This week in the car I’ve been listening to Radio 4’s serialised Hamlet. It works beautifully on the radio, and in my mind I can dress the actors like portraits by Peake and Gheerearts. I have to admit I didn’t actually know the play – like a country you’ve heard a lot about but never visited – so it was a huge treat to experience it at last.
In Act II Scene 2 Hamlet meets his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
This bit was incredible to listen to, like an audio-portrait of 1600. Shakespeare knew the Court and courtiers; they were his patrons and friends, and this courtly banter feels so real it is like eavesdropping on young bucks in the corridors of Whitehall Palace. And not just any young bucks. When Hamlet describes his country as a prison, his friends reply, ‘Why then your Ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.’ It was electrifying. Suddenly Hamlet seemed to be speaking with the voice of the Earl of Essex, as if Shakespeare’s lines were echoing real conversations before the Earl’s rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in February 1601.
And historians agree that Hamlet is informed by Essex. They see the play as Shakespeare’s affectionate farewell to his executed patron and – in the union of Denmark and Norway under Fortinbras – a rather brave hurrah for the Scottish Succession when it was still a dangerous subject (Winstanley ‘Hamlet and the Scottish Succession’ 1921). Doubly brave in fact; Shakespeare’s friend and patron the Earl of Southampton was in the Tower for his part in the rebellion, and Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chancellor’s Men, were already under a cloud for performing Richard II for Essex’s friends on the eve of his rebellion. They explained that it was a straightforward commission – and for double the usual fee. King Richard II was a loaded subject – his deposition by Henry IV was taken as a direct allusion to Essex’s own ambitions. Sir John Hayward the publisher had been threatened with the rack for dedicating a history of King Henry IV to Essex in 1599. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men escaped with brief banishment from London. It was during this enforced tour of the provinces that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. It is an eye-opener for me. I had never warmed to Essex. Shakespeare gives a sense of how someone so flawed could still inspire such devotion. It bookends Queen Elizabeth’s own tribute; she signed Essex’s death-warrant but she wore his portrait for the rest of her life.