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These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots and Edward Coke

1 February is important for two reasons.

On 1 February 1587, Queen Elizabeth signed a warrant for the execution of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary had been found guilty for conspiring against Elizabeth, in the Babington Plot.

But Elizabeth was worried about killing Mary, a queen.

Elizabeth was also afraid that Mary's son James might build up an army and seek revenge.

Elizabeth finally signed the warrant, and it was carried out swiftly.

James did have his revenge, but it would be years before he took it.

On 1 February 1552, Edward Coke was born.

You may not be familiar with the name, but he was very well known in Shakespeare's time. His work as a barrister, a politician, and judge made him the greatest legal mind in the Elizabeth period.

His writings are some of the most influential works as far as British civil rights, and the American Bill of Rights, are concerned.

He rose to power under Elizabeth, becoming Attorney General, and for many years he did what the government asked of him.

In 1601, two years before Elizabeth died, he was responsible for the prosecution of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex for having led a failed rebellion against the government. Essex was executed.

As I have written, Essex was one of Shakespeare's most important patrons, and the events of the Essex Rebellion led Shakespeare to write the Hamlet that we know today.

When James succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, many people conspired against the king, and two plots were discovered -- the Bye and Main plots.

Sir Walter Raleigh was arrested, and Edward Coke was again called upon to try Raleigh for treason. Raleigh was found guilty but he was allowed to live, in prison.

After the failed Gunpowder Plot to kill James in November of 1605, Coke was again called upon to prosecute the conspirators. Many were executed.

Coke was rewarded for his service to the state, and he became the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, the third highest judgeship in the country.

Later, in 1613, he was promoted again, to Lord Chief Justice.

But then he started to bite the hand that had fed him for so long. In a series of decisions, he challenged the authority of King James.

I think that Coke could see that James, from the very beginning of his reign in 1603, was intent on reversing almost all of the policies that Elizabeth had worked so hard for.

Elizabeth was one kind of monarch, and James was another. Elizabeth was cautious and patient. James was impetuous and rash. Both Elizabeth and James believed that God had anointed them. But it was James who let it go to his head.

This was James's revenge, and it would have terrible consequences.

James was not pleased with Coke's challenging the King's Divine authority and had him dismissed from office.

But Coke went to Parliament and became a leader of the opposition to the King.

As such, he is one of the critical figures whose activities led to the English Civil War, which was the end result of what King James had stirred up during his reign.

I think that Shakespeare may have met Coke from time to time. It is not unlikely that the Chief Justice would join the King for a performance of a play at Whitehall.

I also think that Shakespeare had a great interest in the legal matters of the day. It is no secret that Shakespeare found himself inside a courtroom once or twice in his lifetime, and Shakespeare had written courtroom scenes, like in The Merchant of Venice.

Merchant of Venice Trial

I don't think Shakespeare ignored the fights between King James and his Parliament. They were the biggest cases of the day, not unlike the American debate today between the President and the Congress over the debt and deficits. Every last Englishman would know that James and the Parliament fought.

Shakespeare could not have ignored the Essex trial, the Raleigh trial nor the Gunpowder Plot trials.

Shakespeare knew of Coke, and would likely have feared such a man, who was so deeply in the pocket of the government.

But later, in Shakespeare's last years, and even from the distance of Stratford, he would have been fascinated by Coke's challenges to King James's power, in decisions like the Case of Proclamations, and Dr. Bonham's Case.

This change of heart would have surprised Shakespeare. I think it would have given him hope that one day there might be an England where the kings and queens were not all powerful, where a King was not a god, but a man whose power derived from the people.


David Schajer

Related Articles:

Trial of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry Stuart and Shakespeare

The Beginning and The End of The Elizabethan Era

Books on Google Play