Sunday, 24 March 2013

How Did a New Monarch Affect Shakespeare?

How did James I's reign affect
Shakespeare's work?
On the 24th of March, 1603, Elizabeth I's nephew, James VI of Scotland, became king of England. Now that the country was under new management, how was Shakespeare and his work affected?

Well, by all accounts this change of monarch was very positive for Shakespeare and his company.

James I's Love of The Arts


James was a huge fan of the arts, specifically theatre. In fact, in the latter part of her reign, Elizabeth sent some of the best English players to Scotland to entertain and impress the Scottish king.

Although we have no proof that Shakespeare was among theses men, it is possible that the Bard went north of the border, during a nine month absence from London, in 1599-1600.

In any event, three short years later, James would be in London as king and one of his first acts as monarch was a move in favour of drama. Shakespeare's troupe would no longer be known as the Chamberlain's Men, now they were the King's Men and had license to not only perform at the Globe, but also town halls and many other suitable spaces in the provinces.

How Shakespeare Flattered James I

Shakespeare's company was no longer
known as the Chamberlain's Men

Knowing only too well that it's wise to stay on a monarch's good side, Shakespeare wasted no time in finding ways to flatter and please his new king and patron.

The most obvious example of Shakespeare's flattery is Macbeth, the Scottish play, which contains witches (a fascination of James'), Scotland (of course), Banquo (who is an ancestor of James') and themes of guilt and conscious (which was another area of great interest to James).

Not to mention, of course, that the main theme of the play is, 'don't mess with the divine right to rule'. For a monarch as paranoid as James, this must have been a very satisfying message.

However, Shakespeare didn't stop there, the fact that Hamlet is set in Elsinore is a nod to James, as it was where he spent his honeymoon with Anne of Denmark.

Now, I know what you're thinking, but despite Hamlet being written before James became king, changes could have been made before it was printed in approximately 1603 or, of course, Shakespeare, like many of Elizabeth courtiers, could have preempted James' ascension to the throne. 

Measure for Measure, which was written in 1604, seems to have a reference to the new king, too.

"I love the people, But do not like to stage me to their eyes. Though it do well, I do not relish well Their loud applause and aves vehement"


Elizabeth had indulged James' love of the arts by sending
players to Scotland
This seems to be a overt reference to James' own opinion of the masses who wanted to gather to greet him as he entered the new kingdom.

Apparently, he forbade this, telling people that he disapproved heartily of the tradition.

And then, of course, there's this vote of confidence from Elizabeth's eulogy in Henry VIII:

"...Her ashes new-create another heir, As great in admiration as herself; So shall she leave her blessedness to one, When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness, Who from the sacred ashes of her honour Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was, And so stand fix'd: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror, That were the servants to this chosen infant. Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him: Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, His honour and the greatness of his name Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish, And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches To all the plains about him: — our children's children Shall see this, and bless heaven."


Let's face it, you couldn't get much more sycophantic than that - not that I'm judging Shakespeare.

After all, not only did he know that being on the right side of James would mean huge injections of cash, but also that being on the wrong side of James could result in his head being hacked off. So, all things being equal, I think we can forgive him a little apple-polishing.

What Happened to Shakespeare Under the Reign of James I?

At the height of his success,
Shakespeare was raking in the cash

Quite simply, things for Shakespeare and his company went from good to better under the reign of James I.

Already a well-known name on the London theatre scene, Shakespeare's popularity increased after 1603; causing him and his fellow company members to become very rich indeed.

On a creative level, Shakespeare also produced some of his best known and highly regarded plays during this period. Now, it could be that James' financial help or inspiration helped Shakespeare to achieve this.

However, I suspect the new monarch had little to do with the higher quality of Shakespeare's output. Rather, the man from Stratford Upon Avon was now in his stride.

No matter who had been on the throne, I believe, he would have been cracking out masterpieces.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare, be sure to take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

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