We begin in 1585, when in another part of East Lothian, King James VI lorded over, ‘a sumptuous banquet prepared by the Earl of Arran at Direleton, after a Council held there ; divers of the nobility and gentry passed the time right pleasantly with the play of Robin Hood.’ James clearly loved the theatre, & also composed many quite decent poems of his own. Thus enamour’d with the literary arts, to help celebrate his upcoming marriage to a princess of Denmark called Anna in 1589 he asked Queen Elizabeth of England if he could borrow some of her actors. It is her majesty’s granting of her royal cousin’s request that begins the possibility of Shakespeare having visited East Lothian.
That Shakespeare was a member of the Queen’s Players seems likely. ‘The parallels between Shakespeare’s plays & the Queen’s plays,’ writes Terence G Schoone-Jongen, ‘are substantial & intricate.’ It is clear that many of their recorded plays were rewritten by Shakespeare, with lines & phrases popping all across the Shakesperean ouvre. Where the Queen’s Players produced & acted in Richard III & King Leir, so Shakespeare wrote a version of Richard III & the slightly differently spelt King Lear. Where The Two Gentlemen of Verona shares much with the Queen’s Players’ Felix & Philomena, so the playlet of the mechanicals in Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream bears a strong resemblance to the Players’ Clyomon and Clamydes. Likewise, while ‘The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth‘ forms the entire foundation for the material of 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V; their ‘Troublesome Reign of King John’ is simply a redaction of Shakespeare’s King John. So much so, that in the 1611 quarto printing of the ‘Troublesome Reign,’ the authorship was assigned to ‘W. Sh,’ which was elongated in the 1622 printing into ‘W. Shakespeare.’ Furthermore, in 1592, & practically from his death-bed, the chief playwright of the Queen’s Men, Robert Greene in his ‘Groats-worth of Witte,’ blurted;
Here is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
Greene is here commenting on the evolution of Shakespeare from actor to playwright. The ‘Tigers heart’ expression is alluding to a line in Henry VI Part III, which reads, ‘O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!’ In the same papmlet, Greene also castigates Shakespeare & Thomas Kyd with, ‘it is pity men of such rare wits [Nashe, Marlowe and Peele] should be subject to the pleasures of such rude grooms.’ On their formation in 1583, the Queen’s Players were given the title, ‘grooms of the chamber.’ There is enough here to place Shakespeare with Her Majesty’s players, & thus we can send him towards King James through the following literary memorials;
The Queen’s Players are sent to the court of King James
(The statement of the Revels from 1587-89)
Betweene the of September 1589 a regni * R* Eliz., and the of the same September, for • the furnishing of a mask for six maskers and six * torchbearers, and of such persons as were to utter speeches at the shewing of the same maske, sent into Scotland to the King of Scotts mariage, by her Majestie’s commanundement, signified into the Mr & other officers of this office by the Lord Treasurer, the Lord Chamberleyn & Mr Vicechamberleine : the charges, as well for workmanshipp & attendance, as for wares delivered & brought into this office for & about the same, hereafter particularly insueth.
The Queen’s Players are in Carlisle, September 20th 1589
After my verie hartie comendacions: vpon a letter receyved from Mr. Roger Asheton, signifying vnto me that yt was the kinges earnest desire for to have her Majesties players for to repayer into Scotland to his grace : I dyd furthwith dispatche a servant of my owen unto them wheir they were in the furthest part of Langkeshire, wherevpon they made their returne heather to Carliell, wher they are, and have stayed for the space of ten dayes, whereof I thought good to gyve yow notice in the respect of the great desyre that the king had to have the same Come unto his grace: And withall to praye yow to gyve knowledg therof to his Majestie. So for the present, I bydd yow right hartelie farewell
The xxth of Septemre, 1589
Yowr verie assured loving friend
While the Queen’s Men were in Carlisle, up in Scotland things were not turning out as King James had hoped. Terrible weather had prevented Princess Anna from crossing the North Sea, & James had camped up at Seton Castle to watch the Firth of Forth for any ships from Denmark. A letter from William Asheby to Walsingham. [Sept. 8, 1589) reads;
With the first wind the Queen is expected out of Denmark. It is thought that she embarked about the 2nd instant, but that contrary winds keep the fleet back. Great preparation is made at Leith to receive her, and to lodge her till the solemnity, which shall be twelve days after her arrival. The King is at Seaton till her arrival.
James spent most of September at Seton Castle, giving our investigation ample time for Shakespeare & the Queen’s Men to arrive in the county. There is no precise evidence for him acting in Seton Castle, I’ll be the first to admit, but there is a great deal of evidence to suggest he was attached to James’ court at this time. For example, the only copy of William Stewart’s Chronicle of Scotland ever found existed in manuscript form in James’ royal library in Scotland. How else but by seeing it in person would Shakespeare have found the accurate correspondances with his play Macbeth, including one incredibly uncanny passage of sixty-five lines describing the thoughts and motives of Macbeth and his wife.
While Shakespeare was studying in the Royal library, James was becoming more & more romantically inclined, & in a grand act of chivalry set sail on October 24th for Norway, where his bride’s little fleet had sheltered from the storms. That Shakespeare & the Queen’s Players went with him in the large wedding entourage can be discerned by an epigram in John Davies of Hereford’s The Scourge of Folly (c.1610). Dedicated to, ‘our English Terence Mr. Will: Shake-speare,’ it begins;
SOME say good Will (which I, in sport, do sing)
Had’st thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst bin a companion for a King
Scholars have scratched their heads over this passage for centuries, but there is a starkness to it which fits with consummate ease into Shakespeare – the Queen’s Player – accompanying King James VI to Denmark. By doing so he would have witnessed at first hand Kronborg castle in Elsinore – the setting of Hamlet – where James & his young queen spent the first few months of 1590 honeymooning, getting drunk & watching plays. Our budding bard would also have met the Danish noblemen Axel Gyldenstierne & Jorgen Rozenkrantz, who appear in Hamlet as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Such wonderful coincidences, & when Shakespeare placed the ‘play within a play’ at Kronborg, I am rather inclined to believe he was actually recording himself & his own duties while being the ‘companion for a king.’ In this passage from Hamlet, the traveling players enact a ‘Dumb-Show;’
Enter a King and a Queen, very lovingly: the Queen embracing him, and he her. She kneels and makes show of protestation unto him. He takes her up, and declines his head upon her neck: lays him down upon a bank of flowers: she, seeing him asleep, leaves him. Anon comes in a fellow, takes off his crown, kisses it, and pours poison in the King’s ears, and exit. The Queen returns; finds the King dead, and makes passionate action. The Poisoner, with some two or three Mutes, comes in again, seeming to lament with her. The dead
body is carried away. The Poisoner wooes the Queen with gifts; she seems loath and unwilling awhile, but in the end accepts his love.
What is interesting here is that just like Hamlet’s father, the King in the Dumb-Show was murdered by having poison administered to his ear. In a similar fashion, a French surgeon, Ambrosie Parex was suspected of killing the French King, Francis II, by giving him an ear infection during the course of treatment. Francis, of course, was the first husband of James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots, a lady who will be popping up rather a lot on our walks across East Lothian.