Richard III: the evidence

Three professors of English at American universities have provided evidence that puts the final piece of the authorship puzzle in place.  M.G. Aune, associate professor of English at Cal-U in Pennsylvania  , in his 2006 article in the Shakespeare Bulletin, The Uses of Richard III, points out how for centuries Shakespeare’s monstrous vision has been used to villify political figures from Robert Cecil to Richard Nixon.  Margaret Hotine, in her 1991 article in Notes and Queries: Richard III and Macbeth: Studies in Tudor Tyranny?, examines Shakespeare’s use of Richard III to villify Cecil, while Pauline Croft, professor of Early Modern History at the Royal Holloway University of London, in her 1990 article for the Royal Historical Society: The Reputation of Robert Cecil: Libels, Political Opinion and Popular Awareness in the Early Seventeenth Century, focuses on the outpouring of nasty epigrams and bawdy lyrics that followed his death.

Aune details the connections between Robert Cecil and Shakespeare’s King as described by Hotine and Croft who “traced a number of these connections using verse libels about Cecil and the printing history of the quarto of Richard III”(27). They note: Both Richard and Cecil were described as hunchbacked and deformed.”  She lists several of the contemporary references to Cecil in which he’s described as “crooked,” or “hunchbacked” (27).  (Cecil’s problem has been diagnosed by modern physicians as scoliosis, which generally distorts the back from left to right, so that “crooked” was probably the better description.)

Richard’s crooked back indicates a moral crookedness, his withered arm the perversion of his actions. The toad metaphors suggest an ugly deformity and a lower, toxic form of life. The moral deformity that the crooked back symbolized in Cecil and Richard was ruthless ambition. That ambition drove Richard to murder and betrayal and it brought wealth and power, as well as opprobrium and animosity, to Robert Cecil. (27)

Quoting Hotine, Aune points out “Cecil’s ambitions and his regular promotions as connected to, if not a cause of, the printings of the first five of the eight Richard III quartos: 1597, 1598, 1602, 1605, and 1612. . . .  The conjectural performance history of the play strengthens these correlations: 1593, 1594, 1596, 1599, 1606, 1607, 1608 and 1612 (Foster qtd. in Davison 16).  He turns to the 1953 biography of Cecil by P.M. Handover who noted “the widespread anti-Cecil sentiment” generated in 1601 by Essex’s trial, during which someone had scratched, “Here lieth the toad” over Cecil’s bedchamber door.  Richard is likened to a toad several times in all versions of Shakespeare’s play.  Aune notes that Sir Thomas More, Shakespeare and the libelers of 1612, all connect

Cecil’s physical deformity to his moral shortcomings. His twisted plots to gain power for himself and to disempower the legitimate rulers are reflected in his contorted body, just as Richard’s deformities reflect his corrupt character. . . .  Just as Shakespeare’s Richard manipulated the factions in Edward IV’s court, the libels portray Cecil as following his father’s lead in exploiting the factionalization that plagued Elizabeth’s court. (28)

Continuing the connection between the publication dates and national events, he notes:

The third quarto was printed in 1602, the year following the Essex Rebellion. . . .  The fourth quarto was printed in 1605, and in 1606, John Day’s The Isle of Gulls was performed featuring a character named Dametas who acts as a corrupt counselor to a king.  Dametas is described as “the monsterous and deformed shape of vice” (Induction 58-59) and “a little hillock, made great with others ruins” (1.2.25-26). . . . Cecil’s death in 1612 coincided with a revival of Richard III and the printing of the fifth quarto––the first in seven years. (28-9)

Aune then takes up the issue of the libels that followed his death, noting:  “If there had been any doubt that Cecil was associated with Richard in the public eye, the flurry of libels that appeared after his death put it to rest” (29).

The only thing that’s missing with these accounts are the roles played by the Earl of Oxford, who (I believe) wrote the play out of fury at being denied access to his company’s beautiful new stage at Blackfriars, and his colleague Francis Bacon, who, based on the scribbles on the cover of the Northumberland Manuscript, was responsible for getting it published.


