In 1589, the valiant efforts of all the English nobility, not to mention a decidedly Protestant God, had just defeated the invincible Spanish Armada. The word “skeptic” had made its way into the English language. And, though no one knows for sure when Shakespeare wrote anything, his envious rival, Ben Jonson, says that by this time, Titus Andronicus had already made its debut on the London stage. The bloody tragedy struck a nerve; citizens packed the theaters to witness the old warrior’s revenge, and men still spoke of it with admiration some twenty-five years later.1 Though the playwright had coyly billed his piece as a “Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedy,” if her majesty the Queen – that incomparable last of the Tudors, Elizabeth I (1533~1603) – ever requested a court performance of this very English drama, the spectacle might well have caused, at the very least, one eyebrow raised in royal skepticism.
Shakespeare opens his play with a candidate for emperor whose name (Saturninus or Saturnine) evokes the Roman god Saturn, the one : When Elizabeth was a child of three going on four, her father beheaded her mother – his second wife, Anne Boleyn – along with the five men that he claimed were his wife’s lovers (a famous story briefly retold in chapter 4). There is ample evidence that Henry VIII “dreamed of an imperial crown equal to that of the Holy Roman Emperor.”2 After the death of Emperor Maximilian in 1519, he secretly jockeyed for election to that office, and after dispatching his second wife, the king began a propaganda campaign touting his descent from King Arthur, “said to have owned a seal proclaiming him “Arthur, Emperor of Britain and Gaul.”3 He even issued new coins, “bearing the image of the King as Roman Emperor.”4
Building on this evocation of an insatiable Romanesque emperor, Shakespeare gives Saturninus a stubbornly loyal warrior named Titus, whose sons demand the right to lop the limbs of a prisoner of war, and feed them to the flames as a sacrifice to the gods. In 1535, while Elizabeth was yet a toddler, her father ordered the limbs of several Carthusian monks lopped off and fed to the sacrificial fires of his new state religion. As we will see, her great-uncle, Thomas Howard II, 3rd duke of Norfolk, a noble warrior who ostentatiously (and very much like Titus) lost no opportunity to proclaim his loyalty to his sovereign, officially witnessed this atrocity.
By his side, as representatives of the crown – and making this a true family affair, much the same as Shakespeare portrays in his scene of a human sacrifice – were the duke’s son-in-law, his brother-in-law and his nephew. Elizabeth would have known the duke and his son, the hero of our story, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, all through her childhood. She was fourteen when, from his deathbed, her father gave the order for Surrey’s execution. Seven years later, when her great-uncle Thomas died at the age of eighty-one in 1554, she was a discerning and highly educated young woman, next in line to the throne.
After the play’s sacrifice of “the noblest of the Goths,” Shakespeare has the sons of Titus dishonor him by protecting their potential brother-in-law, Bassianus, as he absconds with the emperor’s intended bride, their sister Lavinia. This “treason” brings the wrath of Emperor Saturnine down on them all. As the queen must have known, her great-uncle Thomas endured a similar dishonor in 1536, when his half-brother eloped with Margaret Douglas, (chapter 6) who just happened to be Henry VIII’s favored niece and possibly the most legitimate successor to his throne at that moment. Like Titus, Thomas found that his own child, Mary Howard, added to his disgrace by assisting the lovers. Court proceedings, wherein this impetuous love-match ended with a condemnation of the bridegroom for treason, document the terrible wrath of Henry VIII, whose fury at this time precisely matches the irrational anger Shakespeare gives to Saturnine.
After this uproar, in which Titus slays his own son, Shakespeare has his old warrior, whose noble family, the Andronici, possess a tomb that “five hundred years hath stood,” refuse an honorable burial to his son, whom he declares was “no son of mine,” and “basely slain.” Elizabeth was almost four years old when Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond, her father’s beloved “base-born” (illegitimate) son, died at the age of seventeen. For some unknown reason, Henry VIII refused to grant his bastard son an honorable burial (chapters 6 – 8). Instead, the boy’s father-in-law – that loyal battleaxe Thomas Howard II, 3rd duke of Norfolk – received a grudging permission to bury him at Thetford Priory, an ancient monastery begun in 1107 that housed the family tombs of the Howards and their noble ancestors. To cap it all, both Thomas Howard and Titus Andronicus arranged for the “sumptuous re-edification” (renovation) of their family’s ancient “monument” (or tomb).
