Shakespeare’s Richard the Second and the Mystery of the Nameless Queen

What should be done with a ruler who holds power legitimately but wields it unjustly? Shakespeare’s history play, Richard the Second, grapples with that question—one that remains as relevant as ever—in a depiction of 14th century events leading to a king’s overthrow and murder.

Brave Spirit Theatre, whose motto is “Verse and Violence,” stages plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries at The Lab at Convergence in Alexandria, Virginia. Directed by Charlene V. Smith, the company’s current production of Richard the Second offers an engrossing drama that pits the vain and impulsive philosopher king against Henry Bolingbroke, the strong-willed rebel who ultimately seizes the throne.

Gary DuBreuil as King Richard and John Stange as Bolingbroke give standout performances with an excellent supporting cast that includes Zach Brewster-Geisz (Duke of York), Tom Howley (John of Gaunt; Glendower), Dean Carlson (Northumberland), Caroline Johnson (Queen to the King), and Ian Blackwell (Mowbray; Westminster). The production runs through April 18, 2020 and appears again next year in repertory.

A Queen Caught in the Middle

Queens caught in the middle: the rebel Henry Bolingbroke (top left) reflects the Earl of Essex (top right, portrayed by Sam Reid); Isabel of Valois (middle left), Queen to Richard II, reflects Elizabeth I (middle right, portrayed by Glenda Jackson); King Richard II (bottom left) reflects Robert Cecil (bottom right, portrayed by Mark Gatiss).

Shakespeare didn’t dramatize history merely for its own sake, but made it relevant to his own day, Richard the Second perhaps the best example.

The play is as much about King Richard—a monarch guilty of corruption and misgovernment—as it is about his usurper, Bolingbroke, who deposes him with Parliament’s backing. The parallels to Shakespeare’s time and critiques of Queen Elizabeth I are unmistakable. Indeed, her government appears to have censored the deposition scene from printed copies of Richard the Second. Most famously, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, commissioned a staging of Richard the Second at the Globe—including the deposition scene—on the eve of his failed rebellion against Elizabeth late in her reign.

Essex, at one time was Elizabeth’s most favored courtier, led one faction in her splintered court. Her secretary, Robert Cecil, led the other faction. Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary, was the most powerful man in England (scholars see Cecil reflected as the king in Shakespeare’s Richard the Third). The Queen, who was approaching seventy without a named successor, was caught up in a power struggle between the rebellious Essex and the king-like Cecil.

Anecdotally it’s claimed she once said, “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” Whether or not she actually spoke those words, it’s true that her authority and government were under tremendous pressures from forces foreign and domestic—the same situation faced by King Richard, who ultimately lost his throne.

How did Elizabeth feel about was happening to her kingdom in her twilight years? Shakespeare’s play, I believe, provides some insight.

Enter the Queen

Historically, Richard and his first wife are said to have had the close, loving relationship that’s reflected in Shakespeare’s play. However, she’d already died prior to the events depicted in Richard the Second. Richard by then had taken a second wife, the daughter of the King of France, but she was only ten at the time of Richard’s deposition.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that the unnamed “Queen” in Shakespeare’s play is the second wife, because she’s from France, to which she’ll return after her husband is deposed. Shakespeare marks her as such six times in the play without naming her, and the Queen’s ladies address her in the French manner as “Madame.”

This isn’t the only instance of Shakespeare changing the age of a character in a history play. In Henry the Fourth, Part I, Hotspur is made younger to match the age of his rival, Prince Hal. Richard Gloucester (later Richard the Third) is made older in the Henry the Sixth plays so he can participate in events leading to his ruthless rise to power.

I am Queen Isabella, know ye not that?

The name of King Richard’s first wife was Anne. The name of his second wife was Isabella, the French derivative of Elizabeth. Neither name appears in the play.

One might argue that Shakespeare, in not naming the Queen in Richard the Second, was paying homage to the love relationship between Richard and Anne, while maintaining historical accuracy in showing his queen was Isabella, the French royal daughter. That argument, however, is not wholly satisfactory.

First, the “Queen” in Richard the Second is the only instance I could find in Shakespeare’s history plays where a royal personage isn’t named. This is especially unusual given that Shakespeare does name characters “Queen Elizabeth” in other history plays, the queen in Henry V is “Queen Isabel,” and the protagonist in Measure for Measure is “Isabella.”

And in at least one instance Shakespeare changed the name of a historical person in a history play. In Henry the Fourth, Part 1, he gives Hotspur’s wife the name Kate, when her real name was . . . Elizabeth.