As the turbulent ’90s drew to a close, Cecil accomplished two things that would raise him to supreme power in the coming reign: first, he managed to take advantage of Essex’s weaknesses to topple him, or if one sees it as Essex toppling himself, then Cecil positioned himself to benefit by his fall, while the execution or imprisonment of his followers eliminated a whole tier of rivals for the offices and favors that would soon be his alone.  Second, shortly after this his painstaking behind-scenes arrangements resulted in the peaceful transfer of power to James VI of Scotland, who rewarded him for his efforts by dubbing him Lord of Essendon, then Viscount Cranborne, then finally, in 1605, Earl of Salisbury––along with just about every national office there was to give.  (Ironically, what he didn’t give to Cecil he gave to Oxford’s other mortal enemy, Henry Howard.)

James was not interested in governing.  Beyond handing out offices, annuities and monopolies to those who attracted or fawned on him, the Scottish King didn’t understand English systems and traditions nor did he care to learn.  Hotine quotes the Venetian ambassador who wrote home:

His Majesty is devoted to the chase and to his pleasures, and . . . readily leaves all to the Council. . . .  these Lords . . . are openly styled “kinglings” and “tyrant” for in very truth they permit themselves any action that suits their turn.  Greatest and most eminent of all is Robert, Earl of Salisbury, first Secretary of State, whose authority is so absolute that he may truly be called the King. (480)

The libels claimed that Cecil instigated anti-government plots which he then “discovered” and blamed on his enemies.  The network of informants and spies that he inherited from his predecessor, Sir Francis Walsingham, served him in this, while at the same time contributing to his reputation as a schemer and manipulator.  Over the first five years under King James, Cecil would “expose” three more conspiracies: the Bye and Main Plots in 1603, and the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.  With the first two he got rid of two pesky former friends, his brother-in-law, Henry Brooke, Ld Cobham, and Sir Walter Raleigh.  Rumors persist to the present that he staged the Gunpowder Plot and then exposed it in order to discredit English Catholics while making himself more important to the King (Gardiner 11, Nicholas 213-14).

Little bossive Robin

Hotine makes the point: “Salisbury . . . was far too powerful to be criticized openly while he was alive” (480), but as soon as he was dead the libels and damning squibs began pouring forth.    She quotes a letter from John Chamberlain to his friend Dudley Carleton, Ambassador to Venice:

the memory of the late Lord Treasurer grows daily worse and worse and more libels come as it were continually, whether it be that practices and jugglings [manipulations] come more and more to light, or that men love to follow the sway of the multitude; but it is certain that they who may best maintain it have not foreborn to say that he juggled with religion, with the King, Queen, their children, with nobility, Parliament, with friends, foes and generally with all.  Some of his chaplains have been heard to oppose themselves what they could in pulpit against these scandalous speeches but with little fruit. (480)

However, in an earlier letter, assuming Cecil’s death to be imminent, Chamberlain had taken a very different tack: “[Salisbury] is already much lamented and every man says what a miss there would be of him and indeed [he] is much prayed for.”  Hotine continues: “The news later in June was more of a surprise.  Salisbury’s passing, on the return journey from Bath, had been followed, not by the expected tributes to his irreplaceability, but by a flood of ‘outrageous speeches,’”  a reference to the libels that began pouring forth as soon as the death was confirmed.

Most of these were in the form of the epigrams that were so popular at the time, or of bawdy lyrics to popular tunes.  Croft publishes a few of the best known in her article, but there were literally hundreds, now accessible only through manuscripts in archives, which should give some idea of how many there were that never got saved (a number of these can be found online by clicking here).  They focus primarily on his greed, his graft, his dirty tricks to ensnare political foes, and, whether true or not, the sexual nature of his relationships with two unsavory Court females: Catherine Knyvett, Countess of Suffolk, mother of Frances Howard, notorious as the convicted poisoner of Sir Thomas Overbury; and Lady Audrey Walsingham, wife of the same Thomas Walsingham who years earlier had assisted Cecil in engineering the elimination of Christopher Marlowe.  Both were accused of trading sexual favors for perquisites for their own friends and family, and of obtaining the same for him from their greedy, amoral female friends.  Even his own niece, Oxford daughter, Elizabeth Vere, Countess of Derby, did not “escape calumny.”

