Eliminating Essex: Richard II and the Diverse Poetical Essays

  • James P. Bednarz
Part of the Palgrave Shakespeare Studies book series (PASHST)


After 1594, with the exception of ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ in the Diverse Poetical Essays appended to Love’s Martyr, Shakespeare would never again address his work to a patron in print. Why then would a writer who had committed himself almost exclusively to playwriting and acting make this exception in 1601 in allowing his already famous name and outstanding literary talent to add lustre to a book dedicated to the relatively obscure Sir John Salusbury? Before considering the most credible reasons for his contribution to Love’s Martyr in the next chapter, it is first necessary to clear a path for such analysis by eliminating the mistaken hypothesis, based on the specialized studies of Alexander Grosart and William H. Matchett, that ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ constitutes a post-mortem defence of the earl of Essex’s alleged fidelity to the queen, following his execution on 25 February 1601.1 Because although for some contemporary scholars, such as Duncan-Jones, this thesis has been discredited for over a century, for others it has lately regained so much respectability that in 2004 Patrick Cheney observed that although ‘interpretations continue to be dizzying’, ‘recent critics’ have ‘reached something of a consensus about what seemed to be the eye of the storm — the identity of the conjoined avian principals. The phoenix and turtle, who love each other, die, leave no posterity, yet warrant civic mourning among the purified elect, appear to allegorize Queen Elizabeth and the earl of Essex, who have put the national succession in jeopardy through the unfortunate tragedy of their star-crossed conjunction’.


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  1. 1.
    See the introduction to Robert Chester’s ‘Loves Martyr, or Rosalins Complaint’ (1601), ed. Alexander B. Grosart (London: Trübner & Co, 1878), lvii, and William H. Matchett, The Phoenix and The Turtle (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1965), 110. Matchett strangely speculates that Love’s Martyr is a pro-Essex tract so dangerous that it was suppressed, even though its meaning had been sufficiently obscured ‘to avoid outspoken treason’ (160).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Patrick Cheney, Shakespeare: National Poet-Playwright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 175.Google Scholar
  3. See also Cheney’s ‘The Voice of the Author’ in Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, ed. Curtis Perry and John Watkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 11–12, and Reading Sixteenth-Century Poetry (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2011), 276, where ‘the most durable candidates’ are said to be Elizabeth and Essex.Google Scholar
  4. Matchett’s theory is endorsed by G. P. V. Akrigg, Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 251–2, and Walter Oakeshott, ‘Loves Martyr’, The Huntington Library Quarterly 39 (1975): 35. Ian Donaldson even annotates the poetry of Ben Jonson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 675, n10, by writing that ‘Matchett argues plausibly for a return of Grosart’s identification of the phoenix and the turtle with Elizabeth and Essex’,Google Scholar
  5. and Arthur Marotti, John Donne: Coterie Poet (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 325, n45, agrees that ‘Loves Martyr connects the phoenix with the deceased Essex’. David Riggs in Ben Jonson: A Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 364, n6, recommends Matchett for understanding Salusbury’s bond to Essex. ‘If the couple really were Elizabeth and Essex’, Gerald Hammond teases readers of Fleeting Things: English Poets and Poems, 1616–1660 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 101, Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s verses in Love’s Martyr ‘would be doubly important’. John Roe, in The New Cambridge Shakespeare: The Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 42, observes that the theory ‘continues to command a small following’, yet cites only Anthea Hume, ‘Love’s Martyr, “The Phoenix and Turtle”, and the Aftermath of the Essex Rebellion’, Review of English Studies 40 (1989): 48–71, who reckons the English people to be the ‘true’ and Essex to be a ‘false’ turtle. Surveying the theory’s broader contemporary acceptance, we should mention Alzada Tipton’s ‘The Transformation of the Earl of Essex: Post-Execution Ballads and “The Phoenix and Turtle”‘, Studies in Philology 99 (2002): 57–80, which traces the glorification of Essex to Shakespeare’s poem. It presents one of the most detailed examinations of Love’s Martyr on record. The study that has done most to keep the Grosart-Matchett hypothesis alive is Richard C. McCoy’s ‘Loves Martyrs: Shakespeare’s “Phoenix and Turtle” and the Sacrificial Sonnets’, Religion and Culture in Renaissance England, ed. Claire McEachern and Debora Shuger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 188–208. The Year’s Work in English 78 (1997): 327 especially praised McCoy’s essay for its ‘historically specific local readings’.Google Scholar
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  37. 41.
    Colin Burrow, Shakespeare: Sonnets and Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 86. The drive to identify the Phoenix biographically nevertheless remains as robust as ever. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, in their introduction to Shakespeare: The Sonnets and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 2009), xxi, contend that: ‘It is hard to imagine Chester’s phoenix as anything than a symbol for Queen Elizabeth’. Since Salusbury’s mother was also associated with the phoenix, Duncan-Jones, in Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from His Life (London: Thomson Learning, 2001), 142, sees a more general allegory, wherein the phoenix ‘does not represent any single woman, but rather symbolizes the female Tudor line, alluding occasionally to Elizabeth, but more often to Salusbury’s mother and daughter’.Google Scholar
  38. 42.
    Hackett, Shakespeare and Elizabeth, 134. Alluding to ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’, Hackett acknowledges that ‘those who have written most eloquently about this reticent and haunting poem have eschewed the quest for a key’ (135), noting that this ‘consummately enigmatic poem particularly incites deciphering, but at the same time firmly rebuffs it’ (137). See also Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson, England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 90–4, for the origin of the influential ‘secret history’ of Elizabeth and Essex.Google Scholar
  39. 43.
    Katherine Duncan-Jones and H. R. Woudhuysen (ed.), Shakespeare’s Poems (London: Thomson Learning, 2007), 94 and 140. This position, with which I agree, implicitly rejects the reasoning behind Anthea Hume’s ‘Loves Martyr, “The Phoenix and the Turtle”, and the Aftermath of the Essex Rebellion’, Review of English Studies 40 (1989): 48–71.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© James P. Bednarz 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • James P. Bednarz
    • 1
  1. 1.Long Island UniversityUSA

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