Which play was performed at the Globe Theatre on 7 February 1601?

Blair Worden

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.

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[*] The first document is Public Record Office, SP 12/278.98-102. The other four are printed in E.K. Chambers’s William Shakespeare (1930).

[†] Barroll’s article, some of whose points I seek to develop later in this essay, is in Shakespeare Quarterly (1988). His predecessor Ray Heffner, in an otherwise penetrating essay in Proceedings of the Modern Language Association (1930), made the same presumption.