Nahum Tate's the History of King Richard the Second (1681): Politics and Censorship during the Exclusion Crisis

By Álvarez-Recio, Leticia | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Nahum Tate's the History of King Richard the Second (1681): Politics and Censorship during the Exclusion Crisis


Álvarez-Recio, Leticia, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


Disillusionment with the Stuarts was a fact by the late 1670s. Decline in trade and regressive taxation had increased the economic burden on the working classes, the divisions between court and country factions had widened, and there was widespread resentment against the French influence at court and the role played by Anglican bishops in the religious settlement (Harris 94-95, 190-92). Such concerns came to a climax in 1678 when Titus Oates and Israel Tongue revealed an alleged Roman Catholic plot intended to depose the English sovereign and overthrow the Protestant religion. Though the plot was discredited by 1681, it was largely used by the Whigs in parliament to justify the need to introduce an exclusion bill that would protect Protestant England from the eventual succession to the British throne of Charles II's brother, the Catholic Duke of York.

The vogue for political debate grew partly as a result of Whig petitioning campaigns that tried to involve the populace in a mass movement to press the king to resume parliamentary sessions. In this context, the stage became a useful platform on which contemporary attitudes could be voiced. Political tragedy, in fact, flourished in the seasons 1678-1681, when several playwrights re-wrote somewhat controversial Elizabethan and Jacobean plays dealing with legitimate succession and sedition. John Crowne's Henry the Sixth, the Second Part, or The Misery of Civil-War (February 1680) and Henry the Sixth, the First Part (April 1681), Thomas Otway's The History and Fall of Caius Marius (October 1679), and Edward Ravenscroft's Titus Andronicus (c. 1679-1686) are clear examples. As Michael Dobson explains:

The Exclusion Crisis . . . generated a theatrical climate in which every play produced was potentially controversial, certain to be scrupulously interrogated by censors and authences alike for covert or explicit propagandistic intentions, secret plots or dangerous sympathies, and this flurry of adaptations demands to be read not as an anthology of inept Shakespeare criticism but as a series of often astute experiments in politicizing and depoliticizing the contemporary stage. (63-64)

Nahum Tate, with such works as The Loyal General (c. December 1679), The History of King Richard the Second (December 1680), The History of King Lear (March 1681), and The Ingratitude of a Common-Wealth (December 1681), was one of the playwrights who participated in this trend. These four plays were especially contentious for the controversial issues they raised - tyranny, royal irresponsibility, and tlie subjects' need to revolt - but only The History of King Richard the Second dramatized the deposition of a monarch onstage, and not surprisingly, was the only one prohibited by the authorities. Hence, Tate's decision to re-write Richard II is not likely to have been just a simple coincidence. Shakespeare had already addressed those same issues eighty years earlier, when Elizabeth's death drew close and the problem of succession concerned many English subjects. The subversive tone of the play probably led Essex's followers to arrange its staging at the Globe to entice rebellion in February 1601 (Loomis 6, 10-11, 21-22; Schoenbaum 217-19). Consequently, in the early 1680s, when succession once again posed a threat to the political stability of the country, Tate's choice may have been enticing though risky.

Besides, Tate's work was performed and published at the same time as the Whigs brought up the story of King Richard in a pamphlet by John Somers entitled A Brief History of the Succession, in which Richard's deposition was justified and the parliament's supremacy over the king's divine rights was asserted (Owen 224, Somers 6-7). No doubt, those inter-textual relations help explain why the authorities considered the play deeply disturbing, although the author soon rejected any possible parallels with the current political situation:

I am not ignorant of the posture of Affairs in King Richard the Second's Reign, how dissolute then the Age, and how corrupt the Court; a Season that beheld Ignorance and Infamy preferr'd to Office and Pow'r, exercis'd in Oppressing, Learning and Merit; but why a History of those Times shou'd be supprest as a Libel upon Ours, is past my Understanding. …

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