December 13, 2017
Essex Loses Head Over Richard IIOn this day in 1601, Shakespeare's Richard II was presented at the Globe playhouse, a performance especially arranged by those hoping to overthrow Queen Elizabeth the following day. Followers of the Earl of Essex had approached Shakespeare's Company the previous week with a promise of forty shillings to supplement ticket sales, so overcoming the Company's objections that the lines for Richard II were rusty and that a revival was unlikely to be popular. If the Saturday afternoon performance was poorly-attended, the Sunday morning rebellion was worse.
The rebels' hope that Richard II would inflame support for their cause was a long-shot, but not impossible. As a play about rebellion and king-killing it had certainly caused a stir in high places, as the deposition scene had been cut from early printings and prohibited on stage. Essex apparently loved the play, had often been seen applauding wildly at it, and was happy to be thought of by his followers as a Bolingbroke-type savior. Elizabeth was sixty-seven years old, and well aware that some had now cast her as a weakling, too vulnerable to the designs of her counselors -- "I am Richard II, know ye not that?" she is reported to have scoffed to one. Whether Essex had visions of taking the throne or of merely returning to a place at the Queen's right hand, he received no groundswell of support from the masses, play-going or otherwise. Rebellion day was disorganized to the point of looking foolish, and the Queen's supporters, forewarned by the previous afternoon's Richard II and similar signs, had little trouble containing the rebels' march through the streets. By that evening, Essex was barricaded in his house, burning as many documents as possible before being arrested; by the evening of February 24th, while Shakespeare's Company was performing a different play before Elizabeth at court, he was having his last meal.
The rebels' fate was not as bad as it could have been: as for most noblemen, their sentence of being "hanged by the neck and taken down alive - your bodies to be opened, and your bowels taken out and burned before your face: your bodies to be quartered - your heads and quarters to be disposed of at her Majesty's pleasure" was commuted to beheading only. Still, it was an ending a long way from what that they had imagined, and what Shakespeare's Richard received from Bolingbroke:
The King shall do it. Must he be depos'd?
The King shall be contented. Must he lose
The name of king? A God's name, let it go.
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figur'd goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave. . . .
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