Shakespeare mirrored contemporaries in his plays—including England’s most powerful rulers—and often in unflattering ways. He reserved a particularly sharp pen for Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.
The Eyes Have It
Leicester had the Queen Elizabeth’s favor from the start of her reign, achieving power which approached that of a king. She appointed him Master of the Horse and a member of her privy council, and made him General of the Crown’s army fighting Spain in the Netherlands. He also had command of the Crown’s forces during the Spanish Armada.
Leicester and Elizabeth are reflected as the Earl of Suffolk and Queen Margaret, the power duo in Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, Part Two.
Leicester was handsome. As Alison Weir has written, he “was almost six feet tall and very attractive; his skin was so dark as to earn him the nickname of ‘the Gypsy’, a name used by some to refer to his moral character rather than his face.”
Elizabeth’s nickname for Leicester was “Eyes.” He signed letters to her with an ôô symbol for the nickname. She also called him “Sweet Robin.” The two spent a lot time together, often alone. Commentators agree that if Elizabeth had taken a husband, it would have been Leicester. One small problem: Sweet Robin already had a wife.
Bird Of Prey
In 1584, Leicester’s enemies published Leicester’s Commonwealth, a book in which they accused Leicester of many evil-doings, including adultery and murder, even listing his poison victims.
Leicester’s wife had been found dead at the bottom of a staircase, her neck broken. Leicester’s Commonwealth claimed the earl had hired someone to murder her and make it look like an accident. Leicester’s alleged motive was he would then be free to marry Elizabeth.
Few could rival Leicester as the realm’s number one domestic villain. Shakespeare wouldn’t have been alone in his hatred for “the Gypsy.”
Beware the Gypsy . . . and the Moor
The Middle English word gypsy derives from the Greek word for Egyptian, and was founded on the mistaken belief, prevalent in the Middle Ages, that “gypsies” were nomadic Egyptians when, in fact, the Romani ethnic group originated in India. In contrast, the term “Moor” was first applied to indigenous Muslims in Morocco, and later to Arabs and North Africans.
Elizabethans thought of gypsies and Moors as dark and evil. Shakespeare was no exception.
Scholars since 1898 have viewed Leicester as the model for Claudius in Hamlet.
In his lust for power, Claudius poisons his brother King Hamlet and quickly marries the king’s widow, Queen Gertrude, to become King of Denmark, setting the stage for Shakespeare’s great drama. Prince Hamlet, robbed of his kingdom, berates Gertrude, his mother, for marrying Claudius:
Have you eyes? Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten [gorge] on this moor? Ha! have you eyes You cannot call it love […]
Shakespeare uses two “eyes,” one on each side of “moor” (a homonym for “Moor” whose middle letters resemble eyes, and suggesting dark skin like “gypsy”), to paint the dark face of Elizabeth’s favorite. In the play, Claudius ends up accidentally poisoning his own wife, the Queen. Conceivably, Shakespeare was warning Elizabeth of the same danger if she married Leicester.
It’s no surprise that Hamlet appeared in print only after the deaths of Elizabeth and Leicester. Because the play mirrors members of Elizabeth’s court—and the queen herself, as Gertrude—I have argued the play was banned during her lifetime.
If Shakespeare, as many did, despised Leicester, why stop at Hamlet in dissing him?
The principal villain in Titus Andronicus is Aaron the Moor who, as Leicester was reputed to be, is an adulterer and murderer.
Like Claudius, Aaron engages in an illicit relationship with the Queen. In Titus, her name is Tamora, who invites Aaron to make love to her in a cave, something she says “Dido once enjoy’d.” In Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido was Queen of Carthage. In some sources, Dido is known as “Elissa,” a subtle but clear link to Elizabeth.
Queen Tamora gushes to her lover Aaron: “Ah, my sweet Moor, sweeter to me than life.” Like a pair of eyes, the words “sweet” and “sweeter” surround “Moor” and echo “Sweet Robin.” Aaron himself refers to his own “charming eyes.”
The protagonist in Titus labels Aaron a would-be poisoner:
Give me thy knife, I will insult on him; Flattering myself, as if it were the Moor Come hither purposely to poison me
As a slam at Leicester, making Aaron a “gypsy” would have been too obvious. Instead, Shakespeare chose the synonymous disparagement, Moor, which when accompanied with “charming eyes,” poison, and Queen Tamora (aka Elissa), does the job as a marker for Leicester.
Unlike Hamlet, Titus Andronicus was printed and sold while Elizabeth was alive, albeit anonymously. Why did the publishers omit Shakespeare’s celebrated name? The reflection of Leicester and Elizabeth as the sinners Aaron and Tamora offers a plausible explanation.
. . . and Moor poison
In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Othello commits the same act committed by Claudius and Aaron—premeditated murder—and poison is in the picture.
While Shakespeare makes Claudius an actual poisoner—who intentionally poisons King Hamlet and unintentionally poisons Gertrude—he initially makes Othello a poisoner in a figurative sense.
One character drills Othello about how he won Desdemona’s heart, asking him, “Did you by indirect and forced courses subdue and poison this young maid’s affections?” Later in the play, Shakespeare extends this theme by making Othello an actual, would-be poisoner, another possible warning to Elizabeth about Leicester.
In his state of extreme jealousy and anger, Othello rattles off different ways he could kill Desdemona, settling on poison. He tells Iago, “Get me some poison.” But without explanation, Iago says, “Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed.”
If Leicester did murder his wife, such an explanation would go without saying: given his reputation as a poisoner, that method would have been far too incriminating.
Iago, whose machinations lead Othello to murder Desdemona and then to suicide, says:
The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood,
Burn like the mines of Sulphur.
In the end, Othello, is a victim of poison in a figurative sense as much as Claudius is in a literal one. Indeed, subtext in Henry VI, Part Two suggests that Leicester got some of his own medicine and died of poisoning.
Leicester “the Gypsy” was an army general. In that sense, his reflection in the military commander Othello is sharper than his reflection in Claudius and Aaron. All three of these “Moors” display the disturbing profile of a poisoner (or would-be poisoner), or adulterer, or both, and in all cases a murderer, a profile that matches the description of Leicester in Leicester’s Commonwealth.
Looking into Shakespeare’s mirrors . . . and into the future
As time goes on, researchers likely will identify in Shakespeare’s works additional reflections of his contemporaries and events of his day, corroborating Charles Beauclerk’s observation that the plays are “highly political documents” with significant ramifications for understanding the history of the Elizabethan era.
Studying Shakespeare’s methods for mirroring real people will enhance appreciation of his art and the understanding of themes in his plays, including the motives behind the choices he makes.
It will also advance the Shakespeare authorship debate, giving context to the issue of who was best positioned to create those mirrors and had the best motives for doing so—a grain merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon with no court connections, or a courtier who wrote plays and was on intimate terms with Queen Elizabeth?