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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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Shakespeare's Crimes

Did Shakespeare ever go to jail?

Did he ever do hard time?

The eminent Shakespeare scholar, Jonathan Bate once wrote that “Unlike nearly all his contemporaries, Shakespeare never wrote plays that put him on the wrong side of the law.”

I have read this claim quite often as I read books about Shakespeare.

It begs the question: did the Bard ever go to the big house?

I think it is quite possible that he did. In fact, I think it was almost inevitable for a playwright to face some kind of incarceration, or at least be detained in prison, during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James.

Ben Jonson was the most famous repeat offender of them all. I think he prided himself on being a scofflaw and jailbird.

Ben Jonson
The Most Wanted playwright/criminal 

He was put in prison for his controversial Isle of Dogs play in 1597. Two of the actors were put in prison, too. Thomas Nashe, who co-wrote the play, skipped town. 

But Nashe was no stranger to jail, having been sent to Newgate prison in 1593 for an offensive pamphlet he wrote.

The next year, Jonson killed an actor in a duel, and was thrown back in prison.

Ben Jonson's duel

During the reign of King James, Jonson’s play Sejanus landed him in jail again.

Only days before the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, he had party with some of the conspirators!

There is no record of his being imprisoned again, but I think it is highly likely that he was put in jail, or at least detained for questioning.

It is important to understand that Jonson’s plays were often performed by Shakespeare and his fellow actors. 

Shakespeare and the King’s Men performed the controversial Sejanus play, for example. So, it is hard to believe that only Jonson would be punished. Shakespeare and the actors were all complicit in the act of performing the play.

In other words, if Shakespeare was so famously cautious, if he was so good at behaving and never offending the authorities, why would he perform Sejanus? He must have known that the play would provoke a reaction.

Other playwrights had spells in prison, especially Christopher Marlowe. In 1593, he was interrogated and died soon after.

Christopher Marlowe
playwright / spy / repeat offender

His flatmate, Thomas Kyd, was imprisoned and tortured during the same period. He died a year later, probably due to his injuries.

Thomas Dekker was in prison twice. The second time, he was there for seven years!

So, it is entirely likely that Shakespeare could have been thrown in jail, for owing money, or for having offended someone in his plays.

There are some specific moments in Shakespeare’s biography where he could have been imprisoned.

In the 1590’s, Shakespeare created a farcical character named Sir John Oldcastle. 

William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham, was very offended by this character because that was the name of his very real ancestor.

Cobham was a member of the Queen’s Privy Council, and with his kind of power, Shakespeare could have faced severe punishment.

Shakespeare changed the name of the character to Falstaff.

Falstaff could have landed Shakespeare in jail

Shakespeare’s 1595 Richard II play was censored. 

The scene in which King Richard II is deposed had been cut out of the printed quarto versions. It was not until 1608 that the deposition scene appeared in print. We don’t know if the deposition scene was performed on stage.

If there was ever a moment when Shakespeare could have been put in The Tower, or Newgate prison, or Marshalsea, it was this one scene in this Richard II play. 

It might be considered the most controversial scene in any one of his plays. Even if he did not face prison, he would have been watched very closely by the authorities and the censors.

During the reign of King James, it is quite likely that Shakespeare could have been punished with jail time after the controversial play, The Tragedie of Gowrie.

The play was based on the real-life events of King James, who was kidnapped, and who was rescued in a big brawl. It had been a big scandal in Scotland, and the 1604 play was even more scandalous.

King James rescued from his kidnappers

The play was banned after only a couple of performances, and the play has been lost to history. It is very possible that it was destroyed.

We don’t know who wrote the play, but it is very improbable that anyone other than Shakespeare would have even dared to write a play about King James.

So, here are three very good examples of how Shakespeare could have faced prison time.

But let’s look at it another way.

Knowing that he wrote controversial plays, and was a known associate and colloborator with controversial playwrights like Jonson, let us assume that he never went to jail.

If that is true, that he was never punished for his plays, then that leads to other questions, questions that are never explored.

 How is it conceivable that he did not get punished?

I think the only answer to that question is that he had some very powerful artistic patrons. These patrons blocked him from any and all threats by the monarch, or by disgruntled and offended men like Lord Cobham.

Lord Strange
Shakespeare's first patron

Shakespeare had many patrons in his life, including Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange and Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton.

I have written about these men quite often in this blog. The one point I want to make here is that if Shakespeare was never punished for his plays it was because he was protected by men who had real power.

Most Shakespeare scholars are reluctant and or unwilling to connect Shakespeare to men like these, and do not understand how intimately connected Shakespeare was to the royal courts of Queen Elizabeth and King James.

Shakespeare was not some jobbing playwright who sat around in taverns and cheated on his wife with pretty women, even if they were as alluring as Gwyneth Paltrow.

He was as much a part of the royal court as the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Steward, and Lord Admiral.  

So, did Shakespeare go to prison?

I think he did.

But if he didn’t, then it was because his power was greater than we have been taught.


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