The importance of being Richard the Third

richard III

 The face of Richard III, modeled by a computer scientist by means of the skull  found in a recent archeological dig in Leicestershire, provides evidence of Richard’s abuse by Shakespeare and the Tudor historians.

The discovery of the skeleton of Richard III last year has aroused new interest in the last of the Plantagenet kings.  While every English school child knows (I hope) that his death was a major turning point in English history, ushering in the Tudor era, and in literature the Early Modern period, no one seems to be aware that the story of his death was a turning point in the history of the London Stage as well.  And for authorship scholars and those concerned with the question of the identity of Shakespeare, it was also when his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were forced to come up with a name for their playwright.

Richard and the Tudor historians

As the final episode in the cycle of history plays that tell the stories of England’s kings, Shakespeare’s treatment of Richard III is an anomaly.  Where he used his great talents to humanize  monarchs like Richard II and Henry IV, that he chose to demonize one of the more sympathetic kings can only be seen as a political necessity for a company that, if it was to remain in business, had to conform to the Tudor’s version of history.  Richard III was the king whose throne they stole, and so he had to be portrayed as a villain––that’s all there was to it.

As explained by Alfred Hart, back in 1536, Henry VIII, frightened by the  grassroots uprising historians call the Pilgrimage of Grace, reacted by devising a new law to be expounded at regular intervals from the Pulpit, a law that held that any hint of rebellion against an annointed monarch was henceforth to be considered sedition compounded with heresy.  A crime as well as a sin, it would be punished by burning in this life and in the hotter levels of hell in the next (Homilies).

While this attitude forced Tudor historians to vilify the intelligent and competent Henry IV (aka Bolingbroke) as a wicked usurper, an unintended consequence was the fact that what Henry’s own father (Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather) did to Richard III was basically no different than what Henry IV (of Lancaster, Bolingbroke) had done to Richard II.  The only moral recourse for the Tudor historians was to paint Henry Tudor (Henry VII) as another St. George or Beowulf, whose honor it was to rid the world of a monster.  Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, provided the necessary hate-bio, and later historians simply followed suit.

Therefore, while the earliest chronicles noted that Richard had a crooked back (as the skeleton confirms) and a raised shoulder, it’s the Tudor historians who swelled the shoulder into a hump, a fixture for actors playing Shakespeare’s evil king.  It was Tudor historians who added the withered arm and the full set of teeth that he was supposedly born with.  As for the accusations of any number of murders and evil intentions, none of it derived from the earlier chronicles.  It seems the only thing for which they blamed Richard in his own time was his supposed ambition for the throne and the disappearance of his brother’s sons, the little princes in the Tower, and even that has an aura of uncertainty about it.  There were an awful lot of descendants of Edward III with their eyes on the throne at that time, and it’s not at all clear, not at least until his brother died (of illness, not murder), that Richard was one of them.

Shakespeare exaggerated Richard’s crimes, rearranging events to make him responsible for more murders than even More and followers had assigned him.  But why exaggerate his deformities?  Picked up from one detractor or another, Shakespeare not only amplified them, he has Richard himself explain right off at the beginning of the first act how his hideous appearance is the cause of his evil nature.  Since everyone dislikes him anyway, he might as well aim for the throne where he’ll be safe from his enemies, free to commit whatever crimes may be necessary along the way.

Clearly Shakespeare’s Richard was what today we’d call a sociopath.  In addition to his scary looks and overweening ambition, Shakespeare follows More by harping on Richard’s hypocrisy, his “devilish craft.”  As G.B. Churchill puts it, if others portrayed Richard as “a deep dissimuler, . . . More’s account seems one continued attempt to prove that thesis” (124).  Shakespeare, going More one better, makes it the entire theme of the play, as Richard cons one fool after another into trusting him.

Shakespeare’s Richard and the academics

Richard III has always been immensely popular with audiences.  It has never, however, been popular with critics, who find it crude, unpoetic, and so unShakespearean that attempts have been made to palm it off on Christopher Marlowe.  In his Introduction to an edition meant to deal with the plays “in their literary aspect, and not merely as material for the study of philology or grammar,” Arden editor Hazelton Spencer reveals the standard attitude of the critic towards Shakespeare’s Richard III:

Little can be said for this play as a piece of imaginative literature; . . .   Perhaps the best reason for studying it lies in the strange contrasts between its poverty in poetry, ideas, and psychology, and its effectiveness as theatre; and between its melodramatic crudeness and the sublimity of Shakespeare’s later tragedies (v).

