Did Young Oxford Witness an Event That Became the Turning Point of “Hamlet”? Reason Number 17…

When Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford was barely into his teens, he witnessed a real-life event that was virtually the same as the one “Shakespeare” would create many years later for the dramatic turning point of Hamlet when the Prince puts on a play to “catch the conscience of the King.”

Oxford was 14 on Queen Elizabeth's royal progress to Cambridge in 1564, the year she had hired a coach builder from the Netherlands (Gullian Boonen) who introduced the "spring suspension" to England

Fourteen-year-old Oxford was on the 1564 royal summer progress when Queen Elizabeth paid her historic visit to Cambridge University for five thrilling days and nights.

Chancellor William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) was in charge while his arch political enemy, High Steward Robert Dudley (later the Earl of Leicester) acted as master of ceremonies; but then a single, unplanned event could not have failed to make a lasting impression on young Edward.

Hamlet puts on a play to "catch the conscience of the King."

Elizabeth was set to leave on Thursday, August 10, 1564 for a 10-mile ride to the home of Sir Henry Cromwell at Hinchingbrooke, where she was to spend the night; and her Majesty was eager to get going.

Although young Oxford was a university student (upon whom the queen bestowed an honorary degree during her visit), he was on the progress with her and surely witnessed what happened next.

Hinchinbrooke House, where Elizabeth I of England stayed the night after the Cambridge visit in August 1564

According to Guzman de Silva, the Spanish ambassador, Elizabeth made a speech praising all the plays or “comedies” and disputations, but some of the anti-Catholic students “wished to give her another representation, which she refused in order to be no longer delayed.” 

But the students were so anxious for her to hear their play that they “followed her [to Hinchingbrooke] and so importuned her that at last she consented.”

So that evening, in a courtyard, an exhausted Queen of England gathered with members of her Court by torchlight for the student production.  It turned out to be a distasteful burlesque intended to mock certain Catholic leaders who had been imprisoned in the Tower.

The university atmosphere had become charged with the rapidly developing Protestant radicalism known as the Puritan movement, but the queen and Cecil were ending hostilities with France while trying to maintain good relations with Catholic Spain, so Elizabeth was in no mood for anti-Papal displays that de Silva would surely report back to King Philip, which, in fact, he did:

“The actors came in dressed as some of the imprisoned bishops.  First came the Bishop of London carrying a lamb in his hands as if he were eating it as he walked along, and then others with devices, one being in the figure of a dog with the Host in his mouth … The Queen was so angry that she at once entered her chamber, using strong language; and the men who held the torches, it being night, left them in the dark…”

Queen Elizabeth I attends a play at one of her palaces

Imagine how this scene must have struck young Oxford!  Here was vivid proof that a dramatic representation could directly alter the emotions of the monarch.  Here was spontaneous evidence of the power of a play to affect Elizabeth’s attitude and perhaps even her decisions.

Did the mature dramatist “Shakespeare” later recall this event when he came to write the “Mousetrap” scene of Hamlet, setting it at night with the King’s guards carrying torches?  When the Queen rose in anger at the students and rushed off, did chief minister Cecil call to stop the burlesque, as chief minister Polonius would do in “Hamlet”?  Did Elizabeth call for light as Claudius does in the play?

Her Majesty swept away using “strong language” as the torchbearers followed, leaving all “in the dark,” and the author of Hamlet would write:

Ophelia: The King rises.

Hamlet: What, frighted with false fire?

Gertrude (to King Claudius): How fares my lord?

Polonius: Give o’er the play!

King: Give me some light!  Away!

All: Lights, lights, lights!

Young Oxford was already a well-tutored scholar whose Renaissance outlook had drawn him to literature and history among a myriad of fields; and Elizabeth, 31, had displayed her own Renaissance spirit and love for learning when she and her retinue had entered Cambridge that summer.

Interior of King's College Chapel, where plays were performed for the Queen in 1564

The Chapel of King’s College had been transformed into a “great stage” and she had spent three of the five nights feasting on “comedies and tragedies.”

The King's College Chapel of Cambridge University

Now, after traveling with the Queen and her Court to Hinchingbrooke, the fourteen-year-old nobleman whose earldom motto was “Nothing Truer than Truth” had witnessed the power of a theatrical performance to stir his sovereign to rage.

Was this the young “Shakespeare,” already storing away the experience and looking ahead to the days at the royal court, when he would “catch the conscience” of his Queen?

I think it was!

Some of the Sources:

University Drama in the Tudor Age by Frederick Boas, 1914

The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth by John Nichols, 1823

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the mousetrap scene, Act 3, scene 3

The Education of Young Shakespeare by Hank Whittemore, spring 2002 edition of Shakespeare Matters, the newsletter of the Shakespeare Fellowship

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