June 20, 2017

“I am Richard II; know ye not that?” or, when Shakespeare was actually politically controversial


This guy!

America, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s treachery afoot.

So, a play’s the thing: It depicts the unbridled jealousy of a beloved emperor by nervous, swamp-dwelling politicians terrified of his growing popularity. Fearing a reign of tyranny, these ANTIFA cucks murder their leader, convinced that the dumb masses will rejoice in their newfound freedom, and that the killers will become heroes. But the people are, naturally, enraged by the death of their ruler, and chaos ensues. One of the dead man’s friends—a military hero—gives a rousing eulogy for the benevolent, if slightly cocky, emperor. The assassins are routed. The emperor is mourned. The country is saved and taught the lesson that jealousy is more dangerous than ambition, friendship more valuable than power.

Yes, this violent leftist propaganda, recently staged in SJW-dense New York City, has the right wing of the United States ready to defend themselves and their leader, muskets ready. This play incites violence. It glorifies the murder of an elected official. It is a liberal call to arms to rise up and revolt against the democratic process. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare is being lambasted as the new manifesto of radical liberalism.

Now let me tell you about another play. It involves a king so bogged down by the personal and political conflicts of his staff of toadies that his ability to govern is utterly compromised. False narratives are spun on all sides until even the king doesn’t know what’s true. There are accusations of money laundering, of treason, of murder. While feigning innocence, the king stokes conflict by proposing a duel between the fighting factions, WWE-style — as we come to learn that he was the mastermind behind all these misdeeds. But no one will call him on his actions; a king’s power is absolute.

At the last minute, he cancels the pay-per-view smackdown, claiming to put country before politics; instead, he banishes those we now know were merely acting under his orders. But rather than quell the PR catastrophe, this act breaks it wide open. Come to find out, the king has not only depleted the royal coffers but he’s—get this—personally profiting off government business. Matters, as always, come to a head, and the king is given a choice: give up your crown peacefully, or have it wrested from you. Problem solved? Hardly. Past grudges are never forgotten, and in the confusion of transitioning power, the deposed king is murdered — by someone who thought he was operating under the new king’s orders. The cycle restarts.

Answer me, snowflakes: if you were the current president of this scepter’d isle, this other Eden, this demi-paradise… how would that play make you feel?

Richard the II is taken into custody by the Earl of Northumberland. Painting by Jean Froissart.

Because that play is Richard II, a Shakespearean work even more anti-authoritarian, and more accepting of anti-state violence, than the one currently drawing Trumpist heat. That play balls-out advocates for overthrowing a monarch. And that play was performed, four hundred goddamn years ago, before Her Royal Majesty the Queen of England.

Written at the twilight of the sixteenth century, a mere three or four years before Julius Caesar and less than two years before Elizabeth’s death, Richard II was Shakespeare’s most controversial play in his time — considered so sensitive that, although it was performed on stage, the quartos published during Elizabeth’s reign actually omit the abdication scene. It wasn’t until Elizabeth was dead, and the question of her successor answered, that Richard’s abdication appeared in print.

But just addressing a touchy subject is one thing. This play was revolutionary AF. To the point where supporters of the Earl of Essex actually paid Shakespeare’s troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to perform it at the Globe Theatre the day before a planned march on London by Essex and 300 of his (armed) men. This production of Richard II, for which the earl’s supporters paid the actors extra, is considered the start of Essex’s Rebellion.

But what makes Richard II so damning, and so much stronger a political firestarter than Julius Caesar (or any of Will’s other histories) is how wretchedly incompetent Richard is. He becomes the agent of his own demise, and every choice he makes shows a complete inability to govern. We feel sympathetic toward him only because he is utterly pathetic.

And the queen, if rumor is true, knew that this perception was the real threat to her rue, far more damaging than portrayals of a murdered monarch’s violence. Her archivist, William Lambarde, claimed that Elizabeth, while lamenting that the play was performed forty times in “open streets and houses” during her rule, went on to declare bitterly, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”

But how did Elizabeth punish the bringers of this message? Did she ban the play? Fine the troupe? Arrest the playwright? Denounce all involved and call for their excoriation? No. She never commented publicly on the play or rebuked the Bard or his troupe for writing and staging it. The Chamberlain’s Men continued in popularity and profit. In fact, the only recorded contribution that Queen Elizabeth adds to this narrative is that she commanded the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II for her on Shrove Tuesday, 1601 — just a few months after it was performed for the Essex Rebellion.

As for the Earl of Essex? He was beheaded the very next day, having been found guilty of treason. Disappointingly, we’ve no evidence that any paid protestors charged the chopping block or otherwise interrupted the event.



Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.