Spencer notes that both Samuel Johnson and Edmond Malone had commented on the discrepancy between its “literary merits”––that is, their lack––and “its popularity on the stage.”  He can’t understand how the poet who wrote Richard II could have written Richard III: “its clumsy structure, its overobvious characterization, and the inferior quality of its verse . . . .” (xxii).   He extolls “the gorgeous and exalting sweep of the poetry” of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, but Richard the Third “is not a masterpiece” (xiii-iv), and he doubts that it will ever be performed frequently again (xv).

History vs Literature

Spencer was writing in 1933, long before Laurence Olivier popularized Shakespeare’s Richard in the 1940s and ’50s.  He was also writing before Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Spain’s Franco, Romania’s Ceausescu, and assorted African tyrants gave Shakespeare’s “unpoetic” play a relevance it has continued to have ever since.  But then the so-called literary critics have never had much of an appetite for real history.  Assuming that Shakespeare was simply taking advantage of Richard’s bad reputation to please the more bloodthirsty elements in his public audience, they ignore what mainstream history could have told them long before authorship scholars like myself were forced to turn to it for answers unobtainable from the archives.

In comparing the date of the play’s registration, October 20, 1597, with events surrounding it, we are forced to admit, like it or not, that the traits emphasized by Shakespeare in his portrait of Richard III were the very same which all were aware were those of the recently-appointed Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil.  When we add to this the situation Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were in at that moment in time, we find more than enough evidence to see the play as a political weapon in a battle that either never reached the archives, or if it did, was later expunged.  And when we realize that this was the very moment in time that upwards of 500 well-educated and intelligent men from all over England, readers and playgoers, were gathered in London’s West End for one of the the Queen’s rare parliaments, we may begin to comprehend just what this moment meant to Shakespeare, his actors, the history of the Crown, and the tremendous power of the newborn Fourth Estate.

Robert Cecil aka the Earl of Salisbury

Half the height of most of the young men at Court, his back twisted and head thrust forward by the scoliosis inherited from his mother’s side of the family, Cecil was, if not exactly hideous, certainly out of place at a Court that idealized male beauty (several of Elizabeth’s most important officials got their start when she noticed their man with roses long legs encased in silken hose, snug little pants, and short  bejeweled jackets).  The one trait that it seems Shakespeare added to those More described (I’ve not seen it mentioned in any of the early literature), Richard’s limp reflects Robert Cecil’s awkward gait, caused by his spindly little legs and splay feet.  But while these defects may have been the source of much cruel humor, Cecil was disliked most of all because, as Lord Burghley’s son and heir, he was rapidly promoted while worthy candidates like Francis Bacon and Robert Sidney were consistently denied Court office.  Having faced this reaction since birth, Robert, like Shakespeare’s Richard, was skilled in hiding his feelings and motives, pretending, when it was to his benefit, friendship with men he feared and envied and would later destroy.

Raised by a father who had been Secretary of State throughout his childhood, by age twenty-seven Cecil was well-prepared to take over when Secretary Walsingham died in 1590.  He began by sharing the duties of the office with his father, but increasingly, as he continued to prove himself, Burghley, old and tired, let his son take over.  This was to be a temporary solution until the Queen decided who should be Secretary, but after six years of stalling, she relented and in July of 1596, while his most powerful enemies, the Earl of Essex and his supporters, were away at the conquest of Cadiz, she made it official.  If this was bad news for Essex, it was terrible news for the London Stage.

The Cecils vs the Media

Lack of documentation on Walsingham’s role in establishing the London Media in the 1580s has left the historians confused about the chaos into which his death in 1590 threw the Stage and the Press.  Towards the end of the ’80s, both had begun to demonstrate what to the conservatives on the Privy Council was an alarming and dangerous independence.  In 1587 Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn broke from Burbage’s team to produce a new sort of play at the newly built Rose Theater on Bankside.  While Tamburlaine thrilled the apprentices and journeymen of Southwark, proving to the theater community that with the right play they could see for the first time that acting might actually become a viable means of earning a living; to the Cecils it must have seemed a dangerous rabble-rouser, one that violated their primary rule for the London Stage, thou shalt not portray the successful overthrow of an “anointed” monarch!  This was soon followed by the scurrilous pamphlets of the anonymous Martin Mar-Prelate, whose witty thrusts at the Anglican bishops were selling like hotcakes.

