James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)

 

 

Chapter 9

 

The Invisible Armada

 

By late July, political events began to overtake Julius Caesar. Brutus's

castigation of Cassius for denying him "gold to pay my legions"

(4.3.77), may have induced a grimace among playgoers

after word got out of "a mutiny threatened among the soldiers in Ireland,

for want of pay and scarcity of victuals." Hopes for a speedy and decisive

victory in Ireland had been dashed: "The Irish wars go slowly," Sir Anthony

Paulett wrote as spring gave way to summer, "and will not so soon

be ended as was thought." Never before under Elizabeth had the authorities

cracked down so hard on what could be said or written, or had they

been so willing to silence those who overstepped. George Fenner

 

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explained to news-hungry friends abroad that "it is forbidden, on pain of

death, to write or speak of Irish affairs." Francis Cordale similarly apologized

that he could "send no news of the Irish wars, all advertisements

thence being prohibited and such news as comes to Council carefully

concealed." Nonetheless, he confided that "our part has had little success,

lost many captains and whole companies, and has little hopes of prevailing."

Fresh recruits were conscripted to replace those killed or wounded:

"3,000 men are to go ... from Westchester this week, and 2,000 more are

levying." "It is muttered at court," Fenner added, that Essex "and the

Queen have each threatened the other's head." With their best troops in

the Low Countries and Ireland, the English knew how vulnerable they

were to invasion. So did their Spanish foes. Current events began to take

on the contours of Shakespearean history: "The furious humour of the ...

Hotspurs of Spain," Thomas Phillips writes, "may lead the Spanish king

into action, whereunto the absence of the most and best of our soldiers, as

they conceive, and the scarceness of sea provisions this year may

give encouragement."

 

These were more than paranoid musings. Reports were arriving

with disturbing frequency from spies, escaped prisoners, and merchants

that the Spanish were outfitting another armada to sail against England.

By mid-July English spies reported home that the Spanish were ready to

attack: the "whole force will be about 22 galleys and 35 galleons and ships

out of Andalusia .... They report greater sea forces and 25,000 landing

soldiers, and that he goes for England, hoping with this sudden exploit to

take the shipping. They go forward in their old vanity of 1588." The

Spanish were coming, eager to avenge the humiliating defeat of the

Great Armada eleven years earlier. A two-pronged assault was feared,

with the Spanish attacking at some point along the southern coast while

simultaneously sailing up the Thames, their land forces sacking and pillaging

London as they had notoriously done to Antwerp. Even as plasterers,

thatchers, and painters were attending to the final touches on the

Globe, Shakespeare had to contemplate the prospect that the gleaming

playhouse might soon be reduced to ashes-along with the artistic and financial

capital he had poured into it.

 

The Privy Council began requisitioning some of England' s best ships

 

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to protect the coast, and the queen postponed her summer progress (no

doubt a relief, since she had extended the one she had planned after hearing

that her "giving over of long voyages was noted to be a sign of age").

Hoping to raise morale, and seeing the obvious similarities to the threat

of the Great Armada, the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested to Cecil

that the special prayers that "were used in the year 1588 are also fit for

this present occasion and cannot be bettered." By late July (the time when

the Spanish had planned to land on the English coast in 1588), anxiety

was running high. On the night of July 25, Lieutenant Edward Dodington,

one of the defenders at Plymouth, dispatched a messenger to London

with the news that "a fleet at this instant coming in upon us, the wind at

north-west, and in all likelihood it is the enemy." The letter's endorsement

conveys his great sense of urgency, spurring on the messenger's

race from one post-horse to the next to let the Privy Council know the invasion

had begun: "For Her Majesty's special use; haste, post haste for

life; haste, haste, post haste for life." It was a false alarm, the first of many.

John Chamberlain, who had excellent sources at court, wasn't sure of the

true nature of the threat: he writes from London to Dudley Carleton on

August I that "upon what ground or good intelligence I know not but we

are all here in a hurle as though the enemy were at our doors."

