Finding Elizabeth I in Shakespeare's Richard II

Chelsea Chafin

Abstract


William Shakespeare used sixteenth-century English historian Raphael Holinshed as a source for most of his history plays, including Richard II. By comparing and contrasting these two texts, and building upon contemporary historian Carole Levin’s research on Elizabeth I, this essay argues that Shakespeare altered certain aspects of Holinshed’s history of Richard II to draw analogies with Elizabeth and her reign. These changes reveal dissatisfaction with Elizabeth's rule, especially her favoritism and her religious policy. When the play alludes to the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, it even possibly reveals Shakespeare’s Catholic sympathies. To illustrate the play’s allusions to Elizabeth, this essay analyzes a speech by the character John of Gaunt and its multiple references to Richard II’s council members and war tactics. John of Gaunt’s speech never occurred in Holinshed, but Edmund Grindal wrote Elizabeth I a public document to which Shakespeare likely had access that made very close statements to what is written in the play. The play’s similarities to this letter, which reprimanded Elizabeth for outlawing Grindal and his clergymen from having religious meetings and for other royal policies he felt were against the church, exposes Shakespeare's discontent with Elizabeth’s rule of England. My project offers a new perspective on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays and perhaps on Shakespeare’s own politics.


Keywords


English Drama; Renaissance Literature; Catholicism

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