From the birth of the London Stage in 1576 until Walsingham’s death in 1590, agents of the Crown, supposedly acting in the Queen’s interest, generally worked to protect the Stage from the anxieties of the City mayors and aldermen who were determined to get rid of it.  But now it seems, some agency of the central government had joined the City in its determination to destroy the Stage.  English history, for reasons that will appear, hesitates to attribute this to Robert Cecil’s takeover of Walsingham’s team of operatives, but since there was no other major change at the top level of government at that time, we must look to the dates of events for evidence of the truth.

Events and dates

1590 to ’91 saw the departure from the record of both companies that had been the most consistent entertainers at Court for the previous decade, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men.  Critics find reasons for these, but the most arresting fact is that they both disappeared from the Revels records shortly after Cecil took Walsingham’s place.  This was followed early in 1592 by an attempt by former Walsingham agents to arrest Marlowe on a trumped-up charge of counterfeiting.  This failed, but in May of 1593, with the streets of London empty due to plague, the same agents nailed him in a supposed brawl in a hostel in Deptford, the same day that other government agents hanged, in an out-of-the-way innyard on the road to Deptford, the man who, years earlier, had printed the Mar-prelate satires.

Chaos ensued, and in the shuffle of actors, patrons and publishers that followed Marlowe’s demise, Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, a minor player on the Court Stage until then, took over as patron of what had been Marlowe’s company while Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, the old veteran of the Scottish border wars whose job it now was to oversee Court entertainment, worked to create a setup that would satisfy the the Queen, the Privy Council, the City Fathers, and the actors.  In June of 1594, as this arrangement headed for completion, Lord Strange was murdered, his death attributed variously to witchcraft, poison, Catholics, or all three (modern forensics suggest that he was poisoned with a single massive dose of arsenic).  His place as patron of the Southwark company was taken by Hunsdon’s son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard.

Events of 1596

With their public theater in Shoreditch in trouble with the landlord and in desperate need of repair, in February 1596, James Burbage, with Hunsdon’s help, purchased the old Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars and began renovations in preparation for the next round of winter holidays.  The following July, while Essex and his supporters were out of the country on their Cadiz adventure, the Queen finally appointed Robert Cecil Secretary of State.  Two weeks later, on July 23, Hunsdon was dead, and two weeks after that, his office of Lord Chamberlain was passed on to Robert Cecil’s father-in-law, William Brooke, Lord Cobham.  Astrologers note that the Queen’s 63rd birthday in September ushered in what they called her “climacteric,” considered to be a particularly dangerous year, something that everyone would have been aware of, since Astrology was still considered a science.  That November, 33 residents of Blackfriars, including Cecil’s aunt Lady Russell, signed a petition requesting that the Privy Council prohibit the opening of Burbage’s new theater: the noise, the traffic, etc..  The Council, now dominated by two Cecils and Lord Chamberlain Brooke, granted the request.  The Company retaliated by inserting into several of their plays a fat knight of questionable character they named Sir John Oldcastle after Brooke’s historic, and to him, sacred ancestor.  At the Queen’s request, the name was changed to Falstaff.

Events of 1597

Following what must have been a rough winter holiday for his actors, James Burbage died the following February, leaving his sons Richard and Cuthbert a company without a home.  The lease for the Shoreditch stage would be up in May, and their expensive new indoor theater remained shuttered by government command.  The following month, the Company got a break when the aging William Brooke died and in April, the office of Lord Chamberlain was finally given to Hunsdon’s heir, George Carey.  But Carey, it seems, was no match for the Cecils.  (He died six years later, shortly after the Queen.)

Then in June, a new company calling itself Pembroke’s Men began performing at a new theater, the Swan, on Bankside, in something titled The Isle of Dogs.  Nothing of its content has survived, all we know is that it caused Cecil to jail the authors and order the Swan closed down, along with all the other theaters in London. (The real Isle of Dogs, a hangout for fugitives from the law, lay directly across the river from Deptford Strand where three years earlier Christopher Marlowe had had his quietus made with a bare bodkin.)  Thus, along with all the other London theater companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were forced to take to the road in August.