If ever presented at court, I imagine that within the first twenty minutes ofTitus Andronicus, the queen would turn to my lord of Derby, or Pembroke, or Sussex, (the three lords whose names appeared on the play’s title page when first published in 1594) and inquire with some asperity if they had seen or read their servants’ play. “Have you heard the argument?” she might demand, sotto voce, “Is there no offense in it?” If (as I also sometimes imagine) she were made of sterner stuff than King Claudius proved to be, Elizabeth Tudor would not call out for light, ending the evening’s performance. No one would gain a window into her soul. Only she would know the pangs to her conscience, as anguished cries rebounded through Shakespeare’s lines into the darkest moral abyss of her father’s reign and back again, calling for justice or revenge. The author, if he were present, (while imagining, I may as well include him!) might nonetheless observe the slightest blush of surcharged perception in her countenance.
Though critics and scholars have long wished to blame someone, anyone, other than young William for perpetrating this travesty, today, almost everyone admits that the hand that wrote most of it also wrote King Lear. T.S. Eliot was content to dismiss this play as “the stupidest and most uninspired” but its author most emphatically was not. The Andronici, whom we shall see consistently reflect the Howards, are his play’s tarnished heroes; the emperor, who resembles no one so much as Henry VIII, is one of his lesser villains. Elizabeth claimed descent from the Howards on her mother’s side, but she claimed her crown, and her divine right to rule England, as Great Harry’s daughter. As her subjects fully appreciated, she was a proud Tudor lion through and through, and had the blood of Howard kin – the earl of Surrey’s eldest son Thomas – on her own hands to prove it. Why would Shakespeare deliberately rattle the queen’s cage by reviving the dead heirs of the Howard dynasty?
I don’t know, and it’s probably impossible for anyone, even the writer himself, to say for sure why he wrote as he did. But a few guesses here, the ones that I began with, will get us started. Perhaps the poet and playwright in Shakespeare wished to honor an “ancestor” of his own, so to speak. Henry Howard, known even today as “the poet earl of Surrey,” helped to lay the groundwork for the capacious structure of Elizabethan poetry. The earl’s poems were collected a decade after his execution for the first anthology of English verse, Tottel’s Miscellany. His sonnets explored the potential of the form we now call “Shakespearean” a full half century before Shakespeare adopted it and made it his own. Surrey was the first to experiment with blank verse of iambic pentameter in the English language, which he gracefully employed for his translations of Virgil’s Aeneid; in play after play, Shakespeare’s five-beat, unrhymed lines perfect what Surrey had begun. Unlike many Tudor poets, the earl did not shy away from composing works full of deep personal grief, fury and ambition; as we will see, those whom he offended with his pen sought revenge, and by and by procured his bloody fate. His foolhardy courage of literary expression may have appealed to the romantic in Will; five of these poems echo like a cry of hounds through the center of Titus Andronicus.
As an actor and entrepreneur, however, William Shakespeare may have viewed the Howard clan from a more practical standpoint. Elizabethan law required companies of players to perform as the servants of some nobleman, who was “expected to take some responsibility for the conduct of those who used his name, and to exercise some discipline in cases of misdemeanour.”5 The young thespian aspirant, who would a decade hence hold quite a share in the Globe Theater, saw a number of troupes pass through Stratford while he still lived there: the Earl of Worcester’s Men, the Earl of Leicester’s Men, the Earl of Oxford’s Men and the Earl of Essex’s Men among the most notable. Someday, with luck, one of these great lords would become his patron; he would don the nobleman’s livery, and pass unmolested from town to town under his protection, acting bit parts in other’s plays until someone came along with the wit to recognize his true talents. Long before he fell in with the men who would be his theatrical companions till he quit the stage, a vital common denominator in six of London’s theatrical companies may have intrigued him:
- The Queen’s Men: served under the protection of Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England and great-granddaughter of Thomas Howard I, 2nd duke of Norfolk.
