Academics are wrong in thinking that Shakespeare’s career went from comedies at first to tragedies toward the end (with, they imagine, an utterly absurd return at the very end to the pastorals of the 1560s), for his pattern from the start was to alternate between the two genres, as can be seen from those he wrote to entertain the West End in 1567, The Supposes and Jocaste, the first a comedy, the second a tragedy. However wrong in specifics, yet somehow they’ve grasped the general curve of a career that began as holiday larks and ended in a showdown just as tragically brutal as the mutilation of Lavinia or the suicide of Mark Antony.
However it happened, Oxford was to some extent both a product and a victim of the Cecil family. Whether by luck or design, eight of the leading noble youths of his time, himself and seven others, were, by the early deaths of their fathers, brought under the advising arm of Sir William Cecil through his office as Master of the Court of Wards. Whether by luck or design, the raising of these important social leaders by Cecil was a major move in the fight to turn the nation from Catholic to Protestant, from allegience to Rome to allegience to the English Crown. As the first of Burghley’s wards, Oxford became to some extent the leader of a faction that saw the Cecils as upstarts and political manipulators (“a politician did it”), out to take away their power and destroy their class. By his marriage to Burghley’s daughter, Oxford was also the most thoroughly embedded into their faction, a 16th century version of “Sleeping with the Enemy.”
Any society as small, closed, tightly-woven and barricaded against change as the power center of Elizabeth’s Court develops excruciating tensions that only increase over time, often continuing on past the deaths of the principals, who pass their rivalries and hatreds on to their heirs. This was the case with Lord Burghley and the Earl of Leicester, whose rivalry got passed on to their heirs, Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex, just as Burghley’s efforts to control the life and behavior of his son-in-law, the Earl of Oxford, and his nephew, Francis Bacon, got passed on to his son and their cousin, Robert Cecil.
Thus, as one by one, Robert inherited his father’s offices, he also inherited the tensions and hatreds that went with them. At a Court that worshipped height, shortened and twisted by scoliosis, he hated the men who looked down on him, the tall, handsome men prefered by the Queen, men like Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex. So when he came to power, one by one, he either destroyed them or began setting things up so that they would eventually destroy themselves. Most of all he detested his brother-in-law, the handsome, witty Earl of Oxford. Partly because Oxford outranked him, partly because he was just as crafty in his own way as Cecil, and perhaps also out of some smidgeon of family loyalty to his nieces, Oxford’s daughters, it seems Robert drew the line at murder. Whichever was the overriding factor, ultimately both were stuck with a stalemate.
Robert hated his brother-in-law for many reasons: because he had everything that he lacked, because he was admired by the Court for his social prestige, his good looks and his talent, but mostly because of the rude disdain with which he treated his father’s and his sister’s love. Although Court protocols and family solidarity required that they maintain a pretense of cordiality, as soon as the death of Walsingham in 1590 placed the reins of power in his hands, Robert began planning how to destroy the man who had broken his sister’s heart and, in his view, sent her to an early grave.
Oxford’s louche behavior, his pamphlet wars, his staged satires, were bad enough, but what alarmed Burghley and gave Robert the green light to bring him down was his creation of the London Stage, that monstrous instrument of anti-Reformation rhetoric, of lewd sexuality, of dangerous political commentary, that threatened the social calm by drawing crowds of unstable young apprentices into groups that all too easily, on occasions like May Day or Midsummer’s Eve, turned excitement to riot and destruction. If Oxford had nothing to do with the current trouble caused by Marlowe’s plays in Southwark, he had everything to do with creating the circumstances that allowed such things to occur. If Oxford could do nothing to put a stop to Marlowe’s antics, Robert, arrived at power, could––and did.
Shortly after Anne’s death in 1588, Burghley, as Master of the Court of Wards, had moved to have Oxford’s debts to the Court called in. This was less of an immediate threat to Oxford himself, who was already broke, than to the patrons who had backed his loans, and whose own estates were now threatened. What it did destroy of Oxford’s was his credit, that is, his ability to use the perquisites of his title to raise cash. Without credit he could no longer pay actors and musicians, stagehands and costumers. The Queen saw to it that as a peer of the realm he was saved from the humiliation of complete bankruptcy by arranging his marriage to an heiress in 1592, but apart from a few donations, most notably from the young Earl of Southampton, Milord was pretty much silenced.
