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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.

Shakespeare Matters: Richard III

From London to California, Shakespeare’s Richard III is all over the place. Mark Rylance, former artistic director of The Globe Theatre and one of today’s best Shakespearean actors, has returned to the London stage in the lead role to rave reviews. In Temecula, California, Shakespeare in the Vines is staging the play through August 25 at the Callaway Vineyards and Winery, a venue where there should be wine enough to fill the barrel into which Richard III’s murdered brother is stuffed.

Born in New York City, the tragedian Thomas W. Keene, the stage name of Thomas R. Eagleson (1840-1898), played Richard III for audiences in Cincinnati and Boston during the years following the American Civil War. The panel in the upper right illustrates the play’s seduction scene in which Richard woos Lady Anne, the wife of the man he’s just murdered.

The first play to be published under Shakespeare’s name (in 1598 – up until then his plays were published anonymously), Richard III has been staged thousands of times. Listverse ranks it number 6 on the list of the Top 10 Greatest Shakespeare Plays.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival just completed a run of the play, and The Michigan Shakespeare Festival (Jackson, Michigan) is performing it through August 12. The play is in New York through August 25 thanks to The Public Theater’s “Mobile Shakespeare Unit.”

In Baltimore, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will showcase the play October 5-28.  Just down the road in Washington, DC, Brave Spirits Theatre recently finished a highly successful run of Richard III (full disclosure: I’m a Brave Spirits supporter).

Directed by Charlene V. Smith, the Brave Spirits no-frills production featured standout performances by Victoria Reinsel, Travis Blumer, and Jessica Lefkow, joined by seven other actors taking on 48 roles. Smith’s creative direction put comic relief into the scene of the murder of Richard III’s brother. For the ghost scene, Smith organized the spirits into a choir and, in an effective reordering of their  speeches, had them take turns haunting the villainous king before encouraging the Earl of Richmond, the play’s hero, to dream of victory.

Now, here are three quick reasons to see Richard III.

 A relevant story. To gain and retain power, a man slaughters his own countrymen and even children while plunging his nation into civil war. Sound familiar? It’s the story of Richard III and the story of today and, it seems, of every day, one reason audiences still connect with this play. It reminds us that no matter what century, ruthless, dictatorial leaders can make people suffer through the scourge of sectarian violence.

History lessons. Richard III offers not one but several history lessons. First, it’s a condensed version of the last seven years of the 30-year War of the Roses, a civil war in which two royal houses – York and Lancaster, the respective symbols of which were the white rose and red rose – duke it out for control of England. Historically, the play is also an early example of state propaganda. In the play, Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, slays Richard III, ending the War of the Roses and restoring peace and order to the realm. The earl, later crowned Henry VII, was the grandfather of Elizabeth Tudor, who became Queen Elizabeth I and occupied the throne when Shakespeare’s play premiered. As with all Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III opens a fascinating window into the history of our language and culture. It shows us, for example, how Elizabethans believed that a person’s natural physical appearance revealed his true nature. They also believed that toads were venomous and evil. In their eyes, Richard III, “rudely stamped” as a “poisonous bunchdback’d (hunchbacked) toad,” would be as evil as evil gets.

Showing the nature of evil. To modern eyes Richard III may not look particularly evil, but his actions prove him so – at least in comparison to the historical Richard III. By watching Shakespeare’s Richard III, you can learn a thing or two about evil men, for example how they can share the same flaws as good men, such as an overconfidence that leads to Richard III’s downfall. At its worse, evil is self-aware: Richard III is consciously bent (so to speak) on being a villain, using fear as his best tool. At the same time, evil can be charming. In one early scene, the demented protagonist manages to successfully woo Lady Anne whose husband he’s just murdered, in front of the dead man’s body no less!

Richard III’s incredible seduction scene is a challenge for actors to make believable, and another reason to see this hugely popular play.