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Monday, October 1, 2012

"Bloody" Mary I and Shakespeare

The coronation of Queen "Bloody" Mary I was held on October 1, 1553 -- only ten years before Shakespeare was born.




She was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and the half-sister to Edward VI, who had succeeded their father as king in 1547.

What does this have to do with Shakespeare? When Shakespeare was born, he entered a world that was being torn apart along religious lines.

Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation in 1517. King Henry VIII, who had initially argued against the Reformation, then later broke with the Catholic Church in Rome in 1534.

Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which declared that Henry was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and any act of allegiance to the Catholic Church was considered treason, and punishable by death. It was under this act that Thomas More was executed.

This began a long period of violence against both Catholics and Protestants.

When Edward VI became king, after his father Henry VIII died, he continued his father's anti-Catholic policies.

When Edward himself was about to die he tried to stop his sister Mary I from becoming queen, and put their cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne.

But when Edward died, and Jane was crowned, Mary's forces deposed Jane and she was later beheaded.

Queen Mary I tried to reverse her father's Protestant efforts and return England to the Catholic Church.

More violence followed, and in the five years she was in power, she had nearly 300 Protestant reformers executed, burnt at the stake.

Martyrdom of John Hooper, 1555


When Mary died in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth was crowned queen and began to take England again in the Protestant direction her father Henry VIII had wanted.

The violence never stopped and the battle between Catholics and Protestants in England would continue for decades.

It was in this period that Shakespeare lived and wrote all of his plays.

As I did research for my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice, I discovered that there are arguments that Shakespeare may have been a "hidden" or "recusant" Catholic -- someone who was loyal to the Catholic Church in secret, and his plays were written to influence Queen Elizabeth I and later King James.

I don't think Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. But I don't think it was possible that he would have been ignorant of the effects of the English Reformation, and unmoved by the dramatic and often violent implications of this change.

It may be difficult to imagine what that change was like for people in the 16th century. I think you will gain an appreciation for what most common Englishmen were going through, when you read my versions of these plays.

I don't think Shakespeare was a hidden Catholic. But like anyone who was watching a war tear apart his country, he wanted peace, and I do think he was seeking toleration between Catholics and Protestants.

He sought this toleration in his plays: with humor (often bawdy) with drama and sometimes with anger. And yes, it was very risky for Shakespeare. But it was a risk he took.

For having taken such risks, he was a great man, an even greater man than we have been taught.

This is the portrait I have painted of him in my versions.

Cheers,

David