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Welcome to Episode #125 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When Queen Elizabeth sought to root out Catholic uprising in her country, and to quelch potential plots against her in England, it is well known that she turned to spies and spymasters within her court to find, identify, and execute anyone who was a threat to the crown. One key method Elizabeth used to make sure the new generation of English boys supported her government and the Protestant religion was through indoctrination. What better place to teach them how to act, and how to think, than at university. Universities like Cambridge and Oxford were, during Shakespeare’s lifetime and well after, used by the government as a place to teach, as well as to root out, anyone who held sympathies for the wrong cause. As theater and performance formed a huge foundation for education in the 16th century, plays like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, were often used as a way to facilitate these goals, frequently blurring the lines between education and the intention to imbue young minds with what Elizabeth saw as the right way to think and believe. Our guest this week, Robert Stefanek, has researched spies in Elizabethan England and how Hamlet being a student at Wittenberg University may be much more than a passing nod as his youth and status as a student. Robert contends that being a student at university specifically is a reflection of the entire culture of spies, undercover agents, and covert operations that defined a university structure that in Tudor England was designed, right down to the very walls of the buildings themselves, to confine, control, and indoctrinate, a new generation of young men that Elizabeth wanted to see graduate as her allies.

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Robert Stefanek works in early modern theatre in its historical conditions of performance, particularly at the intersections of theatre architecture, staging practices, audiences, and social and political history. He has published articles on the role traveling players in forging early modern English identity and on university drama and spying. Currently, he is at work on a book, Coriolanus and the Death of the Human, that explores the play's posthumanism, feminism, and critique of representative government. He teaches at the United States Air Force Academy.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Robert Stefanek about :

  • In Hamlet, the title character is a college student returning from school for a funeral and ensuing events. Many people assume the tragedy and indeed chaos that occurs in Hamlet is due purely to artistic license on Shakepseare’s part. However, Robert’s research indicates that at least when it comes to secrecy and covert operations, there may be a historical basis for connecting Hamlet the character to a university. Robert, were universities actively spying on their students in the 16th century? 

  •  How did the governing authorities at universities like Cambridge and Oxford in London during Shakepseare’s lifetime get established? Was Queen Elizabeth appointing chancellors?
  • When studying William Shakespeare’s own education, Christopher Marlowe frequently comes up as an example from Shakespeare’s contemporary network as someone who was specifically university educated. Robert’s research indicates that Marlowe may not have been at Cambridge simply to study, however, but instead that he was a spy. Robert, was Marlowe sent to Cambridge by the Elizabethan government? 

… and more!

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I dare say my cousin William is
a good scholar; he is at Oxford still, is he not?
Robert Shallow

Henry IV Part II (III.2)

In 1605 Oxford was still a walled city, but several colleges had been built outside the city walls (north is at the bottom on this map). | John Speed's map of Oxford, 1605. North is at the bottom. Oxford is still a walled city, but there some buildings are outside the walls, including Magdalen College. |”P” is Oxford Castle |”N” is Oxford's central crossroads at the junction of the High Street and St Aldates. Broad Street and Holywell Street now run along the line of the north (that is bottom) wall. | Map is in the Bodleian Library. Public Domain Image. Source

Universities spied on their students for the government

In Hamlet, the title character is a college student returning from school for a funeral and ensuing events. Many people assume the tragedy and indeed chaos that occurs in Hamlet is due purely to artistic license on Shakespeare’s part. However, Robert’s research indicates that at least when it comes to secrecy and covert operations, there may be a historical basis for connecting Hamlet the character to a university.

Robert explains that spying on individual students and conducting surveillance is

“dispersed and generalized. In the 16th century, there are massive changes about societies which includes universities. Parallel transition to the religious changes, there are localized identities morphing into a national identify, and the university’s role in that change is transforming now where universities are defining the new reform and helping create a new national identity. The Queen and her privy council really wants to keep a close eye on universities and students during this century. When the Tudors came to the throne, they sent everyone to colleges. You had to live on campus. The architecture [of a university campus] is organized into containing students (they are beautiful) but it is an intentionally controlled and ordered environment where their space and time are constrained, intentional, and designed to oversee behavior.”

As a related aside, at least one report claims that Ian Fleming used one British family's claim to the estate of John Bond, a 16th century spy who worked for Sir Francis Drake in the 1580s, as the basis for his story of James Bond. The family's motto was “Non Sufficit Orbis”—the world is not enough. (Source)

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I am no breeching scholar in the schools,
I'll not be tied to hours nor ‘pointed times,
But learn my lessons as I please myself.
Bianca

Taming of the Shrew (III.1)

1574 map of Cambridge, England by Richard Lyne. Public Domain, as a result of age. Source

Drama was a central theme of University Education

Hamlet the character displays a great deal of theater knowledge, which scholars, and even audience members, gloss over quickly since the play is often being performed in a theater, as well as written by a playwright, so we assume that knowledge is appropriate. However, Robert’s research indicates that inculsion might actually be intentional by Shakespeare since it directly reflects university education in the 16th century.

Robert explains,

“Certainly participation in drama was a central theme of university education at the time. Greek and Latin plays important chance to practice language. Perform and write original plays. A way to practice oration and public speaking skills. Way to rehearse action as wel. A way to allow them to rehearse their future roles professionally. In Hamlet, the story is really old (at least 13th c) but when Shakespeare writes his version he changes these characters into students, specifically. Polonius is a spymaster, with a university background (references playing Caesar in university) and there’s a theme of spying throughout the play. Polonius spies on Hamlet and Laertes separately. Find a spy and send him to follow Laertes to Paris. Gives him a script of what to ask people in Paris about any Danish people that are there. He also follows Ophelia, To be or not to be speech was setup by Polonius, and before Hamlet comes out, he chats with Ophelia and tells her how to behave to solicit a response from Hamlet to figure out whether he’s in love with Ophelia or not. Hamlet on some level suspects he’s being watched and turns the scene around, Polonius also hides again with Gertrude to oversee Hamlet….it is a mousetrap that setups up Polonius, but it sets up the audience, too.”

