Royal Shakespeare: a playwright and his king
As 1603 dawned, it was an anxious time for Shakespeare and his fellow Londoners. Politically and economically, the national mood was fraught, dominated by worries about inflation that had built through the 1590s and an equally long-running (and hugely expensive) war with the Spanish. Worse, Queen Elizabeth I was in her 69th year, and there was mounting speculation about her physical and emotional well-being after a series of health scares in late 1602. It was still unclear what would happen to the English throne when she died. Some feared the result would be civil war, invasion, religious revolt or an unholy combination of all three.
Though Elizabeth had recently seemed much stronger, presiding over a busy season of social events at court over the Christmas period, in February her health took a sharp turn for the worse. She collapsed, and was coaxed into her chamber at Richmond Palace. The nation waited. Calamitously for London’s theatre-makers, on 19 March all public performances were banned ‘till other direction be given’. News of the Queen’s death was made public a few days later. Waiting became mourning.
Drawings of the funeral procession of Elizabeth I
This early-17th century illustration shows Elizabeth’s coffin, borne in a horse-drawn chariot, with attendants in mourning.View images from this item (5)
In the event, the transition was smoother than anyone could have hoped. Elizabeth’s first minister, Robert Cecil, had been conducting coded negotiations with James VI of Scotland – tacitly approved by Elizabeth – and as soon as the Queen was declared dead a messenger rushed by horse to Edinburgh to inform James that he was now monarch of England too.
But many were still nervous: for one, James Stuart was the son of Elizabeth’s sworn enemy, Mary, Queen of Scots (whom she had executed in 1587); for another, the new King was something of a mystery. He was known to adore hunting, and to be an enthusiastic drinker; yet he also prided himself on his intellectual reputation, having published treatises on theology and kingship, and was known as a wolfish political operator.
The True Law of Free Monarchies by King James VI and I
This book contains The True Law of Free Monarchies, in which James sets out the doctrine of the divine right of kings.View images from this item (20)
For Shakespeare and his theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, there was an even more pressing question: did this enigmatic Scotsman like plays? If he didn’t – or, like many of his compatriots, wanted the playhouses suppressed – their reputation as one of England’s leading troupes, famous for their appearances at court as well as at the Globe and on tour, would be all but finished.
Stage plays and such like
They needn’t have worried about this either. A mere ten days after taking the throne, the new monarch dispatched a message that must have sent up yells of astonishment and relief on Bankside: the company was not merely allowed to continue performing, they had a new master. None other than James himself would sponsor Shakespeare and his eight colleagues, now royal servants renamed the King’s Men. According to the wording of the patent, they were permitted:
freely to use and exercise the art and faculty of playing comedies, tragedies, histories, and interludes, morals, pastorals, stage plays and such like as they have already studied or hereafter shall use or study, as well for the recreation of our loving subjects, as for our solace and pleasure when we shall think good to see them during our pleasure.
This equated to a new world order: an expanded royal profile, with the requirement to perform for visiting dignitaries and on state occasions; a modest subsidy (£10 per performance at court, hardly sky-high, albeit with extra support when the theatres were closed owing to plague); and the requirement to appear in the procession at James’s coronation, for which the company were granted cash to buy ceremonial scarlet cloth.
The rewards were high, but so were the demands, as the King’s Men rapidly realised. The new King and his court proved to be voracious consumers of theatre, ordering, according to one eyewitness, ‘every night a public play in the great hall [at Hampton Court]’ during the holiday season of late 1603, plus extra, private performances before James’s Queen Anne and the young Prince Henry. The King’s Men performed more than any other troupe, and more than ever before. As the company worked its way at a ferocious pace through their back catalogue and the pressure to produce plays became more and intense, Shakespeare might perhaps have looked back ruefully to the days when it seemed he might be forced to retire.