- The Lord Admirals Men: sponsored by Charles Howard, 2nd baron of Effingham, Lord High Admiral of England and great-grandson of Thomas Howard I, 2nd duke of Norfolk.
- The Earl of Sussex, his Servants: served Henry Radcliffe, 4th earl of Sussex and grandson of Thomas Howard I, 2nd duke of Norfolk.
- Lord Strange’s Men, later known as The Earl of Darbie’s (or Derby’s) Men: supported by Ferdinando Stanley, 5th earl of Derby and great-grandson of Thomas Howard I, 2nd duke of Norfolk.
- The Lord Chamberlain’s Men: [the troupe Shakespeare eventually joined] protected by Henry Carey, 1st Baron Carey of Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain and great-grandson of Thomas Howard I, 2nd duke of Norfolk.
- Lord Oxford’s Boys: served Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain and first cousin to Thomas Howard III, 4th duke of Norfolk, great-grandson and heir to Thomas Howard I, 2nd duke of Norfolk.
With the exception of the Lord Great Chamberlain, all of these patrons of the theater were directly descended from the first Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey, later 2nd duke of Norfolk, a truly awesome forbear. His cunning and fortitude in defeating the Scottish invasion of 1513 at the battle of Flodden (briefly retold in chapter 1) earned him the love of the people and the popular title, “the Flodden Duke.” As Americans once revered General George Washington as the founder of their nation, many Englishmen of Shakespeare’s childhood would have still remembered the Flodden Duke as the savior of theirs. In addition to these six noble patrons allied to the Howard hero, we should also consider these two gentlemen:
- Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels from 1578 to 1610 (a post that put him in charge of entertainments at court, including the performance and censorship of plays, through most of Shakespeare’s career). Thomas Howard’s first wife, Elizabeth Tilney, was a cousin of Edmund Tilney’s father, and the duke’s second wife, Agnes Tilney, was Edmund’s aunt.
- George Buc (Tilney’s successor as Master of the Revels) had a special connection to the Flodden duke through his grandfather: “an ancient & wise & veritable gentilman who was brought vp from a child by this most noble erl Thomas, & was euer wth him vntyll his old age [& was] well acquainted wth all his actions & his fortunes.”6 From this grandsire, George Buc heard riveting stories “of how the future victor of Flodden” survived after the famous battle at Bosworth in 1485 that brought Henry Tudor to the throne, “only by lying hid in the house of a friend till his wounds were healed.”7
All of these courtiers and nobles, along with their many siblings and cousins, would have possessed the insider knowledge necessary to recognize if Shakespeare were offering a submerged portrait of their common ancestor in Titus Andronicus. But the most significant connection of all, and the one upon which this story begins and ends, was Elizabeth’s. Her great-uncle, that loyal warrior Thomas Howard II, 3rd duke of Norfolk, who famously muttered “Tut, tut, tut” to Anne Boleyn’s protestations of innocence as she knelt in the street and begged for mercy, (as we will see in chapter 7) was the Flodden duke’s eldest son.
The Flodden Duke’s grandchildren, Anne and George Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Henry Howard (all beheaded by Henry VIII) and his great-grandson, Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk (beheaded by Elizabeth) were all close kin to these patrons of the acting companies that Shakespeare might have joined. Each had probably witnessed with trembling fear as the axe fell on the neck of one of their cousins, the blood spurt as his or her head fell away, with its eyes wide and lips still moving. For most commentators over the past four centuries, “the horrors in Titus Andronicus are too much,”8 but for the Flodden Duke’s descendants, Shakespeare’s severed heads and hands may have provided a necessary catharsis, especially at a time when the hero’s great-great grandson was on trial for his life.
