Stage and State: The Censorship of Richard II

By Ruth Underhill


The Earl of Essex
The early stage history of Richard II includes a fascinating piece of evidence that shows how the drama of the time was considered to be powerful in a political sense. A play that dramatized the deposing of a king was seen as so potentially subversive to the state that the first three edition of Richard II were published without the abdication scene: it was censored. All plays had to be approved by the Master of the Revels--a Court appointee--before performance or publication. The story of Shakespeare's involvement (however marginal) in a famous rebellion of his time follows . . .

The essay that follows was researched and written by Ruth Underhill as part of the course on Shakespeare by Individual Studies, 1995; it is reprinted here with her permission. While copyright is retained by Ruth Underhill and the University of Victoria, this material may freely be used for educational and non-profit purposes, so long as the author and source are cited.

Please remember that plagiarism is not research.

Richard II, was more than simple entertainment when it was first performed. It played an active political role in the Essex Rebellion of 1601. The rebellion was touched off, in part, by the elderly Queen's refusal to name an heir, but there were other complex issues at stake. At the end of the 16th century, Elizabeth, like Richard II, "was criticized for having abdicated many of her powers in favour of [her advisors] Cecil and Raleigh" (de Chambrun 189). Robert Cecil and Walter Raleigh were particular enemies of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, a longtime favorite of Queen Elizabeth, and a close friend of the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron. The plot thickens. . .

In the spring of 1599 Essex was sent to Ireland, along with Southampton, to strengthen the position of the English government in that unruly province. Shakespeare seems to have admired the dashing Essex, and explicitly compared him to the renowned Henry V, hoping that he would return from Ireland as successfully as Henry returned from the Battle of Agincourt in France:

But now behold,
In the quick forge and working house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens!
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort--
Like to the senators of th' antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels--
Go forth and fetch their conqu'ring Caesar in;
As, by a lower but by loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress
(As in good time he may) from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him!

(Henry V 5. 1. 22-34)

However, Essex's return was less than triumphant. De Chambrun writes, "Although [Essex] succeeded in imposing conditions which were on the whole advantageous to the Crown--later, the same conditions were accepted by Elizabeth after years of costly war--he was accused of having intelligence with the enemy" (226).

Essex returned to England to face his accusers, riding directly to the Palace in Westminster to seek assurance of the Queen's confidence and support. Elizabeth, her suspicions fanned by Essex's enemies, had the impetuous Earl arrested. Over the next year and a half, Essex was imprisoned or kept under close watch. In August of 1600 he was made to stand trial for his actions in Ireland and was charged with plotting against Elizabeth. Urged to beg the Queen's forgiveness, Essex issued this haughty reply.

When the vilest of all indignities are done unto me, doth religion enforce me to sue? Cannot princes err? Cannot subjects receive wrong? Is an earthly power infinite? Pardon me, pardon me, my Lord! I can never subscribe to these principles. Let Solomon's fool laugh when he is struck. Let those that mean to make their profit of Princes show no sense of Prince's injuries.

As for me I have received wrong. My cause is good and whatever comes all the powers on earth can never show more constancy in oppressing than I can in suffering whatsoever can or shall be put upon me.

(qtd. in de Chambrun 227-8)

By the beginning of 1601, Essex and a group of supporters had determined to resolve his difficulties and to rid Elizabeth of corrupt counselors in one move. They planned to storm the Palace, arrest Essex's enemies, and proclaim, "Long live the Queen and after her, long live King James of Scotland, only legitimate heir to the English throne" (Chambrun 229). To generate support for the rebellion amongst Londoners, Essex's supporters arranged for Richard II to be played the day before the rebellion. During Essex's trial, Augustine Phillipps, one of the principal actors in Shakespeare's company, gave this account of the transaction.
He saith that on Friday last was sennight [a week ago] or Thursday Sir Charles Percy Sir Jocelyne Percy and the Lord Montague with some three more spake to some of the players in the presence of this examinate to have the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second to be played the Saturday next promising to get them xls. [forty shillings] more then their ordinary to play it. Where this Examinate and his fellows were determined to have played some other play, holding that play King Richard to be so old and so long out of use as that they should have small or no Company at it. But at their request this Examinate and his fellows were Content to play it the Saturday and had their xls. more than their ordinary for it and so played it accordingly.

(Chambers W. S. 2: 325)

Sunday dawned and the Earl marched into the streets with his followers. But the play had failed to stir up support for Essex, and worse, news of his plan had been leaked to his enemies. Essex and his men met with armed resistance at the Palace and were forced to withdraw. They retreated to Essex House where they were besieged for a few hours before giving themselves up to arrest.

On February 19, the Earl of Essex and his supporters were made to stand trial for their crimes. It is ironic that the play Essex's supporters hoped would raise awareness in London of the corruption surrounding Elizabeth should be used as evidence against them. But that is exactly what happened. Edward Coke, one of the prosecuting attorneys, argued,

I protest upon my soul and conscience I do believe she should not have long lived after she had been in your power. Note but the precedents of former ages, how long lived Richard the Second after he was surprised in the same manner? The pretense was alike for the removing of certain counsellors, but yet shortly after it cost him his life."

(Chambers 2:325)


Elizabeth II

On the 23th of February, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was beheaded. There is no direct evidence that Shakespeare's Company was ever punished for its part in the Rebellion. Some historians think that the actors were told to leave London for a period of time, but the Company played again for Elizabeth in December of 1601. The Queen had the last word in this affair, as an excerpt from a conversation between Elizabeth and the historian, William Lambarde, shows. Examining some antiquated historical documents, "her Majesty fell upon [one entitled] the reign of King Richard II, saying `I am Richard II. know ye not that?' " (Chambers 2:327).

Works Cited

  1. Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930. PR2894/C44.
  2. De Chambrun, Clara Longworth. Shakespeare: A Portrait Restored. New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 195-? PR2896/C46.

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This page last updated 26 February 1966