In the spring or summer of 1599, the Chorus of Henry V, in Shakespeare’s only explicit reference to a contemporary politician, looked forward to the return of the 33-year-old Earl of Essex from his campaign in Ireland, ‘bringing rebellion broached on his sword’ – a light touch from which some heavy inferences have been drawn. Instead, the Earl returned in disgrace in September and was placed under house arrest. In June 1600 he was interrogated and rebuked by a special commission of statesmen and lawyers. He was released in August, but remained suspended from the exercise of his offices and was denied access to the Queen. By January 1601, when Essex House in the Strand had become a magnet to the discontented, he believed that the rivals who now commanded Elizabeth’s favour were bent not only on manipulating the Queen to their advantage and the nation’s disadvantage, but on his own destruction. Only a pre-emptive strike, he concluded, could save him. On Sunday, 8 February, he set out to raise the city of London as a prelude to capturing the Court, not in order to overthrow the monarch – few Tudor risings had that aim – but to restore his influence in her counsels. The ensuing fiasco was over by nightfall. By the next morning Essex was in the Tower.
On the afternoon of Saturday, 7 February, the day before the rising, eleven or so of his followers, having eaten at ‘one Gunter’s house over against Temple gate’, crossed the Thames to watch a play performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s men – Shakespeare’s company, though we cannot say whether he was among the performers – at the Globe Theatre. On the previous day, or possibly the day before that, a group of them had approached ‘some of the players’ and asked them to perform a particular play on the Saturday: a play that had been performed at some point in the past by (it would seem) the same company. The actors were reluctant. They had, they replied, fixed on another play for the Saturday, and if they substituted the one proposed to them ‘they should have small or no company’ – audience – ‘at it.’ The objection was overcome by the offer of £2 above the box-office take – more, it has been estimated, than the normal yield of a full house. The play was duly performed.
What was the play? Five descriptions of it survive from the Government’s interrogations, prosecutions and apologias in the wake of the rising. Though they are all brief, there is a reassuring degree of common ground between the statements of the Government’s agents and those of the men they questioned or tried. First, there are notes prepared by the prosecutors of the rebels. They refer to the play twice, both times as ‘the play of Henry 4’. Second, from 17 February there survives the signed testimony of Sir Gelly Meyrick, Essex’s old and close friend, who had been one of the instigators of the performance and was among those executed after the rebellion. ‘The play,’ he averred, ‘was of King Harry the 4th, and of the killing of King Richard II.’ Third, on 18 February, one of the players, Augustine Phillips, in signed testimony given under oath, described the play as ‘the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II’. Fourth, at Meyrick’s trial on 5 March, the Attorney-General, Sir Edward Coke, asserted that ‘the story of Henry IV being set forth in a play, and in that play there being set forth the killing of the King upon the stage’, Meyrick and his fellows had had ‘the play of Henry IV’ performed. Finally, a Government declaration of April 1601, drafted by Sir Francis Bacon and revised by the Queen and leading councillors, described the piece as ‘the play of deposing King Richard II’.
Almost without exception, biographers and critics and editors suppose that the play was Shakespeare’s Richard II. The life of Essex in the Dictionary of National Biography says so. The first person to assemble (almost all) the evidence – invaluably – was E.K. Chambers in 1930. He cannot be said to have analysed it. There could, he was content to observe, be ‘little doubt’ that the play was Shakespeare’s Richard II; from which oracular ruling a hardening tradition has developed. A number of recent commentators, Stephen Greenblatt among them, state that the play was ‘almost certainly’ Shakespeare’s. Others are more confident still. Shakespeare’s recent biographers Park Honan and Katherine Duncan-Jones take it for granted that the play was his. Andrew Gurr, in editing Richard II, ‘assumes’ that it was, and the same assumption is made by the editors of the Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare and the editor of the new Arden edition of the play. Leeds Barroll, who has looked harder at the episode than anyone else and has perceptively exposed a number of misconceptions about it, suspends his spirit of inquiry in stating that the play was ‘presumably Shakespeare’s’.