Philip Howard, earl of Arundel, grandson of Henry Howard and the son and heir of Thomas, 4th duke of Norfolk, was just fifteen when Elizabeth ordered the execution of his father in 1572. Seventeen years later, on the morning of April 14, 1589, guards escorted Lord Arundel from his chambers in the Tower, where her majesty had been pleased to lodge him as a state prisoner for the last four years. Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, Philip faced specious charges of treason. The startling magnificence of his attire that morning might have seemed, to some minds, arrogance incarnate, while others would have understood implicitly that such brilliant garments spoke not for the man, but for his tribe, those five centuries of noble warriors and statesmen from whom he claimed an illustrious descent. Those who turned out to see him pass through the streets that day might have somberly reflected on the glorious name that Lord Arundel was heir to, the great deeds of his ancestors and the streams of Howard blood that had been their reward at the hands of the Tudors.
Philip went to his trial at a time when people’s fears of papist conspiracies and insurrection made them cast desperately about for a scapegoat, someone whose death would make them feel safer. Elizabeth’s councilors claimed that from his Tower lodgings, Lord Arundel had initiated a twenty-four hour vigil of prayer as the Spanish Armada neared the coast of England. Under threats of torture, his fellow inmate, a priest, had “confessed” that Lord Arundel had enjoined him to say masses for the success of the Spanish King Philip, the overthrow of Queen Elizabeth, and the restoration of the Catholic faith throughout the realm. The jury of Philip’s peers included several of the Howard kinsmen listed above who sponsored companies of players, as well as another dramatic patron, the earl of Pembroke (whose name you will find on the title page of Titus Andronicus). Whatever their private sympathies may have been, the rabid paranoia of the times infected men’s judgment. Late that afternoon, the expected verdict of guilty came in: Lord Arundel was on his way to becoming the Catholic martyr, Saint Philip. From that moment on, only the conscience of the queen, and her day-to-day dispensation of mercy, kept poor Philip from the scaffold.
Amidst these bitter, aroused memories of past trials, which had ended in the horrific beheading of both the earl’s father and grandfather, Shakespeare kept his own head down and worked on the mystery of his craft. Nothing of Philip’s life and ultimate fate appears transformed in the Rome of Titus Andronicus, yet I can’t help but believe that Philip’s troubles were never far from the author’s mind as he designed and revised his “Mousetrap.” In a world without censorship, he might have freely adapted the intrigues behind the earlier executions into political farce, called it something carelessly ironic like The Not-So Famous History of the Life of Henry Howard, or All is True9, and reaped his share of the takings. Under Elizabeth and the scrutiny of her Star Chamber, such artistic expression was impossible; a vocal dissident could end up in prison, or punished with amputation of his ears, or a hand. No Elizabethan writer could possibly tell an “All is True” tale for the victims of Henry VIII and the Tudor regime.
No writer, that is, except our Bedlam fool, born a simple genius, a Shaker of Spears, an irrepressible Will who found a subterranean way: wrap the characters in togas, transpose the Realm of England to Rome, let Thomas answer to the name Titus, and Scots take on the guise of Goths. Then cook up a storyline similar to the one found in an odd little chapbook, The History of Titus Andronicus, which was no true history at all but a mélange of pseudo facts and classic invention. To the uninitiated, the result might seem to be “the most incorrect and indigested” bloody gallimaufry imaginable. To those in the know, it will be a supreme roman `a clef.
Would he do such a thing? Most biographical scholars have discerned in William Shakspere a cautious man who would not lightly risk his career, or his financial rise from humble roots into the gentility, by indulging in controversy. They may be right. Perhaps young William would not, could not and/or did not construct this play as a dramatic mousetrap to catch the queen’s conscience. With or without his blessing, however, even today we could effectively stage a production of Titus Andronicus that, line-by-line, entrance to exit, from the first words spoken to the last, presents a damning indictment of the Tudor family’s treatment of the Howards. All it would require is
- a) a common knowledge among our potential audience of the history of Elizabeth I and her Howard cousins;
- b) a dozen or so attendants (or the “senators and tribunes” called for in the opening stage directions) each bearing a banner or shield emblazoned with the arms of the nobility represented in the play; and
- c) some discreet signal that would then direct the audience to the identity of each character in turn, as they enter or when they first speak.