Theater of Blood
In attempting to explain what happened to Marlowe during the plague of 1593, biographer Charles Nicholl resorts to a metaphor by which he compares the way governmental sting operations to plays. According to Nicholl, poets find spying an easy step because they live in the fantasy world of The Theater. This is absurd; would Kurt Weil have spied for the nazis? Would Vaclav Havel have spied for the StB? An artist of surpassing power and reckless honesty, Christopher Marlowe did not, could not, have agreed, or been forced, to spy for the Crown he detested. But the metaphor works if placed where it belongs, with Robert Cecil, for the plot with which he brought down the dangerous playwright in May of 1593 was just as creative as anything Marlowe himself ever designed for the stage.
While a play succeeds if it moves an audience, a sting’s success is based on whether or not it works, and also, whether or not it works without drawing attention to the projector. Although plenty at the time would have understood quite well who was behind Marlowe’s sudden demise, they were not about to tell, and as a result, no one today, including his biographers, has ever managed to put 2 and 2 together with regard to the sudden and brutal end to Marlowe’s promising career. (Nicholl did, and almost came up with 4, but by failing to put the finger on the most obvious culprit, came up with 5 instead.)
For Cecil, the removal of Marlowe, whether by murder or transportation, and without any blame attached to himself, was a magnificent coup, and for those who knew the truth, which must have been pretty much the entire Privy Council and London theater community, brought him another great benefit, the respect he needed to move with confidence in the brutal world of Elizabethan politics. It also had the salubrious effect, salubrious to the Cecils, that is, of throwing the London Stage into a chaos from which they had every hope that it couldn’t recover, at least, not in its current form.
How then did Burghley respond a few months later when his fellow councillors, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles, persuaded the Queen to let them revive the Stage by putting the actors from Marlowe’s company back to work as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men? (Cecil was not yet on the Council.) We can only guess what promises were made that this would be a new era of oversight, one in which no more enormities like Tamburlaine or the Massacre at Paris would be allowed to distress the Crown. And more, we can only guess what if anything this plan to revive Marlowe’s company in June had to do with the murder of their patron, Lord Strange, in April.
History, with its almost total disinterest in Literature, makes no connection, though it reports that gossip at the time blamed Burghley for his murder because, it was said, with Stanley out of the way, Burghley’s granddaughter (Oxford’s daughter) could marry Stanley’s younger brother, who, as the sixth Earl of Derby, could, should Elizabeth Vere produce a boy, provide entry for a Cecil into the upper peerage (the alliance with Oxford having produced only girls). It also reminds us that had Lord Strange lived, he would have had one of the better claims to the throne that still––since the Queen was obviously never going to produce a son––was without a strong English claimant, and although Stanley was himself a Protestant, with so many Catholic family members of high rank, Lord Strange on the throne would be a disaster for the Cecils.
In reconstituting Stanley’s company, Hunsdon, who had been involved in the creation of the London Stage from the beginning, having been appointed by Sussex as his vice-chamberlain back in 1572, may have had a less altruistic motive than just a desire to see Oxford and the London Stage back in business. His son, George Carey, was Stanley’s brother-in-law. In a letter from Carey to his wife (still surprisingly extant) we learn that Stanley’s sudden death at age 35 was murder. If Hunsdon, knowing of Robert Cecil’s role in the death of Marlowe, was among those who suspected he also had a part in his son George Carey’s brother-in-law’s murder, there may have been an element of revenge in his and Howard’s move to resusitate the Stage, or at least to use it as best they could to check the rise of Robert Cecil’s power.
This is best summarized with a timeline:
- May 1593: Marlowe’s murder (or transportation)
- April 1594: The registration of dozens of plays by Shakespeare and others signaling the beginning of the move by Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral to create two new royally sanctioned companies out of the wreckage of Lord Strange’s.
- Apr 4 1594: The murder of Lord Strange by arsenic poisoning. Did the original plan see him continuing as patron of Marlowe’s company? Was it only with his death that the company came under the control of the Lord Admiral?
- June 1594: The date historians give as the official beginning of the two royally licensed companies, what Gurr calls “the duopoly” that had the only official license to play within the City of London, and that from that winter season on, were the only ones to provide entertainment at Court for the holidays.
- February 4, 1596: The purchase of the Blackfriars Parliament Chamber by James Burbage, located next door to the apartments owned by Lord Hunsdon and his son, George Carey and its renovation by Burbage in preparation for the holiday season of 1596-97 and entertaining the influential West End.
- July 5, 1596: The official appointment of Robert Cecil to the office of Secretary of State, in effect making him the head of the Privy Council. Two weeks later . . .
- Jul 23, 1596: The death of Lord Hunsdon and his replacement by the Queen with William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Robert Cecil’s father-in-law, also a resident of Blackfriars and a close neighbor to the theater and the Hunsdons. Four months later . . .
- November 1596: The petition to the Privy Council from various Blackfriars residents demanding that the use of the theater by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men be prevented, to which the Council, now without Hunsdon and headed by Robert Cecil, acceded. Two months later . . .
