The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1509 Wednesday, 14 September 2005
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Subject: The Rape Trial That Inspired Shakespeare
Revealed: the rape trial that inspired Shakespeare
By Cahal Milmo
Published: 14 September 2005
When Christopher Beeston, a contemporary of William Shakespeare,
appeared before one of London's most notorious courts in 1602 accused of
rape, he was doubtless worried about its impact on his reputation.
But what he could not have expected is that his brush with the law would
be immortalised by Shakespeare as the inspiration for Measure for
Measure, the playwright's tale of moral degradation and sexual hypocrisy.
Beeston, a jobbing Elizabethan actor who belonged, with Shakespeare, to
one of a number of fiercely competitive theatre companies, issued a
forthright denial that he had attacked Margaret White, a cloth worker's
widow, on Midsummer's night, leaving her pregnant.
Research into Elizabethan court records has revealed evidence that
suggests Shakespeare drew on the experience of Beeston and his chaotic
appearance before Bridewell Court in writing Measure for Measure, which
features a rapist and riotous court scenes.
Documents recounting the appearance of Beeston, who went on to become
one of 17th century London's leading impresarios and was not averse to
boasting of his sexual prowess, relate how his colleagues disrupted a
hearing as he protested his innocence.
Duncan Salkeld, a senior lecturer in English at University College
Chichester, who has spent nine years scouring the archive, said: "It is
inconceivable that Shakespeare did not know either of the allegations
against Beeston or the hearing that took place.
"It is also possible that he was at the hearing itself. We know
Beeston's 'confederates' were at the court, where they behaved extremely
badly. It therefore seems at least likely that this episode was in
Shakespeare's mind when Measure For Measure was written two years later."
[ . . . ]
Measure for Measure features a character called Lucio who admits making
a prostitute pregnant. One of the protagonists, Angelo, threatens to
rape another character. The play also contains a number of prison
scenes, including one in which a character is sent to jail for
"correction and instruction" - the motto of Bridewell.
[ . . . ]
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