Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.
In the delightful world created by David Blixt in Her Majesty’s Will, from which Robert Kauzlaric’s play is adapted, the rich and colorful characters stand out among the descriptive writing. Perhaps the reason these characters feel so alive and fleshed out is because they were all based on real life nobles, playwrights, and rogues (with the exception of two smaller characters, Rookwood and Higgins). Although Blixt admits that he took certain liberties with historical accuracy and filled in many blanks with his own fancy, he sees this more as a “bending of the truth” rather than ever outright breaking it. True to the spirit in which the book was written, Kauzlaric’s play features and highlights many of the real life personalities Blixt introduced to us.
Here’s a run-down of the historic characters and what are known to be the facts of their lives. Let’s meet our players.
Born just a few months before William Shakespeare, Marlowe’s flamboyant and unpredictable nature was legendary. His schooling at Cambridge was riddled with speculation and mysterious extended absences that led to the rumors that he was working for Sir Francis Walsingham as a spy. He was only allowed to receive his degree after the Privy Council sent a letter in his defense citing an unspecified service for Her Majesty, the queen. In London, he associated with contemporary writers, wrote plays, and was credited as the leader of what would eventually be called University Wits. He would go on to become one of the leading tragedians of his day and one of Shakespeare’s most important predecessors. His play, Tamburlaine, is among the first of English plays to be written in blank verse. It, along with The Spanish Tragedy, is considered the beginning of the mature phase of Elizabethan theatre. His plays are known for their overreaching protagonists and broadly heroic themes, but he also displayed dexterity with the ability to approach great tragedy from multiple, complex perspectives. His reputation as a playwright was undeniable, but his personal life was complicated. Later in life, Marlowe was formally accused of being a heretic and a sodomite, which were both punishable by death in Elizabethan England.
Lyly graduated from Oxford and became the private secretary to Edward de Vere, a significant patron of the arts. During this time he earned a reputation as a noted wit. Both of his novels, Euphues, or The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and its sequel, Euphues and his England (1580), were immediately popular and for a while Lyly was one of the most fashionable and successful writers in England. He was known for his comedic prose, lively dialogue, and precise use of word placement. These traits of his writing are seen as a primary influence on Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Lyly later turned his attention to playwriting in an attempt to get appointed as the Master of Revels (who reviewed all the plays prior to performance in Elizabethan England).
Greene was one of the earliest English writers to support himself at a time professional authorship was virtually unknown. A graduate of Cambridge and awarded and honorary degree from Oxford, Greene was an early adversary of Shakespeare due to his lack of formal education. (He actually called Shakespeare an “upstart cow” in one of his published works.) In his personal life, however, Greene associated with a slew of underground criminals, whom he often wrote about in his commercial pamphlets. Cutting Ball, a notorious cut-purse was a supposed close friend and his sister, Em Ball, was rumored to have been Green’s mistress and mother of his son. His writing displays a fantastic linguistic capability, grounded in the extensive knowledge of the classics combined with contemporary understanding of modern languages.
Helena of Snakenborg
Helena was a Swedish noblewoman who came to England on a state visit with Princess Cecilia. Queen Elizabeth and Helena developed a friendship despite their difference in age, and she appointed Helena as a Maid of Honor in her court and later as a gentlewoman in the privy chamber (an attendant to the queen in her private quarters). Helena became one of Queen Elizabeth’s most intimate and trusted aides, often controlling access to the queen. With her marriage and the subsequent death of her husband, Helena inherited the title of Marchioness, making her the fourth senior peeress in the country, behind the queen’s cousins. After her second marriage, Helena became the queen’s deputy, often attending baptisms of noble’s children and other lesser ceremonial events in the queen’s stead. She was also the chief mourner at the queen’s funeral procession.
Sir Francis Walsingham
Walsingham was born into a well-connected family of gentry and attended good schools. Along with hundreds of Protestants, he went into exile after the coronation of Mary I and lived abroad studying law in Italy and becoming fluent in Italian and French. After his return to England, Waslingham entered into the service of William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s principle secretary, performing confidential tasks for the minister. He soon took over a small network of secret agents Cecil had established and was appointed to the Privy Council. He was made a principle secretary. As secretary, he handled all royal correspondence to foreign ambassadors and determined the agenda of council meetings. He wielded great influence in all matters of policy and in every field of government. Queen Elizabeth clearly valued his loyalty, dedication to her security, and unvarnished counsel. Notoriously sparing with her honors for public servants, Walsingham was one of the few exceptions and was knighted in 1577.
Walsingham is best known for his legacy as the creator of an extensive intelligence network. He employed double agents, informants, experts on codes and ciphers, experts in the art of lifting a wax seal so a letter could be opened undetected, and he promoted covert propaganda, disinformation, and agents provocateurs as he sought to gather and master as much information as possible concerning government administration, economics, and practical politics at home and abroad. He secured his informants through bribery, veiled threats, and subtle psychological gambits. He often paid for intelligence with his own money. His network of spies and informants that spanned France, Scotland, the Low Countries, Spain, Italy, and even Turkey and North Africa. Walsingham was and continues to be seen as a pioneer in intelligence methods and as a seminal figure in the British secret service. His wide-ranging education and experience mixed with his psychological shrewdness were perfectly suited for this role. He would use this network to spend nearly 20 years trying to bring down Mary Stuart, whom he saw, along with the Spanish, as the biggest threat to the English crown.
