Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

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.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Shakespeare and The Treasons Act

In April 1571, Parliament passed The Treasons Act, which had been worked on since 1570.

There had been a series of Treasons Acts in the years prior, in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. This new Act was to replace and restore those provisions Queen Elizabeth desired.

Family of Henry VIII, attributed to Lucas de Heere

It became high treason to “intend the death or destruction, or any bodily harm” to the Queen, and “to levy war against her majesty from within this realm or without.”

These provisions are clearly necessary, and no one should fault the Queen for wanting to protect herself and the country from rebellion and war. 

But the Treasons Act includes far more provisions whose purpose is to eliminate free speech and exterminate dissent.

It became high treason to “publish, declare, hold opinion, affirm, or say by any such speech, express words, or sayings that our said sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth, during her life is not or ought not to be queen of this realm of England.”

Translation: you could not say anything critical of Queen Elizabeth.

It also became high treason “by writing, printing, preaching, speech, express words, or sayings... that... our said sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth, is an heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel, or an usurper of the crown.”

Translation: you could not call the Queen any names.

Queen Elizabeth I
The Coronation Portrait

It makes you wonder to what degree the general public was critical of Elizabeth in the first years of her reign, if she was so concerned that she had to eliminate all such insults in an Act of Parliament.

The Act goes on: “as well as the principal offender or offenders therein as all and every the abettors, counsellors, and procurers to the same offence or offences, and all and every aiders and comforters of the same offender or offenders.”

Translation: anyone you know can be punished, too.

What is the punishment for these offences?

You “shall suffer pains of death.”

You would also forfeit all of your land and possessions.

So, the punishment for the person who devised to kill Queen Elizabeth is the same punishment for the person who held a negative opinion of her?


And one more thing. You could not question Queen Elizabeth’s legal authority, nor the Parliament’s authority on matters relating to royal succession.

We can look back at this Treasons Act and be thankful that we have come so far in the cause of freedom.

But when this Act was created in 1571, William Shakespeare was almost 7 years old.

in 1575

For most of his life he lived in a country that was not free, at least not in the sense that we know it today.

This Act was a warning to everyone in the country -- do not speak your mind.

From the time Shakespeare was a boy, he had to learn to communicate in such an artful way that he could entertain the crowds, in London and while on tour across the country, who sometimes wanted to call the Queen names.

For example, when I read The Merchant of Venice and look at the character of Portia, I see a very thinly veiled caricature of Queen Elizabeth. 

We have come to think that Portia is a model of virtue and tolerance, something of an ideal woman.

But when you read the play from an Elizabeth perspective, she is a rude, obnoxious and racist princess, who impersonates a man, interrupts a trial and makes a mockery of justice.

Portia and Shylock, by Thomas Sully

I think it is very important for us not to take Shakespeare’s plays out of their original historical context. When we do, we get the plays confused. 

We think Portia is wonderful, when in fact she is literally a pig.

My versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice put them in their original historical context, and they are unlike any Shakespeare we know. 

The plays are bawdier, funnier, much easier to understand, and they show a writer who is struggling with how much he can get away with, how much he can get past the censor.

Shakespeare had a royal censor to answer to. If he upset the censor too many times, he might be imprisoned, tortured or killed.

Shakespeare lived in an age without freedom, and every word he wrote was a challenge to the Queen's authority. With Merchant especially, he was thumbing his nose at her and her whole family.

When we appreciate that, then it only increases our appreciation of his plays and the man who wrote them.


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