1582-83: The death of Sussex
Adding grief to the fear and isolation of this period, in 1582, perhaps earlier, Oxford’s mentor, the dynamic Earl of Sussex, began to fail. It’s assumed now that Sussex was suffering from consumption, perhaps contracted years earlier on strenuous military campaigns in rainy Ireland or cold, damp Scotland. From one of Elizabeth’s most prominent councillors in the mid-to-late 1570s, he fades into obscurity in the early 1580s, dying in June of 1583.
Oxford must have been devastated, losing not only his father figure and mentor, but the patron who had made his use of the Court Stage possible. He was further saddened by the loss in May of a newborn son, the heir so much desired by both himself and the Cecils, and grieved by the intense sorrow of his wife, who by the tone of a poem she wrote around this time, appears to have become somewhat deranged.
In dolefull ways I spend the wealth of my time,
Feeding on my heart, that never comes again,
Since the ordinance of the Destin’s hath been,
To end of the seasons of my years the prime,
With my Son, my Gold, my Nightingale and Rose,
Is gone: for t’twas in him and no other where;
And though mine eyes run down like fountains here
The stone will not speak yet, that doth it inclose.
And Destins, and Gods, you might rather have ta’en,
My twenty years, than the two days of my son.
And of this world what shall I hope, since I know
That in his respect, it can yield but moss:
Or what should I consume any more in woe,
When Destins, Gods, and worlds, are all in my loss.
As the months went by and he struggled to find a new place for himself at Court, Raleigh having replaced him as Queen’s pet, it was borne in on Oxford how little real support he had without Sussex. Everywhere he looked he was confronted with rivals or enemies. Shortly after his patron’s death he wrote to Burghley that since his banishment, of all his many relatives, only Lord Lumley had reached out the hand of friendship. He spent the next two years afraid to leave his house alone for fear he’d be attacked by Knyvett and his men.
In many ways, Sussex may have been more of a father figure to Oxford than Smith. Born into a generation of aristocratic rebels and ne’er-do-weels, Oxford’s father’s generation, Sussex was not only an exemplary military leader, but a loyal, well-educated , liberal patron of the arts, someone who could be looked up to as a role model. Unlike either Burghley or Smith, he was from Oxford and Rutland’s own class, their own cultural heritage. With Sussex wasting away and himself banished, the Court stage was in danger of being taken over, either by vice-Chamberlain Christopher Hatton, another rival, or by a recent addition to the crew of wannabe Court entertainers, Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, a client of Leicester’s.
Lord Strange, wealthy, or at least with plenty of credit, was a younger version of himself. A poet and a dandy, had not his loyalties bound him to Leicester Stanley would have been a man after Oxford’s heart. Shortly after arriving at Court in 1579 his name begins to appear in the Revels accounts as a patron of holiday entertainments. Oxford’s ambivalence towards Stanley is discernable in the play he wrote to celebrate his wedding in 1579 to Alice Spencer, Taming of A Shrew (The Shrew was a later revision). Unlike the sweet and happy stuff he wrote for other Court weddings (As You Like It, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Shrew has a sharp edge that makes it more like a roast than a wedding present.
In a fury of grief over Sussex and his little lost son, of rage against Leicester, the dilatory Queen and the fickle Court community that seemed to be forgetting both himself and Sussex––he wrote one play after another, each for a different company and a different audience. Timon of Athens, in which he lashed the Court audience with his fury, was probably written originally for the boys to perform at Court. Then, at Walsingham’s request, came The Spanish Tragedy, written for the Queen’s Men to perform for the coastal towns (and at Court over the winter holidays). Then Hamlet, written for Burbage’s team to perform at the little school stage for the West End audience.
