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Monday, September 10, 2018

Why Did Queen Elizabeth Fear Richard II So?

I have previously gone over evidence supporting an early date for Shakespeare’s Richard II in my “Shakespeare’s King Richard II as Prequel” [link]. There are other mysteries surrounding the play that are every bit as suggestive of a date of 1587 or ‘88.

Interestingly, the infamous “deposition scene” in the play, in which Richard concedes his unfitness for the crown, did not appear in the 1597 first quarto.  It did not appear until after Queen Elizabeth’s  death when the third quarto was published in 1608.  When the play was performed before the Essex plotters, however, the deposition scene was by no means new.  As many have noticed:

The " new additions " in the third quarto, which appear also in the succeeding editions, occur in act iv., scene 1, lines 154-318 inclusive. Though not printed during the life of Elizabeth, there can be little doubt that they formed part of the play as originally written; for they agree with the act in style and rhythm, and are the natural introduction to the Abbot's speech (line 321) : "A woeful pageant have we here beheld." Their suppression in the earlier editions was probably for fear of offending Elizabeth, who was very sensitive upon the subject of the deposition of an English sovereign.[1]

After Richard II was played before the  plotters Elizabeth is recounted to have told William Lambarde, the keeper of the records in the Tower, " I am Richard the Second; know ye not that?"

By all appearances, the Queen had somehow suffered a very unpleasant experience around the comparison of Richard to herself.  The arguments against his fitness for the crown would not necessarily have been the reason for her ferocious defensiveness.  That he could be deposed at all may have established an unbearable precedent.  Throughout her reign the fact that she was a woman had suggested to a wide range of Englishmen that she was unfit to rule and must be removed.

Two years before the Essex Rebellion

In 1599, Sir John Haywarde was severely censured in the Star Chamber, and committed to prison, for his "History of the First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry IV.," which contained an account of the deposition of Richard.[2]

It was dedicated to the Earl of Essex.  In it he described Richard’s faults, the foremost of which is the foremost accusation of the nobles in Shakespeare’s play.

to priuate men it was sufficient if themselues abstaine from wrong, but a prince must prouide that none do wrong vnder him: for by mainteining, or wincking at the vices of his officers, he maketh them his owne, and shal surely be charged therewith when first occasion doth serue against him.[3]

Richard’s fault, his usurpers repeatedly made clear, was that his advisers were egregiously corrupt personal friends who he had failed to correct.  In 1599, such passages could be (as they soon would be) construed as a demand that the Queen dismiss Robert Cecil, her right hand man, and replace him with the far more popular Essex.  In the end, this, Essex claimed, was the purpose of his rebellion.  Not to depose the Queen but to remove her corrupt advisers.

But Hayward was not likely the source of Elizabeth’s comment to Lambarde.  The first quarto of Shakespeare’s Richard II had been published some two years before Hayward.  That Hayward’s work agrees so completely with the play even suggests that he may have had the text beside him as he wrote.

What he didn’t have from the quarto was the deposition scene.  For some reason, two years before, the scene was already understood by the author to be too dangerous to publish.  It was so dangerous that it could only be published at the price of severe punishment.  Presumably, it could not be played at court, with or without the deposition scene, and could only be played in public with great care and without the scene.

But was it the cause of Elizabeth’s confidence that she was equated with Richard II among the intelligentsia of her kingdom?  Had the play so offended and frightened the Queen that Hayward suffered for it at a later date?  Had the Earl of Essex’s cohorts known the story of the fury the play caused upon its first being performed, and of the specific nature of the connection, real or imagined, between the Queen’s actions as monarch and those of Richard II?

[1] Shakespeare's Works. Edited by William J. Rolfe. Vol. VI. King John. King Richard II. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1884. 10.
[2] Ibid., 11.
[3] Hayward, John. The First Part of the Life And raigne of King Henrie the IIII. London: John Woolfe, 1599. 8-9.

  • Frederick Fleay's Metrical Table of Shakespeare's Plays. September 3, 2018. “What follows is the metrical table he presented to the New Shakespeare Society in an 1874 paper.[1]  The paper appears in the annual publications of Transactions for that year.  It is one of the great works of Shakespeare scholarship.”
  • Shakespeare’s King Richard II as Prequel. August 06, 2018. “It is for the same reason, more or less, that we must accept that Richard II was written before Henry V.  When the players replied to the Essex conspirators “that of King Richard as being so old and so long out of use” would not attract an audience, they were indeed referring to Shakespeare’s Richard II.  And they knew what they were talking about.”
  • Amurath III and The True Tragedy of Richard III. June 11, 2018. “So then, when Professor Mott honed this information, in his 1921 paper, the shock it created was not because verities were shattered.”
  • Check out the English Renaissance Article Index for many more articles and reviews about this fascinating time and about the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

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