THIS STAR OF ENGLAND
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, which evidently followed close upon King John, was born also of the dramatist’s
inward motion to deliver
Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth.
He must have felt, with Elizabeth still showing favor to the Howards, after his specific and damning revelations, indeed while her Catholic cousins were continuing to plot against her, that the age’s tooth was in a state of advanced decay.
In January 1581, Mendoza had written to King Philip that Howard, Arundel and Southwell had been sent to the Tower and that Leicester was disseminating a rumor that they had been plotting a massacre of the Protestants, beginning with the Queen. Yet by August Lord Henry Howard was on his way “with a loving message to Alençon to mollify him, and urgent new instructions were dispatched to Walsingham in Paris to bring the marriage forward again on any terms.” (1)
This is again the “old play” from which the one we have is supposed to have been plagiarized. (2) There were many borrowers—to use a kinder word—in those days, Jonson a salient example; but, we repeat, the author of the supreme literature of our language was not among them. His creative genius was so fruitful that it became the host, never a parasite. He made use of old tales, many of them often told, chronicles, legends, Italian novellas, for he was steeped in such things; but they were merely as seeds planted which his own imagination nourished and transformed into blossoms peculiarly his own.
If Oxford believed, with Leicester and others, that the Howards and their fellow-conspirators were actually plotting the death of the Queen, he would have felt that ‘no warning he could give her would be too drastic. Needless to say, it was the very extremity of daring on his part to produce a play about such a deposition as Richard II’s for the Elizabethan stage. But if she had failed to heed the case of Henry VI, he would give it her more pointedly.
Nearly twenty years later, when a subsequent version of Richard II was presented, on the eve of the Essex rebellion in 1601, there was rage in high places. Queen Elizabeth said to Lambard, “I am Richard, know ye not that?”
“Such a wicked imagination,” Lambard replied, “was determined and attempted by a most unkind Gent, the most adorned creature ever your Majesty made.”
Which of the two “adorned creatures” did he mean, Essex or the author, Lord Oxford? There is little doubt as to whom the Queen meant when she snapped, “He that will forget God will also forget his benefactors.”
Elizabeth was making a public utterance. She never minded at what cost to others her own reputation for virtue and perfection was maintained, and she never ceased to remind her great men that they owed everything to her. There was far more to The Tragedy of King Richard the Second than its connection with the conspiracy of 1601, as well she knew. As for Oxford’s forgetting God, he seems rather to have striven to find God, in spite of her own disillusioning influence. Her Majesty could be very holy when it served her purpose to be.
Mrs. Eva Turner Clark, a careful student whose judgment is not lightly to be impugned, thinks King Richard II was first presented at the private Blackfriars Theatre managed by Lord Oxford, in the latter part of 1582, and that this was the occasion for the resurgence of enmity between him and Howard. and of fresh accusations concerning Henry Howard’s persistent treasonable correspondence with Mary Stuart which brought about his second arrest and ultimate imprisonment in the Fleet. Certainly Oxford, thoroughly aroused and dogged indeed now, expressed himself with eloquent forcefulness in this drama, and Elizabeth finally paid him heed. Carlisle paraphrases the Queen’s own fearless words—”He that placed me on the throne hath power to keep me on it”—when he says to Richard (III.2.27-8):
Fear not, my lord: that power that made you king
Hath power to keep you king in spite of all;—
this leading to the passage between Salisbury and the King (67-103), which could not fail to impress even such an inveterate procrastinator as Elizabeth:
Salisbury. One day too late, I fear me, noble lord, Hath clouded all thy happy days on earth.
O! call back yesterday, bid time return
And thou shalt have twelve thousand fighting men,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
King Richard. Am I not king?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?
But the next moment Richard is wailing:
Cry woe, destruction, ruin, loss, decay;
The worst is death, and death will have his day.
When this play was presented in 1601, the Queen was naturally resentful, for she had by then come perilously near to meeting Richard’s fate, but she had never doubted her Turk’s loyalty, and she respected his wisdom, while remaining deeply susceptible to the magic of his poetry. If this had not been the case, there would have been no Shakespeare. We may be sure that there was no common citizen in England who could have written this play at any time during Elizabeth’s reign, and lived.