1583: The Spanish Tragedy
Grieving for Sussex and Anne, outraged by the lack of response to it at Court, Oxford turned for consolation to a book written by a philosopher to heal himself from the grief caused by the death of a son. The book was one Oxford himself had helped get published back in 1573, the English translation by his friend, Thomas Bedingfield, of the De consolatione of Jerome Cardan. Written in the tradition of Boettius and Polybius as comfort for the disheartened, the book was an effort by Cardan to save himself from going mad with grief and remorse following the execution of his second son by the Milanese authorities for having poisoned his wife.
There’s no doubt that Cardan’s son was guilty. What tortured the father was the knowledge that the simple-minded youth had been driven by his wife’s treatment of him into committing murder. Bitter over not having had enough money to buy off the judges, aware that the verdict of capital punishment was largely due to his own political and professional rivalries, Cardan was tortured by the feeling that he had not been a particularly good or caring father, that he had not given his son the kind of childhood that might have led him to marry more wisely. Forced to reunite with his wife, a condition of his return to Court, Oxford was finally able to hear her side of the situation that led to their breakup. Filled with remorse, his sense of his own folly was touched by the particulars of Cardan’s grief.
Pressed by Walsingham for a play to turn the coastal towns against the Spanish, made aware by his association with Dom Antonio, the pretender to the Portuguese throne, a visitor at Court shortly before his banishment, of how Philip of Spain had just conquered Portugal, Oxford turned to his pen. His angry heart craved to see blood, if only gobs of red flour pudding. Next to desire, revenge is the most powerful of human motives. Revenge was the engine that propelled the works of Seneca, so it was to Seneca that he turned for inspiration. How interesting that it was at this time (1581) that a collection of translations of Seneca’s tragedies, some of them dating to Cecil House days, were published by Thomas Newton, a poet whose path Oxford may have crossed at the universities in the mid-1560s. A physician by training and trade, Newton’s publication of Seneca was unique in a career of publishing medical and religious tracts of one kind and another. In 1583 he is recorded as having received the rectorship at Little Ilford, seven miles west of Fisher’s Folly, just over the bridge at Stratford at Bowe.
It’s obvious to anyone who takes the time to read it, that, despite its populist melodrama, The Spanish Tragedy was intended for an educated audience. With the topical references connecting it to 1581-82, Spanish Tragedy is important to us now in efforts to see how Oxford’s style developed. However bespattered with Senecan gore, the play is filled with witty conceits, classical references, and rhetorical devices. Because he never rewrote it––probably because by the early ’90s, when he began revising his old plays for the Lord Chamberlains’s Men, it had become too popular to change––it’s a perfect example of his writing style in the early ’80s. Probably also because it was so popular, and also because by then it had become a vehicle for Edward Alleyn, it remained with Henslowe and Alleyn following the 1594 reassignment by Hunsdon and Howard of actors, theaters, and play scripts. (Published for years as by anonymous, it was only identified as by Thomas Kyd many years later in a passing remark by Thomas Heywood.)
The connections that bind Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet in theme have been noted by commentators. Two of his most passionate and, ultimately, most successful plays, they were written for different audiences: Spanish Tragedy for the Queen’s Men to play on the road; Hamlet for the Inns of Court community, the lawyers and Parliamentarians of the West End. That Spanish Tragedy was purposely written for a public audience (perhaps the first time he ever wrote something specifically for the public) can be seen by the fact that the starring role was for a character who did not reflect himself. The role of Hieronymo, a man old enough to have a grown son, was probably created for John Bentley, the tragedian. Though the plots differed, the climax in both was the same: a courtier, who, when driven to revenge the murder of a family member, chooses to do it with––guess what?––a play!
Dating the “Ur-Hamlet”
It was often the case that Oxford worked through a personal issue by creating two (or more) different works, usually in different genres. (He dealt with his marriage troubles in seven different ways in seven different plays.) He may have exhausted his thirst for violence with Spanish Tragedy, but he was not finished with what had really been torturing him when he wrote it, the possibility that Leicester had had Sussex poisoned. In an atmosphere where suspicion of death by political murder was a commonplace, he may also have believed for many years, or at least suspected, that his own father had been murdered, in which case Leicester would have been the leading suspect there as well, for it was he who, more than any other, had benefitted from Earl John’s death, most of the Earl’s estates having been awarded them by the Queen, via the Court of Wards, to farm for his personal profit during de Vere’s minority.