Returning to London in September, now without a performance stage, on October 20 the Company registered The Tragedy of Richard the Third with the Stationers, publishing it (and an early quarto of Richard II) before the end of the year.  The record shows that they were the only company to perform at Court over the winter holidays that year, (unfortunately the names of the six plays they performed were not recorded).   As for their public audience, although they had no public stage at their disposal, they must  have found somewhere inside Westminster to perform, since it was Richard Burbage’s performance as the King that first made him famous.

Events of 1598

The 1597 edition of Richard III was anonymous, as was that of Richard II and all the other Shakespeare plays and early quartos published from 1591 on.  But at some point in 1598, a second edition was published, different only in that, for the first time, the title page bore the name: William Shake-speare.  A second edition of Richard II was published at the same time, with the same name on the title page, also hyphenated.  And at some point that year was published the literary bauble, Wit’s Treasury, supposedly by the otherwise unremarkable Francis Meres, in which “William Shakespeare” was given credit for these and ten more currently popular plays.  Thus, after four years of anonymity (more likely, two decades), was the author of the Shakespeare canon finally given a name.  Why then?  And why not until then?

The Queen’s Ninth Parliament

The Queen did not enjoy having to call parliament together because invariably, despite being ordered not to do so, the House of Commons would raise the question of the Succession, demanding that she marry and provide an heir, something she hated to think about, much less discuss with a gaggle of wrangling parliamentarians.  Nevertheless, having run short of operating funds, by the fall of 1597 she was forced to call another parliament into session, her ninth in 38 years.

So every three or four years men from all over England, important men, men of standing in their communities, would gather together in the West End to do business both for the Crown and with each other.  More often than not, this routine took place in the fall, the MPs discussing business from October to December, taking a break over the Christmas holidays. and reconvening in January to dissolve sometime before the beginning of Lent.  All the important figures in this story took part.  Playing important roles were Robert Cecil, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, and in the Lords, the Bishops, the Earl of Essex and other members of the Privy Council.

It shouldn’t take any great stretch of the imagination to see how important these gatherings would have been to the theater companies and commercial publishers, when for three or four months every three or four years, the most intelligent and affluent audience in London would suddenly expand to include upwards of 500 of the nation’s most important men of affairs, all eager to see the latest plays, read the latest publications, and discuss them with each other.  Nor should it require a great leap of awareness to see how important it would be to the Crown company, when the primary policy-makers from all over England were gathered together in one place, to have an indoor theater within walking distance of the Inns of Court where these gentlemen had rooms.

Nor should it take a genius to see how important it would have been for Robert Cecil, facing his first parliament as the Queen’s representative, to prevent the possibility, perhaps the known fact, that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were primed to attack him for the damages wreaked on them and their community over the past seven years.  For whatever the truth, the Company could hardly have seen the list of events that hurt them in any other light, from the murder of Marlowe to the murder of his patron Lord Strange, from the sudden death of their patron Lord Hunsdon to the death of their manager (and father) James Burbage, to the loss of their theaters, even perhaps the somewhat mysterious death of Secretary Walsingham, the first of so many disasters, all seemingly ushered in by the insertion of Robert Cecil into the machinery of government.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had their backs to the wall and they were not at all confused about who to blame.  Gone were the elders who over the past ten years had the power to hold their energies in check in times of trial; now there was no one left to counsel them to be patient and wait for the pendulum to swing their way.  What leaders were left to them at this time would have been John Hemmings, soon to be manager of the Company, the Burbage brothers, and of course, the one who is so often left out by the academics in their fantasies about how plays get written and produced, the playwright!  It must have been during those weeks on the road from July to September 1597 that the Burbages, Hemmings and Shakespeare discussed their options with the other members of the Company.

The result was Shakespeare’s Richard III with Richard Burbage as the lead, and probably Alexander Cooke, Hemming’s new protégé, as one or two of the female characters (unusually, there were four of these in Richard III).  By exaggerating Richard’s deformities and behavior to conform to those of Robert Cecil, Burbage, hunched over, dressed all in black, imitating the Secretary’s intonation and body language as he confided one evil plan after another to the audience, conveyed the message, through the MPs to the entire nation that the newly-appointed Secretary of State was the reincarnation of Richard the Third.

There can be no question but that this is the background to the creation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the reason why he didn’t bother with poetic language or appealing characters, possibly even avoiding them, why everything went into making the play as dark and Richard as evil as possible.  Thus the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, faced with destruction, hurled the bombshell that saved their company.  Fired to full blast by circumstance, compounded of Shakespeare’s pen and Burbage’s acting, we know how effective was the pen; we can only imagine what the performance was like.