 

There was considerable skepticism both at home and abroad that the

defensive preparations were intended solely to fend off a Spanish attack.

The word on the Continent was that "the Queen is dead." The same was

suspected in England. Henry Wake informed Cecil that it is "secretly

spread and whispered that her Majesty should be either dead or very

dangerously sick." Rumors were piled on rumors. One correspondent reported

that "the King of Scotland has taken arms against the Queen,"

that "the Earl of Essex, viceroy, is wounded, and his soldiers leave him,"

and that "in England there is tumult and fear, and many fly into the

southern parts. Some say the Queen is dead; it is certain that there is

great mourning at Court."

 

John Billot, an English prisoner in Spain, escaped and returned home

with a smuggled Spanish proclamation, written in English, hidden in his

boot. It revealed that King Philip III had commanded his forces to reduce

England to "the obedience of the Catholic Church." And it instructed all

 

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Catholics in England to join forces with the Spanish invaders and take up

arms against the English "heretics." Those who because of the "tyranny"

of English Protestants were too scared to change sides openly were urged

to defect during "some skirmish or battle" or "fly before ... the last encounter."

The Spanish threat was now coupled with a fear of disloyal English

Catholics rising and joining forces with the invaders. To ensure

that the dying embers of religious strife did not get blown into a civil war

that would engulf the nation, the English government acted forcefully.

On July 20 the Privy Council directed the Archbishop of Canterbury to

round up leading recusants-those who remained committed enough to

Catholicism to pay fines for refusing to participate in mandatory Protestant

worship-and imprison them. In addition, orders were given "to sequester

all the able horses of the recusants." If Catholic gentry were to

join forces with the Spanish, they would have to walk. Some felt that

these moves didn't go far enough. Sir Arthur Throckmorton warned

that Protestant men with Catholic wives were even more dangerous than

professed recusants and should be restrained and disarmed.

 

William Resould reported to Cecil that the Spanish planned to replace

Elizabeth with an English Catholic, and though he wasn't prepared

to name names, "there is some great personage" in England prepared to

claim the throne. Catholic treachery was feared in the city as well. The

lord mayor of London warned the Privy Council on August 9 that "there

are lately crept into this city diverse recusants, who in their opinions and

secret affections being averse from the present state, may prove very

dangerous to the state and city, if any opportunity should offer itself."

Everywhere one turned, it seemed, there were signs of Catholic plotting.

A pair of illiterate London bricklayers stumbled upon what they thought

was a handkerchief but turned out to be a letter. They dutifully took it to

a scrivener, who directed them to a constable, who in turn alerted a local

justice, who wrote to Cecil. The intercepted letter was from the Catholic

Irishman, the Earl of Desmond, and was intended for the King of Spain.

It urged "the recovery of Christ's Catholic religion" in England, and justified

such action on the grounds that Elizabeth was a tyrant ("Nero was

far inferior to the Queen's cruelty"). Who dropped or planted this letter

on the streets of London is anyone's guess.

 

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The imagined threat didn't stop with the Spanish troops and their recusant

supporters. A letter to Cecil about what the English now feared is

worth quoting at length:

 

I thought it my duty to advertise you of the strange rumors

and abundance of news spread abroad in the city, and so flying

into the country, as there cannot be laid a more dangerous

plot to amaze and discourage our people, and to advance the

strength and mighty power of the Spaniard, working doubts

in the better sort, fear in the poorer sort, and a great distraction

in all, in performance of their service, to no small encouragement

of our enemies abroad, and of bad subjects at home;

as that the Spaniard's fleet is I50 sail of ships and 70 galleys;

that they bring 30,000 soldiers with them, and shall have

20,000 from the Cardinal; that the King of Denmark sends to

aid them 100 sail of ships; that the King of Scots is in arms

with 40,000 men to invade England, and the Spaniard comes

to settle the King of Scots in this realm.

 

London preachers fanned the flames, including one who "in his prayer

before his sermon, prayed to be delivered from the mighty forces of the

Spaniard, the Scots and the Danes." Nobody was sure what to believe:

"Tuesday at night last, it went for certain the Spaniards were landed at

Southampton and that the Queen came at ten of the clock at night to St.