However, what’s significant to us in hindsight is not so much the libels as it is Chamberlain’s surprise.  Well positioned with friends at Court, that John Chamberlain should be so unaware of the Secretary’s true nature or his reputation, may show how great was the fear of those who had cause to hate the man, that they managed to keep such a silence that someone even as aware of public opinion as John Chamberlain had no notion of it.  On the other hand, if Chamberlain did know about Cecil’s reputation, it speaks equally to a similar caution on his part, at least when writing letters, for it can’t be that he was unaware of the fact that both Sir Walter Raleigh, or Henry Brooke Ld Cobham, had been hounded to the gibbet and Tower by Cecil for their supposed involvements in phantom plots against the throne, or that they both had been Cecil’s former companions: Raleigh, who had helped to raise his son and heir, and Cobham the brother of his beloved wife.  Chamberlain was not a playgoer; nevertheless, it can’t be that he, alone of all Londoners, missed comparing the destruction of Cecil’s companions to the fratricides of Richard III.

In any case, a few months after Cecil’s death when Francis Bacon came out with a second edition of his Essays, Chamberlain easily understood the reference to Cecil in an added essay titled “Of Deformity,” noting: “in a chapter of deformity the world takes notice that he paints out his late little cousin to the life” (480).  As Bacon puts it:

. . . as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature; being for the most part . . . void of natural affection; and so they have their revenge of nature. . . . Whosoever hath anything fixed in his person, that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself, to rescue and deliver himself from scorn.  Therefore all deformed persons, are extreme bold.  First, as in their own defence, as being exposed to scorn; but in process of time, by a general habit.  Also it stirreth in them industry, and especially of this kind, to watch and observe the weakness of others, that they may have somewhat to repay.  . . .  Kings in ancient times . . . were wont to put great trust in eunuchs; because they that are envious towards all are more . . . officious towards one.  But yet their trust towards them hath rather been as to good spials and good whisperers than good magistrates and officers. . . .

There’s no doubt that Bacon hated his cousin.  Croft, who read his letters to King James, claims he states openly that he hated Cecil (and no doubt his father before him) for preventing him from getting the Court offices Bacon felt he deserved both through inheritance from his father, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and his own obvious talents.  In fact, it was not until shortly after Cecil’s death in 1612 that Francis got his first important (paying) Court position (Attorney General).  However, if, as I believe, Bacon occupied himself during the years he spent out of office with writing Spenser’s Mother Hubberd, Endymion, and all of Thomas Nashe, then both men had plenty of reason for hating each other.

Chamberlain was not a playgoer.  Still, he must have been aware that, as Croft notes, in 1604 Samuel Daniel was censured by the Privy Council for alluding too dangerously to Essex in his pseudo-classical tragedy Philotas, which probably meant that another character in that play, the treacherous dwarf Craterus, was modeled on Cecil (48); or that John Day’s Isle of Gullswith its Cecil-like character Dametas, got Day in hot water with the Privy Council for which he may have spent time in jail (wikipedia).

But these pale when compared with the effect that the publication of Richard III in 1597 and ’98 had on public opinion, as described by Aune, Croft and Hotine, yet for which not Shakespeare nor any of his actors are recorded as ever having been called to account.  Of course it may be that, without Shakespeare’s play, men would have made the comparison between Cecil and Richard III on their own.  It may also be that they were already making the comparison when Oxford wrote it, and that by dramatizing it he merely gave it legs, as they say in the media––legs, arms, and a fierce biting mouth.

In any case, if there could ever have been the slightest possibility that the “Grand Possessors” considered acknowledging Oxford as the real Shakespeare, Richard III put an end to it.  They could hardly admit his authorship of Love’s Labour’s Lost or Romeo and Juliet and not that of Richard III, for it would have been all too obvious that, just as Bacon had his cousin in mind in his essay “On Deformity,” Oxford had his brother-in-law in mind when he wrote Richard III, and as we’ve noted elsewhere, it was through his brother-in-law, however a scoundrel he may have been in some ways, that the Cecil family has prospered to this day as the Earls and Marquesses of Salisbury.

