First did thy sire and now thyself by Machivillian skill
Prevail and curb the Peers as well befits your will.
………………….Anonymous libel published after Cecil’s death
While most of the devious villains conjured up by Shakespeare fit what we know of Oxford’s cousin, Henry Howard, with whom he had been close (too close) when he was in his twenties, the worst villain of all, the ambitious and ruthless Richard III, was based on his brother-in-law, Robert Cecil. Most obvious clues are Cecil’s Machiavellian tactics, notably his betrayal of one who had once been a enough of a friend to take his son into his own household, Sir Walter Raleigh; worst perhaps his own brother-in-law, Henry Brooke Ld Cobham, both of whom he took down in two sloppy sting operations known as the Main and Bye plots. But beyond these are the deaths over many years of the social and political leaders whose removal benefitted the Cecils in some way. These characteristics plus the physical description of Shakespeare’s ambitious king fit Robert Cecil so well that a number of orthodox historians have agreed that Shakespeare had Cecil in mind when he wrote the play, among them David Bevington and Andrew Gurr (Aune 26), though they have no comment on how he managed to get away with it.
That our view today of the historical Richard is shaped almost entirely by Shakespeare’s villain is obvious when you google Richard III and get a dozen articles about Shakespeare’s character to one about the real king. Not everyone agrees with Shakespeare’s view of Richard. The thesis that he was in fact a good man victimized by his family’s enemies was broached most recently by Josephine Tey’s (1951) novel The Daughter of Time, but this was nothing; for it had been promoted by George Buc in the early 17th century, who was speaking for an entire community of northern English who remembered Richard as a good king, wickedly done in by traitors. According to modern historians there is no evidence that the real Richard had the deformities given him by 16th-century Lancastrians, most notably Sir Thomas More, whose damning portrayal assured the Tudors that the last Plantagenet was a demon who deserved to lose his crown.
That Shakespeare chose to follow More’s view is explained in part by Oxford’s family history, Richard having punished his forbears for their adherence to Henry VI by executing the 12th Earl and his oldest son, taking their lands, and leaving their mother impoverished. Because there are few mentions of the king’s supposed deformities in the 1580s version of the play, The True Tragedy of Richard III, it’s clear that it wasn’t until Shakespeare’s rewrite in the 1590s that the references to his deformities were added.
The case for The True Tragedy as a Court play written by Oxford in his early teens has been made by historian Ramon Jiménez, who shows in detail how closely Shakespeare’s play follows it, how closely it connects with Oxford in its use of particular words and phrases, and how neatly it fits into the period when Oxford first came to Cecil House in the early 1560s. My only quibble with the Jiménez thesis is the likelihood that True Tragedy as we have it today (based largely on its style) represents a rewrite done during the early 1580s for the Queen’s Men.
That Shakespeare’s version with its focus on Richard’s deformities was Oxford’s way of striking back at Cecil, and his father, for the former’s attack on the writing community in 1593 and for the latter’s destruction of his credit, fits the events of the early ’90s too well to dismiss for lack of more definitive evidence. We must always keep in mind that the Cecils had sufficient control of the record that anything that tended to cast doubt on their actions was relatively easy for them to erase. What they could not erase, and what Shakespeare and his company obviously would not let them forget, was the play itself. In the play as we know it, there’s no escaping the parallels between Shakespeare’s descriptions of Richard and contemporary views of Cecil, whose physical deformity and rapid rise at Court naturally invited comparison with More’s Richard, published more than once within the memory of men and women still living.
Richard III had a most unusual number of editions published in quarto, the most of any Shakespeare play, nine from 1597 to 1629, five of them up to and following Cecil’s death in 1612. Hotine and Croft show how closely dates of publication and performance connect the play with events involving Cecil and the verse libels directed against him, both during his years of power and most ferociously following his death. As Aune reports: “Hotine sees Cecil’s ambitions and his regular promotions as connected to, if not a cause of, the printings of the first five of the eight Richard III quartos . . . .” (27).
As I see it, the first edition, published (anonymously) in 1597, was a response to the deaths of Ld Hunsdon and James Burbage and the loss of their new theater. The second, published the following year, the first play to be published with William Shake-speare on the title page, was a response to the growing demand to know who wrote the first. The third, published in 1602, was in response to what Cecil’s biographer, P.M. Handover, calls “the near pathological hatred” (230) felt by many following the execution of Essex and the continued imprisonment of Southampton. The 1605 edition followed the explosion of the Gunpowder Plot, which many saw as a creation of Cecil’s, coupled with his elevation as Earl of Salisbury to the highest level of the peerage. The 1612 edition rode to press on the floodtide of salacious epigrams and ballads that followed his death. Someone, not just Oxford (who was dead himself by 1612), was not about to let “little bossive Robin” rest in peace.
Why did Cecil fail to retaliate?
