Lend Me Your Ears

Did Richard II Provoke an Elizabethan Rebellion?

Why Shakespearians are obsessed with one 1601 performance.

Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex.
Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

Due to an odd detail that came out during his trial, the short-lived, comically inept 1601 rebellion of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, looms large in the imagination of Shakespeare enthusiasts.

It turns out that the day before Essex and his allies tried to rally the city of London to support him, several of his men attended a public performance of a play. They not only commissioned this performance, but paid the company extra, likely because the play they were asking for was unpopular. That company was the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, most famous today for a writer/actor/shareholder named William Shakespeare. And the play? Signs point to Richard II, Shakespeare’s dramatization of the usurpation and murder of an unpopular ruler.

Richard II—which is the subject of the latest episode of Lend Me Your Ears—tells the story of the fall of King Richard and the rise of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke. Richard believes himself protected by God, since, as king, he is God’s chosen representative on earth. But after Richard assassinates his uncle and violates common law by disinheriting Henry, a breakaway faction of the nobility rise against him. Henry leads this group, and Richard eventually surrenders to him, losing the crown and his life.

During the mid-1590s, when Shakespeare was writing the play, it was not uncommon for people discontented with Queen Elizabeth to compare the two monarchs. Both tried to centralize power in the crown, both raised taxes, both fought unpopular wars in Ireland, both were effeminate, and both had had inconvenient relatives killed. So it wouldn’t be completely outlandish to believe that Essex’s allies might make the comparison, too—conveniently just in time for his revolt.

If you love Shakespeare, finding yourself obsessed with Essex is almost an inevitability, especially since the story of his rebellion comes with all the same complications that we encounter whenever we try to flesh out the story of Shakespeare’s life—many of the details are contested, their interpretation even more so. There’s no record of Shakespeare’s involvement in the events, or what he thought of them. There are narratives, and counternarratives, and probably counter-counternarratives. But we do know the events that led up to Essex’s rebellion, and we do know for certain that members of Essex’s faction commissioned the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform a play at the Globe.

In the years before his bungled uprising, the Earl of Essex was a dashing and popular public figure. As the stepson of one of the queen’s favorites, he had many opportunities to impress her and her inner circle, and he made good on them.

Before the age of 20, he had distinguished himself militarily in the Netherlands. He was made Master of Horse in 1587 before the age of 23, and he married the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, in 1590. A few years later, Elizabeth gave him a monopoly on sweet-wine tariffs, which made him rich, and appointed him to her Privy Council, making him one of her most important advisers. At the height of his fame and power, Essex was simultaneously one of England’s most famous noblemen and one of her most prominent military commanders.

It didn’t take too long for him to start squandering the goodwill that had built his fame and fortune, however. Essex was like the Elizabethan version of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast: As a specimen he was quite intimidating, but he was also none too bright. He was said to be overly familiar with the queen in public, and he ran afoul of two other members of her Privy Council, Robert Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh. By the late 1590s, the disputes on the council nearly led to open armed conflict between Essex and his rivals.

In 1599, Essex embarked on a military expedition to Ireland that ended in disaster, so much so that the queen expressly forbid Essex from returning to England. Instead of listening to her, Essex came back to try to plead his case, surprising Elizabeth in her bedchamber before she was properly dressed or bewigged. His mad attempt to win back the queen’s favor backfired royally (as it were), and his rivals on the council pounced. Accused of dereliction of duty in Ireland, he was placed under house arrest for a short period. In June 1600, he was stripped of his public offices and his precious sweet-wine tariff monopoly. And by February of the next year, he was dead.

In that intervening time, Essex was still enormously popular, particularly in London. But Essex’s men never actually devised a plan to help him, and they knew time was running out. Cecil was already on the prowl for new reasons to charge Essex for treason. They had to act, and soon.

Their efforts came to a head, and fell apart, in just a handful of days. On Thursday, Feb. 5, several of Essex’s men met with Augustine Phillips, an actor and company manager for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to sponsor a play at the Globe. The title of the play was never recorded, but a few people described the play in testimonies given at the trials of Essex’s crew. One described it as a play about Henry IV, another as a play about the deposing and killing of Richard II, and a third as “of King Harry the Fourth and of the killing of King Richard the Second.” This play was almost certainly Shakespeare’s Richard II, though we can’t know for sure. There are other plays about Richard and, given record keeping at the time, there could be plays about him that don’t survive to this day. But no matter what, if it told the story of Richard’s death, it was a play about dethroning a monarch who had lost the right to rule.

(A particular favorite alternative that scholars gravitate to is a lost stage adaptation of historian John Hayward’s treatise The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henry IV. But this play is a poor candidate for two reasons. First, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had less than 48 hours to put on the play in question. As a matter of practicality, whatever script they chose had to have been a part of their repertoire, and it’s unlikely they had two plays about King Richard lying around. Even if we disregard this, there’s an even bigger problem: At this moment in time, Hayward was in jail for writing the very treatise supposedly adapted into this play. It’s unlikely that the master of revels—the public figure who had approve all publicly shown plays—would’ve OK’d this provocative of a production, or that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would’ve risked performing it.)