Hotine sees Richard III’s predecessor, The True Tragedy of King Richard III, as a piece of Tudor propaganda written at some point prior to 1586 (481) while Aune sees it as “most likely performed by the Queen’s Men in the late 1580s” (24-5).  (Because it wasn’t published until 1594, most historians think it was written at or almost at the same time as Shakespeare’s play––hard to believe, if you’ve actually read it and compared the two!)  This agrees with our guess of 1582-’84 when Oxford was writing early versions of the Shakespeare history plays for Walsingham.  Hotine notes: “If the tyrant he has in mind is not the real Richard but a contemporary politican, some similarity to the earlier play would be useful for deceiving the censor.”  This suggests that when it came to getting Shakespeare’s provocative play past the censors, they may have palmed it off as a slightly tweaked version of the recently published True Tragedy.

The publisher and printer

Surely some such ploy was necessary to get the play past Revels Master Tilney and the censoring bishops.  The first version of Richard III, published by Andrew Wise, was printed by two men, Valentine Simmes and Peter Short, both closely connected with printing the early quartos of the Shakespeare canon and works by the other pseudonymous authors of the time.  In 1594, Peter Short printed the anonymous Taming of a Shrew; in 1595, he printed Mary Sidney’s translation of Antonie; in 1598 he printed Samuel Daniel’s Cleopatra (Daniel worked for Mary); and in 1600, he printed Jonson’s Every Man Out, in which William is satirized as Sogliardo.  Of most interest here, it was also Short who, in 1598, printed Francis Meres’s Wit’s Treasury, the book in which it was first established that Oxford and Shakespeare were separate entities.

Although it was the publisher who bore the official weight of producing provocative books, printers too could suffer, as witness the trial and execution of John Penry.  Lukas Erne notes that the publisher of the 1597 quarto of Richard III, Andrew Wise, had such a short career that he really can’t be considered a professional publisher.  Because Wise was also associated with the printer James Roberts, Erne suggests that when the the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were looking for a publisher for Richard II and Richard III, they approached Roberts.  Roberts, who has possibly the most connections to the Shakespeare canon of any printer, had printed Bacon/Nashe’s Christ’s Teares for Wise in the heat of the chaos following Marlowe’s murder in 1593.  Erne says: “If some time in 1597, Shakespeare and his fellows, willing to sell the manuscripts of Richard II and Richard III, asked Roberts for advice and if Roberts was unwilling to take the risks of purchasing the manuscripts himself, he would have had good reasons to recommend Andrew Wise” (88).  Why Erne thinks Roberts might think it risky to publish Richard III he doesn’t say.

Catholics as fall guys

No doubt the Cecils had good reason to fear Catholic plots; after all, at a time when most leading families of the peerage were still Catholics at heart if not in practice, naturally there would be attempts by the militants to regain the throne.  Therefore, as Secretaries of State, it was the job of William Cecil, then Francis Walsingham, then Robert Cecil, to stop them.  If in some cases (perhaps all cases) they preempted such plots by creating stings that drew potential plotters into plots of their own by, as a contemporary of Robert Cecil’s put it: “first contriving and then discovering a treason,” well, so much the worse for the fools who fell into the traps (good riddance to bad rubbish?).

However, there was also a very different kind of threat, one exemplified by the saintly Edmund Campion, whose charisma was his death knell.  Campion was only the most prominent example of the many Catholics tortured and brutally executed for plotting to murder the Queen, something that, to a man, they passionately denied, claiming only the right to practise their faith.  One wonders how William Cecil salved his conscience when he went to the extreme of having Oxford’s secretary, Anthony Munday lie so that the brilliant theologian whose candidacy as a future Archbishop of Canterbury he had once supported, could be tortured, convicted, then viciously hanged, drawn and quartered (at Tyburn, December 1, 1581).

