To conclude our commentary on John Guy’s review of Jonathan Bate’s Soul of England, I want to take a look at how Bate treats Shakespeare’s apparent involvement (through his Richard II) in the Essex Rebellion of 1601.

Guy writes that

“Bate’s chapter on the Earl of Essex’s revolt in 1601 shows his strengths [emphasis added]  … Bate corrects the common misapprehension that Essex wanted to plant the idea of a successful coup d’etat in the minds of the London crowd … Bate proves that Shakespeare’s play was staged [i.e. not Hayward’s Henry IV, as some scholars have suggested]. Richard II had for some years been the Essex faction’s ‘signature’ text, since its ‘conceit’ was ideally suited to their code of martial valour … Bate is right to say that the bespoke performance of Richard II was not meant to trigger a revolt, which is why Shakespeare escaped interrogation and a possible treason trial   … Bate, less plausibly, doubts Lambarde’s report that Elizabeth famously compared herself to Richard II and complained of plays openly performed in the streets and houses of London.”


These selected quotes (from several paragraphs in Guy’s review) are important for their insight on how Stratfordians (both author Bate, reviewer Guy, and all the rest of them) just love to have it both ways when it comes to analyzing documented history *and* keeping their Stratman story straight (or at least keeping it breathing). Much has been written about the connections between Richard II and the Essex Rebellion over the years, and as it happens there have been several major articles and book chapters in recent years that can shed some light on Bate’s “strengths” in explaining Shakespeare and Essex.

The key question here revolves around the historical fact of the Rebellion itself, the fact of Shakespeare’s involvement through his Richard II, and the fact that Shakespeare was not only not punished in any way, he was never even summoned to appear before anyone or to be questioned. How can this be?

As Guy reports it, Bate apparently dances around some key points about this whole episode on his way to *explaining* “why Shakespeare escaped interrogation and a possible treason trial.” Several recent examples of how other scholars are viewing this matter of Shakespeare, Richard II and Essex can be found here (Chris Fitter’s 2005 EMLS article “Historicising Shakespeare’s Richard II: Current Events, Dating and the Sabotage of Essex”) and here (Paul E. J. Hammer’s 2008 Shakespeare Quarterly article (“Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Play of 7 February 1601, and the Essex Rising,” which is available to subscribers through Project Muse). But, in fairness, both Fitter and Hammer also manage to not ask how Shakespeare could emerge untouched from one of the most infamous episodes in Elizabethan history.

There is much more to all this than can be covered in a brief blog post, so I’ll just touch on a couple of highlights, as gleaned from Guy’s review of Bate:

1) The passing reference to Hayward’s Henry IV in 1599 glosses over the fact that Hayward got in BIG trouble (straight to the Tower) for his apparent comparison of Elizabeth to Richard II, coupled with the book’s dedication that seemed to acknowledge that Essex was a (or “the”?) “Bolingbroke.” Hayward’s fate stands in stark comparison to Shakespeare’s. But this leads directly to how Bate apparently handles this problem (it was, in fact, something of a “commonplace” to suggest that Elizabeth could be compared to Richard II —see Lily B. Campbell’s 1947 Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy). So Bate deals with this problem by apparently suggesting that the famous quote from Elizabeth to historian Lambarde (“Know you not, I am Richard?”) NEVER HAPPENED. Even Guy can’t take this, and so he mildly rebukes and corrects Bate. Some strength!

2) So, what was Shakespeare’s intention in writing Richard II? Simple question, right? Surely, after centuries of scholarship, it’s been answered, right? Guess what? It hasn’t. This is why this writer firmly believes that the intersection of Shakespeare and the documented history of Richard II and the Essex Rebellion is the real ground zero of the authorship debate. When Bate suggests that Shakespeare’s intention was NOT to plant the idea of a successful coup d’etat in the populace he is —IMHO— partially right. But, as Hammer discusses in his 2008 SQ article, a coup d’etat of some sort was on Essex’s (and his men’s) mind, and watching RII over and over played into this. For what they envisioned was a “bloodless” coup d’etat, and watching Shakespeare’s play figured into this. So it was NOT “martial arts” that was on their mind, I would suggest, but rather the carefully crafted legal and philosophical arguments that lead up to the climactic deposition scene and its striking out against “God’s anointed King.” Shakespeare’s play could be viewed almost as a “how to do it” guidebook that had the added bonus of presenting exquisite speeches on England and patriotism, careful thinking on rights and succession, AND had events unfold in a way that varied from the true history and seemingly made the coup LEGITIMATE! What more could a rebellious faction ask? And this crafting of the play can be no accident, I believe, which then leads us back to what was Shakespeare up to. And how in the world did he get away with it?

I will close here, even though there is so much more to be said. But it is Oxfordians who have the upper hand here, because we have the right author, and therefore we can clearly see what’s going on. I suggest that readers visit Hank Whittemore’s Shakespeare Blog for an education in how Shakespeare’s writing is intimately involved in Elizabethan history, and especially the Essex Rebellion, and I do mean intimately!

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