On this weekend in early February 1601 Shakespeare’s play Richard II was famously performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in advance of the treacherous Essex rebellion. Just a few days later Augustine Phillips, the spokesman for Shakespeare’s company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was keen to distance them from the event when he was called to give evidence:
He sayeth that on Friday last, or Thursday, Sir Charles Percy, Sir Jocelyn Percy, and the Lord Mounteagle, with some three more, spake to some of the players in the presence of this examinant to have the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second to be played the Saturday next, promising to give them forty shillings more than their ordinary to play it. Where this examinant and his friends were determined to have played some other play holding that play of 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 examinatant and his friends were content to play it the Saturday and had their 40 shillings more than the ordinary for it and so played it accordingly.
The plotters must have hoped to so convince the audience of the need to get rid of their ruler that they would support the Earl of Essex when, the following day, he marched on the city. Phillips was determined to make it clear that the players were not involved with the plot, and indeed resisted the idea of putting on this old play. On Sunday 8 February Essex and his supporters took the Lord Chief Justice hostage, but the play had failed to arouse Londoners so by the end of the day the rebellion was completely quashed.
In a way it would be nice to think that Shakespeare’s plays were so influential that they could have inspired a rebellion. The story always makes me think of Hamlet, who suggests that seeing an action played out on stage could make a guilty person confess:
I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions. .
The results of the play scene are much less clear. While Claudius reacts to the playing out of the murder of old Hamlet, calling for lights and leaving the hall, it’s possible that the question of his guilt remains ambiguous, at least to Hamlet and the court. In modern productions of the play Claudius, the ultimate politician, often manages to imply he is insulted by Hamlet’s insinuation rather than giving anything away.
There was no such ambiguity for the Earl of Essex. At his trial he defended himself by protesting he had been in fear of his own life, and grovelled at the feet of the Queen who had shown him so much favour before. On this occasion the Queen must have felt she had no choice, and Essex was executed. The Earl of Southampton, tried at the same time as Essex, was lucky to be imprisoned in the Tower. Shakespeare must have felt closely involved: Southampton had been his patron, to whom he dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
There’s another reason for thinking that Essex might have been right in thinking the play of Richard II would be inflammatory. The Kentish antiquarian William Lambarde reported that he had, in August 1601, a conversation with the Queen in which she had said “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”, which has been taken as evidence for the power of the theatre in Elizabethan England. The authenticity of the report has been called into question in recent years. It would be sad to think that truth might get in the way of such a good story.