was Francis Walsingham, who was another patient of Lopez’s.

Sir Francis Walsingham

Walsingham, as the Queen’s spymaster, was one of the most powerful men in England.

What did Walsingham know about Lopez? Whatever it was, it obviously did not amount to much, since he did not prevent Lopez from attending to the Queen.

Several years later, on 1 January, 1594 Lopez was arrested on suspicion of plotting to poison the Queen.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was leading the investigation against Lopez, and was convinced that the doctor was part of a Spanish plot to kill Elizabeth.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Essex’s part in this whole story is rather strange. In 1594 he was waged in a war against some people in the court, like Walsingham and the Cecil family, William and his son Robert.

Essex was the Queen’s new “favourite” and at that time, she was giving him whatever he wanted. When he started to fall from her favour later in the decade, it would result in his leading a failed rebellion against her, in 1601.

But in 1594, in the course of the investigation, Lopez consistently denied any wrongdoing, but ultimately he admitted to being involved with a plot.

But he claimed that it had all started when Walsingham instructed him years ago to make contact with the Spanish Court.

Spain had been at war with England for years at this point, and Elizabeth lived with a perpetual fear of Spanish agents sent to kill her.

Did Walsingham want Lopez to work as an agent?

Was Lopez innocent of plotting to kill the Queen, but guilty of associating with assassins -- for the purpose of exposing these assassins, capturing them, and preventing the Queen’s assassination?

We may never know. Walsingham died in 1590, and whatever may have happened between him and Lopez was lost.

Lopez was found guilty, but the Queen did not sign his death warrant for several weeks. This would suggest that she did not believe he was guilty.

Lopez was finally hanged, drawn and quartered.

Queen Elizabeth did not allow Lopez’s widow to become impoverished, by seizing her property and wealth. This may be another indication that the Queen knew that Lopez was not guilty.

William Shakespeare must have known of Lopez, and may have even met him. Shakespeare had performed for the Queen before, and it is not inconceivable that Shakespeare met the man.

It is very likely that Shakespeare saw Lopez's execution. It was a very famous case.

Shakespeare’s patron and friend was Essex. It would surprise me to think that Shakespeare liked what was happening to Lopez, or that Shakespeare agreed with Essex’s persecution of the doctor.

Two years later, Shakespeare would write The Merchant of Venice. It has been said that the Lopez affair inspired Shakespeare to write Merchant.

I think that is true.

But I think there are many other reasons why Shakespeare would write the play.

The Lopez case was, in my mind, a miscarriage of justice.

The case against Shylock is a miscarriage of justice.

Both cases are absurd in so many ways.

When I wrote my version of The Merchant of Venice, I became aware of how absurd much of the play was. This made sense since the play is not a tragicomedy as it has been understood to be for all these years. It is actually a very bawdy farce.

Did you know that the name Portia means "pig?" How odd. How absurd. And in the context of the play it is actually quite funny.

Why did Shakespeare write such an absurd and bawdy play?

I think he wrote it because he, and everyone else who was not born into the aristocracy, was a Lopez, was a Shylock.

Lopez was useful to Queen Elizabeth until he became dispensable.

Shylock was useful to Antonio and Bassanio, and served his use as a moneylender in Catholic Venice, until he became dispensable.

Shakespeare himself was useful to Essex, and performed for the Queen herself.

The rage that Shylock has on stage, which is probably not unlike the rage that Lopez had at trial, would be the rage that Shakespeare would eventually have when he too became dispensable to the court of Queen Elizabeth.

In many ways I think Merchant is Shakespeare’s most personal play, and that Shylock shows us more about Shakespeare than arguably any other character.

The play has existed for such a long time as arguably the most problematic of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.”

The problem has not been with the play. It has been with our lack of understanding of Shakespeare, the life he lived, and the world he lived in.

We have been reading his plays for too long without knowing the context in which they were written.

It would help us to understand Merchant if we imagine what it was like for Shakespeare as he watched the execution of Lopez in London on 7 June 1594.

Shakespeare probably thought something like "There but for the grace of God go I."

Cheers,