The rise to power of the two Roberts, Devereux and Cecil, in the 1590s, created a polarization of the Court that Elizabeth, who had fought it more or less successfully ever since taking the throne, now seemed helpless to prevent. However she sought to create a balance, every move simply added to the tension as these two men, and their supporters, vied for control of one office after another. In a society based so completely on inheritance and bloodlines, that they were the sons of her two primary, and rival, supporters during her early years, must have affected the Queen, who, having no family of her own, treated the Court as her family. In any case she continued to veer between the two, encouraging first one, then the other, unable ever to achieve a balance.
The two Roberts hated each other as only men can who’ve known each other as boys. Shortly after his father’s death, the newly crowned Earl of Essex spent from January to May 1577 as a ward in Burghley’s household before being sent up to Cambridge; time enough for 13-year-old Robert to acquire a lifelong hatred for the younger boy, already so much taller than himself, so much more attractive, so much more admired and catered to by everyone, including his own family.
Still just an 11-year-old kid, Essex was probably not aware of the effect that the death of his father in Ireland was having on Court politics. Not only had it cast him for life as one of the leading figures at Court, but by freeing his mother to marry the Earl of Leicester it meant he was now Leicester’s heir (or would be if the child his mother was carrying were not to survive). Since rumor had it that Lettice and Leicester were lovers back when Robert was conceived, they saw Essex as Leicester’s son in fact as well as fiat (ODNB). They also saw this as the real reason why Elizabeth became so fond of Essex, why she coddled him, forgiving every insolence and misstep, and why she so utterly loathed the Countess whose place in both men’s lives she so bitterly envied.
At eleven, Essex could not have been aware that as his mother’s marriage raised his own status, it caused Philip Sidney’s, Leicester’s heir up to that point, to fall. Will he nill he, Essex proceeded over time to take Sidney’s place, not only in the eyes of dynastic-minded parents of heiresses, but in those of the younger peers who had looked to Sidney, and who now began turning to Essex in hopes that through him they could reclaim what they believed to be their rightfully inherited places at the center of power. This created a chivalric bond between Essex and Sidney, adding romantic poignancy to Sidney’s dying bequeathal of his sword to Essex and Essex’s subsequent marriage to Sidney’s widow. This was the stuff of which young men’s heroic dreams were fashioned in those days.
Where is Oxford in this picture?
In this deadly power struggle, what side did the forty-something Earl of Oxford take? He must have found it hard to back either man. Wounded by Essex’s success in taking two of his most needed supports, his cousin Francis Bacon, who, throughout the 1580s, had been his devoted Puck and Ariel, and the young Earl of Southampton who he dreamed of making his patron and son-in-law, Oxford’s feelings would not have been improved in the mid-90s by the randy earl’s scandalous affair with his daughter Elizabeth. She, it should be kept in mind, had just been forced by Burghley to marry William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, following the death of his brother, Ferdinando Stanley, fifth Earl of Derby, patron of her father’s late rival, Christopher Marlowe, both murdered (many believed) through the machinations of her uncle Robert. If Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Court of Richard III was just as dark as his portrayal of the King, he had his reasons.
Yet, despite these hurts, nowhere in the canon is there the kind of obvious takedown of Essex that we see with Leicester (King Claudius), Henry Howard (Iago), Philip Sidney (Silence), Hatton (Malvolio), Burghley (Polonius), Robert Cecil (Richard III) or Lord Strange (Petruccio). The one role that we can be sure reflects the militant Earl, Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, was probably not created until 1598 when Essex’s behavior more nearly matches that of Shakespeare’s Achilles, sulking in his tent with Patroclus/Southampton.
Scholars have sought a reflection of Essex in Henry V, but it’s unlikely that Oxford ever intended the comparison, any more than he intended his Richard II to be taken as a commentary on Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare’s comparisons were deadly in their accuracy. The spendthrift young Richard was nothing like the parsimonious old Queen and their situations could hardly have been more different, nor was Essex or his situation anything like that of Shakespeare’s Bolingbroke. Oxford may have been angry with Elizabeth, but he was certainly not ambitious to see her dethroned and most certainly not by Essex.
The primary reason Oxford wouldn’t get involved in the Cecil-Essex fray is not that he wished to spare Southampton, although that may have been a factor, but that he didn’t want to be responsible for giving Cecil any advantage. If he suspected that Cecil was behind the dismantling of Paul’s Boys in 1590, the murders of Marlowe and Lord Strange in ’93 and ’94, perhaps even the murder of Lord Hunsdon and, perhaps most enraging of all, the current embargo on his use of the Blackfriars Theater, Oxford would have been an awfully dull fellow had he not realized that he was in a deadly showdown with his brother-in-law for control of the London Stage––possibly for his very life––but most importantly of all, for his papers.
I have shot mine arrow o’er the house . . .
A line had been drawn in the sand, and although neither man would cross it during either lifetime, tension remained. With this in mind it’s amusing to read the letters Oxford sent Cecil from 1596 on, pretending good fellowship and mild surprise that Cecil should think evil of him. Of course he knew why Cecil wouldn’t help him with his petitions for the Forest, the Danvers estate and the Presidency of Wales, and that he’d probably get nothing that he asked for, but, protected by the rubric we term “plausible deniability,” he had to maintain a front and Cecil was forced to follow suit. Officially, Oxford had nothing to do with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Officially, from 1598 on, all these plays, including Richard III, were written by the son of an ignorant wool dealer from far off Warwickshire.
It may be that in a later version of Hamlet produced for a Court audience where he knew Cecil would be present, Oxford asked forgiveness when he has the Prince appologize to Ophelia’s brother. Blaming his madness, Hamlet explains:
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness: if’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.
Laertes forgives him––publicly––then ignominiously stabs him with a poisoned fencing sword in the final act.
“Plausible deniability” aside, Oxford was well aware that Cecil would continue to do everything within his power to destroy his theater, if not now, then later, and if not the theater, then certainly his plays, in particular those that portray him or any member of the Cecil family in a negative light. (Polonius was his father, Volumnia was his mother, Goneril and Regan were his nieces.) If the Court community had any reservations on this point, they must have been swept away on June 24, 1604, when Cecil, under the impression that Oxford had just died, had Southampton arrested and his papers searched. We need no confirming “evidence” that, by then, copies of everything that mattered had been safely stowed with the Earl of Pembroke.