- January 1597: The death of James Burbage, owner of the Blackfriars theater and head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Four months later . . .
- July 28, 1597: The order by the Privy Council that all the theaters in London be “plucked down.” Either immediately before or after . . .
- July/August 1597: The production of The Isle of Dogs at the Swan on Bankside by Pembroke’s Men, and the subsequent closing by Cecil of all the theaters and jailing of three of the actors, among them Ben Jonson and Robert Spencer. The LCMen took to the road. Two months later . . .
- October 1597: The opening of Elizabeth’s fifth Parliament with the consequent gathering in the West End of the most influential audience in the nation. Immediately before or shortly after . . .
. . . came the publication of a new version of the anonymous play Richard III in which the evil king is described in terms that clearly identify him with Robert Cecil. This sold out so fast that it was only a few weeks before a second edition was in the bookstalls, this time with the name William Shake-speare on the title page, the first time it had appeared on a play.
With their patrons dead and their theaters shut down, it’s not known where the actors performed Richard III that winter, but that they did somewhere seems certain by Richard Burbage’s subsequent identification with the leading role, the one that tradition ascribes to the dawn of his reputation as the greatest actor of his time. Fired with fury by the suspicious deaths of his father James Burbage and his company’s patron Lord Hunsdon, we can only imagine the electrifying nature of those first performances in 1597 and ’98.
Although the rest of the theaters reopened in the fall of 1597, both the Swan and Burbage’s Shoreditch stage remained closed, leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men without a public venue. Although the Swan would reopen later, Burbage’s Theatre remained closed until it was torn down by the actors and transferred to Bankside the following year.
This chain of events suggests a bloody behind-stairs struggle for control of the London Stage. Whether or not Robert Cecil was responsible, via the “projectors” he’d inherited from Walsingham, for the deaths of leading members of the Stage community––from Marlowe to his patron Lord Strange, to the “sporting” Thomas Kyd, to the grand-daddy of the Lonson Stage, James Burbage, to his patron Lord Hunsdon––is less important to our story than the actors’ suspicions that he was responsible. It should be our suspicion as well, based on how the Master Secretary would go on to entrap and destroy other leading members of Court society, the Earl of Essex, his own brother-in-law Henry Cobham lord Brooke, and his former friend Sir Walter Raleigh. The level of hatred and fear engendered by Cecil in his years of power under King James is clear from the stream of slanders and nasty epigrams that deluged the bookstalls following his death in 1612.
It should also be the clincher to the argument why Oxford hid his identity. Had anyone during the first decade of James’s reign––anyone beyond the inner circles of the Court and Stage community, that is––made public who it was who wrote the 1597 version of Richard III, Oxford would have been as dead as Marlowe, Kyd, Stanley, Burbage and Hunsdon. As it was, since the playwright was, as he kept reminding Cecil in his letters, a member of Cecil’s family, father of his nieces, etc., he escaped, both with his life and with his papers––not an easy task, but one facilitated by the accession to power in 1603 of King James and his fondness for Philip Herbert, and his brother the Earl of Pembroke, who would see to it that Oxford’s works, and the Stage he created, be secured from harm.
If Cecil, his reputation permanently blackened by the play, dared do nothing to stop the flood of revised editions, what he could do as the controlling voice on the Privy Council (along with Henry Howard, Oxford’s other mortal enemy) was see to it that the company had no use of their gorgeous West End theater with its proximity to the West End audience. In 1600, this was handed over to a new company of boys, the “little eyases” of Hamlet’s complaint. No longer connected in any way with the Court Chapel, they were simply talented young actors and musicians of the sort that Elizabeth had always preferred for her holiday “solace.” 1610, when the company was allowed to take the theater back, saw the beginning of its rise to a level of success never before seen by a theater company, and rarely since.
These are only the most salient points in the story of this final showdown. The thread presented here, the string of deaths, theater closings, constant publication of revised versions of Richard III (eight in all, over the years), the fact that it was the first play to be published under the name Shake-speare, must be correlated to several other threads, if all taken together, make a subject worthy of a full-length book. What part did Essex play? Bacon? The Queen? The printers? George Carey, Hunsdon’s heir and the Lord Chamberlain during the final years of Elizabeth’s reign? Where does the revision and publication of Richard II that accompanied the publication of Richard III fit in?
But even this is not the final act, the one that follows Oxford’s death. For that we must wait to hear the story of the making of the First Folio, and of William of Stratford’s illegitimate son, Sir William Davenant, inheritor of his father’s phony fame and the primary engine of his investiture as the world greatest playwright.
For the first three acts of this drama: The murder of Shakespeare’s Identity