The Untimely Demise of William Shakespeare

Was Foul Play Afoot?


On March of 1616, William Shakespeare was back in his hometown of Stratford where he lived as a grain dealer, tax collector, landlord and all around businessman. He was in fine health and was coming up on his fifty-second birthday when something caused him to contemplate his mortality. He decided it was time to get his estate in order and made a will.

What caused the sudden concern? Six days before, on March 19, Sir Walter Raleigh had been released from the Tower.

Sir Walter Raleigh was as big as his legend. Brought to the Elizabethan court as a young man he won over the eye of the Queen with his handsome looks and his debonair attitude. If the story of him placing his cloak in front of Eliza­beth so she would not muddy her feet is myth, it was a myth created to describe the real man.

The court of Elizabeth was a snake pit, and Raleigh’s success drew the wrath of others who would be happy to see him removed. One was Robert Devereaux, the second Earl of Essex. He was one of a handful of men who captured the heart of the Queen. The first was the Earl of Leicester who then married Lord Essex’s mother. The second was Chris­topher Hatton, a London businessman who she elevated to Lord Chancellor. The third was Raleigh, and the fourth was Essex who inherited Leicester’s House and immediately called it Essex House.

Essex could be brash, impetuous and dangerous. His estate became home to a circle of intellectuals who could freely speak on science and religion, on government and philosophy. The Essex Circle included Sir Francis Bacon and his brother Anthony, Henry Wriothesely, (the third Earl of Southampton), Edward De Vere (Earl of Oxford), Roger Manners (Earl of Rutland) and Christopher Marlowe. While they could freely speak on such topics, few would dare to publish under their own name.

Then Shakespeare came along. The Earl of Southampton immediately saw an opportunity. He and a family mem­ber would become Shakespeare’s most important patrons. Shakespeare, in dire need of funds, would gladly take the chance to play the “bard.” Southampton then became the conduit that had published the writings of a handful of men under the byline of an illiterate butcher’s apprentice turned actor. In 1592 a singularly large amount of money passed from Southampton to Shakespeare, allowing the newly minted “bard” to buy property.

When Essex wished to see his sonnets to young Henry Wriothesley put in print, they were deemed “works” of Shakespeare. When Oxford wished to fashion tales he had read on his Grand Tour of continental Europe into plays he could publish as “William Shakespeare.” When the Earl of Rutland was posted by the Queen to Elsinore Castle in Denmark, he returned with a new version of an age-old tale of Hamlet. And as Bacon understood his political works brought the threat of Elizabeth’s wrath, he realized a pen name could save his neck.

Together the works attributed to Shakespeare display a study of law and medicine, fluency in foreign languages, horsemanship, falconry and military as well as naval experience. They displayed a vocabulary of 20,000 words, five times more than a typically educated man. The real author even had the ability to toss in slang terms used only at Cambridge.

This is far beyond the cultural ability of a man whose only education was assumed to be grade school, who then served as a butcher’s apprentice and who was arrested for poaching deer in the royal forest. What little we know about the “bard” is that he finally escaped a forced marriage and the burden of providing for three children to go to London.

There are now four thousand books in print that question the ability of this uneducated man, born to illiterate parents, whose only evidence of an ability to write is six dissimilar signatures, to pen the works attributed to him.

The School of Night

Raleigh had his own circle of intellectuals. Politics had made it a rival group, distrusted by the Essex circle. Ra­leigh’s own circle of powerful friends included Dr. John Dee, the “Wizard Earl” of Northumberland, the scientist Thomas Hariot, writers Thomas Nashe and George Chapman and many of the most brilliant men of science in his time. They were loosely organized as the “School of Night” and met at his estate.

There were factions that wished to see Raleigh’s demise. His enemies had regularly told the Queen that Raleigh’s School of Night was actually a School of Atheism. This faction had great influence, and much of what they did was be­hind the scenes. Raleigh knew he had enemies, but his suspicions would, on one or more occasion, cause him to blame the wrong person. Works attributed to Shakespeare would actually be works of the Essex circle.