If it was, then the episode is a godsend for critics eager to involve Shakespeare’s writing in the politics of his time. Contemporary critics, Greenblatt and Jonathan Dollimore at their head, draw bold inferences from it. In widely influential works they describe the performance at the Globe as a ‘famous attempt to use the theatre to subvert authority’; as a move ‘to wrest legitimation from the established ruler’; as an effort to ‘encourage’ or ‘incite rebellion against Elizabeth, thereby associating Shakespeare with their treason’; and as evidence that ‘subordinate, marginal or dissident elements could appropriate dominant discourses and . . . transform them’. In my view both those claims and their premises are questionable. Instead of establishing true connections between literature and politics, the determination to ‘politicise’ Shakespeare has, in this case, obscured them. The episode of 7 February 1601 demonstrates the existence of such connections – but in ways that have nothing to do with him.
The sole reason for taking the play to have been Shakespeare’s is an inadequate one. His Richard II is the only surviving play of the period to represent the King’s deposition and death. Yet our knowledge of the theatrical repertories of the time is very incomplete. Roslyn Knutson has shown that, between 1594 and 1612, there is not a year in which we can name even half the plays performed by Shakespeare’s company. A high proportion of the plays of the period were history plays; no historical subject was of livelier interest in Elizabeth’s last years than Richard’s overthrow; and there is no likelier a subject of a missing play or plays. We happen to know, from the diary of Simon Forman, that a play acted by that company in 1611 was called, or at least was about, ‘Richard II’. From Forman’s description the play was plainly not Shakespeare’s – or the play performed on 7 February 1601.
Do the descriptions of the February performance answer to Shakespeare’s play? Would we expect to find his Richard II called ‘the play of Henry 4’, ‘the play . . . of King Harry the 4th’ or ‘the story of Henry IV’? However much prominence a production were to give to Bolingbroke it would be odd to give the play his royal name – the more so since Shakespeare had written two ‘plays of Henry IV’ (neither of which can be the play in question, for they do not cover Richard’s fall). Would we even expect to find Shakespeare’s Richard II described as ‘the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II’, or ‘the play . . . of the killing of Richard II’, or ‘the play of deposing King Richard II’? The abdication covers only a portion of Shakespeare’s canvas, and it is not even certain that his lines portraying it, which were first printed under James I, had been written by 1601 (though it has suited some critics to assert, without evidence, that they were ‘censored’). The Government prosecutors, admittedly, had good reason to emphasise the enactment of Richard’s overthrow, which they took as evidence of the rebels’ seditious intent. But Coke and Bacon were only reproducing the testimony supplied by Meyrick and Phillips, who had no such motive.
The only play that could fit the surviving descriptions of it would be one that both centred on the deposition and killing of Richard and could accurately be called ‘the play of Henry IV’. Such a play existed, and it was not Shakespeare’s. It was the dramatisation of a book; and though the play does not survive, the book does. John Hayward’s The First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry IV was published in February 1599. It begins with the reign of Richard II, and reaches the end of the first year of Henry’s reign. As its printer John Wolfe remarked: ‘No book ever sold better.’ Though many ‘exceptions’ were ‘taken’ to it, it was allowed to circulate freely for four months. By the early summer a thousand copies had been sold and, ‘the people calling for it exceedingly’, a second edition, of 1500 copies, was prepared. Then, in early June, a nervous Government clamped down on politically sensitive writing. The second edition was called in and burned.
Thereafter, though ‘a great number’ of readers looked for the book, its impact on the public mind declined. But it became of increasing interest to the Government, and especially to Essex’s enemies within it. It had been dedicated to him, and though he seems not to have sanctioned that step, his adversaries were determined to link him to the publication. In July 1600, Hayward was lengthily interrogated about the contents and purpose of the book, charged with treasonous intent, and sent to the Tower, where he would remain at least until December 1602. On 22 January 1601, two weeks before the Globe performance, he was again lengthily interrogated.
The connection between Hayward’s book and the stage is established in a document among the State Papers, apparently written in or around July 1600 on the initiative of Attorney-General Coke, and listing a number of allegations against Essex. Among them is the charge (whose meaning is clearer than its syntax) of ‘underhand permitting that most treasonable book of Henry IV to be printed and published, being plainly deciphered, not only by the matter and the epistle’ – the dedication – ‘thereof, for what end and for whose behoof it was made, but also the earl himself being so often present at the playing thereof, and with great applause giving countenance and liking to the same’. In other words, Hayward’s book had been dramatised, and Essex – at what venue or venues, and in what company, we cannot know – had watched, and given endorsement to, the dramatisation. That must have been about two years before Essex’s rising, for he left for Ireland on 22 March 1599 and was under house arrest from the time of his return to that of the framing of Coke’s allegation. The play would thus have been performed less than two months after the publication of Hayward’s book, during the period of its striking public impact.
