Robert Cecil—Was He Shakespeare’s Real Richard?
It is quite astounding that many traditionalists still trot out the old ‘Shakespeare was right’ trope when referring to Richard III, even though more statements in his famous depiction have been proved to be wrong than ‘right’ in regards to this maligned king.
Shakespeare was, of course, a dramatist, a writer of fiction, and his work should have no more significance as a historical document than that of any fiction writer, even if he was using a historical basis for his creations (as many authors do, with varying degrees of success!)
Indeed, it seems that his character of Richard III may have had only a partial relationship to the actual man his play purported to be about, although this is often overlooked as if this author was some kind of top modern journalist or historian and not merely writing to entertain.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays, however, are known to have some grounding in reality, but not so much in regards to the historical figures he wrote about, but to the leading lights of his own time. Frequently there is a political basis (and bias) disguised within the context of his fiction. The play Richard III is no exception, and the main target of the Bard’s vitriol may well not be the historical Richard, but the powerful and devious Elizabethan politician Robert Cecil.
Cecil was the son of the great statesman William Cecil, who lived in the palatial Burghley House outside the town of Stamford in Lincolnshire. He had a Cambridge education and became a powerful statesman himself in the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I. Robert Cecil was also known to have clearly noticeable kyphosis, possibly since birth or early infancy.
His physical description in 1588 is described in Motley’s History of the Netherlands:
“A slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature, but with a face not irregular in feature, and thoughtful and subtle in expression, with reddish hair, a thin tawny beard, and large, pathetic, greenish-coloured eyes, with a mind and manners already trained to courts and cabinets, and with a disposition almost ingenuous, as compared to the massive dissimulation with which it was to be contrasted, and with what was, in aftertimes, to constitute a portion of his own character…”
Now, does this not sound more ‘Richard III’ than Richard himself, whose only mentioned ‘deformity’ (and that not written about till after his death) was a raised right shoulder?
So, why would Shakespeare wish to slander Robert Cecil? It seems like Shakespeare’s two most famous patrons, Essex and Southampton, were the arch-enemies of Cecil, so it would be politic of him to write in the ruthless character that these powerful lords would recognise and appreciate, without openly damning the man who Elizabeth I called ‘my little Imp’ or ‘my elf.’ The man who was Secretary of State and one of the most powerful personages in the realm.
Additionally, Cecil may have ordered the murder of Shakespeare’s very first patron, Ferdinando Stanley, whose mother was heiress presumptive to Elizabeth I. Stanley of course was a descendant of those Stanleys, and also maternally of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. He appears to have been poisoned; his body giving off such an unnatural reek that even months after his death, no family members could bear to approach his crypt. There is also a line of thought that Robert Cecil was heavily involved in the Gunpowder plot, having black-mailed Robert Catesby (yes, a descendant of that Catesby too) into proceeding with the fatal plot; Cecil’s intent was to inflame the public so that he could pass a series of anti-Catholic bills.
A devious man and with the physical attributes of Shakespeare’s character, Cecil may well be the ‘Real Richard III.’
sources: The Assassination of Shakespeare’s Patron: Investigating the Death of the Fifth Earl of Derby (2nd Edition) by Leo Daugherty
British History-John Simkin.