Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 11

Treason and Plots: A Manual for Murder

No-one comes away from a Shakespeare play thinking that life at the top is easy.

Richard: For within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps death his court;

(Richard II 3.2.160-2)

Rulers are always at risk. In our democratic age they may simply be thrown out by the voters. But through much of history and much of the world, if people want to change their rulers, they kill them.

The death of a ruler is never just a personal tragedy: it is a matter of national security, and the whole state is likely to pay the price. In Shakespeare's Richard II, the Bishop of Carlisle spells out very clearly what will happen to England if the usurper Bolingbroke goes ahead and drives God's chosen ruler, King Richard, off the throne:

Bishop of Carlisle: . . .let me prophesy:

The blood of English shall manure the ground,

. . .

Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny

Shall here inhabit, and this land be called

The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.

(Richard II 4.1.136-44)

You can't say they weren't told. In the real world the subjects of Elizabeth I were also told, and often told, regularly alarmed by reports of the crown and the state in danger, and I suspect, more than a little thrilled when they heard of yet another bloody assassination attempt against the Queen that had been uncovered and foiled.

Ridolfi plot, 1571

Throgmorton plot, 1583

Babington plot, 1586

Lopez plot, 1594

There was, of course, no Radio 4. News of these conspiracies was murky, hard to be sure of. It circulated through pamphlets and woodcuts, broadside ballads and sermons, pedlar's tales and, of course, rumour.

Shakespeare doesn't give us any account of these many plots against Elizabeth that his audience must often have been discussing on their way to the theatre. But a contemporary of his, George Carleton, born just a few years before him, does. Carleton was another of those prophesying bishops, keen to remind us just how close England was to 'Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny' and to becoming a field of 'dead men's skulls'.

I'm in the British Library and I'm holding a small book about the size of a modern paperback. What it is, is a tabloid history of Shakespeare's England told entirely through plots to murder Elizabeth and James. Time after time, the book tells us, wicked people, usually Catholic, always helped by yet wickeder and even more Catholic foreigners, set out to kill the monarch and time after time they are foiled by loyal Englishman and the grace of God. This little book is not about the divine right of kings but about the divine protection, especially given to the Protestant rulers of England, a book to show that without question God is on 'our' side.

It was compiled by George Carleton, Bishop of Chichester, and published a few years after Shakespeare's death. The impressive title page shows us an ample lady, helpfully labelled `ecclesia vera', the true church, holding up a large cloth on which is written 'A Thankfull Remembrance of God's Mercy'. It goes on to tell us that this is 'An Historicall Collection of the great and merciful Deliverances of the Church and State of ENGLAND, since the Gospel beganne here to flourish, from the beginning of Queene Elizabeth.'

Carleton's book really does what it says on the title page. In 18 chapters he frightens and thrills us with fifty years of plots, conspiracies and assassination attempts. In almost every plot we see behind it the hand of the King of Spain and the presence of the Pope, here is Carleton on one plotter:

'But he was drunke with the cup of Rome; for who would run such courses but drunken men? It may teach others to beware of those, that bring such poisoned and intoxicating cups from Rome.'

And so on and on, in high fulmination, telling one rattling good yarn after another about those evil Catholics and their dastardly doings. But the impact of the book is surprisingly entirely positive, because Carleton points out that all the plots against Elizabeth and against James failed.

Overall, Carleton's tales are like a horror movie - you're constantly on the watch waiting for the killer to appear, knife in hand. Strangers are concealed and in disguise. Foreigners lurk in the alleyway and as tension mounts, you know that the stakes could not be higher.

None of these real plots appears in Shakespeare but what does frequently is the fact, and the fear, of conspiracy. Brutus and Cassius conspiring against Julius Caesar are, for Shakespeare's audience, secret plotters of the sort they have heard about many times and even more shocking, they are successful assassins.

Throughout his career Shakespeare comes back again and again to the great and terrifying theme of killing the monarch. Richard II is murdered on stage. The plotters in Henry V have taken foreign money to overthrow the king. It's only by smothering the young king in the tower that hunch-backed Richard becomes Richard III. And in Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, Prospero, Duke of Milan, ends up on his island because his usurping brother has plotted to drown both him and his daughter, Miranda. The supreme improviser on this theme of royal killing is the great victim Richard II.

Richard: For God's sake let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings -

How some have been deposed, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,

All murdered.

(Richard II 3.2.155-160)

Shakespeare's audiences could have told their own sad stories of the death of kings. Across Europe rulers were going down before the knife, the bullet, the cup of poison. Erik XIV of Sweden, enthusiastic suitor of Elizabeth, was poisoned in 1577. The Protestant Prince of Orange was shot in the chest in 1584. France lost so many kings it began to look like carelessness: Henri III stabbed in 1589, Henri IV stabbed in 1610.