In Richard II we have the two noblemen accusing each other, Bolingbroke, son of john of Gaunt, and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Roughly the two stand for Oxford (whose title of Bolebec is suggestive of Bolingbroke) and a combination of Henry and Philip Howard, the brother and the son of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who had been executed for conspiracy against the Crown in the Ridolfi plot. As a matter of fact, the characterizations merge and separate, they are not at all rigid or distinct; it is of course Bolingbroke who becomes the usurper. Mowbray is a sympathetic character; the author is anything but vindictive: at times he expresses his own sentiments in Mowbray’s words; for example (I.1.170 et seq.):
I am disgrac’d, impeach’d, and baffled here,
Pierc’d to the heart with slander’s venom’d spear. . . .
spoken in the same spirit as the Bastard’s,
I am amaz’d, methinks, and lose my way. . . .
But that Mowbray is a Catholic is emphasized when he says (I.1.139-40):
But ere I last receiv’d the sacrament
I did confess it. . . .
And, although Oxford gives him his due, yet he has him make the same pronouncement which the wily Iago—whom he undoubtedly identifies with Henry Howard—is to voice in the near future when Mowbray remarks (I.1.176-8):
My dear dear lord,
The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation.
Iago will put it,
Good name in man or woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Oxford and his cousin shared pride of noble lineage, even though their loyalties were so markedly divergent. Henry Howard was a highly intellectual man. It may be that Oxford had heard him express a jealous regard for his name equal to his own for his great one.
Because Henry Howard was forty-one years old in 1581, the dramatist alters historical fact to make Mowbray the same age, when he received the sentence of banishment:
The language I have learn’d these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego. (I.3.159-60.)
Of course the proposed contest between Bolingbroke and Mowbray in the lists recalls the tourney that actually took place in January 1581, to celebrate Philip Howard’s accession to the earldom of Arundel—the one in which he was the challenger and Oxford received the prize. The author shows such complete familiarity with the formalities as only a participant, or certainly an habitue, of the joust could have. (3)
The behavior of Richard in allowing the challenges to be taken up, the lists to be engaged, and everything made ready to bring the dispute to a decision, then checking the procedure and banishing both men is pure Elizabeth. It is precisely what she did when Oxford accused Howard, except that it was a duel of words she checked and postponed, not a trial at arms. In this play, as in Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus, the words “banish,” “banished” and “banishment” sound like the recurrent thud of a tom-tom, with as many as 18 repetitions within 200 lines in Act I, from 3.139 through 4.30. And a reference to the Knyvet(Howard)-Oxford feud appears in Richard’s words (I.3.127-8):
And for our eyes do hate the dire aspect
Of civil wounds plough’d up with neighbours’ swords.
At times Bolingbroke seems to stand definitely for Oxford, as in the two following passages:
Now, Thomas Mowbray, do I turn to thee,
And mark my greeting well; for what I speak
My body shall make good upon this earth,
Or my divine soul answer it in heaven.
Thou art a traitor and a miscreant;
Too good to be so, and too bad to live. (I.1.35-40.)
His cousin, Howard, was, indeed, too good to be a traitor. Now, that Lord Oxford considered himself practically on a par with royalty there is plentiful evidence in the plays—in Hamlet he is the prince, successor to the throne—and here he asserts, in the person of Bolingbroke (III.1.16 et seq.):
Myself, a prince by fortune of my birth,
Near to the king in blood, and near in love
Till you did make him misinterpret me. . . .
And when Bolingbroke declares (I.3.309) that he can boast of being,
Though banish’d, yet a true-born Englishman,
he is using an epithet Lord Oxford usually reserves for himself, as Vere-born, while lashing out again at Elizabeth with the hated word, “banished.”