The allegation makes sense of Coke’s words in prosecuting Meyrick: ‘The story of Henry IV being set forth in a play’, the conspirators of February 1601 ‘must needs have the play of Henry IV’ revived. In Renaissance England the word ‘story’ was interchangeable with ‘history’. Bacon called Hayward’s book ‘a story of the first year of King Henry the Fourth’. Hayward’s interrogators repeatedly inquired why he had chosen this provocative subject for his ‘story’, why he ‘maketh choice of that story’, and (in January 1601) ‘why he selecteth only this bloody story of the deposition of a lawful king’. Elsewhere in Coke’s proceedings against Essex’s followers in 1601, ‘story’ means the history to be found in chronicles of medieval politics. The obvious inference, then, is that the play performed at the instigation of Essex’s followers in February 1601 was the dramatisation of Hayward’s book that had been applauded by the Earl in 1599. Minor variations of that conclusion are imaginable, all of them suggesting a more complicated scenario, but this seems to me one of those cases where the simplest explanation is the likeliest. I shall keep to it.
We cannot tell what form the dramatisation of Hayward’s work took, or who wrote it, or how closely it followed its source, or how long or short it was; but we can say that a playwright would have found in the deposing and killing of Richard the obvious focus of the play. As John Manning, the modern editor of Hayward’s text, observes, its ‘dramatic and narrative trajectory was aimed to express the tragedy of Richard’s martyrdom, instead of the beginnings of Henry’s career’. So it is easy to see how a dramatisation of the book would have come to be called both ‘the play of Henry IV’ and ‘the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II’.
It ought to have been as easy for modern commentators to grasp the connection between Hayward’s book and the Globe performance. The obstacle has been the division of academic labour, which hands historiography to historians and plays to literary critics. In the Renaissance the realms of historical and dramatic writing overlapped, as a glance at the careers of Ben Jonson or Fulke Greville or Samuel Daniel or Thomas May reminds us. Hayward’s book was a work to tempt a dramatist. Manning, its editor, who has no case to make about the connection between the book and the stage, nevertheless remarks on the ‘dramatic architecture’ of the book, on Hayward’s ‘inclination to fashion source material into dramatically effective commentary’, on ‘a selectivity in Hayward’s writing that we might assign to dramatic licence’, and on the transformation of sources that ‘are made at every turn to conform’ to Hayward’s own ‘sense of the human tragedy being played out in his dramatic narrative’. Indeed, in the early 18th century, when the realms of history and drama had been prised apart, Bishop Nicolson and John Strype judged Hayward’s book ‘too dramatical’.
The identification of the Globe performance as a dramatisation of Hayward’s book has to contend with one complication and anticipate one objection. In the 18th century an account was printed, from a manuscript that seems not to survive, of a conversation between Queen Elizabeth and the antiquary William Lambarde in August 1601, shortly before Lambarde’s death (his descendants inherited the document). It is the source of the famous remark attributed to the Queen: ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’ Lambarde is said to have replied that ‘such a wicked imagination was determined and attempted by a most unkind gentleman, the most adorned creature that ever your majesty made.’ He can only have meant Essex. So can the Queen in – reportedly – answering that ‘he that will forget God will forget his benefactors; this tragedy was played forty times in open streets and houses.’
‘This tragedy’, like the play performed at the Globe, has frequently been assumed to be Shakespeare’s Richard II, and although in this case the identification has been questioned, it retains its currency. If his plays were customarily performed in open streets and houses, our understanding of the conditions of Shakespearean performance must be in need of some amendment. It is easier to suppose that the Queen (if the document accurately reports her) was referring to another play, one better suited to street performance. I would guess that the performances she meant were, or included, those ‘often’ applauded by Essex in 1599. But whatever they were, there is nothing to link them to Shakespeare’s play.
