Shakespeare and the Resistance: The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion, and the Poems that Challenged Tudor Tyranny by Clare Asquith - review by John Stubbs

John Stubbs

Playwright with a Cause?

Shakespeare and the Resistance: The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion, and the Poems that Challenged Tudor Tyranny


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Many Shakespeares are on the loose: romantic, imperialist, Marxist and deconstructivist ones, to name just a few. They generally don’t get on well. Another, the product of revisionist scholarship, is a crypto-Catholic, socially conservative Shakespeare. This is the bard whom Clare Asquith makes her subject in Shakespeare and the Resistance. She sees Shakespeare as a passionate opponent of the English Reformation and an adherent of an ‘old order’ represented by certain elements of the royal court. The champions of this order, Asquith insists, were the infamous Earl of Essex and Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton. She argues that Shakespeare supported and was associated with an active ‘resistance’ to late Elizabethan tyranny, in which these two aristocrats played a leading part.

The main texts in which Asquith finds Shakespeare voicing support for this resistance are his two narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). The relationship between Shakespeare and Southampton does seem to have been close, although there is no way of being sure. Shakespeare’s dedication of Lucrece to Southampton declares, ‘the love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end’. Southampton has often been seen, in consequence, as the ‘friend’ of the sonnets. In 1601 he and his more powerful associate Essex led a rising against Elizabeth in London. Shortly before his show of force, Essex commissioned a special performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II, a play in which a weak and ineffectual monarch is deposed. Questions were asked later on, but there was and is no evidence that Shakespeare or his company had signed up to Essex’s political agenda. There was also no suggestion that Shakespeare himself had stage-managed this bit of publicity, although it might have worked out better for Essex and Southampton if he had.

After leading a series of pretty disastrous military operations, culminating in a campaign in Ireland in which he disregarded orders, and then launching a rebellion in London, there was nothing left for Essex but the block. Southampton was sent to the Tower but survived, not by continuing the fight

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