There is no possibility that Cecil was unaware of these repeated publications and, one must suppose, the productions that stimulated the sales of the printed versions. Although we have no record of performance, the play must have been performed often enough to back the claims of scholars that this was the role that first brought Richard Burbage his reputation as a great actor. Why then did Cecil not act to stop the play and the publication of further editions? During the Essex trial the Crown had one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men questioned about their reasons for performing Richard II, while the Queen in private also pressed William Lambarde on the subject. What prevented Cecil from doing the same with regard to Richard III? And if Oxford was the author, why did he not stop these publications and productions during the period when it appears by his letters that he was relying on Cecil to assist him in getting Court appointments?
First, with both the Court and Parliament communities aware of the charges implicit in the play, to react in any way that could be seen as coming directly from himself would simply reinforce the charges and increase suspicion. It was, after all, only a play, so any connection between himself and the crimes of Richard III were no more than rumors to be smiled at. Cecil’s method with his enemies was always to work “at a distance,” through agents. With the fight made public, his only recourse was to do his best to ignore it, something he could manage so long as the Parliament Chamber theater remained closed to Shakespeare’s Company. To have had either Oxford or Richard Burbage murdered would have raised a hue and cry that he was not yet strong enough to withstand. However the other members of the Privy Council felt about Cecil, they would have agreed that for the sake of peace it were best to keep the Blackfriars theater closed to Shakespeare’s Company. After all, who knew what other members of the Privy Council the actors might choose to satirize. Once the Globe was built in 1599, so as long as the weather was amenable, West End residents in need of entertainment could take the ferry over the river and back.
As for Oxford, he was in much the same situation with Cecil that Cecil was with him. So long as the plays were not officially connected with him in any way he could simply shrug off suggestions that he had anything to do with them. He continued to petition Cecil for help with various suits, for to ignore what everyone knew had become the only path to Court preferment would also have been an admission of sorts, one that he couldn’t afford. Did the Queen know who wrote Richard III? Did Oxford’s wife and new in-laws? Perhaps not. Oxford’s life was one masquerade after another, some onstage, some with the Court community, some at home and in the bedroom.
With Cecil there’s no hard evidence of the kind that shows why Oxford hated Howard (and vice versa). Cecil was never one to reveal his feelings openly, while in Oxford’s letters to Cecil (late ’90s through 1603) he shows only a smooth denial of any ill feeling between them (something we see in more than one Cecil letter to a hated contemporary). Nevertheless the constant reiteration by Oxford of his good will and frequent reminders of their family connection sound la lot like the lady doth protest too much. Despite their family tone, these are political letters, written as necessary moves in a campaign to get some sort of lucrative Court office, the sort that all courtiers were continually writing to maintain or improve their positions at Court. At least twice, however, he feels it necessary to defend himself against what he calls “fables,” his word for certain rumors that something he has done or said is damaging to Cecil. This of course could be anything––including the authorship of Richard III.
The Cecils had always known that Oxford was involved in producing plays and other forms of entertainment for the Court and London theaters, but its unlikely, considering the caution with which he surrounded his activities, that they knew exactly which plays were his and which were not. They might have been suspicious, but suspicion isn’t certainty, and as long as nothing was admitted openly, the actors could always plead ignorance. Once the plays began carrying the name William Shakespeare, Cecil was certainly capable of finding out who he was and having him questioned, but again, was it worth the risk of exposure? Also, once the Company came up with a cover for Oxford, the danger of playgoers connecting Shakespeare’s characters to members of Oxford’s family was lessened, perhaps to zero.
As Aune notes, the first quarto of Richard III appeared in 1597, the first play to appear in print under the name Shake-speare. Since the second appeared almost immediately in 1598, the first edition may have sold out, though a more likely reason was the need to respond to the pressing question of who wrote the play, since it was the first play to carry the name Shakespeare on the title page. A third came out in 1602 following Devereux’s execution, when his supporters were most furious with Cecil (and also while Oxford was striving, and failing, to acquire the Danvers estate, possibly to return it to the remaining Danvers brother). The fourth, published in 1605, was in response to the Gunpowder Plot.
The next seven years saw Cecil at the peak of his power, Oxford’s death, and the return of the Blackfriars theater to Shakespeare’s Company. Then, as Aune notes, referencing letters of Chamberlain and Donne: “Cecil’s death in 1612 coincided with a revival of Richard III and the printing of the fifth quarto . . . . If there had been any doubt that Cecil was associated with Richard in the public eye, the flurry of libels that appeared after his death put it to rest. . . .” (29-30).
Though Hotine’s correlations between the staging and printing of Richard III and Cecil’s life by no means constitute proof, when combined with Croft’s evidence from the verse libels they demonstrate that from the 1590s to his death, that Robert Cecil was so closely connected with Richard III in the public’s imagination was almost totally due to Shakespeare’s play.