Re-imagining Cardenio

The death of princes

January 5, 2011

The Christmas season at Court in 1612 was to be a spectacular occasion. Not only was the Princess Elizabeth to marry Frederick Elector Palatine, but the King wanted his son to marry a Catholic Infanta. Shakespeare and Fletcher were ready with a new play on a Spanish subject. They had taken their subject from the global blockbuster which had just emerged from Spain, Don Quixote. Cardenio could well have been the highlight of the season. But suddenly the entire festivity was placed in jeopardy, when that November, the Prince of Wales suddenly died.

Ralegh gave up writing his great History of the World, when young Prince Henry died. “My harp is also turned to mourning and my organ into the voice of them that weep.” The whole country was devastated.

King James was not present at his son's death. He had fled to his palace at Theobald's. The queen had been unable to remain in the princes' sick room, when it became clear that he would not survive.

The Venetian ambassador, Foscarini, tactfully suggests: “It is thought that they cannot bear the spectacle of the Prince their son, dead before their eyes; while the King thinks the solitude of the country more fitting for grief and tears than the bustle of the London and the Court. The Prince's body lay in state at St James' Palace for a month, and then the funeral took place on December 7th.

Poor Frederick, the Elector Palatine. He had arrived in triumph to marry the Princess Elizabeth, but what was to happen now? Would the royal marriage take place at all? Some said that with the heir to the throne dead, and the second son only ten years old, it would not be appropriate for Princess Elizabeth to leave the country with her new husband.

However, the king hastily announced that the Christmas festivities, with all the attendant celebrations for the royal betrothal, would still take place. You can't help thinking that his behaviour displays at the very least, a lack of respect for his eldest son. It is as if he was determined not to be deprived of the splendid party he had organised. The Venetian ambassador gossiped that: “The 600,000 crowns destined for these fetes have grown to a million and those who know say that even this will not suffice.”

Nevertheless, within a fortnight of the funeral, the Christmas season launched into full swing. John Heminges would be paid £93 6s 8d for mounting 14 plays, and then £60 for another six. The wedding which had been postponed until at least Easter was then brought forward to Valentine's Day, so the celebrations would hardly let up until March. Indeed they carried on through with the usual tilt on Lady Day, March 24th, and the departure of the wedded couple for the continent on April 10th.

In the week of the royal wedding, another masque was presented by the scholars of the Middle Temple and Gray's Inn. It was by Fletcher's erstwhile collaborator (and partner) Francis Beaumont and it included a Morris dance with a baboon. This same dance appeared later in The Two Noble Kinsmen - the third play, along with All is True (or Henry VIII) and Cardenio, to be written by Shakespeare and Fletcher.

And what of the Gabaleone, the ambassador from the Duchy of Savoy?

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet


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