How England’s Greatest Playwright Narrowly Escaped Treason

Cassidy Cash

6 mins

14 Dec 2018

Robert Dudley was the Earl of Leicester and a patron of Leicester’s Men, of which Shakespeare was a member. This prominent figure in the theatre industry was also the Earl of Essex’s stepfather. Dudley would unknowingly setup the Earl of Essex to be in a position to charm Queen Elizabeth I by starting his own mark on history as the Queen’s clandestine lover.

After their relationship survived numerous scandals, wars, and fights, they cared for one another deeply. When he died in 1588, Elizabeth was inconsolable. She inscribed the brief letter he had written to her as “His last letter” and kept it locked in a case beside her bed for the rest of her life.

For years after his death if anyone mentioned his name, her eyes filled with tears.

Dudley’s successor

The love, and subsequently powerful feeling of loss and emptiness exhibited by Elizabeth after the death of her beloved Robert Dudley opened the door for his stepson, the Earl of Essex, to be in an unprecedented position of favour with the Queen.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and stepson of Elizabeth I’s beloved Robert Dudley. Oil on Canvas 1596.

Whether an intentional act of subversion to try and gain the Queen’s confidence, or simply the result of having been raised by Dudley, Essex’s behaviour and his personality tried to mimic the late Robert Dudley, which the Queen longed to have returned to her.

While we may never be able to verify concrete reasons for Essex’s appeal to Elizabeth, it is verifiable that she enjoyed his self-confidence, and admired his strong nature. Such charm allowed Essex to take particular liberty in her presence.

Considering his later rebellion, it becomes quite plausible that Essex was mimicking the role of Dudley on purpose to be subversive to the crown, but regardless of the reasons, there came a day when Essex entered an argument with the Queen and, in a heated moment, lay his hand upon the hilt of his sword as if to draw upon the Queen.

This time, any favour Essex enjoyed, had run out.

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Essex’s vendetta

After this ghastly display at court, he was appointed to the one position in all of England no one wanted to have: he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland charged with bringing peace through war to the region. This appointment marked the beginning of what would become the famous Essex Rebellion of 1601.

As a patron of Shakespeare and a friend of Shakespeare’s other famous patron, Henry Wriothesley, The Earl of Southampton, Essex used the theatre and Shakespeare in particular as a weapon in his quest against the government.

Shakespeare’s Richard II

Etching and engraving from a late 1800s performance of William Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Richard II was a popular play during Elizabeth’s reign and legend even holds she claimed to be the inspiration behind the title role. Richard II had been performed in London as a street play numerous times but all with one major exception: the abdication scene was always removed.

The play tells the story of the last two years of Richard II’s reign when he is deposed by Henry IV, imprisoned and murdered. The Parliament scene or ‘abdication scene’ shows Richard II resigning his throne.

Although historically accurate, it would have been dangerous for Shakespeare to stage that scene because of the parallels between Queen Elizabeth and Richard II. It might have been taken as an assault or treason to the crown. Numerous playwrights had been fined, imprisoned, or worse for smaller suggestions of offence.

King Richard had relied heavily on politically powerful favourites, and so did Elizabeth; her advisers included Lord Burleigh and his son, Robert Cecil. Also, neither monarch had produced an heir to ensure the succession.

The parallels were exceptional, and it would have been taken by Elizabeth as an act of treason to show the character she considered to be representative of her reign, on stage resigning the crown.

Anonymous artist’s impression of Richard II in the 16th century.

A performance with political purpose

After his attempts at a truce in Ireland had failed, Essex returned to England against the Queen’s orders, to try and explain himself. She was furious, stripped him of his offices, and placed him under house arrest.

Now disgraced, and a failure, Essex decided to stage a rebellion. Rousing up close to 300 supporters, he prepared a coup. On Saturday 7 February 1601, the night before they were to launch the rebellion, Essex paid Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to perform Richard II and include the abdication scene.

Shakespeare’s company was at this time the leading playing company in London and theatre already held the role of making political statements. As a playwright, you had to make those statements carefully because, as Essex discovered, your favour can run out.

By choosing Shakespeare’s company to perform this play, on this day, it was clearly Essex’s intention to send a message to the Queen.

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The rebellion falls apart

It seems as though Essex and his men intended for the production to stir Londoners in a powerful desire to replace the government. Confident the play would arouse support for their cause, the next day the Earl, and his 300 supporters marched into London only to discover their plan had not worked.

The people did not rise up in support of the cause and the rebellion fizzled before it began. After marching into London with his 300 men, Essex was captured, tried, and ultimately executed for treason in 1601.

Henry Wriothesley, The Earl of Southampton, was the patron to whom Shakespeare had dedicated his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. In 1601 Wriothesley was a fellow conspirator with Essex who was arrested and tried at the same time.

Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624) Oil on Canvas.

Unlike Essex, Wriothesley was spared his life, and sentenced to be imprisoned in the tower. After Elizabeth’s death two years later, James I would release Wriothesley from the tower. At his release, Southampton returned to his place at court including his connection with the stage.

In 1603, he entertained Queen Anne with a performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost by Richard Burbage and his company, to which Shakespeare belonged, at Southampton House.

Considering Southampton’s strong affection for the stage, and direct connection to Shakespeare in particular, it is hard to imagine how Shakespeare would have felt anything but entirely too close to the entire rebellious event.

How did Shakespeare react?

Shakespeare must have felt compelled to defend himself against charges of treason because Augustine Phillips, the spokesman for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, made a public statement just a few days after the 7 February performance, in which Phillips takes considerable pains to mention that Shakespeare’s company was paid 40 shillings.

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He makes a further point that this amount was considerably more than the normal rate to stage a play. Philips goes on to declare that the choice of Richard II was not made by the company, but, as is customary, was made by the patron paying for the performance.

The public statement from The Lord Chamberlain’s Men was a strategic distancing of themselves from the rebellion to prevent Shakespeare and his company from being brought up on charges of treason.

Either the Queen’s anger at Essex eclipsed her notice of the playing company, or their public statement worked, but The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were never accused of treason.

The demise of Essex

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I from c.1595.

Despite the dissemination of the rebellion itself, and the narrow escape from treason by Shakespeare’s company, the Earl of Essex did not escape the dire consequences of his treachery.

On 25 February 1601 Essex was beheaded for treason; a final act of mercy on the Queen’s part, as many were drawn and quartered for less offence.

Declaring her control over the government, characteristically asserting her power to dissuade further rebellion, and sending a clear response to Essex’s theatrical message, the Queen commanded Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II for her on Shrove Tuesday, in 1601, the day before Essex’s execution.

Whether it included the abdications scene is unclear.

Cassidy Cash has built the ultimate Shakespeare history tour. She is an award winning filmmaker and host of the podcast, That Shakespeare Life. Her work takes you behind the curtain and into the real life of William Shakespeare.