Besides this, John of Gaunt is clearly Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, to whom Oxford stood as a son, as Bolingbroke actually was to Gaunt, both being fervent Lancastrians. At this time Sussex was wasting away with consumption and no doubt looked gaunt, quite as the Duke of Lancaster is described in a series of puns (II.1.73-83):
Gaunt. O! how that name befits my composition;
Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old;
Within me grief hath kept a tedious fast;
And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt?
For sleeping England long time have I watch’d;
Watching breeds leanness, leanness is all gaunt.
The pleasure that some fathers feed upon
Is my strict fast, I mean my children’s looks;
And therein fasting hast thou made me gaunt.
Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave,
Whose hollow womb inherits naught ‘but bones.
This is such a striking illustration of the Elizabethan habit of playing on words that we should like to make a digression and quote, once more, from Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, a passage in which the author observes that this dramatist’s “use of . . . figures of ambiguity in serious, even in tragic, contexts, brings home the difference between his attitude toward what we call puns and our own. He conceives them in the spirit of his age.” (4) At the risk of wearisome reiteration, we urge that this fact be borne constantly in mind when we discover what may seem to many readers far-fetched analogies and maneuvers with words, anagrams, etc. These things did not seem strained or excessive to the Renaissance writer, reader, or audience. (In fact, Jonson portrays Amorphus-Oxford’s approval of a pretty bad word-twist in Cynthia’s Revels: IV.3:
Hedon. But why breeches, now?
Phantaste. Breeches, quasi beare-riches; when a gallant bears all his riches in his breeches.
Amorphus. Most fortunately etymologiz’d.)
Sussex was to die the following year. No one had defended England with more devotion than he, nor had any man been a truer friend to Lord Oxford. As long before as 1572, Gilbert Talbot, in writing his father, the Earl of Shrewsbury, about the great credit into which the young Earl of Oxford had grown at court, had declared, “I think Sussex doth back him all that he can.” And it is clear that Sussex had continued to back him. Again in 1574, after Oxford had run away to the Continent, Burghley had thanked the Lord Chamberlain “for your advertisement of my Lord of Oxford’s cause,” in bringing about his reinstatement with the Queen. Moreover, since he took such a keen interest in dramatic performances, Lord Chamberlain Sussex was, as we have said, of immense help to Oxford in initiating his own theatrical ventures. The Revels Accounts for 1577 show the following entries:
Boat hire from the Court, to carry the stuff for the Children of the Chapel to recite before my Lord Chamberlain.
Boat hire to the Court to carry my Lord Chamberlain’s patterns of the masque.
For a car next day to carry two baskets of stuff to Barmsey [Bermondsey, where Sussex had a residence] to show my Lord Chamberlain. (5)
An inveterate enemy to the vain, swarthy Leicester, whom he considered “the Queen’s evil genius, who did not scruple to play upon her passions in order to raise himself to the position of King-Consort,” (6) ever suspicious of Leicester’s ambition, he was, like Gaunt, incessantly “watchful for sleeping England” and was dedicated to Elizabeth’s interests.
In 1582, with Sir Nicholas Bacon no longer alive, with Hatton of no help, Sussex dying, and Crofts, the Controller, a Catholic in the pay of Spain, Burghley was almost alone in the Council. Mendoza reported that the Lord Treasurer had advised the Queen that she must appoint two more Councillors “to oppose Leicester and his gang.” (7)
Sussex must have remonstrated with her many times, as Gaunt does with Richard in the speech, part of which we quote (II.1.93-115):
. . . thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Committ’st thy anointed body to the cure
Of those physicians that first wounded thee:
A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger than thy head;
And yet, incaged in so small a verge,
The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.
But Richard resents Gaunt’s advice, makes light of him for “a lunatic, lean-witted fool”: not unlike Elizabeth, who too often followed Leicester’s lead—as she did, for example, in the matter of the display of plate on the progress in 1578, when she treated Sussex so abominably, and the young Earl of Oxford refused to dance for her Frenchmen in consequence. The dramatist remembers these things, as he remembers Sussex’s constant kindness to him; and “the whirligig of time” will bring in “his revenges.” He will see to that.