The evidence

Questions remain of course.  Denied their theater during the Ninth Parliament, where might the Company have performed?  One possibility was the hall at Essex House, located in the heart of the West End.  Essex had renovated what was once his step-father’s mansion, enlarging the hall to immense proportions.  From October through December 1597, Essex was once again deep in the despairing funk that overcame him from time to time.  Furious with the Queen who he believed had insulted him by promoting the Lord Admiral above him, he was refusing to participate either in parliament or on the Privy Council.  However, if not at Essex House, there were other halls in the mansions along the Strand.

As for how the published version got past the censors, remember that, as written, Shakespeare’s play makes no obvious connection to Cecil; if it had it wouldn’t have taken 400 plus years to discover it.  The months when London was filled with parliamentarians would have been crowded with activity and immensely busy for everyone, so that getting things past authority might have been easier than usual.  That Francis Bacon was involved in getting both Richard II and Richard III published seems obvious from the fact that his mysterious Northumberland manuscript folder has both their titles plus the name William Shakespeare scribbled on the cover.

For the Elizabethans the connection of Richard III to Robert Cecil was made by Burbage’s performance, passing like wildfire from shire to shire by word of mouth.  Today the connection can be made by the torrent of verse libels that appeared following Cecil’s death in 1612.  In a 2006 article in The Shakespeare Bulletin, English Professor M.G. Aune quotes articles from the 1990s by English historians that clearly show that this was Shakespeare’s intent.  Says Aune, historians “Margaret Hotine and Pauline Croft have traced a number of these connections using verse libels about Cecil and the printing history of the quarto of Richard III.” Among the constantly repeated images of toads and spiders, so prominent in Shakespeare’s play, some were even more direct, as in:

Here lieth Robin Crookt back, unjustly reckoned
A Richard the Third, he was Judas the Second.
In their lives they agree, in their deaths somewhat alter,
The more pity the pox so cozened the halter [tricked the hangman].
Richard, or Robert, which is the worse?
A Crookt back great in state is England’s curse.

Libels against him had appeared early in Cecil’s career, but they do not exceed in number or nature the norm for unpopular public figures.  However, immediately following his death in 1612, verse libels of the most scurrious nature began pouring forth in a volume and with a force noted by every scholar who has examined Cecil’s career all the way to the end.  Based on the number that survive out of those written down at the time (these online are a mere 25 out of the scores that remain in the archives), we can only conjecture what must have been their actual volume, for what differentiates a jingle from all other forms of literary endeavor is that, by their very nature, they are so easy to remember that the only reason for writing them down would have been to include them in a letter or a diary.

The stalemate

In the end both sides won and both lost.  Robert Cecil was already too firmly fixed in power to be removed.  Despite his loss of reputation, he continued to play what cards he had until the fall of Essex took down a whole tier of his lesser enemies.  Having masterminded the accession of James of Scotland, and been rewarded with every possible title and office, he became impervious to everything but the tumor that we’re told was what killed him in 1612.  As for the play, and its series of editions, the only thing he could do about that was ignore it.  It was, after all, just a play, which  from his lofty perch he was entitled to dismiss as unworthy of notice.  He was, after all, well used to being called names.

Shakespeare, first named as author of Richard III and so many other plays, continued to supply his Company, now the King’s Men, with new plays and revisions.  And although the Company itself, even as they were adopted by King James as his own, continued to produce plays without let or hindrance for both the Court and the London Stage, they were still denied the use of the great Blackfriars stage.  Having dismantled the old Shoreditch Theatre and reassembled it in Southwark early in 1599 as The Globe, they were no longer without a big outdoor stage, but when their Blackfriars stage reopened in 1599 or 1600, it was as a venue for another company of boys, the “little eyases” of Hamlet’s complaint.  Not until 1609 would it become available once again to the Burbages and the King’s Men.  From then on, given its Parliament Chamber theater size and ideal location, it was a major element in the many years of financial success under King James.

