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Monday, November 19, 2012

King Charles I and Shakespeare

King Charles I was born 19 November 1600.


King of England, from Three Angles, by Anthony van Dyck


He was about 2 1/2 years old when Queen Elizabeth died and his father became King, but he was so sickly as a child that he did not join them in London for another year. It would seem that Charles suffered from rickets, as his father had.

When James became King, many in England rejoiced, not just because there was a peaceful transfer of power, but also because James had three children, and three clear heirs to the throne -- Henry, Elizabeth and Charles.


Queen Anne with King James and the young Charles


All attention was paid to the oldest, Henry who was smart, athletic and loved the arts.

I think it would not be surprising if Charles was not the center of attention. He was small (when he grew to manhood he only stood 5' 4"), he was sickly, and he was the third child. He probably felt ignored much of the time.

Once in England, Charles was put in the care Alletta Carey, wife of Sir Robert Carey.

This is interesting since Carey's father was Shakespeare's patron, he was the Lord Chamberlain whose company of actors was The Lord Chamberlain's Men, to which Shakespeare belonged.

When Robert's father died, Robert's brother inherited the company until James became King and Shakespeare became a King's Man.

Shakespeare would know this family quite well, and would no doubt have witnessed the education of Charles first hand.

I find it odd, and telling, that Charles was taught to speak by Alletta -- by someone who was not his own family. I think this indicates how marginalized Charles was in these early years.

Did he become resentful? Did he hate his siblings? Was he more of an Edmund than an Edgar, to James's Lear?

What did Shakespeare think of these children, and of Charles in particular? Did Shakespeare like what he saw?

Many in England were disenchanted with King James and pinned their hopes on Henry. But Henry died in 1612, at the age of 18, and whatever hopes for him, and for the country, were gone.



The funeral hearse of Prince Henry


Elizabeth married soon after, to Frederick V who became King of Bohemia and whose reign gave birth to the Thirty Years' War.



Princess Elizabeth, ca 1612


Charles succeeded his father as King and shared his father's belief in the Divine Right of Kings. Charles famously said "Kings are not bound to give an account of their actions but to God alone."

Charles managed to antagonize and alienate his Parliament, infuriate both Catholics and Protestants, embroil the country in the Thirty Years' War, inflame tensions with Scotland and Ireland and finally lead the country into a Civil War.

Charles was executed, beheaded at Whitehall, in front of the Banqueting House, in 1649.



The Execution of Charles



This Banqueting House was where Shakespeare had performed some of his most famous plays, for King James and his family. No doubt Charles had seen these plays.

Plays like King Lear, Macbeth and Othello.

If there is a common moral to these stories it might be best expressed with Lord Acton's quote: "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

But Charles, who seems to have been more of a Goneril or Regan than a Cordelia, obviously did not heed the warnings in these plays.

I think in the last years of Shakespeare's life, he saw the potential for something like a Civil War.

He had lived through some of the most tumultuous events in England's history, and he probably knew that the worst may yet come.

He might have taken comfort in the thought that he would not live to see it, but also he would have died with a heart broken by the knowledge that, despite the success he had enjoyed and plays he had written, so little had changed for the better in his lifetime.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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