Countdown to show time
The Queen never did anything that couldn’t wait awhile longer, so why did she finally get around to giving Cecil the title of Secretary in July 1596? Probably because that was when it became obvious that, with funds running low (due largely to Essex’s exploits) she would have to hold another Parliament soon. For that she would have to have a duly appointed Principal Secretary in place to perform his traditional role of speaker for the Queen in Commons. In any case, it’s clear she took advantage of the fact that all of Cecil’s enemies, Essex, Southampton, Raleigh, Charles Howard and their adventurous cohorts were all far away at sea on the Cadiz voyage.
Cecil could not bear the idea of having to face an audience whose minds were filled with some heinous takedown by his hated brother-in-law. Aware of how the actors must detest him for the murders of Marlowe and Lord Strange, he did not intend to allow him or them the opportunity for revenge. By means of his newly acquired authority, he found a way to deny them access to the West End audience by preventing them from using their new theater at Blackfriars.
With the help of his redoubtable Aunt, Lady Russell, in the fall of 1596 he arranged that a petition be passed around Blackfriars requesting the Privy Council to stop the Burbages from using their theater, letting it be known that Master Secretary would be seriously displeased with non-signers. Since the anti-theater faction dominated the Privy Council at that time, the measure was passed, as the Cecils no doubt knew it would be. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men produced six plays at Court that winter. It’s most unlikely that Richard III was one of them. The following summer, when Bacon/Nashe reacted by producing the Isle of Dogs at the Swan Theater with the recently formed Pembroke’s Men, Cecil retaliated by closing all the theaters, forcing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to hit the road.
That this was the moment when Oxford threw caution to the winds and hammered out the blazing Shakespeare version of Richard II seems too likely to dismiss. That it was intended as a no-holds-barred attack on Cecil should also be evident from the fact that as soon as the Company returned to London it was registered with the Stationers in time to have it in the bookstalls by or shortly after October 24, when Parliament was called into session. That way if Cecil reduced his ability to address the audience through the Stage, he’d get to them through the Press, and although the play itself as written gives no obvious connection to Cecil, for those who read it, a mere whisper would suffice.
If he missed him with a right cross, he’d get him with a left hook.
When did he write it?
Right now we can’t be certain. If he did write it before the summer of 1597, Hunsdon may have refused to allow the Company to perform it. An old hand at Court politics, Henry Carey had been in the business of promoting the London Stage for many years, sometimes as a rival, sometimes as a colleague of the men who were creating it. He well knew, as had his own patron Sussex before him, what maneuvers were possible, when to lay low and when to take advantage in the struggle for control of the Stage. There were issues involved in getting it past the censors, and the Queen was easily angered by any threat to her “solace.” If she found out that Oxford had used the Stage to attack her Principal Secretary her retaliation could be worse than any advantage gained.
Hunsdon may also have wanted a more personal kind of revenge. He probably cared little what happened to Marlowe, whose reckless writing had got the Stage into such trouble, but he would certainly have cared immensely about the killing of Lord Strange, a brutal act that left a handful of his near relations without a husband and father. If so, he died before he got the opportunity, shortly after Cecil was officially appointed Secretary. Was he murdered? Hunsdon’s DNB biographer claims that he was busy with the Privy Council only a month earlier––but he was also 70 years old. If Cecil had him murdered it would have been to prevent him from whatever revenge Hunsdon may have been planning. Even if not, what can be almost certain is that members of the Company believed that Cecil had had their patron murdered just as he had the patron of the Lord Strange’s Men.
If he was responsible for Hunsdon’s death, then Cecil slipped, for by removing his opponent’s Bishop he left himself open to his Rook. With Hunsdon’s restraining hand gone, and no clear direction from their new patron, the new Lord Chamberlain, George Carey, the Company went ahead and performed Richard III, exactly where and when is impossible to say at this point, but it would have been somewhere effective. What is possible to state is that the play with all its descriptions of Richard’s (imagined) deformity was entered with the Stationers on October 20th, 1597, and published (without an author’s name) shortly after.