In the long run it may actually be Robert Cecil who had the last laugh.  As everyone knows who has researched this period, the record invariably dries up where one might expect some reference to the London Stage or the University Wits.  Historians generally attribute this to the exigencies of time, or the laziness of clerks.  But the gaps are too pronounced, they appear too often and are too specific to this subject to dismiss.  The history of Elizabeth’s reign was and still is based primarily on documents collected by the Cecils during their time as Secretaries of State.  From 1559, when William first took that office under Elizabeth, to 1612 when Robert Cecil died, there was only one period when they did not control the paper house: the 13 years from 1577 to 1590 that Sir Francis Walsingham was Secretary of State.  As everyone knows who has tried to write a history of that time, this period is something of a blank since Walsingham’s personal papers disappeared immediately after his death.

Only two persons were in a position to have taken Walsingham’s papers, Essex, who married his daughter shortly after his death, or Robert Cecil, who took over his office at Whitehall immediately.  Even if Essex did get them, or some of them, Cecil would have ended up with them anyway since, following Essex’s execution, his papers came into Cecil’s possession.  Those that remain still form an important part of the Hatfield House collection.  Not only did Cecil inherit his father’s papers, as Secretary of State he had access to every office of government, and as Chancellor of Cambridge University, to its records as well.  If the Secretary wished to examine a particular set of books, who would dare to say him nay?  As Shakespeare scholar Andrew Gurr tells us, “not a single Privy Council document has survived from the period between 27 August 1593 and 1 October 1595” (Peculiar Letter, 55).

Nevertheless, that this scenario is the truth, or close to it, can be seen by several things.  Richard III is unique for the number of editions published in quarto, six by 1623 when it was included in the First Folio.  As Margaret Hotine has demonstrated, as though to remind the public who they were dealing with, these were printed and sold every time Cecil/Salisbury was given another office, stole another piece of common land, or was given another title.  There was no way Cecil could do anything about this.  To have moved against the publishing community would have been to admit that Shakespeare was right.

Perhaps the most basic question about the war between the Cecils and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men has to be how it was that while their manager and their patron died, their playwright survived.  Obviously Cecil understood that to stop what had begun happening at the Rose back in the late 1580s he had to eliminate the problem at its source: the playwright Christopher Marlowe.  How was it then that Shakespeare, according to the academics a provincial much like Marlowe, and with no known connection to the Court, managed to survive to write the damning Richard III, and to then republish it again and again over the years, each time tweaking the grammar and syntax as only its author would bother to do?

Why was it that after entertaining Londoners for years, it was not until 1598 that the second editions of Richard II and Richard III, with the help of the gossipy Wit’s Treasury, provided audiences and readers with an official author?  It seems clear that the Company had had William of Stratford waiting in the wings since almost their very inception, yet they continued to publish without an author’s name for years until forced to make use of it in 1598.  As spelled on the title pages in 1598, the hyphen would have made it clear to the majority of readers (though not to today’s see-no-evil academics) that this was a pun-name––like Martin Mar-prelate––the traditional signal that the author was as fictional as his book.  No big deal; London’s small  community of readers were used to such ploys.  When it came to Richard III, where the material in question was political dynamite, anyone who dared to pursue the matter further would find, sooner or later, a real individual, one who refused to demonstrate his writing because “his hand hurt.”  Whatever William of Stratford’s ignorance of writing, he was truly a genius at keeping a secret.

Had William of Stratford actually been the author, he would soon have gone the way of Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe.  Because the actual author was a permanent member of the Court, second highest in rank (far outranking either of the Cecils, Essex, Raleigh, Sidney, Southampton, even men like Lord Hunsdon––even, if geneology be applied, the Queen herself; because he was for many years one of her favorites; because, once she allowed him back at Court following his criminal impregnation of her virginal attendant, she never again allowed him too far out of her sight; because having married William Cecil’s daughter, Robert Cecil’s sister, he was henceforth a member of the Cecil family, their stepping stone into the upper ranks of the peerage––for these and other reasons, unlike Marlowe and Lord Strange, the Earl of Oxford could not be killed.  He may well have feared for his life in the mid-90s, but the real battle from then on was over his papers, as is suggested by Cecil’s arrest of Southampton when news reached him in June of 1604 that Oxford was dead.

