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