There can be no doubt that the intended audience for Richard III was the Parliament of 1597. As Mark Edwin Andrews has shown, this was the same Parliament for which Shakespeare wrote Merchant of Venice. Elizabeth was sparing in her Parliaments, so when one came along with its promise of contact with the most important and affluent audience in England, it was not to be missed. With Burbage hunched over like Cecil, adopting his clothing style, his stance and his speech patterns, there would be none who left the theater or hall in any confusion over what contemporary figure the actors had in mind.
Blocked by Cecil and unsure of their new patron, George Carey, Lord Hunsdon’s son, Oxford and Company decided to take action, the kind that only a troupe of gifted actors plus a gifted playwright director can take. Certainly it was a gamble, even a desperate gamble, but it was not entirely reckless. They all knew what Cecil was capable of, but they also knew that he did his dirty deeds behind closed doors, in dark alleys and empty streets, and with hands other than his own. Clearly their only chance of taking back their place in the world was by revealing the truth about him to as wide and influential an audience as possible. If they missed this opportunity, who knew when it might come again.
Exactly when it was performed is impossible to say, but the most likely moment would have been at some point during the traditional holiday season, either just before they left town on Tuesday, December 21, or just after they returned on January 11. It’s an interesting anomaly that the Revels account shows that the Court saw six plays that season, all by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men but not one by the Admiral’s Men or any other company. We can be certain that Richard III was not one of them.
Where was it performed?
The Burbages’ Theatre in Shoreditch, burdened with financial problems, had lost its lease in May. Following the Isle of Dogs kerfuffle, the first yearround commercial theater built in England closed after twenty years of entertaining the public. Nor did the Swan, where the problem play had been performed, ever get another license; its players joined the Lord Admiral’s Men. Thus, throughout the rest of 1597 and all of 1598 it seems that England’s royal company was restricted to using the Curtain, the little stage in Shoreditch that had functioned for years as an easer to the big public Theatre.
With their grand new stage at Blackfriars now off limits, and with no other suitable commercial theater available, the first performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III probably took place in a hall in one of the great mansions in Westminster along the Strand, the most likely being Essex House. That Essex had departed the Court and Parliament on November 9 in a huff over the appointment of the Lord Admiral to a position that placed him ahead of Essex in prestige, a contretemps that wasn’t settled until December 28, suggests that providing a venue for the rivals to the Lord Admiral’s company to perform a takedown of their hated rival, would have been just the kind of holiday lark in which he and his circle would have taken delight.
Oxford may have disdained asking Essex for favors, so it was probably managed through Essex’s trusted advisor, Francis Bacon, whose involvement in the production of Richard III seems evident from the fact that its title is scribbled twice on the cover of the Northumberland manuscript along with the name that would be used on the second edition, William Shakespeare. The Company’s new patron, George Carey, now a member of the Privy Council and recently made Garter Knight, though less obvious in his patronage than his father, was also related to Essex. In such a private setting the audience would have been by invitation only. We can assume that Cecil was not one of them. That the audience was limited would not have prevented the story from spreading like wildfire among the members returning in January. Evidence that this is what happened is how quickly the publisher felt called upon to produce a second edition of the play.
With so little to go on, it’s reckless to claim that the ploy succeeded, but it does seem to be the case. Although evidence for the activities of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men is exceedingly sparce, there seem to be no more direct attacks from Cecil, in fact it seems he went out of his way to be conciliatory to his rivals, Essex and Raleigh (Haynes Cecil 52). His most likely response would have been simply to do his best to ignore it. With Oxford’s takedown the subject of constant discussion, to retaliate, even secretly, was out of the question; anything along those lines would only cause the rumors and the outpouring of nasty epigrams to redouble in intensity. By 1599 problems with Essex had reached the point where no more conciliation was possible. Once past the nightmare of the Essex Rebellion, his trial and execution, Cecil was hardened into defending the eminence he had achieved with the loss of status of so many who had stuck with Essex.