Campion’s infamous trial was the highly publicized opening move in the Cecils’ campaign to eradicate not only Catholicism in England, but all Catholics, particularly the important ones––a political vendetta that would gain in ferocity throughout Elizabeth’s and into James’s reign, as first father then son successfully manipulated monarchial fears of plots against their lives, some if not all of them cooked up by themselves, some if not all of them actually involving the victim’s beliefs.

Hotine describes how, in December 1591, a Catholic priest, probably the poet Robert Southwell, sent an unsigned paper describing the condition, not only of his fellow Catholics but also of the Protestant recusants, to the Catholic apologist Richard Verstegan, who, born in England but living in Antwerp, used it in his anti-Cecil pamphlet, A Declaration of the True Causes of the Great Troubles presupposed to be intended against England (481).

These and other papers by Southwell outlined the hard conditions endured by both Catholics and Protestant Dissidents, openly blaming Burghley, who created them, then used the bribes and confiscations they encouraged to enrich himself.  Verstegen, far away on the Continent, was out of reach, but Southwell, back in England, had been acting as Chaplain to Lady Ann Howard, the wife of the recusant Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, imprisoned in the Tower since 1585.  Now, with Walsingham gone, in 1595 the Cecils used his agents to arrest and torture Southwell, try him for treason and have him, like Campion 15 years earlier, hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.  It’s interesting that Verstegen got his degree at Oxford in the mid 1560s at Christ Church College, where, as Richard Rowlands, he had studied under Canon Thomas Bernard along with novelist George Pettie and the otherwise unknown “Richard Vere” (Bernard ODNB).

While some were garnered with stings like those that (arguably) brought down the Duke of Norfolk and Mary Queen of Scots, poets like Campion, Southwell, Raleigh, Marlowe, and the Earl of Oxford were another sort of enemy, the kind that could sway public opinion with their powerful language.  Historians may argue over the ethics of the former, but the lengths the Cecils went to to whitewash their reasons for destroying the latter along with the lengths those who survived went to to protect themselves, are the major reasons why we find so little evidence of the true identity of Shakespeare or of the early literary careers of Francis Bacon and Mary Sidney.

The Gunpowder and other plots

In her 1991 article in Notes and Queries, Hotine goes into detail on the Bye Plot of 1603, a scenario similar to that that consumed Essex and company, namely to seize the monarch (James) in order to persuade him to ease up on the Catholics.  Hotine: “We do not know if Watson [the chief conspirator] was helped or encouraged in his treason by an agent provocateur.  What no historian will dispute was that the plot was ‘used’ by those in power to eliminate personal rivals . . .” (484), notably by Cecil, who used it to attack his former friends, Raleigh and Brooke.  She quotes an early history of James’s reign by Godfrey Goodman, later Bishop of Gloucester, in which he states how “The great statesman [Salisbury] would first contrive and then discover a treason, and the more odious and hateful the treason were, his service would be the greater and the more acceptable. . . .” (486).

Later she comments, “Contemporaries were puzzled that the Gunpowder Plot appeared to be the work of minor gentry and wondered that the principal alleged conspirators, Catesby and Percy, were ‘conveniently’ killed before they could be examined . . .” which she compares to the killing of the grooms who were then blamed for having murdered Duncan in Macbeth.  She continues to quote Goodman who relates in some detail how one Sir Francis Moore testified that, having had “some occasion of business” at York House, heading back to the Middle Temple along the Strand in the wee hours, several times saw the main instigator, Percy, leaving Robert Cecil’s mansion on the Strand, so that he wondered what his business could be there at that time of night.  Goodman goes on to relate in some detail the capture of the conspirators,including the fact that none of them tried to escape or threatened to kill their captors, yet Catesby and Percy were shot and killed, which to Goodman and no doubt many others suggested that “a special charge” had been given by “the great statesman” of “‘Let me never see them alive,’” because they might have revealed (on the rack) “some evil counsel given.”

Hotine ends her essay:  “To judge from the evidence of Osborne and Chamberlain, noted above, widespread belief that Salisbury was the real villain persisted to his death” (486).

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