Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
  playwright game the show for educators
dossier players locations evidence glossary works In Search of Shakespeare - Home
« back

The Earl of Southampton

It was fashionable for young, aspirational noblemen in Elizabethan England to become patrons to poets – which was just as well because poets tended to rely on the patronage of wealthy noblemen for their physical and creative survival.

Out of this co-dependent, symbiotic relationship the nobleman would gain the kind of dedications useful to him in presenting an image of culture and power in England's budding Renaissance. The poet would get to eat, and buy the latter-day equivalent to the G5 or PC - quills and paper (which were very expensive at the time).

Shakespeare's choice of the Earl of Southampton as a patron might have been a very pointed one. Southampton was himself literary minded, bisexual, and from a long Catholic dynasty.

Southampton's father had succumbed to a mystery ailment and died in suspicious circumstances shortly after helping the Jesuit freedom fighter/terrorist Edmund Campion, who was executed for heresy. Afterwards Southampton's mother would continue to give aid and succor to Catholic priests in her homes in Sussex and London.

Presumably to safeguard his soul, Southampton had been placed in the guardianship of Elizabeth's chief Minister Lord Burghley for three years from the age of nine.

At 19, Southampton was rich and influential, and sought out by many poets as patron. Shakespeare sought to curry favor with the Earl by dedicating his first published poem "Venus and Adonis" – a work that owed more than a little to his own literary hero Ovid – to Southampton. The work was healthily sexual in nature and so popular that it went through several printings. Sweaty-palmed appreciation of the work might be part of the reason why so few copies have survived.

By refusing to marry Lord Burghley's granddaughter, Southampton gained a fine and a powerful enemy. It is thought that he was receiving spiritual guidance at this time from Robert Southwell, a man soon to be executed for his beliefs.

In 1594, Shakespeare presented his patron Southampton with "The Rape of Lucrece," as it sounds a much graver work than his previous dedication. In 1597 Shakespeare went on to write his sonnets for the Beautiful Boy and Dark Lady, and Southampton was thought by many modern scholars to be the subject of the poet's ardor.

Southampton was a friend of the Earl of Essex and it is thought that the foolhardy plan to incite a rebellion after a performance of Shakespeare's "Richard II" was conceived at Southampton's home.

After the rebellion failed, Southampton was tried and condemned to death. Though Essex was executed, Southampton had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment in the Tower of London.

In the optimistic climate that followed James I's accession, Southampton was released, had his estates returned and was able to return to his patronage of the arts.

He again later spent a brief time in prison for allegedly plotting to reduce James I's powers. Before his death from plague in 1624 he had returned to favor by encouraging plans to create a permanent colony in Virginia.

The Player

Earl of Southampton portrait
In your state
« back  
©MayaVision International, 2003 (site credits) (site feedback)