Although practically no records are left to tell Oxford’s side of the story, we seem to have here his own testimony that Sussex comforted him when he was banished much as Gaunt comforts his exiled son in the lovely passage beginning (I.3.275):
All places that the eye of heaven visits
Are to the wise man ports and happy. havens.
Oxford was banished merely from the court, not from England, yet the ignominy could not have been more acutely felt if he had been sent to the antipodes.
It is a beautiful tribute to Sussex that his protege and admirer puts into his mouth, as Gaunt, the magnificent speech (II.1) about England. The prophecy preceding it may well have been aimed at the vainglorious Leicester (33-9):
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
The remainder is the poet’s testament of faith and love, both for his country and for the man he allows to offer it (40-68):
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,—
For Christian service and true chivalry,—
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son:
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
England bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds:
That England that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah! would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death.
So, indeed, Sussex would have spoken, had he possessed the eloquence. The religious reference could have been his, for he was a Catholic, though impeccably loyal to his Protestant sovereign.
As Elizabeth could have no doubts regarding Oxford’s fidelity, so she could have no doubts of her own greatness when he showed her what she could be, what honor she possessed and must maintain, while himself was adding to her honor and glory ever more and more. But he speaks to her sternly. She must mend her ways. If she plays fast and loose with such devoted subjects as himself and Sussex, inclining her ear to the base flattery of their enemies, some of whom are enemies to the State, she will come to grief. This time it is Northumberland who pronounces Oxford’s dictum, speaking ostensibly of the banished Bolingbroke, here called “a royal prince” (II.1.239-46):
Now, afore God, ’tis shame such wrongs are borne
In him, a royal prince, and many more
Of noble blood in this declining land.
The king is not himself, but basely led
By flatterers; and what they will inform,
Merely in hate, ‘gainst any of us all,
That will the king severely prosecute
‘Gainst us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.
This was a realistic challenge to Elizabeth made by one who was practically a prince of the blood. It would seem that at last she heeded it.
Richard turns out, curiously enough, to be partly Elizabeth and partly Oxford. In the character of this king, he examined those qualities which he held suspect in himself. There is a touch of Hamlet, yet to come. Given to reflection, to pensive melancholy, as the poet was, he understood Richard’s shortcomings, his tendency toward thought rather than action; but he knew this was fatal for a monarch. Richard had, like Oxford, a certain effeminacy in his nature and shared with the Earl the gift of poetic expression which must, in itself, beguile a man from action. He had, as Swinburne put it, “some touch of wild genius.” Who, more perfectly than his creator in this drama, displayed that very quality?
Several of the most poetically moving speeches in the literature of the plays fall to Richard; for example:
King Richard. . . . Of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth;
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death,
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d,
Some poison’d by their wives, some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antick sits,
Scoffing his state, and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and humour’d thus
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throwaway respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king? (III.2.143-77.)
The general tenor of this speech shows something of the morbid bitterness of Timon, characteristic of Oxford in his melancholy moods. When Richard speaks of the sad ways in which kings have died (158-60), or when Oxford does, he is not only foreshadowing the tragedy of the King of Denmark, he is speaking of Darnley and Mary Stuart, and perhaps—if this part belongs to the revision—even of Leicester who, when he died in 1588, was said to have been poisoned by his wife.
As for the “little pin” which finally “bores through his castle wall, and farewell king,” Hamlet will soon be speculating upon the ease with which a man can make an end of himself “with a bare bodkin”; while not long afterwards we shall hear Henry V, who is also Oxford, speaking incognito to his soldiers (IV.1.103 et seq.):
I think the king is but a man, as I. am . . . his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man.
Richard addresses Northumberland (III.3.71-100):
We are amaz’d; and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
If we be not, show us the hand of God
That hath dismiss’d us from our stewardship;
For well we know, no hand of blood and bone
Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre,
Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp.
And though you think that all, as you have done,
Have torn their souls by turning them from us,
And we are barren and bereft of friends:
Yet know, my master, God omnipotent
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf. . . .