Queen Elizabeth and the privy council is appointing the leaders at university. In the past, the universities elected their own. By Elizabeth's reign, it becomes a royal appointment to serve as Chancellor. Robert explains not only were these positions directly chosen by the government, but each Chancellor was

“Drawn from Privty Council itself. Oxford Leicester, at Cambridge, Burleigh Essex and Salisbury, Francis Walsingham is not a Chancellor, but he is heavily involved in universities. Making an effort to put their thumbprint on everything. Throughout the Tudor period, the Tudors start founding new colleges at Cambridge and Oxford, throwing money at these. Trinity and Christ Church are new colleges established as reformist…”

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What am I, sir? Nay, what are you, sir? O immortal gods!
O fine villain! A silken doublet, a velvet hose, a scarlet cloak,
and a copatain hat! O, I am undone! I am undone! While I play the
good husband at home, my son and my servant spend all at the
university.
Vincentio

Taming of the Shrew (V.1)

“The corner of Old Court of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Marlowe stayed while a Cambridge student and, possibly, during the time he was recruited as a spy.” | Photo by McAnt | Used by permission of license under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 | License and Source Here

Spymasters were hired to prevent plots against the Queen

Sir Francis Walsingham is known as Elizabeth I’s spymaster specifically for his role rooting out potential plots against the Queen during her reign. As Robert shares, universities were under particular suspicion for their tendency to hide Catholic plots, as well as being a target for those that wanted to establish Catholicism in England.

“Plenty of Free Mary plots designed to try and create an upsriging among English catholics to establish catholicism in England.
England is unique in having universities focusing on aristocracy. Other european universities focus on the common people. Universities have a large population of catholics. Could explain why the Queen targeted them.”

When studying William Shakespeare’s own education, Christopher Marlowe frequently comes up as an example from Shakespeare’s contemporary network as someone who was specifically university educated. Robert’s research indicates that Marlowe may not have been at Cambridge simply to study, however, but instead that he was a spy. 

“[While Marlowe was] probably not sent, but definitely evidence he was recruited while he was studying at Corpus Christi college. Shreds of evidence. Circumstantial, but very interesting. Rheems–he goes to college for English Catholics. Was he sent to spy? Low country counterfeiting scheme. Connected to English plot there. Was he spying on that network? Playing both sides? Or just a side hustle? One of the things about Marlowe, he has rumors of Catholics sympathies that follow him throughout his life. That doesn’t prove anything, but it does provide credence to the idea you’d be recruited by the government. There’s suspicion that he’s sent abroad by the Elizabthan government to spy on catholics. When he’s abotu the graduate in 1587 with his MA, Cambridge doesn’t want to give him his degree because he’s gone abroad to Rheems, so they try to deny his degree and the Privy Council steps in to say “he’s serving the crown” give him his degree.”

Similar episode you might enjoy:

My lord, you play'd once
i' th' university, you say?
Hamlet

Hamlet (III.2)

Hall at Christ’s Church, Oxford where plays were often performed as part of university studies. Thomas Nashe’s work was performed in a similar space at Cambridge in 1586. (Source) | The Hall at Christ Church in Oxford, England 16 December 2007 | Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) | Image Source | Used by permission CC-BY-SA-4.0

Universities were as much performance spaces as playhouses

Theaters are the natural assumption when considered places where plays were performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but as Robert’s research points out , universities were just as frequently used as performance spaces. As with the theater, performances of plays were often highly incendiary in terms of their ability to flare up strong responses from the audiences. In fact, some statutes were passed in 1573-1574 to try and prevent what they called “the danger of crowds.”

Robert explains,

“Those laws were trying to limit performances to daytime. Nighttime performances and scholars from other colleges, students and scholars from rival colleges would try to crash the performances. Not just smoking and drinking, but they would throw rocks at windows, burst into the hall, and make a ruckus, some people were even killed in these. Especially during the Christmas seasons, and most students would go home for Christmas break, but there was always a handful of students who couldn’t go back home and would remain at college. This was also the time of year when plays were traditionally performed and these specifically were when there were more riots than normal. Especially at the start of James I reign, you saw competition between places like Trinity v St Johns.”

He's talking about Trinity at Cambridge, but also specific colleges within Oxford, referencing St. Johns, but also Christ's Church (pictured above) would compete against one another, not unlike sports teams today.

Robert’s paper indicates the very shape of the temporary stages constructed by universities for play performances was designed to control not only access but the audience member’s behavior, and to exploit the location of the gentry in the audience for a laugh. 

Robert explains,

“Most of these were held in the dining hall of the colleges. They would actual construct a theater in the hall for these performances. They had all these materials and build them with a raised stage on one end, adn then galleries surrounding the back and sides for elevated seating, then below in fron tof the stage people could stand or sit. At the universities, they would make the students be on the ground. The Ground lings” the back and sides are the officials, professors, president, chancellors, etc. Sometimes even lord mayor or civic authorities. They are in a place that they can see the play better, but they are also featured from the perspective of the stage. So they can create jokes about the divide in location.”

BECOME A MEMBER

Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

Books & Resources Robert Stefanek Recommends

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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