James's all in post; and upon Wednesday, it was said the Spanish army

was broken, and no purpose of their coming hither: with a hundred

other strange and fearful rumors, as much amazing the people as [if] the

invasion were made." Such anxious and conflicting accounts of the destination

and size of the enemy fleet would be echoed a few years later in

the opening act of Shakespeare's Othello, where Venice's leaders argue

over intelligence reports: "My letters say a hundred and seven galleys,"

says one; "Mine, a hundred forty," says another; "And mine," adds a

third, "two hundred ... yet do they all confirm / A Turkish fleet, and

bearing up to Cyprus," a consensus immediately contradicted when

news arrives that the "Turkish preparation makes for Rhodes." This

 

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lat est intelligence is quickly dismissed: "'Tis a pageant / To keep us in

false gaze" (1.3.4-21). As Shakespeare recognized, such crises were rich in

drama.

 

By the first week of August, defensive preparations around London,

at sea, and along the coast, had intensified. Rowland Whyte reported to

Sir Robert Sidney, who was with English forces in the Low Countries,

that in London "there is nothing but alarms and arming for defense."

From every ward in London, he added, ten or a dozen men were conscripted

to man her Majesty's fleet. John Chamberlain provides additional

details: London "is commanded to furnish out sixteen of their best

ships to defend the river and 10,000 men, whereof 6,000" are "to be

trained presently and every man else to have his arms ready." Letters

were sent to the bishops and noblemen ordering them to "prepare horses

and all other furniture as if the enemy were expected within fifteen

days." The national mobilization was extraordinary. The objective was to

mass upward of twenty-five thousand men in and around London to

repel the invaders. The historian John Stow, who lived through it, believed

that "the like had not been seen in England since Queen Elizabeth

came to the crown." Sir Francis Vere was ordered to send home two

thousand of his best troops from the Low Countries. Messengers were

sent to fifteen counties with instructions to send cavalry and rendezvous

at prearranged sites around London. Orders also went out to twelve

counties to provide thousands of foot soldiers. Earls and barons were told

to gather forces, repair to the court, and protect the queen herself. The

Earl of Cumberland was put in charge of the defense of the Thames,

Lord Thomas the high seas, and the lord admiral the southern front.

As forces began to crowd London and its suburbs, great precautions

were taken in the jittery capital. On Sunday, August 8, by royal command,

Stow writes, "Chains were drawn athwart the streets and lanes of

the city, and lanterns with lights, of candles (eight in the pound) hanged

out at every man's door, there to burn all the night, and so from night to

night, upon pain of death, and great watches kept in the streets." The

danger of a sneak attack under cover of darkness outweighed even that of

fire in a city containing so much combustible timber and thatch. The

next day, Chamberlain writes, panic struck upon "news (yet false) that

 

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the Spaniards were landed in the Isle of Wight, which bred such a fear

and consternation in this town as I would little have looked for, with such

a cry of women, chaining of streets and shutting of the gates as though

the enemy had been at Blackwell. Our weakness and nakedness disgrace

us, both with friends and foes." Military leaders like Sir Ferdinand

Gorges worried that civilian defenders weren't up to the task, "for when

things are done upon a sudden, and especially amongst people unenured

to the business, they are amazed and discouraged."

 

