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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Shakespeare's Richard II on 7 February 1601

This is the Part Two in a series of stories about the Essex Rebellion. The other Parts are:

1. Shakespeare in January 1601

3. Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Essex Rebellion

4. Shakespeare and the Essex Trial

5. Shakespeare and the Essex Execution

Part Two:

William Shakespeare must have been very anxious on the morning of 7 February 1601.

He probably didn't sleep very well. There were so many thoughts going through his head that he would not have known how to calm himself.

His mind probably switched from hope to despair, and back again. Over and over again.

What would happen in the next few hours and days could change his entire life.

Or doom it.

Hope and despair. Hope and despair.

It was exhausting to think, so he probably tried to go about his daily routine as much as possible. He would go to the Globe earlier than usual, to surround himself with the closest friends he had in London, the actors in his company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

But if peace and quiet was what he was looking for, then he wouldn't find it with them. They were probably even more anxious and scared than he was.

They must have had a million questions for Shakespeare: are we doing the right thing? Should we close the theatre today? Should we keep it closed for a few days? What if we get in trouble? What if it all goes wrong?

What if we go to prison? Or worse? What if we are... ?

Thomas Kyd had been tortured, and he died not long after. Christopher Marlowe had been questioned, and he died under suspicious circumstances, probably killed by agents of the Queen.

Torture. Murder. Execution.

These thoughts were too terrible to think. They probably couldn't even say the words out loud.

Richard Burbage, Henry Condell, Augustine Philips, and the rest were all probably full of hope and despair in equal measure, and nothing they could do would calm their nerves.

The knew what play they had to perform that day. And they must have known what it would mean.

The play was Richard II.

It was about a king who is overthrown and killed.

The Death of Richard II by Francis Wheatley

The play was about 5 or 6 years old, and probably had not been performed in quite some time.

It was not unusual to recycle older plays, but this was an unusual situation.

They were being paid to perform the play. And the play had to be performed that day, 7 February.

They were paid by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. He was Shakespeare's patron.

If Shakespeare had even a moment to reflect on the situation he now found himself in, he probably thought of Essex and what had led such a great man to such a desperate moment.

Essex had not long ago been the Queen's Favorite, her most beloved courtier. She had showered him with love, money, property, and power.

Essex had proven his worth as a military hero, in the sacking of Cadiz, Spain for example. The people loved him. He was young, smart, and obviously a worthy successor to the throne, should the Queen pass away, as she was now nearing the end of her life.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

But that it is exactly why the Queen started to withdraw love, money, property from Essex, and diminish his power.

He was frantic and did everything he could to win back her affection.

He insisted on leading an army to fight in the never-ending war with the Irish.

Shakespeare had even written his Henry V play in order to win popular support for Essex -- so the public would see Essex as the same kind of victorious leader that Henry V had once been.

But Essex was not victorious. And smart as he was, he was not wise. He knighted many young soldiers in Ireland, and the Queen couldn't help but see that as a threat. She couldn't afford to have him march back to London and demand the throne.

He came home in shame and his fall from her grace was as spectacular as his rise.

He was put on trial and sentenced to house arrest. His home, Essex House, on the Strand, was his prison.

He started plotting his revenge almost immediately and by January 1601, he had gathered upwards of 300 young, smart and powerful men to his house.

They came with weapons.

If Shakespeare reflected on all of this, he would have been sad by these turn of events. Essex and Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton were his greatest patrons, and had many a day seen his plays at the Theatre, then later at the Globe.

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton

Shakespeare wrote many plays in their honor, and while he supported them in good times and bad, today was a different story.

Shakespeare had stayed away from Essex House in the last few weeks. It was too dangerous, and the mood there was becoming more grim by the day.

Essex and Southampton had asked him to perform Richard II today.


It seemed like everything that Shakespeare had worked for, all of the years of toiling as an actor and writer, a share holder in the theatre company, selecting costumes and paying the bills to keep the doors open -- not to mention all of the sleepless nights when the plague closed the theatres and he didn't know if they would ever open again, or if he would get the plague himself and die for that matter -- were coming down to this day, 7 February.

Shakespeare considered the sacrifices he had made -- he was away from his wife and children for months at a time. Worst of all he was not there when his wife needed him the most, when his son Hamnet was sick and dying.

Shakespeare was now almost 37 years old. He was neither old, nor very young anymore. His hopes and dreams for a better future were slipping away from him with each passing day.

But today, 7 February, was arguably the one last chance he had to see a better tomorrow.

He would put on Richard II. He would play his part and stir up the crowd, and send them the signal that kings can and do abuse their power. Kings can be overthrown. Kings can even be killed.

The audience would get the point.

With any luck, they would understand what would happen over the next few days, was not only inevitable but also just.

Shakespeare was hopeful that there would be no violence. But he was not so naive to think that some would be killed.

He just hoped that it didn't turn into a bloodbath, like the St. Bartholomew's Massacre in France, where violence spread like a virus and so many thousands of people died.

He did not think that Essex would go so far as to hurt, let alone kill the Queen. Essex's real target was Robert Cecil, the Queen's right hand man, and the most powerful person -- even more powerful than the Queen herself at this point.

Cecil had been a corrupting influence at court, and Essex wanted him gone.

Robert Cecil

Shakespeare probably didn't like thinking about Cecil, but who could ignore this small hunchbacked man who wielded so much power and was setting the country on a path away from religious toleration and towards more religious violence.

Shakespeare's own Richard III play was modeled after Cecil, but it had not done enough to swing popular opinion into a popular action to remove him from power.

Shakespeare had to focus on today, and not reflect anymore on the past.

He and his company of actors would rehearse the play Richard II quickly and efficiently.

They didn't have much time. They had to perform the play at 2pm.

The crowds would be waiting, the crowds would be excited as they always are. They never knew what exactly would be performed, or how it would be performed. No two shows were ever quite the same.

And today they would have an even greater surprise in store for them.

With every beat of his heart, Shakespeare would hope for success, and despair of his fate. Hope and despair.

In a matter of days he would be celebrating a victory, or face a punishing defeat.

One thing was certain, his life would never be the same after 7 February 1601.


David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Was Queen Elizabeth I Shakespeare's Richard II?

Shakespeare in January 1601

James Shapiro at the Folger Shakespeare Library -- in reference to Henry V and Essex

Folger Shakespeare Theatre's Henry V

Henry V and Essex

Southampton and the Real Romeo and Juliet

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