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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, March 22, 2013

Shakespeare and the Death of Queen Elizabeth

On 24 March, 1603 Queen Elizabeth died.

Early in the morning of the 24th, she passed away.

She may have died, but the Elizabethan era was not over, not as long as as William Shakespeare was alive and writing plays.

The Elizabethan era is most famous for the flourishing of the arts, the most important and significant of which were the plays of William Shakespeare.

Without Elizabeth we would have had no Shakespeare.

Her reign began in 1558, when she was 25 years old. Shakespeare would be born only 6 years later.




The country was changing so much, ever since the English Reformation began in the 1530's, when her father Henry VIII had separated from Rome.

One of the changes brought on by the Reformation was the nature of entertainment. Before, there were mystery plays and other ecclesiastical entertainment -- all of it based on religion.

One of the earliest actors was James Burbage, who traveled about from town to town, playing to crowds who would pay for his entertainment.

It was an undignified life. It was also a dangerous one, since some towns mistreated actors, like they were criminals and vagabonds.

One of the earliest enthusiasts for these playing companies was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He had employed actors as early as 1559, the year after Elizabeth became queen.

Leicester was the Queen's Favorite. If there was one man to whom she was devoted, and would have married, if she could have married, it was Leicester.

I think the proof of her love and devotion to him was when in 1562 she caught smallpox and almost died. If she did die, she wanted Leicester to succeed her.

I don't think Elizabeth ever really enjoyed playing companies and that sort of entertainment. I don't think she really enjoyed watching others entertain her. I think she wanted to be the entertainment. She enjoyed music and dancing, and is famous for having danced a Volta -- a sensual and undignified dance -- with Leicester on more than one occasion.


Queen Elizabeth dancing the Volta with Leicester


I think it was Leicester who was the real fan, the real enthusiast for playing companies. He was the greatest champion the playing companies could have wished for.

Had it not been for him, the history of playing companies could have been very brief.

But he encouraged their growth, and by 1574 Elizabeth rewarded Leicester's personal company of players, Leicester's Men, with the very first royal patent -- a letter giving them protection under the law. They could perform anywhere in England under the protection of the Queen herself.

James Burbage was the man who first petitioned Leicester for such a patent, and Burbage was one of the original Leicester's Men.

Soon, other companies of actors were created, and were given royal patents. A new industry, a new wave of entertainment, plays and players, was born.

In 1575, Leicester hosted a great celebration for Elizabeth, at his Kenilworth Castle -- only 23 kilometers from Stratford-upon-Avon.

It is believed that an 11-year-old boy by the name of William Shakespeare may have seen the Queen, Leicester and Leicester's Men for the first time.

But it would not be the last time William Shakespeare would see playing companies. They would travel far and wide to entertain, and Stratford-upon-Avon was not all that far, only about 2 days out of London.

Shakespeare's father would have welcomed playing companies and charged them for the privilege of playing in the town.

Shakespeare would have had a front row seat in the earliest years of Renaissance drama, the very first plays and playing companies in the history of England.

Within a few short years, he was in London. He was drawn to the London playhouses, including The Theatre, which was the first permanent and successful playhouse in the history of England, since Roman times.

The Theatre was built by the same James Burbage who had been one of the original Leicester's Men.

Burbage's son Richard would become Shakespeare's greatest friend and ally -- and he was the very first actor in history to perform Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, King Lear and so many more roles.

By 1589-90, the time Shakespeare was in London, writing and performing his first, and immediately popular plays, the history of plays was only 30 years old.


In her Armada Portrait, 1588
the same period when Shakespeare arrived in London


As Shakespeare emerged, by 1593, as the pre-eminent playwright of the period, his plays matured quickly and firmly established plays, players and playwrights as indispensable to the life in London.

At any point in the brief life span of plays, it could have all just gone away.

The plague closed all the playhouses in 1592 to 1594, and yet the plays kept going on, despite the risks.

The Puritans fought against the theatres, arguing that they were breeding grounds of sin and vice. They did succeed in closing the playhouses eventually, in 1642.

It is arguable that when Leicester died in 1588, Elizabeth could have closed the playhouses forever. Why did she keep them open? Was it to honor his memory, a gift to her Favorite?

If she had even stopped to think of closing them after Leicester died, she would later regret keeping them open. The theatres later became hotbeds of political dissent against her -- and would eventually lead to the Essex Rebellion, which commenced with a performance of Shakespeare's play Richard II.

The playhouses could have been shut down, but they weren't. It is to her great credit that they were not.

She kept them open, despite the plague, despite the Puritans in her own court who fought her, despite the insults she perceived to be coming from the stages of The Theatre, and later The Globe.

It is to her credit that she allowed Shakespeare to write and perform just about whatever he wanted.

It is to her great credit that not only did she allow these plays to go on, but she invited them into her court, and had them performed for her personally.

Without her, Shakespeare would never have come to London, to enter an industry she had helped give birth to.

Looking backwards through time we can connect the dots:  Shakespeare and Richard Burbage owed their success to James Burbage, who owed his success to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who could not have been the first patron of a playing company had it not been for Queen Elizabeth.

What did Shakespeare think, on 24 March 1603, when she passed away?


ca. 1595


Everything he had, everything he had accomplished and would accomplish was due to her.

I don't think he liked that, owing so much of his success to her, or to anyone for that matter.

But he had no choice. That was the world in which he lived.

From the time he was a child, all he wanted was to write plays and poetry, and act on a stage. Without Queen Elizabeth, there would be no plays, poetry and the stage to act on.

It was a hard truth, but he had to acknowledge it. I don't think he was much of a drinker, but I would think that he would lift a glass and drink to her memory.

During her own lifetime, I think she was wise enough, and far-seeing enough, to recognize that Shakespeare was England's national treasure.

She probably knew that history would remember him as much as it would remember her.

I don't think she liked that.

But she deserves our eternal gratitude. She never stopped the shows from going on, and never stopped Shakespeare from defining her age, the Elizabethan era.




I hope you join me in remembering her this weekend, and celebrating the memory of such a remarkable woman.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Shakespeare and the Birth of Playing Companies

The Birth of The Theatre and the Birth of William Shakespeare

Robert Dudley The Queen's Favorite

Shakespeare and Richard Burbage

Essex Rebellion


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