These lines could have been written only by one who had been a companion and upholder of royalty. Richard’s conception of the sacredness of his position as the anointed of God gives him a stature which elevates his piteous fate to the plane of tragedy.
There are. other testimonials to an English feudal nobleman’s ideal of sovereignty, written no doubt as reminders to the Queen:
Gaunt. “. . God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in his sight. . . . (I.2.37-8);
Suppose the singing birds musicians,
The grass whereon thou tread’st the presence strew’d. . . . (I.3.288-9);
King Richard. Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord. (III.2.54-7.) .
Perhaps the most heartrendering words of all, before we come to Lear, are spoken by Richard (III.3.143-75):
What must the king do now? Must he submit?
The king shall do it: must he be depos’d?
The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? 0′ God’s name, let it go:
I ‘ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figur’d goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking-staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little, little grave, an obscure grave;
Or I’ll be buried in the king’s highway,
Some way of common trade, where subjects’ feet
May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head;
For on my heart they tread now whilst I live;
And buried once, why not upon my head?
Aumerle, thou weep’st, my tender-hearted cousin!
We’ll make foul weather with despised tears;
Our sighs and they shall lodge the summer corn,
And make a dearth in this revolting land.
Or shall we play the wantons with our woes,
And make some pretty match with shedding tears?
As thus: to drop them still upon one place,
Till they have fretted us a pair of graves
Within the earth; and there inlaid: “There lies
Two kinsmen digg’d their graves with weeping eyes.”
Would not this ill do well? Well, well, I see
I talk but idly and you laugh at me.
Most mighty prince, my Lord Northumberland,
What says King Bolingbroke? will his majesty
Give Richard leave to live till Richard die?
You make a leg, and Bolingbroke says ay.
Richard was young, Lear was old. That is the chief difference between these two disinherited kings. Each in his way comes near to breaking one’s heart. Both were creations of a mind which had known eminence, hopeless dejection and wild despair.
The Veres had for five hundred years been close to the monarch, not only as Lords Great Chamberlain but also as active defenders of sovereignty. In the matter of the historic Richard II, an interesting analogy exists between his relationship with his favorite, Robert de Vere, Ninth Earl of Oxford, and Elizabeth’s with her favorite (until the events of the previous year), Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl.
When Robert de Vere was fifteen he officiated as Lord Great Chamberlain at the coronation of the eleven-year-old Richard, fulfilling his hereditary office of the Ewry by pouring “water for the King to wash when he went to meat.” Richard lavished honors upon the young Earl, arranging a marriage between him and his cousin, Philippa, daughter of the Sire de Coucy and grand-daughter of Edward III. The marriage was a failure, and Robert de Vere divorced his wife, incurring the enmity of Richard’s uncles, who ruled the kingdom during his minority, thus losing prestige, although Richard stood by him and, in fact, made him Duke of Ireland. When, at the age of twenty-five, the Earl attempted to lead an army in support of Richard against the usurping uncles, he was defeated by Gloucester and Bolingbroke and forced to flee, swimming the Thames for some distance to reach safety. Compromising letters which revealed his and Richard’s plans to seek help from France were found, and in 1388, Robert de Vere and other nobles, together with Archbishop of York, were banished by the “merciless parliament.” Four years later, while hunting in France, he was gored to death by a wild boar—a significant end for an Oxford, whose cognizance was the boar, and also an interesting point in connection with the warning against boar-hunting which Venus gives Adonis in Lord Oxford’s poem that we believe was being written during the early 1580’s.
Three years later, Richard, still—though only temporarily—king, had his beloved friend’s body brought to England.
His love was such to him that he caused the cyprus chest where his body lay embalmed to be opened that he might see him. . . . The King caused his body to be apparrelled in princely ornaments and robes, and put about his neck a chain of gold and rings on his fingers, and so he was buried in the Priory of Earl’s Colne, the King himself acting as chief mourner.(8)
The Seventeenth Earl’s contemporaries, Walsingham and Sir Richard Baker, wrote of Robert de Vere that he was
A man of many good parts, and worthy of his prince’s favour, if with
that favour he had not grown proud, and in that pride injurious to
others no less deserving than himself. . . .