The earliest version of Hamlet was probably written shortly before the Parliament session of 1584-85. As an angry thrust at Leicester it could not have been written after October 1585, when Leicester was appointed to command the English troops in the Netherlands. However suspicious of him Oxford may have been, he was too aware of protocols to besmirch the dignity of an English general abroad, nor would the actors or their patrons have allowed it. Besides, he may have hoped to be part of the fight in some way.
Members of the Court could easily see plays at the Blackfriar’s stage, but even so they would not be inclined to report what they’d seen to the Queen, who was all too quick to punish the bearers of bad news. But the Cecils would have known what kind of plays he was producing for the West End, and would have been well aware that from rehearsals of polite comedies with the boys, with Oxford’s banishment a very different kind of play began to be performed by adults, plays obviously not intended for the Court. Mildred Cecil’s sister Lady Catherine Russell lived steps from the theater within the same Blackfriars compound. If by 1584 Lady Russell wasn’t already the leader of the neighborhood effort to put a stop to the stage, she soon became it.
Pressured by the residents, the landlord, Sir William More, found a way to take the owners of the school lease to court over a violation by the school of a clause in its lease agreement. Was it purest accident that the matter came to a head in April 1584, with the plans for the Queen’s Fifth Parliament set for the following November? Although the court gave the verdict to the landlord, there is no evidence that that property was used by anyone else until 1590, when leases held by Lord Hunsdon came to an end. The most likely scenario is that the first version of Hamlet (the “Ur-Hamlet”) was performed at Blackfriars for the MPs at some point between November 1584 and February 1585.
We must keep in mind that the play we know as Hamlet today would not have been the play that audiences saw in 1584-85. The language and possibly much of the plot in the earliest version would have been much more like the Spanish Tragedy or James IV, both from the 1580s. The reference to an early version of Hamlet by Nashe in his preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon puts this or another early version before 1589. Stuck with the Stratford bio, literary historians are forced to attribute the so-called Ur-Hamlet to Thomas Kyd, based largely on Nashe’s following reference to the Kid from Aesop. But if you read this passage carefully you’ll see that Nashe is not out to identify Kyd as author of anything in particular, but to silence him in the same way that he would soon be striving to silence the Harvey brothers.
As Shakespeare’s greatest masterpiece and the work that comes the closest to telling Oxford’s own story, many now agree that Hamlet was added to and rewritten several times over the years. The final version (lengthening it to upwards of 5 hours playing time) was probably one of the last things Oxford worked on in the months before his death, when some of the most memorable bits of philosophy and poetry were added.
Nor was it like the first published version, the so-called “bad quarto” from 1603. In my view, A.S. Cairncross (The Problem of Hamlet, 1936) has proven beyond a doubt that the 1603 Hamlet was a road version, revised by someone other than the author for a company of no more than six actors, and trimmed of its poetry for the better understanding of its intended audience, the “unpoetic” Audreys of the provinces. Somehow this road version escaped the control of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, probably through a hired actor who had no allegience to the company, who saw it laying around, swiped it, and sold it to a printer. Its publication forced the company, and Oxford, to publish an authentic version the following year.
Who’s who at Oxford’s Elsinore?
Most orthodox scholars agree that Shakespeare’s Polonius is a portrait of Lord Burghley. A point of topical reference comes in Act II Scene 2 with Polonius’s question: “Do you know me, my lord?” to which Hamlet responds: “Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.” This ties the original to some time between November 1584 and March 1585. It was at this session of Parliament that Burghley tried (and failed) to get a continuation of his law of 1563 that declared Wednesday a fish day, by way of a bill known as “Cecil’s fast,” (Read LB 304). At no later time would this comment have had any point to any but a handful of political insiders. Oxford may have left it in through later revisions because it still amused him. Or else his posthumous editor, who was probably working with a number of versions from over the years, left it in, partly because it amused him/her, and partly because it seemed unlikely that anyone but aged parliamentarians would get a reference from the mid-1580s.
