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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Shakespeare and his Granddaughter Elizabeth

405 years ago today, William Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth was baptised, on 21 February 1608.

a baby in the Elizabethan era

She was the first grandchild he had, and would have known when he died in 1616.

I would think that he would dote on her, and shower her with love and affection.

Shakespeare was probably in London at the time the baby was born, and came home to Stratford at the earliest possible opportunity.

I like to think that the Shakespeare family would have had a large celebration for this child, inviting neighbors and other relatives.

I also have to think that Shakespeare would have found the baby's name a rather curious choice.

The name Elizabeth in the year 1608 would have been undoubtedly associated with Queen Elizabeth.

Even though Queen Elizabeth had died in 1603, she was far from forgotten.

For Shakespeare himself, I think he could not think of his granddaughter without thinking of the Queen. How could he?

The early years of King James's reign were very dramatic -- the Bye and Main plots against his life in 1603, the Hampton Court Conference and the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty both in 1604, the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, the new Oath of Allegiance in 1606, the Midland Revolt and the Newton Rebellion both in 1607.

There were many who were alarmed at the direction the country was taking.

Queen Elizabeth had been a controversial figure when she died. The last years of her reign were not peaceful, especially with the Essex Rebellion in 1601 when her favorite courtier rose up against her, and was put on trial and sentenced to death.

But after several years of James, a nostalgia for Elizabeth was growing. Perhaps she hadn't been all that bad.

I don't know if this had anything to do with Shakespeare's daughter's choosing the name Elizabeth for her first child, but it does make a certain sense.

What would Shakespeare himself have thought of Queen Elizabeth, in 1608?

Well, I think he would have known too much about her to forget who she really was, and how powerful and dangerous a monarch she had been.

After all, it was while she was queen that his friends and rivals Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd both lost their lives, and that his friend and former patron Ferdinando Stanley, Earl of Derby had died under suspicious circumstances.

His friends and patrons, the Earls of Essex and Southampton, had fought to remove her from power in the failed Essex Rebellion.

I don't think Shakespeare had any illusions about Elizabeth.

And if he was the student of history that I am sure he was, then he would have noticed that 21 February was important for another reason.

The Catholic martyr Robert Southwell was executed on 21 February 1595.

Robert Southwell

I don't think that Shakespeare was a hidden Catholic, nor do I think that he was an ardent Protestant. I think for most of his life he wanted religious peace and toleration.

But this was a famous man whose execution, on orders from Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council, was yet another example of the violent nature of the Protestant Reformation.

No, by 1608, I don't think Shakespeare had any illusions about Queen Elizabeth, nor did he join those who would remember her with some sort of misplaced nostalgia.

Shakespeare knew her for what she was, the good and the bad.

And I think that by 1608 Shakespeare had no illusions about the nature of monarchs in general, and could see King James for what he was, the good and the bad.

I think Shakespeare drank and danced and celebrated his granddaughter's birth like any grandfather would.

Elizabeth, when she was 18

But he probably wished that one day perhaps she could live her life on her own terms, and not in the shadow of a queen.


David B. Schajer

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