Now for the objection. It lies in the testimony of Augustine Phillips, who said that the actors, when approached by the conspirators, were reluctant to perform the play because it ‘was so old and so long out of use as that they should have small or no company at it’. Was two years old ‘old’? Phillips’s remark needs to be set against the hectic turnover of the theatrical repertory, which consigned large numbers of plays to rapid and permanent oblivion. The dramatisation of Hayward’s book would evidently have followed that fate but for its revival, in the face of the actors’ commercial judgment, by Essex’s followers. There is no evidence, despite Essex’s applause, that the play – as distinct from the book it dramatised – made any memorable impact outside the Earl’s circle. Coke interpreted Phillips’s statement to mean merely that the play was ‘stale’, which it plainly was. Oldness is a matter of perspective. When, in the early summer of 1600, Bacon was instructed to accuse Essex of having favoured Hayward’s book early the previous year, he protested that that was ‘an old matter’, and so not worth resurrecting. By early 1601 the performances of early 1599 would have been older still.
It is to the identification of the Globe performance with Shakespeare’s play, not with Hayward’s book, that Phillips’s words pose an obstacle. Though we do not know whether Richard II had been revived since its first production in or around 1595, the text of the play commanded sufficient public interest to go into three editions in the later 1590s, the first in August 1597, the second two in 1598 (‘the only instance except that of Pericles’, Peter Ure has observed, ‘of a Shakespearean quarto going into two editions in the same year’). The success of a play in print did not necessarily betoken success on the stage. Even so it would be surprising to find a member of Shakespeare’s company speaking so dismissively – unless perhaps in some fit of green-room bitchiness – of a work that commanded wide public interest and respect. In 1598 Francis Meres named Richard II first among the tragedies by Shakespeare that demonstrated his and the nation’s theatrical excellence. In 1600 John Bodenham’s and Anthony Munday’s miscellany Belvedere reproduced or adapted 47 passages of the play, a markedly higher figure than the total of its borrowings from the rest of Shakespeare’s plays. In the same year John of Gaunt’s dying speech was anthologised in England’s Parnassus. Six years later Sir Edward Coke drew on the speech in addressing the jurors in a treason trial at Norwich, to play on their patriotism. There were fresh quartos in 1608 and 1615.
If the identity of the play performed at the Globe has been mistaken, so have the purposes of the performance. The critic James Kavanagh’s statement that it was intended to ‘incite rebellion’, and Greenblatt’s assertion that it was commissioned because the conspirators ‘saw in the theatre the power to subvert’, will not stand up. If that had been the rebels’ thinking, the Government would surely have said so. No such suspicion seems to have crossed its mind. The Government took it for granted that the conspirators had commissioned the play for the sake not of a public audience, which as the actors told them it would not draw, but of themselves. Meyrick ‘bespoke’ the play, Bacon observed, ‘so earnest was he to feast his eyes with the sight of that tragedy’. Meyrick and others, Coke recalled, ‘having an humour to see a play, must needs see that play of Henry IV’. In effect they were hiring the theatre and the company for a private performance.
The conspirators had no motive, on that afternoon, to ‘incite rebellion’. Though Essex himself has been confidently asserted to have commissioned the performance, there is no indication, among all the charges heaped on him after the rising, that he so much as knew of it. On that afternoon he was ‘in bed, all in a sweat after tennis’. Equally, there is nothing to warrant the connections that have been made between the performance and Essex’s leading ally the Earl of Southampton, about whose relations with Shakespeare so much has been guessed. Though the idea of a rising had been in the heads of the Earl and his advisers at least for some days, they had, on that afternoon, no imminent plans for one. Only during or after the performance did there begin the sequence of events – which turned on the arrival at Essex House of two successive Government emissaries demanding the Earl’s appearance before the Privy Council – that drove him to his improvised and frantic attempt on the city the following day.
As the regime evidently realised, the performance at the Globe had no direct connection to the rising. The prosecution, though finding the event useful in building its case, placed little weight on it. The episode figured only briefly in the questioning of the rebels, and although four of those present at the play would be tried after the rising, only in Meyrick’s case was the play mentioned in court. Shakespeare’s company went unscathed. If the regime had any suspicion about the motives of the players, Phillips’s emphasis on their commercial priorities evidently dispelled them. The players appear to have performed at Court on 24 February, the day the Queen signed Essex’s death-warrant. On 11 March they were paid by the Crown for ‘plays and interludes’ they had performed in the previous month.