Raleigh was caricatured in Loves Labour’s Lost, a “Shakespearean” work which included a character named Don Adriano de Armado who was identified as Raleigh. “Shakespeare” also created Holofernes who is identified as Thomas Hariot, an astronomer who lived at Raleigh’s estate. And he created the King of Navarre who has been identified as Northumberland. The Earl of Northumberland had already picked up the nickname “The Wizard Earl” for his work in alchemy. Attending lords in the play also identified included friends of Raleigh, the Earl of Derby and Sir George Car­ey.

“Navarre” has a line “O Paradox! Black is the badge of hell, the hue of dungeons and the school of night.” Whoever wrote the words to the Shakespearean poems and plays was not done with Raleigh. The Rape of Lucrece followed and again Raleigh was spoofed as the character Tarquin the Proud.

Raleigh was sensitive to the criticism, as a charge of atheism was still very serious. He would have blamed William Shakespeare as he would not have been aware that he was only a ghost writer.

Shakespeare’s concern was that Raleigh held a grudge over the satiric portrayals in his plays. The plays, however, were not the only reason Raleigh might wish revenge on Shakespeare.

When Raleigh was at the pinnacle of his career in the Elizabethan court, it would be his secret marriage that brought about his downfall. His romance with one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting led to a rushed wedding when Eliz­abeth Throckmorton after she became pregnant. The Queen had insisted that her ladies remain unmarried, and Ra­leigh understood that even a man of his status had no chance of changing the Queen’s mind.

Wife Elizabeth then made her excuses and left London to head to her family home. The Throckmorton home was, and still is, the Coughton Estate. It is just outside the town of Alcester. Halfway between Stratford and Alcester is the original home of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother. Not only was it a small world when mother-to-be Elizabeth Throckmorton came home, but the Ardens and Throckmortons were actually related. The extended family kept a few very important secrets including that Shakespeare’s father, grandfather and mother were secretly Catholic. One se­cret that the Arden-Shakespeare family might have allowed to slip was the secret marriage of Elizabeth Throckmor­ton. And Raleigh and his wife were put in the Tower.

Their stay in the Tower was not long, but the damage to Sir Walter’s standing in court was long lasting. Shake­speare may have wondered if Sir Walter blamed him for the leak of his secret marriage and the ruinous results.

Shakespeare might have put such worrisome thoughts out of his mind when fellow playwright and player Ben Jonson came up from London. Shakespeare and his company had performed Jonson’s plays years before. Jonson brought Michael Drayton, who was more famous in his own day as one of Britain’s most prolific poets. Jonson invited Shakespeare to spend a night out to celebrate the “bards” birthday. Will could not refuse as he rarely heard from any­one in his London days.

He might not have been so happy if he knew what the night had in store.

After the long climb back to Elizabeth’s good graces, Raleigh’s situation had improved. His enemies still included both Bacon and the Earl Southampton, who backed voyages to the New World. They were threatened by Raleigh’s fame and by his role in the settling of Virginia. When the Queen died, James, the King of Scotland, took the throne as the English king. Numerous Catholic plots against the king were uncovered, and although Raleigh had fought against the Spanish Catholics for decades, he was implicated in a plot against the new king. He was convicted on trumped-up charges and recanted testimony and as a result of this would be imprisoned.

Raleigh had spent thirteen long years pondering the events that led to his imprisonment.

The Bye plot was a conspiracy of English Catholics who planned to kidnap James and force him to convert or at the least place Catholics in powerful positions. It was ill-thought, and poorly planned. English Jesuits actually report­ed the plot to the king for fear that things would get worse for them if the plot proceeded. The ringleader was William Watson, a priest who had rushed to Scotland when Elizabeth died.

Watson and two others were tortured into confessing and then executed for their roles. Watson had given up George Brooke, with whom he had discussed the plot. Brooke was tortured as well and executed in December of 1603. He may have helped cast suspicion on his brother Henry Brooke who was Lord Cobham, and a friend of Sir Robert Cecil. Cecil was a paranoid hunchback who was threatened by both Bacon and Raleigh. He delighted greatly in taking down his enemies. Cobham had been in touch with Spanish agents and had a much more serious plot in the works.

