On the Undoing of Another “Playboy of the Western World”

Note that I have written about what follows in my previous post, which if you did not catch, expresses somewhat my qualms about venturing into this territory, and what a journey! Travel plans usually take unexpected turns, and this is no exception–my muse is threatening to combust. I urge you to let me know if I have gone astray…

I have been reading Paul Hammer, a historian who has presented at the Folger, but tells the Stratfordians a different tale of Essex, one that differs with the standard story I have heard from many directions. Not exactly the story James Shapiro told when he recently took up this topic to introduce the Folger’s Irish exhibition. Hammer is interested in rehabilitating Robert de Vereux’s story in the same way that most Oxfordians are trying to improve de Vere’s. On the other hand, he also serves the orthodox view that the performance of Richard II right before the rising is essential to a politicized view of Shakespeare, a point which is so obvious that it need not even be repeated for de Vere, but which is key to casting Will as a politically important operative (1). He explains how Essex’s story relates to Shakespeare’s Richard II, but offers a new look at the documents, and Essex is his main concern.  He has two relatively new book length studies of Essex which I have started in on, but one article he spun off from those studies seemed worth an earlier look. “Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Play of 7 February 1601, and the Essex Rising” (2008) from Shakespeare Quarterly, is one of Hammer’s texts that particularly explains Hammer’s theory of the Essex incident and the importance of the play [he insists it is Richard II (2, 18-23)] in that course of events. As he puts it, “This revised account challenges traditional arguments about the connection between the play of 7 February and the Rising” (abstract). I take this for our text today.

I decided to study Hammer because of his introductory description in his book, The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics, of Essex’s reputation as created by critics and historians over the years as “the playboy of the Western world,” which reminds one of the dismissive view many have of Oxford. Because words interest me, I looked up “playboy” in the OED, and it is interesting to note that Ben Jonson seems to have been one of the first to use the compound word “play-boy” in print, referring to the boy actors; but as is ‘ever’ the case, I have a feeling the term was shoptalk a bit before that. Would that someone had compiled a Tudor Urban Dictionary beyond that within the works of the great author.The OED says it not used in the negative sense that Synge used it/meant it till much later. But the concept clearly captures the modern stigma attached to both Essex and Oxford.

Hammer analyzes Essex’s actions from a long view of his role as soldier and statesman in the light of the bitter political factionalization of the late 90s. Succession as the main political issue was roosting, and Essex was the most visible of roosters. But his rivals were vicious and vociferous, especially Raleigh, Cobham, Cecil and Coke (7). It seems the pent up jealousies that followed any former favorite of the Queen caught up with Essex, so that whatever he did, intended, or stood for was soundly rejected, and this prejudice has followed him to this day (7). Hammer looks at the historical records, influential circulating texts and the trial records to support his revised account Essex’s and his followers’–of course, including Southampton’s–plans and panicked actions, which have been mischaracterized as an attempted regicidal coup d’etat, when the real targets were Essex’s enemies on the Privy Council. Essex was apparently justifiably convinced that his enemies on the Privy Council were dubious or opposed to his preference of James Stuart as the Queen’s successor (6). Essex’s original plan to commandeer an audience and make a “humble” appeal to the Queen was stymied by leaks through embedded spies, and action was forced a week earlier and so, badly adapted. The fine line Essex was trying to walk to stay above treasonable action seems the razor that brought him down. Essex and company felt they had a noble cause, which is in part, illustrated by their interest in Richard II. Hammer looks at the performance of Richard II that some of Essex’s followers commissioned as being, in their view, a courage-steeling, combined dramatization of historical precedent, of aristocrats doing the right thing, and cautionary tale about how their actions could be misinterpreted and go terribly wrong (27-30). But the play was supposed to happen a week before the planned effort to appeal to the Queen, so while it was put on by Essex friends, Hammer shows that it was advance propaganda and custom ideological exigence-building for his co-conspirators, rather than a catalyst to same-day rebellion (18). Essex friends’ reasons for hiring and viewing the play seem parallel to Oxford’s lifelong view of the vicissitudes of aristocratic responsibility and action, and might hint at his influence. Apparently, even the close followers were a bit worried about Essex and his well-meaning, but ultimately ill-conceived plot that, when it failed, was made to look like a Catholic-aligned conspiracy by some counts and a treasonous usurpation of right and power at best.

Hammer also argues for an interesting, and seemingly reasonable re-interpretation of Elizabeth’s declaration of “Know ye not,” that Elizabeth’s comment to Lambarde was not  precisely about the particular performance in February 1601—nor, indeed, was her follow up remark about drama a reference to any particular play—but her points were an expression her own understanding [characteristically expressed as metaphor] of how her former favorite had come to such a [classically] tragic end” (25). According to Hammer, Elizabeth was referring to the Cecilian version of Essex’s treason–upon which he was convicted, the ‘official’ narrative of his enemies. Posterity only knows whether the Queen ever realized what Essex had really wanted to happen. Hammer’s reading of the account of the Lambarde conversation seems to be based on solid research and interpretation and is the most convincing I have seen about this issue, which I had read about prior to this article, because it seems quite crucial. I intend to look into this more, but this one seems the best contextualization yet. Hammer also mentions the possible censorship of the eventually printed versions of the play and contends that they further politicize the play. This issue of the play’s life as a political document sends me to other sources, and may be an issue for another time. However, this may shed light on the government’s efforts to spin the Essex story for posterity.

So, what have we here? A reminder that traditional narrative is influenced by the winning faction and current factions for their own ends, and that another powerful Elizabethan trying to avoid the mistakes of history did not come out unscathed by those who would judge his actions without the benefit of complete, un-faction-biased evidence. My greatest wish is for key Elizabethan individuals to be seen more in the context of a multilevel web of complex court/public interactions. We pick the trees out of the forest without looking at the ecosystem too often because it is complicated and long ago and far away.  I urge my Oxfordian friends to consider this article, which I plan to reassess, but I think it both supports Oxford’s hand in the Essex matter, but overlooks that there were also other views of what would be best for succession (factions beside and within factions, imagine that!) and, and confirms de Vere’s seasoned influence was considered, if not completely heeded. Another aspect is that it points to good reasons for a politically vocal earl to remain anonymous in the public eye. As Hammer explains, Elizabeth’s disapproval of Essex stemmed from his disrespectful and ungrateful usurption of her right to dominance of the public eye and of her peers and subjects. Hammer explains that this is what

Elizabeth means when she said that earl of Essex’s ‘”tragedie was played 40tie times in open streets and houses.” His very public ambition was a huge contributor to his downfall, and he had failed also to heed his colleague, de Vere’s example of sprezzatura.

Works Cited

Hammer, Paul, E. J. The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-1597. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Hammer, Paul, E. J.,  “Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Play of 7 February 1601, and the Essex Rising.” Shakespeare Quarterly 59.1 (2008) 1-35. Folger Shakespeare Library via Project Muse. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.

© Michelle Maycock 2014



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