It may have been for this, as well as for reasons of anonymity, that the dramatist makes no mention of the Ninth Earl of Oxford in the play, Richard II.
In Bolingbroke’s speech at the beginning of V.3, we have the first direct reference, since The Famous Victories of King Henry the Fifth, to the wastrel son of Bolingbroke, or Henry IV:
Can no man tell of my unthrifty son?
‘Tis full three months since I did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, ’tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found:
Inquire at London, ‘mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent,
With unrestrained loose companions,
Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes
And beat our watch and rob our passengers;
While he, young wanton and effeminate boy,
Takes on the point of honour to support
So dissolute a crew.
The reference to the Gad’s Hill robbery, which actually occurred and which Oxford had dramatized in 1573 to divert and appease the Queen, is unmistakable. This wayward young man, who so nobly reforms when his father’s rule is threatened and becomes one of the great Kings of England, stands throughout his life in the dramas for Oxford himself (except when he becomes, in a late revision, the Fair Youth). May it not be that in this speech the Earl is reminding . Elizabeth of his younger days and contrasting his former wild and irresponsible behavior with his present concern for her safety, stressing the reformation he made for her sake, as Prince Hal did for the King’s?
Many contemporary references date this play, Richard II, of which we shall note only a few. (9)
First, the Irish wars which Richard left England to put down had their parallel in the Papal invasion of Ireland of 1580.
The word “proud” in the following speech means “lascivious.”
. . . then there are fond
Lascivious metres, to whose venom sound
The open ear of youth doth always listen:
Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manner still our tardy, apish nation
Limps after in base imitation. (II.1.18-23.)
In 1578 Whetstone had written in a preface to Promos and Cassandra, “The Italian is so lascivious in his comedies that honest hearers are grieved at his action.” And Stephen Gosson, in Plays Compiled, 1582, wrote apropos of the devil’s policy of corruption, “First he sent over many wanton Italian books.”
There are allusions to the change in the calendar instituted by Pope Gregory toward the close of 1582: one definite, the others showing it is in the author’s mind and is entendu. We quote two:
Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not tomorrow then ensue today. (II.1.196-8.)
The other we have already spoken of:
O! call back yesterday, bid time return. (III.2.69.)
In his School of Abuse, 1579, Stephen ,Gosson spoke of “caterpillars of the commonwealth”; and in 1580, the anonymous author of Second and Third Blast of Retreat wrote:
Then was every nobleman’s house a commonwealth in itself: but since the retaining of these caterpillars, the credit of noblemen hath decayed.
Here Bolingbroke uses the 1580 cliché in his resolute speech to York (II.3.166-7.):
The caterpillars of the commonwealth
Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away.
Of the natural phenomena mentioned (II.4.8-11),
The bay trees in our country are all wither’d,
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven,
The pale-fac’d moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change,
Admiral Holland notes that the first line is given by Holinshed as historic, but the remainder is the dramatist’s own observation. In 1582 “a blazing star was visible in England.” No doubt the third line refers to a total eclipse of the moon which has the effect of giving it a rosy pink tint. Holland says, “There was an eclipse of the sun of some importance in 1582;” and “when such a solar eclipse occurs, there is usually an equally striking lunar eclipse 15 days earlier or 15 days later.”
In connection with the Queen’s words (V.1.5-6),
Here let us rest, if this rebellious earth
Have any resting for her true king’s queen,
Admiral Holland states:
On June 21, 1581, and not a mile from the Tower, a Queen’s resting-place was treated in what might be described as a rebellious manner. Queen Eleanor’s Cross, Cheapside, was defaced and the images round it broken because its removal out of the way of carriages had been forbidden. “Rebellious earth” may also be a reference to the earthquake of 1580.
It is interesting to learn that the long passage concerning the actual deposition, Act IV, scene 1, beginning with line 154 and extending through 318, appeared in print for the first time in the edition of 1608. This is understandable enough. But where did it come from? Was it found among Lord Oxford’s papers? Had he left instructions that it should be added after the Queen’s death and his own? Who can say?
