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Shakespeare's Richard II, the Play of 7 February 1601, and the Essex Rising


This article reexamines the vexed question of the identity of the play performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe on 7 February 1601 and its relationship to the events of the following day, when London was convulsed by the so-called Essex Rising. It offers a substantial and detailed reinterpretation of the Rising itself, tracing the explosive tensions between Essex and his political opponents back to his failed 1599 campaign in Ireland. By the end of January 1601, Essex and his supporters were secretly preparing to arrest his enemies and force their way into the Court to “humbly” petition the queen for redress of their grievances. This action was planned for about 13 or 14 February, but on the evening of 7 February—shortly after the play had been performed at the Globe—the earl and his inner circle were instead panicked into trying to secure protection from their enemies from the City of London. The hasty change of plans and the release of those plans to the Privy Council resulted in the abortive Rising on 8 February. This revised account challenges traditional arguments about the connection between the play of 7 February and the Rising. Turning to the identity of the play performed at the Globe, the essay argues that recent claims—that the performance was not of Shakespeare’s Richard II but of an unknown drama based upon a controversial book by John Hayward—cannot be supported by the evidence. Shakespeare’s play remains the most probable candidate for the performance on 7 February. The final section of the essay addresses why Shakespeare’s Richard II might have had a special appeal to followers of Essex, especially aristocrats and Catholics, such as Sir Charles Percy, who commissioned the staging of the play at the Globe.

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