This fight was not only Shakespeare against Cecil, it was the oldest fight in the world, it was Jacob against Esau, Set against Osiris, Loki against Baldur the Good.  Oxford had been part of the Cecil household when Robert was born in June 1563, puny and ailing, not expected to live.  He had watched him grow, just as later Robert watched as Oxford turned his back on his father and his sister.  Cecil hated Oxford, just as he hated Raleigh and all the  handsome, talented men of rank or favor who looked down on him and his family.   He could not touch him, but he could destroy his creation, the London Stage, and that other creation that Oxford shared with his cousin Bacon, the commercial press.  Understanding Robert, without Hunsdon to protest or anyone to stop him, Oxford created a monster for the Queen’s ninth parliament that saved his beloved company, and although it didn’t stop Cecil from further depredations, he and his men managed to survive until taken under the protection of the King’s favorites, the young Earl of Pembroke and his brother.

On the other hand, however damaging was Oxford’s spear-shaking to Cecil’s reputation, it was Cecil who, over time, has actually triumphed ever since, for by having control of the record, he was able to eliminate his brother-in-law’s connection to the London Stage, the commercial press, and cruelest of all, to the Shakespeare canon, the most beautiful creation in all of English Literature.

12 thoughts on “The importance of being Richard the Third

  1. Thanks for putting all of this down. I’m still going over it. I note that Richard Field was apparently one of the petitioners against adult troupes performing in the Blackfriars. I wonder if he knew that his across-the-street neighbor was associated with the actors he was rejecting.

  2. Hmmmm. That’s always the question: how much did each individual know? Field was Oxford’s most likely connection to William of Stratford, having published Venus and Adonis in 1593. He’d been working at Vautrollier’s print shop next door to the theater since 1579, had printed North’s Plutarch that year and was involved in printing the 1587 edition of Holinshed, both primary sources for Shakespeare. With these connections it would seem he must have been one of the few who knew everything. Perhaps in November 1596 he was afraid of Cecil.

    Another who signed was George Carey, Hunsdon’s heir, who, since his father’s death in July was now the possessor of properties surrounding the Parliament Chamber, and had for many years been the owner, and presumably resident while in London, of the apartment just beneath it. Although Carey was not yet Lord Chamberlain, he wouldn’t be appointed until the following April, of course he was aware of his father’s plans for the Parliament Chamber. As a courtier and Oxford’s rival for control of the Court Stage since 1579, Carey’s brother-in-law, Lord Strange, would have known Oxford’s authorship of plays produced at Court. Carey had every reason to be afraid of Cecil, since it’s his letter to his wife, sister of Lord Strange’s wife, that’s the most significant piece of evidence that Lord Strange was murdered, and of course Cecil was aware of his relationship to his father and presumably his father’s plans, the fact that so much of the property surrounding the Parliament Chamber was now in his hands, etc., and Carey knew that Cecil knew. Or perhaps he didn’t relish the prospect of having plays put on night after night directly over his head.

  3. Excellent synopsis of what most likely happened in getting Richard III written and produced, and in a right time frame. Much sustained clear thinking about the power relationships, as well as original research. I’ve considered the play as well written, certainly indelible for its (slanted) portrayal of the sociopathic king; it was also a play the MP Enoch Powell thought of as of fairly early date and yet revealing “Shakespeare’s” early grasp of the realities of politics.

    We would probably, though, have to say instead that the play sums up a lifetime’s experience of the bitterness and predation of political gamesmanship at the highest levels, something Oxford suffered deeply and directly from. As for the bias against the play as literature, I wonder how much of this stems from our sense of its being tampered with much later by Colley Cibber and others: “Off with his head! So much for Buckingham,” and so on.

  4. Indeed there is a volume of bitterness in this play that requires an explanation that goes beyond mere entertainment for the masses, or even a political weapon against a personal enemy. The author was not only angry at Cecil, but at the community that created and tolerated such a creature. We must recall Hamlet’s response to Laertes (surely a benign version of Robert Cecil, Ophelia’s brother),” Sir, why is it you use me thus? I loved you ever.”

    But the point I’m making here is that this is the play that created the situation whereby the Company was forced to put an author’s name on it and on the rest of the plays, via the Meres book. Because of its political purpose it became so popular so fast and with such a big audience that the authorship question reached a level where it simply had to be addressed immediately (with a second edition of the play). They had had William’s name on tap since 1595 (the warrant to him, Kempe and Burbage as payees of the LCMen), but had not used it (why is another question) until now.

  5. Yes indeed. Had the playwright not touched political nerves, and wanted to, he could have gone right on being nameless, a strange condition for so clearly talented a poet and so ambitious a dramatic thinker.

