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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Monday, August 4, 2014

In Shakespeare's Shoes: 4 August 1598

4 August 1598 was one of the most important days in William Shakespeare very turbulent life.

He and his fellow actors in the Lord Chamberlain's Men had been thrown out of the Theatre in Shoreditch since the beginning of 1597 over a problem with the lease.

The Theatre in Shoreditch

Even in 1598, Shakespeare must have still feel the pain from the death of James Burbage, the man who had built the Theatre. 

Burbage was something of a father figure to Shakespeare, so his loss was felt as strongly by him as it was by Burbage's own sons, Cuthbert, and Robert. It was Robert who was the star player in the company.

They had been performing at the nearby Curtain theatre, while the fate of the Theatre was in doubt. It must have been very upsetting to Shakespeare to go to work every day at the Curtain and see the Theatre -- the site of so many of Shakespeare's greatest and earliest triumphs, the theatre where he cut his teeth as a playwright and actor -- empty and all but abandoned.

The Curtain Theatre, discovered in 2012

Shakespeare was probably enjoying the success of a new play, a sequel to his earlier Henry IV play. That play had been a smash success, and no less than Queen Elizabeth fell in love with it, and its star, Sir John Falstaff, played by London's most famous comedian, Will Kemp.

It is believed that the Queen had so loved the play that she commanded another story, "Falstaff in love" which resulted in Merry Wives of Windsor.

Merry Wives of Windsor had been performed in April 1597, and might have interrupted his writing the sequel to Henry IV

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff with Tom Hiddleston as Hal

Will Kemp was probably eager for another John Falstaff play to sink his teeth into, and reluctant to perform the part yet again. No doubt he offered Shakespeare plot ideas, gags, and lines for the new play, and no doubt Shakespeare listened to them all and saved the ones he liked. 

By the time the play was finally presented to London audiences, it was probably perfected by the contributions of his players.

As they continued to perform the play, it was probably perfected and sharpened even more by how the audience reacted. Like any good company of actors, they tried to make it even better, from night to night.

Also, by August, Shakespeare had probably finished writing one of his most beloved plays, Much Ado About Nothing, and might have staged it already at the Curtain.

Benedick and Beatrice in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing film

Undoubtedly, the play was as successful as it is today. All across London, thousands of people would have been talking about this new romantic comedy, and even though Shakespeare had enjoyed smash hits before, Much Ado probably was as welcome a success as any he had ever written.

Arguably Shakespeare's greatest pleasure in the success of both Henry IV, Part 2 and Much Ado About Nothing was the fact that audiences showed so much love for his friend and patron, the Earl of Essex.

The characters of Hal and Benedick are based on Essex. As far as Shakespeare and Essex are concerned, when the audiences cheered those characters, they were cheering for Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
the original Hal, Benedick, Hamlet and many more

Essex, who was addicted to the theatres, probably went as frequently as possible to these two plays, in order to hear and see the love London had for him. In August 1598, he needed all the love he could get.

Essex, whom Queen Elizabeth had called her "favourite," was falling from favor. For years he had been caught in a civil war inside her court, fighting against the Cecil faction, led by William Cecil and his son, Robert. 

Over the years, with Essex as his patron, Shakespeare did everything he could to damage the reputation of William and Robert Cecil, and bolster the reputation of Essex. In fact, the character of Don John in Much Ado is yet another unflattering caricature of Robert Cecil. Polonius in Hamlet is Shakespeare's most famous caricature of William Cecil.

William and Robert Cecil

By 1597, the Essex faction was losing. Sometime in 1597, Essex began to exchange letters with King James of Scotland.

King James wanted to succeed Queen Elizabeth sooner than later, and by force if necessary. Essex and he wrote of a "project." This "project" was tantamount to treason.

Shakespeare probably did not know anything about this "project" but he could not have helped but feel a change come over Essex.

It must have been around this time, in late 1598, that Shakespeare, began to first have the idea for a new play. A daring new play that would address the current political problems and concerns by hiding them inside a story from ancient Rome. But Shakespeare was probably unsettled at the idea of this play, and fought it back, hoping never to have to actually write it.

Essex was quickly falling into a state of mind that would eventually lead to his ill-advised rebellion in 1601 against Queen Elizabeth and her court, a court which by that time was in Robert Cecil's full command.

How did Robert Cecil get so much control of the court?

That leads us to 4 August, 1598.

Shakespeare probably heard the news as quickly as anyone else, probably through Essex, who must have been following the health of William Cecil very closely.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen's Privy Seal, and arguably the most powerful man in England, had died in London, at his house on the Strand.

William Cecil
the original Polonius

Essex would have been delighted. He might have thought that with William Cecil gone, his son Robert might lose political influence.

If Essex was optimistic, then Shakespeare would have been optimistic, since his fortunes would rise or fall with the rise or fall of Essex's political position.

On 4 August, 1598 Shakespeare was so optimistic that he probably pushed away the thought of actually writing his daring new Roman play. It was too political, it was bound to get him in trouble, and was bound to harden the positions in both the Essex faction and the Cecil faction.

But in the days after 4 August 1598, Essex and Shakespeare both became less optimistic, and more disillusioned. Robert Cecil inherited his father's position, and became the most powerful man in Queen Elizabeth's court.

Robert Cecil
the original Don John, Malvolio and many more

It was probably in those depressing days that Shakespeare resolved to write his new daring play and actually stage it, in the beginning of 1599.

Paterson Joseph in Julius Caesar
a play Shakespeare probably never wanted to write

Julius Caesar was probably a play Shakespeare feared ever having to write, but after 4 August 1598, he must have thought that he had no choice.


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