Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2: Holding a Mirror Up to His Queen?

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Reflections (clockwise from upper left): Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Margaret; the Earl of Leicester and the Duke of Suffolk.

Hamlet’s eponymous protagonist tells a company of actors that the purpose of playacting is “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” Logically, that means a playwright should write with the same purpose. How far did Shakespeare go in writing plays that portrayed real people and, in particular, those in the court of his queen, Elizabeth I?

The character Polonius in Hamlet is widely seen as an unflattering portrait of Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s top adviser and the most powerful man in England during most of her reign. Hamlet’s mother, the adulterous Queen Gertrude, appears to reflect Elizabeth herself, while the evil King Claudius replicates her lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (in this blog post, I’ll refer to Dudley as Leicester).

Does Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 hold another mirror up to Elizabeth and Leicester?

Shakespeare’s plays as looking glasses

Hamlet is not the only example of a Shakespeare play containing imitations of actual people. Many see the evil king in Richard III as the reflection of Sir Robert Cecil, the son of Lord Burghley, who stepped into his father’s shoes as Elizabeth’s lead counselor. Members of the French royal court appear in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Other plays with characters that seem to echo Queen Elizabeth I include Antony and Cleopatra, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve also argued that Henry VI, Part I includes a character that parallels Elizabeth.

Looking into the mirror of 2 Henry VI

2 Henry VI chronicles the internal divisions in 15th century England that led to the War of the Roses, a struggle between two royal houses for the English Crown. Broadly speaking, the play emulates the factious environment of the English court in Shakespeare’s time.

A closer look at 2 Henry VI suggests that Shakespeare depicted particular members of the 16th century court, indeed the highest ranking one of all, Queen Elizabeth, along with her lover, Leicester.

In Act 1, Scene 3, Queen Margaret boxes the ears of the Earl of Gloucester’s wife. Past commentators have observed how the scene reproduces a similar incident when Elizabeth boxed the ears of Leicester’s wife. I also find similarities between the pair of lovers in the play, Margaret and the Duke of Suffolk, and the real-life pair of lovers, Elizabeth and Leicester.

A Pair of Power Duos

In the play, Margaret is unable to marry Suffolk because she’s married to the king. Elizabeth, too, was unable to marry her lover, Leicester, because he already had a wife. Margaret and Suffolk dominate affairs of state, a situation that parallels that of Elizabeth and Leicester.

Count De Feria, a Spanish ambassador in Elizabeth’s time, thought Leicester was one of three people who ran the country, the other two being Lord Burghley and Nicholas Bacon. Allison Weir, in her biography of Elizabeth, observes that Leicester “kept state like a prince, and enjoyed vast power and influence.”

In 1562, when Elizabeth was ill with smallpox and believed she was dying, she wanted Leicester named Protector of the Realm—in the play, Suffolk is mistaken for the Lord Protector.

Shakespeare’s sources for 2 Henry VI don’t describe Margaret and Suffolk as lovers. Peter Saccio, in his book Shakespeare’s English Kings, calls their love relationship a “Shakespearean invention.” Some may disagree, but in terms of the play’s plot, story, and dramatic tension, there seems little reason to make them lovers. The king isn’t jealous of Suffolk or very suspicious of the love affair, if at all. Nor do any of the other characters appear to know or care about the affair, except for the lovers. Just one scene shows the full passion of their love. This suggests that Shakespeare’s purpose was to mark the power duo of Margaret and Suffolk—through their non-historical romance—as representing another power duo, namely, Elizabeth and her real-life lover, Leicester.

Recently I had the pleasure to attend the American Shakespeare Center’s fine production of 2 Henry VI at the Blackfriars Playhouse in beautiful, historic Staunton, Virginia. The play, which ASC has appropriately titled “The Rise of Queen Margaret,” runs through November 29, 2016. I recommend seeing it. If you do, you can draw your own conclusions about Margaret and Suffolk.

Suffolk = Leicester

Other markers in 2 Henry VI link Suffolk and Leicester.

