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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Richard II's Death and A Plea for Essex's Life

King Richard II died on 14 February 1400 at Pomfret (or Pontefract) Castle.

The exact cause of his death is unknown. He might have just starved to death while in prison.

Shakespeare in his Richard II play has the king killed, murdered by Sir Piers Exton, in a thrilling fight at the end of the play.

It would seem that Shakespeare was less interested in history than he was in box-office receipts. I doubt anyone would have paid good money to watch King Richard slowly die of starvation on stage.

As I have written before, this particular play holds a special place in the history of theatre, and of the history of England.

It was this play, about overthrowing and killing a king, that was performed the night of 7 February 1601, the night before the Essex Rebellion.

It was meant as some sort of signal to the public that they should rise up and join the Earl of Essex in his fight against the Queen and her court.

The Rebellion failed before it really began.

Essex and most of his fellow conspirators were captured and put in prison awaiting trial.

What did Shakespeare do in the days immediately after the Essex Rebellion? What was happening in London on this day, in 1601?

I have found evidence to suggest that Shakespeare did not hide, or run back to Stratford perhaps until this storm blew over.

Essex had paid Shakespeare and his company 40 shillings over their usual rate to perform Richard II at The Globe the night before the Rebellion. One performance and one performance only.

But why then did Shakespeare continue to perform the play, day after day, week after week -- for 40 performances?

If this is true, that Shakespeare and the other Lord Chamberlain's Men continued to perform the play -- then it would suggest that the  general public was alarmed and upset by the Rebellion and the arrest of the plotters.

Essex and many of the men arrested with him, like Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, were very popular. They were loved by many across England.

Shakespeare and his fellow actors must have thought that there was money to be made in performing it, and that the public sentiment was with them, and with Essex.

Was Shakespeare trying to keep the embers of anger and fear kindled, and turn them into into flames of violence and rebellion against the Queen? I doubt it.

I think it is more likely that Shakespeare was trying to send a message to the Queen and her court that the public was upset, and while Essex and his co-conspirators were wrong, they should not be punished too severely.

Shakespeare and the public at large would not have dared to march on the Tower and hold vigils outside, to protest the imprisonment of Essex and the others. That would have been too risky, and might have led to violence.

The Tower, and Traitor's Gate

Theatres, especially The Globe, were one of the few places where the public could gather freely.

Shakespeare's play, with the public gathered together, was a form of protest.

If there really were 40 performances, then it would indicate that there were many in the public who wanted to express their dissent. I would imagine that The Globe was full for every last performance.

From the point of view of the Queen, it would have been unwise to arrest Shakespeare and his actors, and close the theatres.

She must have wanted to contain the problem. She had arrested Essex and the conspirators. To arrest more people might backfire on her, and she have faced a popular insurrection. She might accidentally give Essex exactly what he wanted.

From her point of view, it would have been better to let the matter lose energy, and die.

But the biggest question facing her was what to do with Essex?

While she was struggling with that question, Shakespeare was filling The Globe and performing a play about deposing and killing a king.

It was perhaps the greatest risk Shakespeare ever took in his life.

For all we know, the idea of performing his Richard II play again after the Rebellion might have come to Shakespeare today -- 412 years ago today, on 14 February 1601.

It would have been the 201st anniversary of Richard II's death.

Shakespeare may have used this anniversary as a pretext for performing the play one more time.

And one more time turned into even more performances -- and before he knew it, they had performed the play nearly 40 times!


David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Shakespeare's Richard II on 7 February 1601

Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Essex Rebellion

Books on Google Play

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