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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Shakespeare and his Reformation Fight

Shakespeare lived during one of the most tumultuous times in world history, and the single greatest issue in his lifetime was the Protestant Reformation.

It had begun before Shakespeare was born.

It lasted during his entire life.

It continued after his death.

We still live with it, in some ways, even today.

16 January is significant in three different but related ways.

From 16 January to 10 February 1537 there was the Bigod's Rebellion.

It was an armed Catholic rebellion against King Henry VIII, who was dragging the people of England into a Reformation. In the case of Sir Francis Bigod and many others from northern England, it was against their will and without their consent.

This was not long after the Pilgrimage of Grace, another uprising which began in York.




The Bigod Rebellion was a failure, and all of the plotters were convicted of treason and executed.

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk helped to stop the Rebellion and was involved with the brutal retribution which followed.


Shakespeare was not born yet, but his father John Shakespeare would have been about 6 years old -- old enough to have heard about it, and understand what was happening across the country.

On 16 January 1571, when Shakespeare was 7 years old, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk was tried for treason, for his part in the Ridolfi Plot.

He was the grandson of the same Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk who put down the Bigod Rebellion.

Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk

The Queen had him tried for plotting to remove her and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, whom he would marry.

He and Mary, as Queen of England, planned to restore England to the Catholic faith.

I am sure that young William Shakespeare, like any Englishman, was fascinated by the events and waited every day for further news and developments in the trial.

Spoiler alert -- Howard was executed.

Death Mask of Mary, Queen of Scots

On 16 January 1581 the Parliament passed the Act against Reconciliation to Rome.

This Act prohibited attending a Catholic Mass and subjected people to heavy fines for being recusant, for not attending Anglican services.

William Shakespeare, 17 years old at the time, was all too familiar with these kinds of Acts and fines.

His father John was listed as a recusant.

It is around this same time that his father John was fined 20 pounds, which was a crushing financial blow to a man who by that time was already having money troubles.

This fine may have been part of another matter, or it may have been a fine for his refusal to give up his family's Catholic faith.

The financial situation was so bleak for the Shakespeare family that William could not afford to go to Oxford, as he most likely had planned.


The Reformation had an effect on every last person in England, and it touched the lives of every person in different ways.

Some fought the change that was happening, and many paid the ultimate price with their lives in that fight.

William Shakespeare fought his own kind of fight. He didn't pick up a sword. He picked up a quill pen.



I don't think Shakespeare fought for the Catholics and I don't think he fought for the Protestants.

I think he fought for toleration and for peace, an end to these kinds of rebellions, executions, penalties and imprisonments.

But unlike so many of the rebels and plotters of the age, he actually came face to face with Queen Elizabeth and King James.

But instead of trying to kill them, he tried to plead and communicate to them with his plays.

His job was to entertain, but he also knew that he was in a rare and privileged position to have the attention of a monarch for an hour or more.

In my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice, I found many messages that Shakespeare was trying to communicate not only to Elizabeth, but also to spread among the thousands of people who came to see his plays on the London stages.

Some messages were rather bold, and some are breathtakingly brave -- for a man living in a time where life was rather cheap and death was all around him. He could have been executed for some of the things he said.

The miracle is that he was not, and he survived.

As you probably know from what I have written before, I think it is of the greatest importance that we understand Shakespeare in his original historical context.

If we don't understand that, then it is all but impossible to truly understand his plays.

And 16 January happens to be a perfect day to help us understand what kind of world Shakespeare lived in.

Cheers,

David Schajer


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