On 19 August 1399, King Richard II was surrendered to Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle and was deposed.
For several years before that, the government was in turmoil.
Some of his courtiers had grown in power until the government was taken over. King Richard regained control, and for a time there was relative peace. But then he began to execute and exile many of his opponents.
Henry Bolingbroke, one of the exiles, invaded England, forced Richard to abdicate his throne, and claimed the throne for himself, crowning himself King Henry IV.
The real historical story of these events is quite fascinating.
But what did the story of King Richard II mean to Shakespeare?
Shakespeare wrote his Richard II play in around 1595, at a time when Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was his friend and patron.
|Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex|
They were the two most powerful men at court, and when William Cecil died in 1598, his son Robert became the single most powerful person in England. I consider him more powerful than the Queen herself, since she would not have been able to exercise her power without him.
Essex and his supporters, including that other great patron of Shakespeare’s, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, believed that the Queen was giving too much power to the Cecils, and others, like her spymaster Francis Walsingham.
So, Essex, Southampton and others feared that Queen Elizabeth was making the same mistake that Richard II had made. It should not come as a surprise then that Shakespeare, employed by Essex, would write a cautionary play about trusting the wrong courtiers.
As the years went by, Essex lost most of his ground at court with Elizabeth. He had once been her “favourite” and by 1600 he was a threat to her.
In the beginning of 1601, Shakespeare and his company were paid an unusually large sum of money to perform the Richard II play again on a specific date -- 7 February.
Shakespeare did perform the play, and the very next day, Essex led a rebellion with upwards of 300 men from the finest families in England.
In the days that followed, as Essex was captured, imprisoned, tried and then executed, Shakespeare and his players continued to perform the Richard II play.
Why? What did the play mean to Essex and Shakespeare?
It is commonly believed that the 7 February performance was an attempt to gain widespread support for the rebellion, and spark a popular uprising.
But why then did Shakespeare perform it after the rebellion failed?
I would argue that he was trying to curry sympathy for Essex with the public and persuade Queen Elizabeth to spare his life. If the audiences turned out to see the play, which they did, then that was a clear indication that the public loved Essex, despite what he did.
It didn’t sway Elizabeth, and she sentenced him to death. He was executed on 25 February, beheaded at Tower Green.
|The Tower Green, Site of the Scaffold where Essex was beheaded|
It is unclear if the Richard II play was performed once the sentence of execution was declared, and after the execution itself.
If it was, then it may have been a form of protest against such a harsh punishment.
The fact that Shakespeare would perform the play under such circumstances would suggest that Essex was loved by the public more than we think. Even though his rebellion was unsuccessful and it did not spark a popular uprising, that does not mean that the public was not on his side.
In fact, Queen Elizabeth did not sentence anyone else to death for the rebellion. Many, like Southampton, were imprisoned.
Shakespeare's efforts, in performing Richard II, and keeping public pressure on the court, may have saved their lives.
There is one great mystery at the center of the Essex Rebellion. What did Essex intend to do to Queen Elizabeth?
Did he want to kill her? Did he want her to abdicate, like Richard II? Did he want to exile her? Did he merely want an opportunity to speak against the Cecil faction?
If the Richard II play and the historical story of King Richard II is any indication, then Essex may have considered himself another Henry Bolingbroke. He may have wanted to depose Queen Elizabeth, and claim the throne for himself.
We may never know the full truth of the events surrounding the Essex Rebellion, but from what we do know, William Shakespeare took a tremendous risk in having not only written the Richard II play but in having performed it at such an important moment in England's history.
In reading and learning about the life of William Shakespeare, it is not often that he is described as brave or courageous. But he was.
Not only for his Richard II, play but in taking an even greater risk later in 1601 by turning the tragic events of the Essex Rebellion into his greatest masterpiece, Hamlet.
David B. Schajer
Was Queen Elizabeth I Shakespeare's Richard II?
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