In early 1601 the Government looked with extreme nervousness at opinion in the capital, from which audiences at the Globe were drawn. Yet if the theatre had the ‘power to subvert’, the regime, at that perilous moment, was oblivious to it. It was on the printed page, not on the stage, that the Government saw incendiary potential. It showed far less interest in the Globe performance than in Hayward’s book, which it judged ‘a seditious prelude to put into the people’s heads sedition and faction’, ‘very dangerous to come among the common people’. The preachers who were instructed to present the Government’s case to Londoners after the rising were told to emphasise the Earl’s support for Hayward’s treatise, but nothing was said about the play. Greenblatt and others have thickened the atmosphere of ‘subversion’ by conflating the Globe performance with those held in ‘open streets and houses’, and by reading more into the Lambarde evidence than it warrants. The assertions that the Queen believed her life to be in danger from the theatrical representation of King Richard, and (in Stephen Orgel’s words) that the street performances ‘transformed . . . Richard II into a very dangerous piece of civic pageantry’, are without foundation. It may be legitimate to infer from the words the Lambarde manuscript attributes to the Queen that she was affronted by the house and street performances, but not that she felt threatened by them.
Essex’s circle included some devotees of the drama. In 1598 Meyrick had hosted a series of plays for the Earl and his friends that had ‘kept them up till one o’clock’. In the autumn of 1599, when Essex was under house arrest, his friends the Earls of Southampton and Rutland ‘come not to court’, for ‘they pass away the time merely in going to plays every day.’ Early in James I’s reign, Samuel Daniel would give private readings of his play Philotas, on which Essex’s rising has a large bearing, to the Earl’s friend and Daniel’s patron Lord Mountjoy (now Earl of Devonshire). Then as now, people were drawn to plays from a variety of motives. It does not sound as if the conspirators at the performance of 7 February had a united purpose. At least one of them supposed that their meeting at Gunter’s tavern beforehand had occurred ‘by chance’. It looks as if some of the conspirators may not have known until the meal that they would be going to the theatre, or, if they did, what play they would see. Perhaps some of them were merely glad of a release from the tension that was gripping the Essex circle.
The handful who had commissioned the performance, however, evidently had a more focused purpose. They wished to bring back to their own minds, or to the minds of their colleagues, the story that had been applauded by Essex. What was its appeal, to him and to them? To find out we must turn to the book which the play dramatised.
The Government’s claims about Hayward’s motives in writing the book are not persuasive. He had no treasonable purpose. He was a civil lawyer, whose difficulties over the book interrupted an otherwise conventional career that would bring him a knighthood under James I, whose claim to rule by divine right he championed. There is no evidence of contact between Hayward and Essex. The idea of dedicating the book to the Earl seems to have been the printer’s, not the author’s. Hayward’s interrogators read his book in a distortingly hostile spirit. He was asked what had moved him ‘to maintain . . . that it might be lawful for the subject to depose the king’. That argument is one of many voiced by Hayward’s characters, but the narrator’s voice weighs against it.
The deposition of Richard II was a sensitive subject. In 1599, and again in 1600, the poet Michael Drayton, in preparing fresh editions of his England’s Heroical Epistles, cautiously excised lines bearing on Richard’s uncrowning and Henry’s usurpation. The edginess surrounding the topic was largely caused by a tract of 1593-94, A Conference about the Next Succession to the Crown of England, which contemporaries attributed to the Jesuit Robert Parsons. It implied that the coup had been lawful and urged it on Elizabeth’s subjects as a precedent. Hayward would publish a refutation of the tract after Elizabeth’s death. A Conference shocked not only the Government but most of its critics. Though it was mischievously dedicated to Essex, the Earl never subscribed to its justification of despotism. On 8 February 1601 his sole aim was to liberate Elizabeth from her evil counsellors. ‘For the Queen! For the Queen!’ he cried in his appeal to Londoners. ‘God save the Queen’s majesty, and pray to God to bless and keep her.’ What happened on that day was, from his perspective, not a rebellion but a civil war among Elizabeth’s followers, fought between her true friends and her secret enemies.
In seeking to illustrate Essex’s murderous intent, the Government fell back on cloudy insinuation. Had the rising succeeded, it indicated, he would have permitted her to remain on the throne for a time, only to dispatch her when it suited him. As Coke put it: ‘Note but the precedents of former ages, how long lived Richard II after he was surprised in the same manner?’ The Globe performance, by enlarging the scope of such imputation, played into the regime’s hands. Meyrick was alleged to have watched ‘that tragedy which he thought soon after his lord should bring from the stage to the state’. That blackening of motive, a standard device in Tudor treason prosecutions, is not a dependable guide.
