…to the Afterlives of the Earl of Essex

Robert Devereux, the Second Earl of Essex, lived a short but eventful life as the final favorite of Elizabeth I—ultimately executed in February 1601 for treason.  In contrast, his afterlife has been long—although equally eventful and fascinating.  In a letter written to the Queen during his house arrest in May 1600, Essex anticipates his painful legacy:

The prating tavern haunter speaks of me as he lists; the frantic libeller writes of me what he lists; already they print me and make me speak to the world, and shortly they will play me in what forms they list upon the stage. The least of these is a thousand times worse than death.

Indeed, Essex has been printed, painted, and performed thousands of times since his death—with varying degrees of censure and sympathy.

This scholarly project tells the story of Essex’s myriad afterlives.  If a biography is the story of a life (and Essex has been the subject of at least four biographies and countless histories), then this project attempts to write the thanatography of his continuing legacy and significance post-mortem (after the word “thanatos,” meaning death).  For a brief account of Essex’s life, click on Who Was Essex? Or, for an interactive digital tour of his lifetime, you can visit the Essex LifeMap.

Our primary methodology and innovative feature of this project is to develop a digital timeline of those many representations of Essex and their contexts.  This Timeline captures, in a dynamic, interactive fashion, the myriad ways in which Essex—and, inevitably, Elizabeth also since their stories are so entangled—have been represented in the more than four centuries since their deaths.

Please click on Timeline to learn more about the design and function of the Essex Timeline “A Thousand Times Worse than Death” and to link directly to the Timeline.  You can also view the timeline prototype developed as a collaborative course project by Hank Dobin and his students in the winter of 2014: Semper Varia: Representations of Elizabeth.

The project has multiple goals: first, to collect, examine, and analyze the many representations of Essex during his lifetime and since; second, to juxtapose and find patterns of influence and historical significance in those varied texts; third, to study especially issues of gender bias, historical accuracy, and textual debts in those works; fourth, to examine the interplay between genre (including new genres such as Youtube videos), content, and message; fifth, to provide in-depth summaries and analyses of the works, and when appropriate, write longer essays on particularly important topics or themes.; sixth, to ponder the diachronic genesis of literature and history through this case study of one provocative figure; and finally, to consider the enduring fascination and multiple meanings of Essex over more than 400 years.

The scope of this project–that crosses centuries, genres, national boundaries, and languages–exceeds any one person’s efforts.  The Timeline presents an ideal opportunity to test one of the digital humanities’ greatest advantages: crowdsourcing.  We invite the wider scholarly and interested lay community to make direct contributions, comments, and (no doubt) corrections to the Timeline as it continues to evolve.  Instructions on how to contribute your expertise, ideas, and perspectives can be found on the Timeline itself.

This project, and the Timeline, are ongoing efforts of Hank Dobin, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Washington and Lee University.  For the past four years, talented W&L students have served as partners on the project.  During the summer of 2014, Christian von Hassell ’16, served as a research assistant; in summer 2015, Hannah Palmatary and Ben Gee, both class of 2018, were Summer Scholars contributing to the project.  Ceclia Weingart’19 was the Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow in 2016 and Allie Jue ’20 was a Summer Scholar in 2017.

Please feel free to contact Hank Dobin with comments or questions at hdobin@wlu.edu.


Play the 1603 Ballad “A Lamentable BALLAD on the Earl of ESSEX’s Death” to the tune of “Essex’s Last Good-Night”

[English Broadside Ballad Archive, UC Santa Barbara]