Saccio observes that “the unattractive portrait given [Suffolk in the play] reflects the very real hatred in which he was held by the end of the 1440’s, hatred that he richly deserved.” Saccio describes Suffolk as having “profited enormously from direct royal patents, perverted the financial and judicial operations of the crown to the benefit of himself and his supporters [and] robbed fellow landowners of their estates [. . .]” During the mid and late-16th century, Leicester was hated for many of the same reasons.

Shakespeare’s play describes Suffolk, metaphorically, as a poisoner. In Act III, Scene 2, the king tells him: “Hide not thy poison with such sugar’d words; Lay not thy hands on me; forbear, I say; Their touch affrights me as a serpent’s sting.” Later, Suffolk, after cursing his own enemies, himself exclaims: “Poison be their drink! Gall, worse than gall, the daintiest that they taste!”

Leicester was known as a notorious poisoner, a trait reflected in the character Claudius in Hamlet. A letter published in 1584 (later titled Leicester’s Commonwealth) lists the people whom Leicester allegedly poisoned. Whether or not true, his reputation as a poisoner, along with his love affair with the queen, links him to how the play describes Suffolk.

A Prophecy Twice Fulfilled

In the play, Suffolk hears a prophecy that he will “die by water,” and he’s later beheaded by a pirate at sea named Walter Whitmore. As with the Suffolk/Margaret love relationship, Shakespeare invented the prophecy. It’s absent from the historical record, as is the name of Suffolk’s executioner.

2 Henry VI is the only play in the Shakespeare canon with a character named Walter. Out of scores of names Shakespeare could have chosen, he chose one shared by one of Leicester’s worst enemies, Walter Raleigh, whom Elizabeth nicknamed “Water.” Raleigh’s career included piracy, the profession of the Walter who slays Suffolk in the play.

Leicester shares Suffolk’s prophesized fate in a couple of ways.

After the Spanish Armada, Leicester fell ill and died at his estate at Cornbury in Oxfordshire, very near a group of lakes the largest of which is called Lake Superior today. Some suggest he died of a malarial infection or stomach cancer. In any case, it’s fair to say he died “by water.”

It was also rumored that Leicester was poisoned. The Scottish poet William Drummond claimed that the poet-playwright Ben Jonson, thirty years after Leicester’s death, told him the earl was poisoned by his own wife. The late 19th and early 20th century English biographer Sidney Lee thought “the story seems improbable in face of the post-mortem examination, which was stated to show no trace of poison.”

The story seems improbable, and yet Leicester had plenty of enemies who might have loved giving him a dose, so to speak, of his own medicine. Walter Raleigh would have been one such enemy.

Leicester, while in the Low Countries leading the Crown’s military forces against the Spanish, had loudly complained that, in his absence, Raleigh was undermining his position at court. Leicester accused him, among other things, of failing to send reinforcements. An epitaph to Leicester attributed to Raleigh proclaims:

Here lies the noble warrior that never blunted sword;

Here lies the noble courtier that never kept his word;

Here lies his excellency that governed all the state;

Here lies the Lord of Leicester that all the world did hate.

The prophecy Suffolk hears that he’ll “die by water” is spoken twice, and it’s twice fulfilled: Suffolk is killed by the waters of the English Channel and by a pirate named Walter, which was pronounced ‘water’ in medieval England and was Elizabeth’s nickname for Walter Raleigh. If Raleigh was behind Leicester’s death, Leicester, too, would have twice died ‘by water’—by the lakes of Cornbury and by “Water” Raleigh.

My argument, of course, is just a prima facie case at best, and by no means absolute proof that Shakespeare’s Margaret and Suffolk mirror Elizabeth and Leicester. But given the departures Shakespeare makes from the historical record, his choices in describing characters and their relationships, and other plays in which he mirrors real people, there’s at least an appearance he did the same thing in 2 Henry VI.

The More One Reads Shakespeare, the Moor One Knows

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.

Joe Alwyn (here with Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth) plays Robert Dudley in the film “Mary Queen of Scots.”

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.”

As English troops awaited the Spanish Armada, Leicester wrote a letter to Elizabeth, signing it, “your most faythfull & most obedient R. Leycester” with “Eyes” above his signature.

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.

Eyes, Claudius

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.

Moor sweetness

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?