Hayward’s book, and its attraction for the Essex circle, were indeed topical. The work was an exercise in ‘politic’ history, a genre whose purpose was to draw lessons from the past for the instruction of the present. Hayward’s 1399 is 1599 in thin disguise. But his account of Richard’s deposition is a warning, not an incitement. England, he indicates, is misgoverned now as then. If misgovernment persists, Crown and nation risk the fate provoked by Richard’s. To be fair to the Government, it did not know of the passage, in a portion of Hayward’s treatise that was not published, where his attitude to the deposition and its consequences is made clearest: ‘O poor England, how unhappy were thou to incur the error of dismounting thy natural prince, and stooping under the sovereignty of one who had no right, whereby thy limbs were oftentimes . . . bathed in the blood of thy children, and such as might have sufficed to encounter the proudest enemy in the world!’
The pertinence of Richard’s reign to the present needed no emphasis. If Elizabeth did say, ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’ she was right. The term ‘Richard II’s men’ had come into use in the second half of her reign to convey the prospect of absolute or arbitrary rule at the hands of her corrupt and upstart favourites. In other features of the reign, too, and in Hayward’s account of them – Richard’s attack on the ancient nobility; his resort to new devices, and a new scale, of taxation; his failure to provide for an undisputed succession to the throne; the corruption of manners and fashions – Elizabethans saw their own decayed and fragile state reflected. One did not need to belong to Essex’s party to subscribe to that view of late Elizabethan rule. It was, nonetheless, the view for which the Earl stood. No wonder he and his circle were drawn to Hayward’s book and its dramatisation.
Yet there is a distinction to be drawn. Bolingbroke as a foe to misgovernment might seem commendable to the Essex circle: Bolingbroke as usurper did not (even if Essex’s enemies claimed otherwise). It is likely enough that Essex and his followers saw some analogies between the two Earls. In Hayward’s account, Bolingbroke’s attempts to reform the realm peaceably are frustrated, as Essex believed his own to be, by flattering courtiers who misrepresent him to the monarch. Another late Elizabethan writer found a wide audience for an account of Richard’s reign: Samuel Daniel, in his verse history The Civil Wars, first published in 1594. In the editions of 1595 and 1599 Daniel breaks off his narrative just after Richard’s resignation of the Crown, in order to pay tribute to Essex and Mountjoy, ‘in whose actions yet the image shines/Of ancient honour near worn out of date’. Yet Daniel – whose account of Bolingbroke’s usurpation, according to the Elizabethan writer Gabriel Harvey, was admired by Mountjoy – represents the coup as a ‘sin’. In words recalling Hayward’s assessment of its consequences, he explains that he wrote the poem ‘to show the deformities of civil dissension, and the miserable events of rebellions, conspiracies and bloody revengements, which followed (as in a circle) upon that breach of the due course of succession, by the usurpation of Henry IV’. In the long term, Daniel explains, Richard’s overthrow has robbed England of her strength. It has thus deprived such men as Mountjoy and Essex of the scope for achievement in foreign war that their virtue and prowess deserve.
Thus, even from so far beyond the grave, Bolingbroke’s coup – the event staged by Essex’s followers – blights present lives. In Daniel’s view Bolingbroke had great qualities, but he fatally abused them: ‘And, Lancaster, indeed I would thy cause/Had had as lawful and as sure a ground/As had thy virtues, and thy nobler heart,/Ordained and born for an imperial part.’ In Hayward’s account, too, Bolingbroke has merits but disastrously misapplies them. In the portion of Hayward’s book that remained unpublished, Henry acquires, as Richard does in the published part, a tragic dimension. He, too, succumbs to flattery, and his virtues yield to the grim necessities of a usurper’s state.
Political writing of the Renaissance was characteristically an instrument not of ‘incitement’, or of ‘subversion’, but of reform. It was a form of counsel. ‘The poet,’ Sir Philip Sidney maintained, ‘can readily direct a prince.’ Twenty years before Hayward’s book, Sidney’s Arcadia had given a fictional setting to the misrule of Elizabeth. He had shown her fictional counterpart, Basilius, ruling by ‘will’ rather than ‘counsel’ or consent, and in his own interests not the nation’s. Under the ‘veil’ of pastoral, Sidney had demonstrated her neglect of martial virtue and portrayed the calamity that, with the succession unresolved, awaited a land governed on such principles. Hayward, whose writing borrows extensively from Arcadia, repeats its charges. Sidney and Hayward alike belong to, even as they transcend, the ‘mirror-for-princes’ tradition. In Sidney, mirror-for-princes meets experimental fiction: in Hayward it meets ‘politic’ history. Like Sidney – and like so many Renaissance writers – Hayward has a taste for maxims about the pitfalls and errors that tempt ‘princes’. ‘It is oftentimes,’ he observes, ‘as dangerous to a prince to have evil and odious adherents as to be evil and odious himself.’ The climax of his book, meditating on Richard’s overthrow, offers this conclusion: ‘Thus do these and the like accidents happen daily to such princes as will be absolute in power, resolute in will.’
