Shakespeare Solved ®


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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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Friday, December 6, 2013

Was Queen Elizabeth I Shakespeare’s Richard II?



“I am Richard II, no ye not that!!” -- Queen Elizabeth I, August 1601

I just saw David Tennant as Richard II in Gregory Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play, staged in Stratford-upon-Avon.

David Tennant as Richard II, 2013

In Act II, scene ii the character Bushy tries to comfort Queen Isabel, who is in grief. She misses her husband, Richard II, who is fighting the rebels in Ireland.
Bushy consoles her:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow's eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects;
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form

Bushy shows her a very device, a mirror in the shape of a cylinder. He places it on a sheet of colored paper, and the reflection on the mirror reveals the image of a deer.
Here is an example:

The image on the paper becomes a Column in the mirror.


Shakespeare is saying that if you look at the paper then you see "confusion" but if you look "awry" or at the mirror then you see the real "form."
Shakespeare is making the point that if you look at something directly it makes no sense. If you look at it “awry” then it reveals its true form or meaning.
This trick of looking at something “awry” reminded me of what I wrote about earlier having to do with Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa.

Is she smiling or not?

If you look at this famous painting directly, then you can’t tell if she is smiling or not. If you look at the painting from “awry” then you can clearly see that she is smiling.

Looked at "awry" she is clearly smiling.


This artistic trick is called Anamorphosis, which means to transform a shape. It was quite popular in Renaissance art, perhaps most famously with the Mona Lisa, but also with the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger. 

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, 1537

Holbein of course was famous for his work in England, especially the portraits of the royalty, including King Henry VIII.
One of his most famous works was The Ambassadors. It has a strange image at the bottom in the center. 

The Ambassadors by Holbein. Notice the strange image at the bottom center of the painting?

If you look at the painting "awry" you will see a skull.

What does the skull mean?
It is a reminder of death, and the fact that our lives are short.
When Hamlet speaks to the skull of Yorick, it serves the same purpose.

David Tennant as Hamlet, 2009


When Shakespeare wrote Richard II, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Anamorphosis was well known. 
Why is Shakespeare mentioning Anamorphosis? What does it have to do with a play about the deposing and murder of King Richard II?
I have seen the play on stage and on screen. Each version only looks at the story and the characters directly, as if it is factual history.
But what if we look at the play “awry?”
Shakespeare wrote the play in about 1595. By this point in his career, he was the greatest playwright in London.
He was friends with the Earls of Essex and Southampton, and he was already writing plays for them. Southampton is commonly considered to be the Fair Youth in the Sonnets.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex


Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1595 for Southampton, when he was married in secret,  against Queen Elizabeth’s command.

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton

When the Queen learned about his marriage, she had Southampton and his new wife put in Fleet Prison, even while Southampton’s wife was pregnant!
Essex was executed for plotting to depose Queen Elizabeth, in his failed Essex Rebellion on 8 February 1601.
The night before the Essex Rebellion, Shakespeare and his fellow actors performed Richard II again, perhaps for the very first time since 1595. 
The Essex conspirators hoped the play would inspire the public to rise up with them the very next day during the Rebellion. This plan did not work, and the public did not join the Rebellion, which was quickly crushed by the Queen.
So, what did the play mean in 1595 and in 1601?
In 1595, the Earl of Essex was the Queen’s Favorite,  and he was arguably the most powerful and influential man in her court. 

Queen Elizabeth in 1595


For Shakespeare, he could not have chosen a better man than Essex to be his artistic patron and friend.
By 1595, Essex already had ambitions to succeed the Queen, and become the King of England after she died.
But the Queen had made it illegal to discuss the question of who would succeed her on the throne.
She also would punish, and in some cases perhaps even kill anyone (like Ferdinando Stanley) who wanted to succeed her. 
The Queen was quite popular with many people in the country. But she was also a tyrant to others, like in the case of Southampton and his wife.
Some people might accuse her, in the same way that John of Gaunt accuses Richard II, of destroying England.
John of Gaunt accuses Richard of turning the “scepter’d isle” of England, this “other Eden, this demis-paradise”  into a “leased out” “tenement.”

Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt, 2013


Shakespeare may be directly referring to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the royal seizure of lands and wealth started by Queen Elizabeth’s father King Henry VIII.
If we consider the play in this context, is Queen Elizabeth really Shakespeare's King Richard II?
Is it possible to think otherwise? 
Why else would Essex have wanted the play to be performed the night before his Rebellion? 
Was the play a weapon, or propaganda, against Queen Elizabeth?
In 1595, the play could be considered a sheathed weapon. It was a threat that Essex made to the Queen. He was reminding her that she would die, and he was suggesting it could be at his hand.
If Elizabeth was upset by the play in 1595, Essex could dismiss her worries, her grief, by saying that the play was merely a depiction of the story of King Richard II and nothing more. 
When Anamorphosis is mentioned in the play, it is almost as if to say that the play is both a weapon and not a weapon. It depends on how you look at it. I found this drawing of a dagger as a visual example:



But by 1601, Essex had dropped all pretense, and he unsheathed this weapon.
He had this Richard II play performed to directly attack Queen Elizabeth.
A few months after the Essex Rebellion, Elizabeth was quoted as saying “I am Richard II, no ye not that?”

Queen Elizabeth, circa 1601


She was no fool. She knew all along that Shakespeare's play was a weapon.
Why didn't she punish Shakespeare, by puttting him in jail or executing him?
Was it because he was innocent?
Or was it because he was too influential, too significant a public person to do away with?
In the course of my reading and writing about Shakespeare, I have come to learn that he was not just merely a playwright who enjoyed some success in his own lifetime. 
He was popular, famous, and powerful to a degree that even the Queen of England would not and could not be rid of him.
Cheers,
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