As for the setting at Elsinore in Denmark, although Oxford (so far as we know) was never in Denmark himself, his brother-in-law, Sir Peregrine Bertie (pron. Bartie), was at the Danish Court twice during the period in question, having been sent there on diplomatic missions. That Oxford and Bertie were close at this time is evident from the fact that one of the skirmishes between his group and the Knyvetts took place June 18, 1582, (Nelson 281) during a visit to his sister Mary and her husband at their home in the City, shortly before Sir Peregrine left for Denmark.
During a later visit in 1585, Bertie visited the astronomer Tycho Brahe at his observatory, something he would surely have written about to Oxford, knowing of his interest in astronomy. That issues of astronomy, including the Copernican theory, are touched on in Hamlet through some of its more opaque wordplay has been the subject of research by astrophysicist Peter Usher. While wined and dined by the Danish aristocracy, Bertie would also have come into contact with several Danish courtiers who bore the names that so delighted Shakespeare, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Feeling sorry for himself, grieving for Sussex, concerned over harms the Knyvetts might do to himself or his retainers, he turned, once again, to do battle where he had the upper hand––on the stage. And again, as he did in Spanish Tragedy, he wrestles with the ancient demand of a tooth for a tooth, that blood cries for blood, that sons and fathers must avenge the killing of fathers and sons, and just as Hamlet does, and as Hieronymo did in Spanish Tragedy, and as he would do again and again over the years, he uses the stage as his own personal court of justice.
This first version of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was a dramatic gauntlet hurled (before a Westminster audience) at the Earl of Leicester, who, by the winter of 1582, nothing daunted by his fall from grace in 1579, was back in the Queen’s favor and seemingly stronger than ever. Like “the mousetrap” in Hamlet and the final act of The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet was Oxford’s play within the play, the mirror meant to reflect the current power struggle within the Court community, in which he seems to accuse Leicester, like Claudius, of having his enemies murdered. Aimed at the Inns of Court audience, it was probably performed by an adult company at the Blackfriars theater during the holiday season of 1583-84.
Two or three months later, in April 1584, Oxford would lose the right to use the Farrant apartment as a public theater (Irwin Smith 156). However, since his patron, Lord Hunsdon, was still the leaseholder, and would be until 1589 or ’90 (at which point the landlord, Sir William More, finally turned the property over to the Apothecaries Guild, who have it to this day), it seems likely that, until the lease was up, Oxford, Bacon, Lyly, Evans and Co. were allowed the continued use of it, most likely on a “by invitation only” basis, a compromise that gave them time to reorganize and that also gave some satisfaction to the residents. Alan Nelson provides a citation from 1585 from a published letter that warns “take heed and beware of my Lord of Oxenford’s man called Lyly, for if he sees this letter he will put it in print, or make the boys of Paul’s play it upon a stage” (248). That he said “a stage” rather than “their stage” would seem to indicate a different stage than the one at Paul’s Cathedral.
Ill feeling towards Leicester was rife at this time. It was during this same period, or shortly after, that Catholic activists created and had published overseas the tract titled Leicester’s Commonwealth. These were probably the same “backfriends” that Oxford had ratted on a few years earlier (his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and who had most recently done themselves in with the Throgmorton conspiracy. Although the authorship of Commonwealth is usually asigned to Charles Arundell, that Henry Howard was the real author is more likely, or at least that he provided the outline and notes. Arundell, who had by then had escaped to the Continent, was almost certainly the means of getting it published. It’s a rank piece of character assassination, but one that has lasted to fill a void, for despite his importance in his own time, we have very little inside information about Leicester’s life, due (surprise!) to the disappearance of most of his personal papers.