In sum, the actual historical names and ages of Richard’s queens alone would be no obstacle to naming the Queen in Richard the Second either Anne or Isabella (Brave Spirits gives the character the name “Queen Isabel”). If Shakespeare had named her Anne, he could have simply omitted the origin of her birth (which is irrelevant to the story). If he had named her Isabella (or Isabel), he would have just been altering her age. Or he could have given her a different name.

That Shakespeare did none of those things, I believe, is better explained by his intent to mirror Queen Elizabeth I in King Richard’s unnamed Queen.

Shakespeare, the supersubtle

If Shakespeare intended to mirror Elizabeth in the play’s “Queen,” a monarch who’s deposed along with her husband, he would have had to have been extremely careful. Two contemporary publications addressing the deposition of monarchs, a book by John Hayward and a pamphlet by Robert Parsons, landed their authors in prison, and the treason statute mandated death for anyone claiming Elizabeth should not be queen.

The short and the long of it: Shakespeare needed plausible deniability.

By giving no name to the play’s historical queen yet showing her to be French, Shakespeare is identifying her as Isabella aka Elizabeth, the first subtle marker that she represents Elizabeth I.

From the play’s start to its finish, the no-name queen is sad and, at the beginning, she doesn’t even know why. She observes that, “Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb, is coming towards me,” a metaphor that fits Isabella of France, who died in childbirth, but also seems apt for Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen” who supposedly never gave birth and had more than her share of woes. Beginning in the late 1590’s, they came one after another—the death of her beloved advisor, Lord Burghley; the disastrous defeat of English troops led by Essex to quash a rebellion in Ireland; and Essex’s own rebellion against Elizabeth which resulted in his beheading.

In Act III, Scene 4 of Richard the Second, the “Queen” is accompanied by two of her ladies in the Duke of York’s garden. If Shakespeare had intended to mirror Elizabeth I as the queen, a garden setting arguably was the best choice. As Anne Somerset has written, “Elizabeth showed great interest in the upkeep of the gardens and parks attached to her houses, for she liked to walk in agreeable surroundings … [O]n fine days [she] might even have meetings in the open air with ambassadors and envoys.”

In the play, the queen’s ladies try, unsuccessfully, to brighten her mood by suggesting they play “bowls,” “tell tales,” dance, or sing. Elizabeth is said to have done all those things. According to Alison Weir, one task of Elizabeth’s ladies was to read aloud to her, and they “were also expected to be accomplished in needlework, music, dancing and riding, so that they could share their mistress’s interests and entertain her . . .”

There’s no indication, however, that the garden of the historical Duke of York had a bowling green (Richard II banned the playing bowls at least by commoners because it diminished the practice of archery, an important skill in battle). But at least one of Queen Elizabeth I’s dwellings—Whitehall Palace—did have a bowling green, which her father, Henry VIII, had installed, an additional marker linking her to the Queen in Richard the Second.

The markers may be subtle (and therefore arguable), but in terms of her surroundings and anguish in the midst of a gut-wrenching political battle, the “Queen” seems to have more in common with Elizabeth I than with either of Richard II’s historical wives, creating a portrait of a sad and depressed monarch beset by crisis at the turn of the 17th century—an unflattering image for someone who’s supposed to be the most powerful person in the realm. Wisely, Shakespeare appears to have refrained from making the parallels between the “Queen” and Elizabeth more explicit.

3 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Richard the Second and the Mystery of the Nameless Queen

  1. I’s always worthwhile examining female characters in Shakespeare, and discussing the ways in which they are presented and what it is that they are made to represent, in particular circumstances. I do believe that Elizabeth I is represented as both the Queen and Richard himself in this play – as if indicating a fractured, irrecoverable monarchy, as well as monarch. In terms of the deposition scene, it’s ironic that the substitute scene represents the deposed king suddenly losing his poetic and philosophical cool when death is imminent, and violently attacking those guarding him in the tower – this can also be read as a suggestion that this actual queen, when under pressure, as was so often the case, could react with extreme, irrational violence to perceived danger.

    One final issue that this very interesting account raises is how much was generally known at the time about Elizabeth I’s leisure activities and predilections by people like Shakespeare, and by others. Given that all these leisure activities took place in private, and her entourage were strictly disallowed from sharing personal information about the queen, how would a contemporary individual know about this queen’s private life?

    • Toni, thanks for your comment. I think a contemporary individual with court connections could know things about the Queen’s private life. One such connection would be Henry Wriothesely, Third Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated two long narrative poems and who’s widely deemed to be “the beauteous and lovely youth” of the Sonnets.

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