Yet there is an important difference between Hayward’s counsel and Sidney’s. Reflection on it will take us back to Shakespeare. Although Sidney’s Basilius shuns good counsel, he is not a victim of evil counsel. His disastrous courses are of his own choosing. Hayward’s Richard is corrupted not, or not only, by his own temperament but by his ‘hated’, ‘base-hearted favourites’. The contrast is one between literary generations. From around 1590 the sway of favourites became a literary obsession. There emerged a stock image of the favourite as Machiavellian upstart, which would run through the drama for more than two centuries and in which portrayals of Richard II’s reign would have a prominent place. Its birth is to be found in Robert Greene’s play James the Fourth, in Marlowe’s Edward II, and in the anonymous play about Richard II, Woodstock. Soon favourites were an almost obligatory feature of plays that pointed at the political abuses of the time. When John Day dramatised Sidney’s Arcadia in 1606 he rewrote the plot to make a favourite a central character.
In that emerging tradition, Shakespeare’s Richard II has, at the most, a peripheral place. Richard’s favourites, Greene, Bushy and Bagot, do figure in the play. Their enemies blame misgovernment on those ‘caterpillars of the commonwealth’, a view to which the Gardener appears to give a choric sanction. Yet set beside other Elizabethan accounts of Richard’s reign, Shakespeare’s representation of the favourites is thin. In Woodstock the chronology of the reign is telescoped so as to heighten their prominence. By contrast, the favourites in Richard II, as A.P. Rossiter remarked, are ‘given little introduction or development’. They scarcely exercise Shakespeare’s imaginative powers. The falls of his flawed monarchs – Richard II, Richard III, Claudius, Macbeth, Leontes – do not arise from the advice of favourites. His kings make their own way to misgovernment.
So if the Essex circle, so preoccupied by the evils of favouritism, sought a representation of Richard’s reign that conformed to their own image of Elizabeth’s, Shakespeare’s play would not have been the place to look. Hayward’s account underlines all the things that made the reign so topical to Elizabethans: Shakespeare’s merely glances at them. Other dramatists – Jonson, Marston, Chapman, Daniel – alluded daringly to contemporary political preoccupations, and got into trouble for it. Shakespeare, as far as we know, never got into trouble (not even for the lines allegedly ‘censored’ from Richard II).
Modern critics are warrantably eager to remind us that Shakespeare lived in a particular time and place. Some of the most productive recent criticism of his plays has related them to the local conditions and pressures of theatrical authorship, production and competition under which he worked. But nothing will bind him to a particular political position. That is only partly because of the problems of evidence, which yields no firm conclusions about his attitude or relationship to the events of his time. It is also because he was the kind of writer who describes rather than prescribes; who identifies with the standpoints of his characters only while, or because, he is inside their heads; and in whose plays opinions are inseparable from the contexts and characterisations to which they belong.
If the long history of attempts to identify his views proves anything, it is that so vast and bright a mirror as his plays present will reflect any opinion that is placed, however distantly or obliquely, before it. The 19th-century battle between Shakespeare the hero of imperialism and Shakespeare the champion of working-class radicalism has been fought in different guises ever since. In recent times we have had a monarchist Shakespeare and a republican Shakespeare, Terry Eagleton’s Marxist Shakespeare and Michael Portillo’s Tory Shakespeare. We have also had a Catholic Shakespeare, an Anglican Shakespeare, a Presbyterian Shakespeare, an agnostic Shakespeare, an atheist Shakespeare. Such arguments are unlikely to go away. Indeed, a world in which, we are told, an article on Shakespeare appears every eight minutes may need a plentiful supply of them; but at least we can say that none of them can derive legitimate assistance from the performance at the Globe Theatre on 7 February 1601.