This new Jacobean environment both provoked Shakespeare to create new work, and profoundly altered its temper and direction. On a basic level, he and his collaborators were forced to go back through their previous hits and expunge unflattering references to anyone Scottish, lest they wanted to be thrown in jail. But the new regime, while stricter in some respects – James quickly banned performances on Sundays, an attempt to placate the Puritan right-wing – was also more tolerant in others. Though the playwright seems to have felt it necessary to respond to the King’s keen interests in theology and justice, the plays he produced in the first years of James’s reign are not hollow royalist propaganda. Shakespeare spent this transitional phase, one of the most fascinating in his career, flexing as well as testing several boundaries – exploring his own power as a writer, the King’s own power, and the hazardous and thrilling space where the two intersect.
Autograph manuscript of King James VI and I's Basilikon Doron or The King’s Gift
A treatise on kingship written in James’s own hand, in its original velvet binding with gold decoration.View images from this item (89)
A king’s gaze
Every play Shakespeare wrote in the first years of James’s reign seems touched by the same forces – at once subject to a demanding royal scrutiny, yet never subservient to it. Measure for Measure responds in a characteristically oblique way to questions James had outlined in his own published treatise on kingship, Basilikon Doron (‘The Kingly Gift’, 1599). Almost the play’s first words are ‘of government’, as if we are about to hear an official policy paper read out:
Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds in all that the lists of all advice
My strength can give you. (1.1.3–7)
These circumlocutory words are spoken by Duke Vincentio; in the first of many surprises sprung by the play, his unorthodox solution to the fact that his city, Vienna, is so chaotically governed is to propose fleeing it, leaving his deputies in charge with the minimum of guidance.
The King’s Men performed Measure at court in December 1604; though notionally Viennese, the inns and brothels populated by dissolute gentry and bumbling constables reek of contemporary London, and the corrupt deputy Angelo’s attempts to get rid of them must have been a reminder to many in the audience of the zealous moral crusades launched early in the new reign. In the play’s closing moments, James’s suggestion in Basilikon Doron that a good monarch should stay in close contact with his citizens is given a startling and discomfiting Shakespearean twist – the Duke (who has in fact spent much of the action roaming around the city in disguise) declares that he will marry Isabella, the woman his deputy has attempted to blackmail and rape.
Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works
The Duke in friar’s habit. Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1 by Thomas KirkView images from this item (23)
King Lear, which was performed at court on 26 December 1605, confronts James even more directly, and challengingly. Adapted from an old play whose roots lie in the semi-mythical British past, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters (c. 1590), it was nevertheless bracingly up to date in its portrayal of what happens when Britain is divided, as Lear’s kingdom is at the opening of the action. The early years of James’s reign were dominated by long-winded and often ill-tempered debates about the unification of Scotland and England, which, though it had occurred in theory when James took both thrones, was still very far from a legal or political reality. The monarch had a personal obsession with driving unification forward, so for James’s own playwright to write a drama on the theme seems a canny move.
Royal Proclamation declaring James VI and I to be King of Great Britain
James claims the title King of Great Britain, instead of the separate titles of England and Scotland.View images from this item (3)
Yet the play is much darker in its purpose. Shakespeare’s portrayal of a king who goes mad is hardly flattering to any royalty who happen to be watching, and the unusual bleakness of its ending offers little room for hope about whether Britain can be more successfully ruled next time. And while we may disagree with Lear from a policy standpoint – his divided state is dragged into a state of war – he is far from a textbook villain. The King’s torments are presented with astonishing realism and depth, never more moving than when he confronts the brute realities of the human condition:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel ... (3.4.28–34)
Spoken in a hovel on a heath by a sometime ruler who has lost his family and his kingdom, and whose retinue is reduced to a beggar and a fool, these words must have shocked their first audience at court to the core – particularly if James was, as seems likely, among them.
