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 at the intense sorrow of his wife, who by the tone of a poem she wrote around this time, appears to have come a little unhinged.
As the months went by it was borne in on Oxford how little real support he had without Sussex. Everywhere he looked he was confronted with enemies. Shortly after Sussex’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 was afraid to leave his house alone for fear he’d be attacked by Knyvett’s men.
In many ways, Sussex had been more of a father figure to him than either Smith or Burghley could ever be. From his father’s generation, one that contained a large measure of aristocratic ne’er-do-weels, Sussex was not only an exemplary military leader, but a loyal, well-educated , liberal patron of the arts, one that could be looked up to as a role model, and a man of his own class, his own heritage. With Sussex gone and himself banished, the Court stage was in danger of being taken over, either by Vice-Chamberlain Christopher Hatton, Oxford’s old adversary, or by 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, under other circumstances Ferdinando Stanley would have been a man after Oxford’s heart, had not his loyalties bound him to Leicester. Having arrived at Court in 1579, his name appears more and more often 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 the Shrew, which was anything but the happy stuff he wrote for other Court weddings (As You Like It, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Thus, 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 two of his most passionate and, ultimately, most successful plays, both for the Inns of Court community, his West End audience. Though the plots differed, the climax in both was the same: a courtier, who, when forced to take revenge for the death of a beloved family member, chooses to do it with––guess what?––a play!
1581-82: The Spanish Tragedy
In his misery, Oxford turned for consolation to a book written by a philosopher to heal himself from the grief caused by a poisoning. 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 death of his second son after he was executed by the Milanese authorities for having poisoned his wicked wife.
There’s no doubt that Cardan’s son was guilty. What tortured the father was knowledge that the simple-minded youth had been driven by her treatment of him into committing murder, bitterness over not having had enough money to buy off the judges, and the feeling 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.
As usual when forced to take some kind of action, Oxford turned to his pen. His angry heart craved to see blood, if only gobs of red flour pudding onstage. Pondering how Seneca would treat such a story, he combined his reading with what he was experiencing to create a giant bloodbath in the final act––few characters in Spanish Tragedy are left alive at the end of the final act. In the process he created a basic format that he would continue to follow into his final “Shakespeare” period. It’s interesting that it was right about this time (1581) that several translations of Seneca’s tragedies were published by Thomas Newton, one of them a translation by Alexander Neville, Oxford’s friend from Cecil House days.
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, it’s probable that it was written for performance at Blackfriars for the Westminster audience, and later moved to the public stage in Shoreditch, where it became one of the most enduring plays of the Elizabethan era.
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 perhaps by then had become a vehicle for Edward Alleyn, it remained with Henslowe and Alleyn following the reassignment by Hunsdon and Howard of actors and play scripts in 1594.
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 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 by the Crown (i.e., the Queen, via the Court of Wards) to her favorite to farm for his personal profit during Edward’s minority.
Warmed by the success of Spanish Tragedy, it was under the pressure of this personal emotion that he began to feel the possibilities of the power that lay within him to bring truth to light onstage––truth as he saw it. Next to desire, revenge is the most powerful of human motives.
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.
However, the mid-80s is the period when plays written for the Court and West End audiences began migrating rather quickly to the public theaters, so Hamlet may have moved from whatever private venue saw its birth to the public stage, at which point there would have been no way to recall it. In any case it’s unlikely that the public audience would have made connections between the characters and events in the play and Court personalities known only to members of Oxford’s own community.
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 original of 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, much as he would soon be doing to the Harveys.
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. Oxford was never that bad, as can be seen from all his early plays; whatever their other faults, they are all poetic in ways utterly lacking in the 1603 quarto. 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, and partly because it seemed unlikely that anyone but aged parliamentarians (like himself) 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 a diplomatic mission. 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, would finally turn 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” (Monstrous 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, 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 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 so many of his personal papers.