Part of the plot had Brooke, (Lord Cobham) taking delivery of a fantastic sum of money from Spain, and carrying it through the Isle of Jersey to England. Here on the tiny Channel Island, Raleigh was governor.

This was the only real connection to Raleigh. It defies reason as Raleigh had warred against Spain and regularly raided Spanish shipping. Why would they allow him control over their money? Cobham named Raleigh as a co­conspirator even though there is no other evidence. It did not matter that Cobham recanted his inclusion of Raleigh in the plot. Cobham was executed and Raleigh sentenced to the Tower.

This is where the story takes a strange turn. Cobham’s family had been, like Raleigh and his circle, the butt of jokes in The Merry Wives of Windsor and in a performance of Henry IV. So both Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Cobham were victimized in works attributed to William Shakespeare. Raleigh might have blamed the secretly Catholic Arden-Shakespeare family for making him a scapegoat as he had suspected them in the past.

While Raleigh served his time the real William Shakespeare had been sequestered in provincial Stratford playing the role of small town businessman. Thirteen years allowed a great deal of water to pass under the bridge. It also al­lowed Shakespeare to lose touch with those he knew from his days as a “player” on the stage.

What he didn’t know was that Jonson had become the single best friend that Sir Walter Raleigh had. Their friend­ship had survived the long imprisonment in the Tower endured by Sir Walter. Shakespeare may not have been aware that Jonson had become his most outspoken critic. The full extent of the enmity for Shakespeare by both Jonson and Raleigh may never be known.

Jonson lived up to the role of Raleigh’s truest friend. He visited him often and helped him write his History of the World. He attempted to fill the role as surrogate father to Raleigh’s son Wat—although he is remembered more for teaching him to drink and carouse. Jonson also might have done one most important favor for his friend.

On April 23, 1616, Jonson and Shakespeare would meet. Will most likely put worrisome thoughts out of his head for at least one night, that of his birthday. As arranged, he met Jonson and Drayton for dinner. What happened next has not been recorded in any detail. It is said that Shakespeare “drank too hard” and “died of a fever” the same night. Since a night of overeating and drinking rarely result in death the tragic result may indicate he was poisoned. Since no one else was poisoned, it might indicate he was the target.

While Shakespeare was enjoying his last supper, Sir Walter and son Wat were staying a few miles away at the Coughton Estate. It is not recorded if Jonson and Drayton also stayed there after the tragic dinner.

Shakespeare’s death was little noted in Stratford or elsewhere. Unlike the deaths of other playwrights where their works were read, their lives eulogized, the “bard” passed away unnoticed. It would be years before any statues were erected, and not until 1740, one hundred and twenty-four years later, that a memorial statue to him was placed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.  Sir Walter had been released from the Tower on one condition. He was once again to sail for riches in the Ameri­cas. He was instructed to avoid the Spanish. Sadly for Raleigh, his son Wat did not survive the expedition. Raleigh managed to attack the Spanish and return without treasure, two reasons that James would have him beheaded.

Ben Jonson for his role in the life of Raleigh and the demise of Shakespeare fared the best of all. After Shake­speare’s Last Supper, Jonson headed to Scotland where he laid low for a bit, visiting poet William Drummond. He de­clared to Drummond that Shakespeare “wanted arte” inferring he was not an intelligent man. Jonson then came back to London to be declared England’s first poet laureate.

In an odd postscript, years later Jonson became close to the Earl Pembroke. The earl was related to the Earl of Southampton and close to others in the Bacon-Essex circle. Pembroke and Southampton, Shakespeare’s patrons, knew the truth of just who had authored the works attributed to him. Pembroke may have taken Jonson into his con­fidence as he arranged for Jonson to compile The First Folio, which is the body of work attributed to Shakespeare. Jonson in turn dedicated it to Pembroke. For his efforts, he also saw his annual stipend as poet laureate go up 1000%.


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