In the Bishop of Carlisle’s long speech (IV.1.114-49) the dramatist has put much of import. Sister Miriam Joseph makes an astute comment upon part of it:
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny
Shall here inhabit. . . . (140-3.)
She says that this speech
epitomizes the central thesis not only of this play but also of the whole series of Shakespeare’s historical plays by picturing the evils that will result if lawful authority is impugned. If we reflect that kind means species and that two or more species are repugnant terms mutually exclusive, these words leap into fiery poetry expressing the ultimate concept of disorder, disorder through logical confusion, the confounding of kind with kind. (10)
But Oxford has put personal implications into this speech too; he is rebuking Elizabeth once more for her shocking injustice to him:
Thieves are not judg’d but they are by to hear,
Although apparent guilt be seen in them (123-4);
I speak to subjects, and a subject speaks,
Stirr’d up by God thus boldly for his king. (132-3.)
Mercutio has cried:
A plague o’ both your houses!—
meaning those of Vere and Howard. But here the division between kin and kin is shown as a peril to the State:
O! if you rear this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth. (145-7.)
It will be recalled that at the joust of 1581, in which the Earls of Arundel and Oxford had contended, and which forms the topical background for the opening scene of this play, Lord Oxford had been resplendent as the Knight of the Tree of the Sun. Of high symbolic significance is the fact that the sun was Richard’s emblem: it appears upon his robe in his effigy in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth well knew that Richard stood for her in her aspect of a monarch who risked deposition by slackness and easy tolerance of traitors; but she knew also that her great Earl, her Knight of the Tree of the Sun, who, like Richard, had the soul of a poet, had now been summarily deposed. (The force of this intimate message to her was intensified in the 1601 presentation, as will be seen.) The comparison of Richard with the sun is stressed in the play.
. . . when the searching eye of heaven is hid
Behind the globe, and lights the lower world,
Then thieves and robbers range abroad unseen,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But when, from under this terrestrial ball
He fires the proud tops of the eastern pines,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then murders, treasons, and detested sins,
The cloak of night being pluck’d from off their backs,
Stand bare and naked, trembling at themselves;
So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,
His treasons will sit blushing in his face. . . . (III.2.37 et seq.)
See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the east. . . . (III.3.62 et seq.)
Was this the face
That like the sun did make beholders wink? (IV.1.283-4.)
The play is full of profound implications and was important enough to the dramatist to be shaped into great literature.
1. Hume: Courtships of Q. Eliz.; p. 257.
2. Dowden observes: “The influence of Marlowe’s Edward II is obvious.” It so happens that the original Edward II was Oxford’s, though Marlowe may have done some revision eight or ten years after it was written, under the supervision of the author. There is the same pervasive connection between Edward II and Richard II as there is between The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet, Arden of Feversham and Macbeth or, indeed, any Shakespearean play to another. Marlowe did not even appear on the scene until 1587.
3. In the early play, Edward III, which he patently wrote, a similar detailed knowledge is shown of equipping a young prince (Edward the Black Prince) for his first battle: an elaborate ritual. Such men as Kyd and Marlowe simply did not know such things.
5. Ward; pp. 265-6; quot. M. S. Steele: Plays and Masques at Court; p. 69.
7. Hume: The Gr. Ld. B.; p. 373. The anonymous, author of Lycester’s Commonwealth, a book which describes Leicester’s perfidious use of power, declares that the Lord Chamberlain (Sussex) told him shortly before his death that Burghley had enough material in his possession to hang Leicester. Walpole stated that it had been said Burghley “furnished the hints to Parsons the Jesuit” with which he wrote Lycester’s Commonwealth; adding, however, “This assertion was never proved. . . . Leicester was a bad man, but would that justify Cecil in employing one of his mistress’s bitterest enemies to write against one of her ministers?” (Ward believes the evidence that Arundel wrote the book, and not Parsons, is conclusive.)
8. Majendie: The Family of de Vere.
9. We have taken these from Holland; pp. 51-5.