The King and the Poet: The Tempest, Whitehall, Winter, 1613
The fall and winter of 1612-13, probably the last of Shakespeare's tenure as resident playwright with the King's Men, were disturbed times at Whitehall. Robert Cecil, the real power behind the throne and the most farsighted politician in England, had died on May 24, 1612, aged forty-nine. The court, mean as ever, buzzed with the news that he had died of syphilis. Arbella Stuart, melancholy and with a streak of willfulness, was also gone from the court, having tried the king's patience too far at last. Her story is pure Shakespearean romance from beginning to end. She had a claim to the throne, as good in law as that of James, who kept her at court like Hamlet in Claudius' Elsinore, so that he could keep an eye on her and prevent her marriage, which might have produced a dangerous heir. Life at court kept Arbella broke, as it did most courtiers, and she played the marriage card, her only trump, more than once, in order to extract money and gifts from James. In 1610 she seems to have been carried away by her own game and fell in love with William Seymour, the second son of Lord Beauchamp, descended through Catherine Grey from Henry VII, and the one man whom James could not allow her to marry. Seymour's claim to the throne combined with Arbella's held the possibility of political mischief, if anyone cared to make it—as someone always did. Nervous about the legitimacy of his own claim to the throne, and brokering every court marriage to prevent rivals, James questioned the lovers, separately and together, about their relationship.
The scene intrigued the Venetian ambassador for its undercurrents, and his report is worth repeating for what it tells us about the way in which the king interacted with his courtiers, particularly about marriage:
As we reported, the King is anxious that the marriage of the lady Arabella [sic] with the nephew of the Earl of Hertford should not go forward, so as to avoid the union of the claims of these two houses, who are the nearest to the Crown. After examination separately they were both summoned before the King, the Prince and the Council and ordered to give up all negotiations for marriage. Lady Arabella spoke at length, denying her guilt and insisting on her unhappy plight. She complained again that her patrimony had been conceded by the King to others. She had sold two rings he had given her. She was then required to beg the King's pardon, but replied that seeing herself deserted she had imagined that she could not be accused if she sought a husband of her own rank. All the same, if error she had made she humbly begged pardon. This did not satisfy the King; he demanded an absolute confession of wrong and an unconditional request for forgiveness. That she complied with, and received fresh promises of money and leave to marry provided the King approved. (Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Relating to English Affairs, Existing in the Archives and Collections of Venice and in other Libraries of North Italy, 37 vols., ed. R. L. Brown et al., 1864-1947, XI, p. 439)
Money was the king's usual way of patching up quarrels, and Arbella took it, but she went on to marry Seymour secretly in the spring of 1610. The king was furious when he heard, exclaiming that a woman with royal blood had no right to live or marry as she wished. James then played the role of the villainous king of romance, like Leontes in The Winter's Tale (which, with its obvious connections to Arbella, was performed in court on November 5, 1611), confining Seymour to the tower and trying to send Arbella to Durham in 1611, although he got her no farther than Highgate. Arbella dressed as a man, in black wig, long cape, and rapier—just like Portia or Rosalind—and fled to France, whither William also went. At the last moment Arbella's ship was captured, and she was returned to England and the Tower, where, still like some heroine of romance—Hermione, say—imprisoned by a cruel tyrant, she lingered until 1614 and then died....
(The entire section is 8,263 words.)