Perhaps most fascinating among these early Jacobean dramas is Macbeth, known in the theatre to this day as the ‘Scottish play’. On the face of it, the tragedy is so tailored to James it must surely have been written with him in mind, probably in 1606. It is based on an obscure episode in Holinshed’s Chronicles, previously raided by the playwright for his English histories. The play treats the subject of Scottish history with earnest seriousness, cleverly flatters the King’s distant ancestor Banquo, who dies an honourable death, and even includes cameos by a crew of ‘weird sisters’ or Witches who might have stepped out of the pages of the King’s own 1597 treatise on necromancy, Daemonologie.
King James VI and I’s Demonology, 1597
James claims the title King of Great Britain, instead of the separate titles of England and Scotland.View images from this item (96)
Yet in this strangest and most slippery of tragedies nothing is exactly as it seems. Holinshed’s account in fact suggests that Banquo was implicated in the conspiracy to kill King Duncan, a suggestion that it would be impolitic – not to say actively dangerous – to retain, so Shakespeare edited the story to make it more palatable. James must have been impressed by the playwright’s tact, but also conscious of the reminder that history is a malleable material, subject to interpretation and equivocation, a word that crops up suggestively in the play. Though Banquo reappears in a vision, introducing a ‘show of eight kings’ who are his descendants (James was the ninth; equally tactfully, his executed mother does not appear), his true political motivations remain almost as shadowy as those of Macbeth, the man who orders his murder. Likewise, the Sisters are not fiendish agents of popular superstition, but more ambiguous, fair as well as foul. They stand at a remove from the story, symbols of implacable and irrevocable fate, but are also in control of events in ways the play’s human characters can only dream of.
Holinshed's Chronicles, 1577
Macbeth and Banquo meet the weird sisters on the heath.View images from this item (6)
The History of Scotland by John Leslie, 1578
A genealogical tree tracing the lineage of Mary and James to their ancestor, Banquo.View images from this item (5)
Yet the play’s most intriguing facet is something barely hinted at in the text as it has come down to us: a real-life event that had convulsed the world of the court. We’re not certain when Macbeth was first performed, or even if James ever saw it, but if it was in 1606, it must have been frighteningly soon after the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605. The Plot was a Catholic conspiracy to blow up James at the state opening of parliament – and with him nearly every major political figure in the land – and it came dangerously close to happening.
Had it not been halted at the last minute, the Gunpowder Plot would have been the terrorist outrage of the age and changed the course of European history. Watching Shakespeare’s portrayal of a dark-hearted villain who inches his way towards absolute power by liquidating everyone in his path, some courtiers must have reflected how fragile the balance of power can be, particularly when James had also survived a much earlier assassination attempt in Scotland in 1600. As murder piled on top of murder – commencing, of course, with the cold-blooded killing of a king – it is easy to imagine James’s retinue holding their breath, watching for their monarch’s reaction. As the critic James Shapiro observes, ‘if Shakespeare wanted to fawn over his monarch, there were easier and more remunerative ways to do so’. Simple flattery was never Shakespeare’s style.
Gunpowder Plot medal
‘Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it’: the Gunpowder Plot lurks in the shadows of Macbeth.View images from this item (2)
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum
 The chronology is pacily told in Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 295–97.
 The patent and many of the details of the new settlement are reprinted in Honan, pp. 298–301.
 The eyewitness was Sir Dudley Carleton. Cited in Honan, p. 299.
 Unusually short for a Shakespearean tragedy, Macbeth seems to have been adapted by his younger colleague Thomas Middleton, perhaps in 1616. See Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 543–48.
 One of the most detailed accounts is in Antonia Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1996); Fraser also attempts a fascinating counterfactual history in Andrew Roberts (ed.), What Might Have Been (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004), pp. 27–39.
 In fact perhaps more than one: in 1582, in what became known as the Raid of Ruthven, James was kidnapped while out hunting and held for nearly a year.
 James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the life of William Shakespeare (London: Faber & Faber, 2005) p. 177.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.