The Thames remained a weak link and a major concern. Initially, the

Earl of Cumberland intended "to make a bridge somewhat on this side

Gravesend, after an apish imitation to that of Antwerp." Given the failure

of such a defense in Antwerp-it hadn't stopped the Spanish troops

who laid waste to that city in IS88 -it was probably not the best plan. Still,

Cumberland swore that "with I,5OO musketeers he would defend that

bridge or lose his life upon it." This plan was soon succeeded by another: a

shipwright named Ayde suggested blockading the river by sinking ships

at a narrow point in the Thames, near Barking Shelf. The privy councillors

were so taken with his idea that they instructed the lord mayor to

put it into effect. It was an indication of just how desperate things were,

for if the Spanish didn't destroy London's commerce, Ayde's plan surely

would. The mayor and alderman begged the councillors to forgo this desperate

measure and rely instead on a score of highly maneuverable boats

to "annoy the enemy and impeach his passage." They had done the math

and it had frightened them: Ayde proposed sinking eighty-three ships,

their value roughly twenty-five thousand pounds. Once sunk, these ships

would flood the adjoining marshland, causing forty thousand pounds

worth of damage. Recovering the sunken hulks-and it wasn't at all clear

that it would prove possible to do so-would cost twenty thousand pounds

more. If they failed to, the "Thames will be choked and spoiled, and the

trade of the city wholly overthrown." To the great relief of London's

merchants, the Privy Council was prevailed upon and Ayde' s plan abandoned.

The call to arms was heeded in the city by both rich and poor. This

wasn't Ireland; they were defending their families, their homes, their

queen, and country. John Chamberlain declared that "though I were

 

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never professed soldier, to offer myself in defense of my country ... is the

best service I can do it." After casting a horoscope to learn whether the

Spanish would attack, the enthusiastic astrologer Simon Forman went

overboard, purchasing "much harness and weapons for war, swords, daggers,

muskets, corslet, and furniture, staves, halberds, gauntlets, mails,

&c." A contemporary survey of the mustering of the "armed and trained

companies in London" in 1599 gives a vivid impression of its citizen army.

Many of the captains leading their neighbors had served in a similar capacity

in 1588.John Megges, draper merchant, led 125 men from Queenhyth

Ward while 250 men of Cripple gate Ward followed merchant tailor

John Swynerton, and so on, throughout the various wards. All told, this

London muster lists fifteen captains leading 3,375 men from twenty-five

wards.

 

And what about Shakespeare? As a servant of the lord chamberlain,

did he join up with those who wore the privy counsellor's livery and attend

upon the queen herself at Nonsuch? And, if so, did his new status as

a gentleman lead him to acquire a horse? Or did he decide instead to ride

out of town against the sea of defenders heading south, heading back

home to Stratford-upon-Avon, convincing himself that at this time of

crisis it was best to be by his family's side and out of immediate harm's

way? The answer to this would tell us a great deal about what kind of

person Shakespeare was. But we don't have a clue what he did. The best

guess is that, like others in the theater, he stayed in London, followed

events closely, and kept performing and writing. There's no indication

that the authorities banned playgoing at this time, and there's a likelihood

that, with thousands of volunteers in town milling about with nothing to

do but drill and wait for the invaders to land, the theaters may have done a

brisk business-and from the government's perspective proved a helpful

distraction, keeping the armed and idle forces preoccupied.

Henslowe's Diary certainly shows no sign of interruption in the regular

routine of commissioning and writing plays through this crisis. Chapman,

Dekker, and Jonson were particularly busy. At the end of July,

Chapman was at work on a "pastoral ending in a tragedy," for which he

received forty shillings on July 27. Dekker was caught up in a frenzy of

playwriting, taking payment on August I for Bear a Brain and nine days

 

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later sharing an advance with Ben Jonson for Page of Plymouth, a tragedy

that they finished in three weeks. The two teamed up again at the beginning

of September along with Henry Chettle "and other gentlemen" on

another lost tragedy, Robert the Second, King of Scots (capitalizing on the

current of anti-Scottish sentiment, for Robert II, James's lineal ancestor,

was one of the weakest monarchs ever to rule in that kingdom). If any of

London's playwrights could be expected to bear arms, it would have been

Jonson, a native of the city who had seen military service in the Low

Countries (and bragged about killing an enemy soldier there in solo combat).