John Savage served in the Army of the Duke of Parma and was a courageous and zealous Roman Catholic. When he met a few conspirators of the Babington Plot, he volunteered his services, proving to be a valuable ally. He was one of the six nominated to assassinate Queen Elizabeth so that Mary could take the crown and he swore an oath to do so.
Sir Thomas Lucy
A knighted noble, Lucy sat two sessions of Parliament, was a justice of the queen’s peace, and an ardent hunter of recusants (Catholic dissenters). He became high sheriff of the Warwickshire in 1586. Shakespeare is said to have later satirized him in Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor with the character of Justice Shallow.
Phelippes was a linguist with a genius for deciphering letters, recruited by Walsingham. He could speak French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and German and attended Walsingham’s spy school that taught cipher and forgery among other things. Phelippes soon became Walsingham’s assistant and England’s first cryptanalyst. He also created forgeries and gathered secret correspondence. He is most remembered for his forgery of the “bloody postscript” that ensnared Mary Stuart in the end. Later in life Phelippes’ employment with the government was sporadic and he struggled with debt, but even in prison he was sometimes sent coded letters to decipher by William Cecil.
Gilbert was a Catholic double agent who played a significant role in the Babington Plot. He came from a well-known Catholic family in Staffordshire. He was admired in school for his intellectual abilities, but was perceived to have a deceitful character and was later expelled due to unknown circumstances. While abroad in France, he met John Savage, who was embroiled in the plot against Queen Elizabeth and who vowed to carry out her assassination. Shortly thereafter he returned to England, was arrested, and turned by Walsingham to serve as a double agent. Back in Paris, he got a letter of recommendation to place him in Mary Stuart’s household and to set the wheels in motion for her entrapment. Over the next few months he made many visits between Paris and England and became well acquainted with other Catholic co-conspirators. Before the plot came to fruition, he fled England and both sides suspected him of treachery, and his true loyalties were never quite certain.
Richard Tarlton was an English actor, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite court jester, and the most popular comedic actor of his time. He is credited as the creator of the “stage yokel” and was known for his ability to improvise dialogue in and around a script. His jests were thought to have an aggressive and subversive wit about them, ready to take on authority figures, even the queen. He was known for being the first jester to study natural fools and simpletons to add to character performance. He was also an experienced fencer, a decent singer, and a dancer. During performances it was said that he only needed to poke his head out from behind the curtain in order to make the audience laugh. He also policed the hecklers and caught them with a cutting rhyme if he found them to be disruptive. After the shows, he performed bawdy song-and-dance extra-theatrical pieces and enjoyed staying to match wits with the crowd. On top of all this he was also an accomplished playwright for the Queen’s Men, although none of his plays survived. Tarlton was immensely popular with both the court and the lower classes during his lifetime and his was genius was undisputed. His performances were thought to be inspiration for Shakespeare’s Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the court jester Yorick in Hamlet.
Cutting Ball was a notorious cutpurse and thief of the Elizabethan age. He was the brother to Em Ball who was the mistress to Robert Greene. Greene was said to have employed Cutting Ball as a bodyguard at one time or another. Greene also wrote much about the London underworld, probably inspired by his time with Cutting Ball and Em. Cutting Ball was rumored to have been a friend of Shakespeare and Marlow as well.
Em Ball was a prostitute and most likely the sister of Cutting Ball. In history she is remembered as “a woman of a very bad reputation” and one of ill repute who is a footnote aside two famous men. Em Ball may have shared a home in Holywell Street in Shoreditch with Richard Tarlton at the end of his life (or he may have simply taken refuge with her when he fell ill) since that is where he died in 1588. She was also believed to be the mistress of Robert Greene and lived with him later in life. They are rumored to have a son named Fortunatus together.
Dibdale was an English Catholic priest and eventually a martyr. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon to a Catholic family. He went to Rome and then to college in France before returning to England. Immediately on his entry into the country he was arrested and imprisoned. Once released, he returned to France for his ordination. Using an alias, he became a chaplain in a private manor in Buckinghampshire until he was arrested again. Given the 1585 Act making it a capital offence to be an ordained Catholic priest in England, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. He and two other priests were beatified in 1987.
Evans was a scrivener (clerk or scribe) and a theatrical producer. He was responsible for the Children of the Chapel and the Children of Paul’s at Blackfriars and then the head of the Earl of Oxford’s Boys at court. He is described by historians as “unsavory” and “devious”.
A real figure as far as accounts that appear in the published Tarlton’s Jests: And News Out of Purgatory, but there is little other evidence about her life at the time.
A real figure as far as accounts that appear in the published Tarlton’s Jests: And News Out of Purgatory, where he appears in a sword fight with the famous Tarlton, but there is little other evidence about his life at the time.