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Friday, September 13, 2013

Shakespeare and the Real Polonius


William Cecil, Lord Burghley was born, on 13 September 1520.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley
He was the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth, and acted in several roles, as Secretary of State, as Lord High Treasurer, and Lord Privy Seal.
By the 1590’s, he was arguably the most powerful person in England, except for the Queen herself.
Queen Elizabeth and the two most powerful men in her court, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham 

In her court, he was the head of what could be considered the Cecil faction (or fraction), which included his son Robert Cecil, and Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster. This faction might be considered the most conservative of all in her court.
In the same period of the 1590’s, the Cecil faction’s main rival was the faction headed by the Earl of Essex. His faction might be considered the more liberal voice in her court.
The Earl of Essex
Essex, and others like the Earl of Southampton, were great patrons of artists like Shakespeare. During this decade, several of Shakespeare’s plays were written to flatter Essex and at the same time paint an unflattering portrait of the Cecils.
For example, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet for the Earl of Southampton, when he married Elizabeth Vernon against the wishes of the Queen and men in her court like William Cecil.
Shakespeare’s Richard III character is based in part on William Cecil’s son, Robert. Both King Richard  and Robert were hunchbacks, and it is possible to see the portrayal of a power-hungry monarch who kills his way to the top as a portrait of Robert Cecil who was amassing more and more power in the 1590’s and whom Shakespeare probably held most responsible for the deaths of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd.
But the greatest of all portraits of William Cecil in the plays is in Shakespeare’s greatest play, Hamlet. William Cecil was the inspiration for the character of Polonius.
Richard Briers as Polonius with Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

I explore almost all of the references to William Cecil in my version of Hamlet, and all of them are unflattering.
Polonius is the chief advisor to the King and Queen. He interferes in everyone’s life, spies on others, and is described by the hero Hamlet as a “tedious old fool.”
His advice to his son Laertes, which is so famous for its fatherly wisdom, is based on advice that William Cecil wrote to his son Robert.
William and his son Robert
Shakespeare based his Hamlet character in part on the Earl of Essex. Therefore it would make a great deal of sense that when Hamlet kills Polonius, Shakespeare was dramatizing what Essex would have liked to have done to Cecil.
"Hamlet before the body of Polonius" by Eugène Delacroix, 1835

We may never know the full story between William Cecil, Essex and Shakespeare's plays.
But if the Hamlet play (written in the last days of Queen Elizabeth's reign) is any indication, there was something rotten in the state of England, and Shakespeare was writing a brief chronicle, an epitaph of sorts for Cecil, Essex and even the Queen.
Cheers,
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