Yet even he was devoting this time to writing-not just collaborative

work for the Admiral's Men but also a solo-authored sequel to Every Man

in His Humour that he hoped to sell to the Chamberlain's Men. Henry

Chettle and Thomas Haughton were also paid for plays at the height of

the armada scare, the former for The Stepmother's Tragedy, and the latter

for The Poor Man's Paradise. And if Michael Drayton, Wilson, Hathaway,

and Anthony Munday were to complete the First Part of Sir John Oldcastle

and begin its sequel by mid-October, it's likely that they were already

collaborating in August on the first part. Finally, John Chamberlain's allusion

to the collapse of a house on St. John's Street where a puppet show

was being staged in mid-August offers further evidence that, armada or

not, London's entertainment industry did not come to a halt.

 

Two plays in the Chamberlain's Men's repertory were particularly

well suited to the moment. One was Henry the Fifth, celebrating as it did

English military greatness (though, in light of doubts raised about Essex's

Irish campaign and rumors that this mobilization had something to do

with him, the play's allusion to our "General" returning from Ireland

"with rebellion broached on his sword" would surely have been

dropped). Shakespeare's company would probably have dusted off another

timely play in their repertory, Alarum for London: Or, the Siege of

Antwerp, published not long after. The opening of the play graphically

recounts how Antwerp was overrun when its citizens ignored the Spanish

threat and put self-interest ahead of the common good:

 

The citizens (were they but politic,

Careful and studious to preserve their peace)

Might at an hour's warning, fill their streets,

With forty thousand well appointed soldiers.

 

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It wasn't a particularly good play-and it gives a sense of how uneven the

offerings of Shakespeare's company could be-but it got its point across.

Spectators would have looked on in horror as a family of four, including a

blind father, is butchered. An Englishman in the wrong place at the

wrong time is tortured, literally strappadoed onstage-yanked up and

down by a rope by his arms, which are pinioned behind him. Virgins and

matrons are attacked and threatened with rape, and the libidinous

Spaniards even begin to strip one of their victims onstage. It was the Elizabethans'

worst nightmare, all the more powerful if revived at this time,

for playgoers knew that the same treacherous enemy was heading their

way. Unlike their negligent fellow Protestants in Antwerp, though, Londoners

were armed and ready.

 

As August dragged on there was still no sign of the Spanish. The

more time passed, the wilder the speculation about what was really happening.

Chamberlain writes:

 

The vulgar sort cannot be persuaded but that there was some

great mystery in the assembling of these forces, and because

they cannot find the reason ofit, make many wild conjectures,

and cast beyond the moon, as sometimes that the Queen was

dangerously sick, otherwhile that it was to show to some that

are absent, that others can be followed as well as they, and that

if occasion be, military services can be as well and readily ordered

and directed as if they were present with many other as

vain and frivolous imaginations as these. The forces in the

west country are not yet dismissed, for there, if anywhere,

may be some doubt of danger.

 

His cryptic allusions to those that "are absent" and to the "danger" expected

by the defensive forces in the "west country" both point to Essex,

suggesting that there were fears that he might abandon Ireland, land with

a military force in Wales, and march against his adversaries at court.

 

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By the third week of August, the strain, both psychological and financial,

was enormous. The Privy Council continued to receive conflicting

reports about Spanish plans and didn't know what to believe.

 

Unscrupulous tradesmen were overcharging the gathered troops and the

lord admiral had to publish a decree outlawing profiteering. The treasury,

already drained by the Irish campaign, was nearly dry, yet somehow

had to cover the enormous expense of supporting all these soldiers

and sailors. By mid-August Elizabeth made a point of asking Thomas

Windebank to remind Cecil to keep a closer eye on the skyrocketing costs

of the mobilization: "Yester evening," he wrote the secretary of state, "at

her Majesty's going to horse, she called me to her," and "willed me write

unto you these few words: 'that there should not be too much taken out of

an emptied purse, for therein was no charity.'" In addition, the vast numbers

of laborers drawn from their fields during harvest could lead to

large-scale rioting or rebellion. After a string of crop failures from 1594 to

1597 due to terrible weather, the government couldn't afford to induce

yet another bad harvest because of misguided policy. On August 17, the

defenders in the south-the Earl of Bath, Sir Ferdinand Gorges, and others-

dismissed those gathered to defend the coast, justifying their decision

on the ground that they "received this day credible intelligence that

no part of the enemy's fleet is at Brest or Conquet." For the troops, it was

not a moment too soon: "Their estate had been most pitiful if they had

not been sent home to help in their harvest, for by reason of the foul

weather and want of help, their corn was almost utterly lost."

