Script­ing sedi­tion

BBC History Magazine - - Shakespeare’s Plays - Was Shake­speare’s a thinly veiled swipe at the age­ing Queen El­iz­a­beth?

In 1595 Shake­speare be­gan work on a se­cond tetral­ogy of English his­tory plays cov­er­ing a pe­riod even ear­lier than his pre­vi­ous se­ries. His new cy­cle be­gan with Richard II (1367–1400), and ended in 1420, five years af­ter Henry V’s tri­umph at the bat­tle of Ag­in­court.

To­day Richard II is of­ten per­formed as the tragedy of the down­fall of a queru­lous poet-king who be­lat­edly dis­cov­ers his hu­man­ity af­ter his de­po­si­tion at the hands of Henry Bol­ing­broke, the fu­ture King Henry IV. But in the mid-1590s it en­gaged in a politically dan­ger­ous de­bate on the rights and wrongs of over­throw­ing a le­git­i­mate monarch. As Bol­ing­broke pre­pares to de­pose Richard, the bishop of Carlisle asks: “What sub­ject can give sen­tence on his king?”

When the play was first printed in 1597 the cli­mac­tic de­po­si­tion scene was miss­ing, sug­gest­ing that El­iz­a­beth’s cen­sors deemed it too provoca­tive. Invit­ing par­al­lels between the weak Richard and the el­derly El­iz­a­beth in the 1590s was cer­tainly dan­ger­ous. Others, such as the his­to­rian John Hay­ward, were ar­rested for com­par­ing El­iz­a­beth’s former favourite Robert Dev­ereux, 2nd Earl of Es­sex, to Henry IV. On the eve of Es­sex’s re­bel­lion against the queen, his sup­port­ers paid Shake­speare’s com­pany to per­form a play about Richard II at the Globe Theatre, to show the right­eous­ness of de­pos­ing a monarch like Richard – for ex­am­ple, El­iz­a­beth. Though the per­for­mance did not have the de­sired ef­fect of in­cit­ing re­bel­lion, a sub­se­quent anec­dote claimed that El­iz­a­beth knew ex­actly how her en­e­mies saw her, saying: “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”

Fiona Shaw plays Richard II in a 1995 pro­duc­tion. The play pon­ders the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for de­pos­ing a monarch, a topic too con­tentious for Queen El­iz­a­beth’s cen­sors

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