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.
In 2016, 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. ASC appropriately titled the play “The Rise of Queen Margaret.” The idea that Elizabeth and Leicester are mirrored in Margaret and Suffolk added a whole new dimension to experiencing the play.
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.