 

By August 20, Elizabeth had had enough and told the lord admiral to

"dismiss our loving subjects assembled together by virtue of our former

commandment." He thought it a mistake but not an order he could

refuse. So the city began to empty again, the danger thought to be past.

On August 23, a much relieved John Chamberlain wrote cheerfully that

"the storm that seemed to look so black [is] almost quite blown over. ...

Our land forces are daily discharged little and little, and this day I think

will be quite dissolved."

 

Yet even as Chamberlain sent off his letter, new and terrifying reports

arrived at court. One, from Plymouth, reported that the Spanish

were about to "land in some part of England 15,000 men, and assure

 

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themselves of another 15,000 English papists ready to assist them at their

landing." Their likely destination: Milford Haven. By Saturday the

twenty-fifth there was no longer any doubt, and the Privy Council informed

the lord mayor and the Earl of Cumberland that the Spanish

"must needs be on the coast of England by this time." The troops so recently

dismissed had to be recalled, "the armed force of the city" put "in

readiness," and the Thames defended "to impeach the coming up of the

[Spanish] galleys." It was "now high time," the councillors added, "for

every subject to show his duty and affection to their sovereign and country."

The following days were tense and spectacular. On August 26, three

thousand citizen soldiers "were all in armor in the streets, attending on

their captains till past seven of the clock, at which time, being thoroughly

wet by a great shower of rain," they "were sent home again for that day."

The following morning "the other 3,000 citizens, householders and subsidy

men, showed on the Mile's End, where they trained all that day.

 

The drilling and martial display continued unabated through September

4. Whatever the threat had been, by then, the danger really had

passed, and an exhausted country did its best to return to normal. Elizabeth

quietly removed to Hampton Court where, according to one report,

she was seen through the windows of the palace, "none being with her

but my Lady Warwick "-dancing 'The Spanish Panic'" to pipe and

tabor. The tune was aptly named. Elizabeth had a right to high step it:

she had nimbly dodged disaster yet again. The crisis was over. What had

caused it remained disputed. The well-placed Francis Bacon refused to

accept the official version. The claim that the Spanish were coming, he

wrote, was "a tale ... given out by which even the wiser sort might well

be taken in." Perhaps if he had access to all the intelligence reports and

intercepts in Cecil's possession he might have thought differently. Perhaps

not. Cecil himself, who knew for certain of Spanish preparations

(though against whom was the sticking point) admitted in the midst of

the crisis that he overreacted, but defended himself on the grounds that

the "world is ever apt to cry crucifige [crucify him] upon me, as they have

done on my father before me, whensoever I do dissuade these preparations."

Bacon later maintained that "all this was done to the end that Essex,

 

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hearing that the kingdom was in arms, might be deterred from any attempt

to bring the Irish army over into England." It was as good a theory

as any. Why else had the queen forbidden Essex from returning to England

without her permission? To the English farmers called away from

their fields, the false alarm was an embittering experience. They had

seen the effects of dearth, and some had buried kin and neighbors who

died of famine or famine-related disease. A year before the armada threat

of l599 a Kentish laborer had been brought up on charges for saying that

the real war to be fought was between the rich and the poor, and that "he

hoped to see such a war in this realm to afflict the rich men of this country

to requite their hardness of heart against the poor." Francis Bacon

also remembered the people "muttering that if the Council had celebrated

this kind of May game in the beginning of May, it might have been

thought more suitable, but to call the people away from the harvest for it

(for it was now full autumn) was too serious a jest." Bacon saw that the

English people were shrewd enough to see through their government's

story, "insomuch that they forbore not from scoffs, saying that in the year

'88 Spain had sent an Invincible Armada against us and now she had sent

an Invisible Armada."