A director could further transform each “Roman” scene in Shakespeare’s play by having the actors boldly mimic, with accent, gesture, posture and costume, some very English figures, past and present, and well known to all. Five Howard kinsmen possessed the means – a company of players under their protection and some manner of great hall or gallery in their private homes, as well as varying degrees of motivation – to host such a performance. One of them might have defiantly subverted the play – just as any self-respecting director feels free to do today – simply by decking out Saturnine to resemble Great Harry, and giving to old Titus all the proud banners that the warrior Thomas Howard and his sons and followers carried with them into battle. Anyone who wished to present a sequel to Shakespeare’s Richard III from the perspective of the vanquished Howards and their kin would encounter few problems adapting Titus Andronicus to tell the tale.
In fact, the details Shakespeare chose to flesh out the story of Titus Andronicus so closely match the story of Henry Howard’s family that I believe neither the author nor the queen could have been ignorant of the play’s potential interpretation. Both were, quite simply, too smart to be deceived. From the sacrifice of Alarbus to the stabbing of Tamora, this “Roman” tragedy presents a unified and wholly English chronicle with no loose ends. Not one significant deed, not even the death of Lavinia at the hands of her father, lacks an emotionally coherent motive when read against this historical background. Whether the verse clunks along or seems to soar, every passage advances a hidden agenda – accolades for the Howards, bloody revenge to their foes – and does so with peculiar ingenuity and conviction. If agreeable, ambitious William wouldn’t dare write such a play, perhaps we need to redraw those of our maps that circumscribe his soul, or search for a second collaborator or patron who would.
Part I of Shakespeare and the Howards ends at the play’s climax, when Titus and his family recoil in shock as two heads are tumbled at their feet. In 1547, while he lay dying, Henry VIII signed the papers that ordered the beheading of both Henry Howard, poet earl of Surrey, and his father, Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk. Would Surrey’s wife and children, and Norfolk’s surviving kin, also have the horror of seeing two beloved heads tumbling off the executioner’s block?
Part II begins with the January deaths of both the king and Surrey, and old Norfolk imprisoned in the Tower, unjustly condemned for treason. We’ll follow the Howard family fortunes, from the perspective of Surrey’s widow, Frances de Vere and her brother, John de Vere, 16th earl of Oxford, through the six years of young King Edward VI’s reign and his half-sister Mary’s ascension to the throne in 1553.
Part III backtracks through the play, re-examining earlier scenes that mirror events from Elizabeth’s reign, right up to the year after the Armada, 1589. The rape of Lavinia and her father’s mad stint as a diabolical pastry chef, Tamora’s pregnancy and Aaron’s bold defense of his illegitimate child, young Lucius with his Ovid, learning the arts of dramatic expression from his mad father, all reflect Elizabethan events in the lives of persons intimately connected to Henry Howard, and his wife, Frances de Vere.
Some great fury drove our mock executioner in cap and bells to write this covert history of the queen’s martyred cousins that so vividly calls up memories of the Howard blood on her majesty’s own hands. You may not have detected Shakespeare’s ferocious intent before, but by the final chapter of Shakespeare and the Howards, you may begin to wonder, as I still do, why the author didn’t lose his head for penning such impudence.
1 Jonson, Ben, induction to Bartholomew Fair, 1614
2 Smith, Lacey Baldwin, Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty, p. 45
3 Ridley, Jasper, Henry VIII: The Politics of Tyranny, p. 113-5
4 Weir, Alison, Henry VIII: The King and his Court, p. 349
5 Chambers, E. K., The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 1, p. 310
6 Eccles, Mark, Thomas Lodge and other Elizabethans, p. 417
7 Eccles, p. 417
8 Harrison, G. B., The Collected Works of William Shakespeare, p. 296
9 “All is True” is the alternate title of “The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth,” some parts of which seem authentic Shakespeare, with the remainder betraying the later hand of John Fletcher.