No matter what the play was, several of Essex’s men attended its public performance on Saturday, Feb. 7, 1601. Later, they will be accused of using the play to foment rebellion. One of them, Sir Gelly Meyrick, will be hanged, drawn, and quartered for his part in commissioning the performance. Others who attended the meeting with Augustine Phillips, including Sir Charles Percy (a direct descendant of Northumberland, a character in the play) and Henry Wriothesley, one of Shakespeare’s early patrons, will be imprisoned.

The crown alleged that Essex’s men were trying to spread anti-Elizabeth propaganda in anticipation of attacking the queen. But it could also be true that Essex’s men just wanted to buck their spirits up by seeing a matinee of a play they liked, telling a story they felt a connection to, featuring characters based on their ancestors.

It all depends on what you think happened next, and why. The bare facts are that on the night of Feb. 7, Essex was summoned to the queen’s court. Afraid that he might be arrested or assassinated, he refused to go. The next morning, representatives of the court arrived at Essex’s house. He locked the officers in his bedchamber (either to protect them during a heated argument or to stop them from returning), gathered his men and some weapons, and took off for London.

Thus, the Earl of Essex’s rebellion began. Absent any plan, it was doomed from the start. Due to his popularity in the city, Essex appealed to the mayor of London for help. The mayor turned him down, so Essex turned next to rallying the people of London to his cause. One representative episode finds Essex knocking on the front door of Thomas Smythe, one of his great supporters in London, only for Smythe to try to escape out the back of his own home. By the end of the day, Essex and his men surrendered at Essex House.

The crown claimed Essex was trying to overthrow the queen. But according to Essex, his plan was to get officials in London to protect him and appeal to the queen on his behalf. He would then get her to finally choose him over his rivals on the council. It was a bold, desperate play—akin to Lloyd Dobler hoisting a boombox in the air as it plays “In Your Eyes”—but hardly an attempted coup.

Essex never confessed to trying to usurp Elizabeth, but did admit to different treasons: corresponding with James VI of Scotland about the succession, considering bringing an army back from Ireland and using it against his enemies, and inadvertently creating an opening for someone else to attack the queen.

Assuming you believe Essex about his plan, the performance of Richard II—which he did not attend—becomes fairly innocuous. If there never was a rebellion scheduled for Feb. 8, then a play performed on the Feb. 7 can’t be directly tied to it. If all Essex wanted to do was appeal directly to Elizabeth without Cecil and Raleigh around, then he wasn’t trying to convince the general public that she was a bad ruler and he’d make a great one.

If that was all Essex was trying to do, however, Richard II was a poor—and possibly quite damning—choice of entertainment. In Shakespeare’s telling, Henry Bolingbroke never says he wants to depose Richard and take his place. Instead, he returns to England to regain lands and titles improperly seized from him, and to act against Richard’s advisers, “the caterpillars of the commonwealth, which I have sworn to weed and pluck away.” When he plucks away two of these caterpillars by having them beheaded, he blames them for the loss of his lands, telling them, “You have misled a prince, a royal king … you did make him misinterpret me … whilst you have fed upon my signories.” Administering rough justice to Richard’s advisers doesn’t stop Henry from arresting Richard, taking the crown from him, imprisoning him, and eventually having him assassinated. It’s understandable that someone might wonder why locking Cecil and Raleigh up would stop Essex from doing the same thing.

Given that, the biggest surprise of the story may be how little trouble Shakespeare and his men got into. Augustine Phillips was questioned for his involvement, but the matter went largely un-investigated. In his book Soul of the Age, Jonathan Bate posits that perhaps Queen Elizabeth was in so little danger, there was no real need to probe further. So it may just be that this is one of many, many cases where people have tendentiously decided that a work by Shakespeare supports their political positions—and this is always a dangerous proposition when it comes to the Bard.

Shakespeare advanced his ideas and themes through opposition between equally weighted positions. His plays are extremely useful for understanding politics, for the way they dramatize the most important debates that still roil our society—this is why I wanted to do Lend Me Your Ears in the first place. But it’s extremely difficult—and often dishonest—to try to wrestle from his plays concrete prescriptions for action. If Essex’s men thought they were commissioning a straightforward paean to the glory of usurping bad rulers, they thought very wrong. While Richard II is hardly a defense of Richard, it also shows Henry Bolingbroke as fundamentally two-faced, and even includes the Bishop of Carlisle’s declaration that the Wars of the Roses are God’s punishment to England for usurping Richard:

The blood of English shall manure the ground,

And future ages groan for this foul act;

Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,

And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars

Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;

Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny

Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d

The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.

O, if you raise this house against this house,

It will the woefullest division prove

That ever fell upon this cursed earth.

Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,

Lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe!

In the end, it appears the crown held little grudge against the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare’s troupe even performed at court in front of Queen Elizabeth a few weeks after the rebellion on Feb. 24. Unless you believe the legend that the play they performed that night was also Richard II, which would make Queen Elizabeth about as ice cold a customer as one could imagine, it seems that Shakespeare’s reputation remained unscathed. As for Essex, he went to his death the next morning.

Subscribe to Lend Me Your Ears.