Cecil was used to being disliked. His desolation at his wife’s untimely death in childbirth that January may have stemmed from the fact that she was the only person in his life, besides his mother and sisters, who had ever showed him any genuine love. Without that, and without his father’s cautioning influence––Burghley died in August 1598––he seemed to lose what restraint he had. Aware that he was seen as a devil on the level of Crookback Richard, he threw all his energies into achieving as much power as he could, and with it the ability to manipulate men through fear. Sadly, even the good that he sought to do, bringing peace with Spain and initiating progressive changes through the Great Contract, were rejected by a Parliament so sickened by his tactics that they would have refused anything he offered.
As for Shakespeare’s company, forced to do without a major stage throughout 1597 and ’98, at the end of December, in advance of its destruction by the landlord, the actors and their carpenter dismantled the long defunct theater in Shoreditch, transporting its timbers across the Thames in the dead of night. Rebuilding it in Southwark as The Globe, they soon took most of the trade from the now aging Rose, which was pulled down a few years later, leaving theirs the only theater on Bankside.
With George Carey unwilling or unable to undo the deadlock with Cecil that kept the Burbages adult company from using their Blackfriars stage (remember that he lived just beneath it), they had to make do with just the Globe until 1610.
So, sadly for Oxford, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would not regain the use of their Blackfriars stage until after his death, when, as the King’s Men, they went on to become possibly the most successful theater company in history. Why did it take so long? With Cecil’s increasing power and aware of the trouble the Company had caused with Richard III, the Privy Council, which included their patron, may have thought it better to keep the peace. Did the Company continue to produce the play? We don’t know. If they ever kept any records, they have vanished. What we do know is that new editions of Richard III in Quarto continued to be published, again, and again, year after year, until long after all the principals were dead.
The coverup is born
The world did not have to see the first performance of Richard III to know about it, for copies of the play must have flown off the bookstall shelves. We know this because however many they printed of the first edition, typically about 500, they were gone so fast that a second edition was printed the following year. This time, for the first time in history, a published play bore the name William Shake-spear on its title page (with hyphen!). Richard II, which had been published at about the same time as Richard III in the fall of 1597 (also anonymously) was also published again in ’98, and it too proclaimed William Shake-spear as author.
At about the same time Frances Meres’s anthology of attributions, Wit’s Treasury, publicized the names of both the Earl of Oxford and William Shakespeare, thus setting in place their appearance as separate entities. Identifying Oxford only as “best for comedy,” Meres, or his editor, identified Shakespeare as the author of twelve current plays, among them Richard III, thus putting to rest at a single stroke questions about their authorship––or so it was hoped. From then on, although anonymity continued to cling to subsequent editions, more and more of the plays in quarto got published as by William Shakespeare, some with hyphen, some without.
Next to love, anger is the most motivating emotion. This scenario for the creation of the masterpiece that launched the Shakespeare coverup is based on the premise that the rage that pulses throughout Richard III reflects the mood of the man who wrote it. Much as Byron’s second book, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, also written in a rage at the way he and his first book had been treated by the scathing review journals of his time, was the book that first showed Byron’s talent, Richard III must have stunned the audiences of 1597 and left a much wider group demanding to know who wrote it.
Had this scenario occured during the Augustan period, or even late in the 17th century under Charles II, the author might have been outed by the journalists of the time. But the final decade of Elizabeth’s reign was closer in nature to the Soviet regime under Joseph Stalin, and the proto-journalists, the University Wits, who might at least have alluded to the issue, had already been killed or chased from the field by the time Oxford had his revenge. Bacon, who as Nashe took far more risks than any other, decided once he got his first real job at Court in 1596 to put an end to his the journalistic adventures of his youth.
As for history, as Hamlet put it: “the rest is silence.”