 

The difference was clear. The two armada threats framed the closing

years of Elizabeth's reign and the comparison was not a flattering one. In

1588, the queen had girded herself for battle and, according to a later report,

reassured her subjects as they gathered in defense of the realm at

Tilbury that she was "resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live

and die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom and

for my people mine honor and my blood even in the dust." They were

words that rivaled the stirring speeches of Henry V to his outnumbered

troops at Agincourt. This time around she did not appear in public; like a

queen bee she stayed hidden in her hive, protected by thousands who

swarmed to her defense. She must have sensed that propagandistic

speeches or even a royal appearance would no longer be effective. Her

people were now too suspicious, their skepticism fed by seemingly endless

conscription, faction at court, and uncertainty about political and religious

succession. It was also nurtured by the historical drama of

Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights, who over the past decade had

 

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taught them, among other things, to be wary of the motives of rulers.

Censorship over what could be said about Ireland or royal succession and

the control over royal images, satire, and history couldn't stop the muttering

and certainly couldn't bring back that sense of promise and Providence

that had followed the victory over the "Invincible Armada" of1588.

Politically and artistically, there was no going back.

 

Londonís dramatists responded to the Armada threat of 1599 in

markedly different ways. For some, like John Marston, it offered a chance

for a throwaway line and a sardonic laugh- "The Spanish are coming!" in

his Histriomastix, probably performed by Paul's Boys later that autumn.

Others worked the threat into the fabric of plays in progress, most

notably Thomas Heywood, whose two-part Edward the Fourth, entered in

the Stationers' Register on August 28, and rushed into print before the

end of the year, must have been revised with the crisis in mind. Playgoers

attending a performance of Heywood's play at the Boar's Head Inn

during the armada scare would have had the uncanny experience of

watching their ancestors confront a threat nearly identical to their own.

The third scene of the play, which opens with the Mayor leading his fellow

citizen-defenders-"whole companies / Of mercers , grocers, drapers,

and the rest"-explicitly collapses the distance between past and present.

The Mayor asks, "Have ye commanded that in every street / They hang

forth lights as soon as night comes on?" We soon learn that London's

"streets are chained, / The bridge well manned, and every place prepared."

Heywood even has his historical Mayor wonder, anachronistically,

"What if we stop the passage of the Thames / With such provision

as we have of ships?" The analogy is far more complicated, though, for in

Edward the Fourth Londoners defend their city not against foreign invaders

but against an English army, led by Falconbridge, intent on freeing

the deposed King Henry VI from the Tower. And Heywood quietly

suppresses the fact that the Earl of Essex' s ancestor had come to the aid of

London's citizens. As the political winds kept shifting this year, so, too,

did the meaning of Heywood's play.

 

Other playwrights made no pretense of masking current events in

past histories. In October, for example, an anonymous and now lost play-

 

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whether it was staged publicly or privately is unclear-celebrated the recent

victory of English troops over Spanish forces at Turnhout in the

Low Countries. The actors were deliberately made up to resemble English

leaders down to their distinctive beards and doublet and hose: "This

afternoon I saw The Overthrow of Turnhold played," writes Rowland

Whyte, "and saw Sir Robert Sidney and Sir Francis Vere upon the stage,

killing, slaying, and overthrowing the Spaniard."

 

It took some time for Shakespeare to digest what was happening

around him and turn it into art. Before 1599 was over, he would hit upon

how his next tragedy would begin-with jittery soldiers, at night, standing

guard. One of them isn't even sure what he's guarding against and

wonders if anyone can tell him the reason for the frenzied military

preparation going on around him:

 

Why this same strict and most observant watch

So nightly toils the subject of the land,

And with such daily cost of brazen cannon

And foreign mart for implements of war,

Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task

Does not divide the Sunday from the week?

(Hamlet, 1.1.71-76)

 

The time is out of joint, the mood dark, the threats multiple and uncertain.

For many Londoners, recalling their experience of the past August,

the opening scene of Hamlet would have brought a shudder of recognition.

But this is getting ahead of our story.

 

 

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