But crucially and closer to home, Queen Elizabeth could tell her sad story of her Mother being put to death by her Father and James I's Mother, Mary Queen of Scots had also been ruthlessly executed.

Richard: For within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps death his court;

(Richard II 3.2.160-162)

But how would news of all these royal murders and deadly conspiracies have circulated? I asked Moira Goff, Curator of Printed Historical Sources at the British Library, how Carleton, or Shakespeare's audience would have got their information:

'I think he'd have been getting his material from a variety of sources, quite a lot of it word of mouth and some of it privileged word of mouth. Some of it would have been from printed pamphlets, some of it would have been from manuscript newsletters. Printed newspapers at the time were in their infancy. The people in Shakespeare's audiences were drawing on the same range of sources in different proportions, so the groundlings, who would have been much more heavily reliant on the oral ('have you heard the latest news? So and so told me X') that is mainly what they had been drawing on. The people who are further up would have been getting manuscript newsletters on a regular basis. A lot of men would have been men of business where news was a staple of their work.'

Anyone hearing rumours or reading pamphlets in the 1590s, pamphlets of the sort that Carleton later gathered together, would have recognised in the killing of Richard II not the remote history of 200 years ago but something alarmingly close to current affairs.

The initial reaction of the modern reader to Carleton's tabloid terror is that this is quite simply hilarious. But if we look behind the nationalist bluster, Carleton's anthology makes very disturbing reading, because there really was plot after plot. Elizabeth and James were frequent, one might almost say constant, targets of assassination and had they been killed the consequences for every person in the land would have been grave. Reading Carleton's Remembrance we can see that there was, for the Elizabethans, a lot to be frightened about.

Carleton's bestseller was enlivened by 21 shockingly bad and crude illustrations. Here, for example, in chapter eight we can see William Parry holding a little dagger, frozen and unable to go on with his assassination attempt against Queen Elizabeth, but she herself is so clumsily drawn that she hardly looks alive in the first place. Here on another page are the Babington plotters conspiring with Mary Queen of Scots against Elizabeth, blithely unaware of a grim execution that is taking place behind them, a fate they would soon be sharing. The pictures, like the text, keep hammering the same message: everywhere Catholic traitors are at work plotting to destroy us. But how should we now assess Carleton's constant focus on the Catholics as the main threat to the English state. Historian Susan Doran:

'He is responding, I think, to a particular political circumstance of his own time. The Catholics were considered to be the agents of the anti-Christ. It had really started, I suppose, with the way that the burnings of Mary's reign were being presented in England: Catholics were disloyal, they were erroneous, they were idolatrous, and if they were ever to get to power again the Protestants would be in danger of their lives because they burnt people. So there was an anxiety, almost like Islamophobia today (or at least as it was at the time of the Twin Towers), that there was an international conspiracy which would carry on in England as well, to overturn Protestantism, the true church as well as the true monarch Elizabeth.' Carleton's tales of terror reached their climax here in the Palace of Westminster. The spot I'm standing on now, is today used for Peers to park their motorcycles and there is a lot of air conditioning plant, as you can probably hear from the hum in the background.But it was here in 1605 that Guy Fawkes and a handful of Catholic conspirators planted 36 barrels of gunpowder in an attempt to blow up Parliament and kill the king. Carleton calls it a 'blow to root out Religion, to destroy the state [and] the Father of our Country'. So outraged is he that for once he doesn't limit himself to his regular axis of evil - of the Spanish, the French or the pope. So hellish is this attempt to blow up parliament that Carleton insists that a terrorist attack like the Gunpowder Plot can have come only from Satan. If the news that Carleton reports is true, then England is like Hamlet's Denmark - a kingdom on the edge of destruction where foreign armies are always about to invade, where everyone needs to be spying on everyone else and where a stolen letter can save a royal life or send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths.

For most of us today, the Armada and the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot appear very separate events. But Carleton knows that all these are connected, part of a sinister plot masterminded overseas and set in motion here by covert enemy agents.

For Shakespeare's audience, these were the news stories that they'd internalised and could never forget, among the biggest events of their lifetime. In every Bolingbroke and every Brutus you saw not just a character whose motive you might ponder, but a rebel and a murderer who might turn your own world upside down. And in the great anonymous melting pot of the theatre, one of those secret agents, one of those covert assassins, might be standing right beside you or even selling you an oyster.

Carleton saw his book as a 'glasse' or a mirror for the world to look on. In the next programme we'll be looking at a different sort of glass, one that shows not popish plots, but the seductions of Venice, its luxuries and its famously luxurious and lecherous women.

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

Richard II (London: Penguin, 2008). ISBN: 978-0-141-01663-4