    1. Richard III was not the only play to, as you say, touch political nerves. All the plays did in one way or another. The comedies were full of such touches, though most, perhaps all, directed at members of the Court in ways that would bypass the public. RIII may have been the first where it was so obvious to anyone who saw the play who was being portrayed, in particular to the MPs who were in close contact with the newly appointed Secretary of State every day that parliament was in session, as it was his job to transfer communications from the Commons to the Queen and vice versa. It was this that made it necessary for the Company to identify the author, and as soon as possible, before someone in the know dared to publish the truth.

  6. But the name had to be an alias, not only because of the playwright’s noble status, but because this was one of the essential bargaining pieces, if the plays, and conceivably the acting company itself, were to survive and both the De Vere and Cecil families given some sort of fig-leaf protection.

  7. Although they had had the standin in place, at least since 1595, and possibly since 1593, they didn’t use him until 1598. Too risky? But by 1597, when so many murders had (possibly) taken place and their whole operation was on the line, it was simply a risk they had to take. As it turned out, it couldn’t have been more effective. It created a brilliant snafu that’s lasted over four centuries.

  8. A.P. Rossiter has a wonderful essay titled “Angel With Horns: the Musicality of Richard III.” He deftly points out that the play is constructed similarly to a symphony with “musical” themes as point counter point moving from Acts to even line construction.

    Perhaps the objections to a lack of “literary loftiness” are due to the virulence of plot and character directed as a polemic, but Rossiter makes a very good argument that the author was quite conscious of flow and movement in his construction of the play. A. P. Rossiter described the dramatic structure of Richard III as “rhetorical symphony in five movements.” One “symphonic” technique which Shakespeare adopts from the Roman tragedian Seneca is stichomythia: a pattern of speech and reply in which a speaker repeats the structure and wording, or the reversal, of the previous speech. Rossiter argues that “the counter-stroke reversals of meanings” in these verbal duels parallel “the dramatic ironies of the action.” From this perspective compare the speeches that introduce the members of the doomed house of York and their followers and those that mark their various fates.” (online course study)

  9. There’s a good statement from the Introduction to the play by an Arden editor, Hazelton Spencer, who wrote in the early 1930s. From a longer article on RIII I’ve been struggling with: “Spencer actually suggests that Shakespeare created Richard as a comic villain: “almost as much to make the audience laugh as to make it shudder” (xxvi). Unlike Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Claudius, and Othello––“who are to some extent Everyman,” Spencer writes:

    “Richard is never Everyman. He is set up for a cockshy––he is a dummy, a stuffed shirt. But, and this is the main point, how well he is stuffed! From his first sinister appearance, spying his deformed shadow in the sun, to his last desperate yell for a charger to bear him back to the carnage, Richard is electric with energy and vitality. This is the department where Shakespeare, among all the world’s dramatists, stands up peerless. Not in this case, by the intoxication of high poetry, but by the sheer vigor and vividness of Richard’s phraseology, the character is animated and the ‘history’ brought to life. Every speech of Richard’s is superbly actable. It is impossible to read his lines sitting still. Almost every phrase calls for dynamic expression in bodily movement. In short, Richard is one of the most effective acting roles ever written” (xxvii).

    Some great works may be created purely by the mind, but it’s beginning to be clear that Shakespeare’s greatest were always animated as much by a personal passion as by knowledge of history, Latin literature, Greek tragedy, etc. Romeo and Juliet came originally from a first experience of love, Hamlet from his banishment over Vavasor, Lear from the feeling he was being dismissed as a tiresome old fool by his married adult daughters. Rage at his brother-in-law and the sense that with his pen and the talents of an angry, gifted actor, Richard Burbage, he could “kill” Cecil more effectively with poisoned words than poisoned soup is the motivating force behind this play.

    Genuine feeling born of personal experience is the ingredient that, added to the incredible learning acquired from his tutor in childhood and the political acumen acquired at Cecil House in his teen years, is what made these works sublime.

    By the way, today’s great Shakespearean actor, Mark Rylance, will be playing Richard at the Belasco Theater in New York City this coming October and November.

    1. If the play was not entertaining, if it wasn’t a rousing success for the audience, if it was dour and bleak, how would that serve the purpose for which you proclaim?

      What genius to hide your scathing criticism in roars of fascination with the medium. Its called black comedy. Ever see Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? Or a million other political blistering satires?

      How much harder for Cecil to object.

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