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

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Shakespeare's Happy Accident

In June 1600 all the theatres in London were closed. 

All except The Fortune Theatre, which had just been built, and The Globe which had just opened the year before.

The Globe Theatre circa 1600

There had been many complaints about the other theatres across the city, and the Queen’s Privy Council decided to reduce the problem.

Some of the theatres continued to operate, like the Curtain in Shoreditch, and The Rose Theatre was only used briefly and ultimately torn down in 1606.

In June 1600, William Shakespeare was without argument the greatest, most powerful and most succesful playwright in London. He was without peer, and there were no other playwrights who could really compete with him.

He and the playing company to which he belonged, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were the biggest draw in town.

Shakespeare would probably not have been surprised that the authorities wanted to close as many theatres as possible. 

When Queen Elizabeth was younger, she was famous for promoting and allowing plays and theatres to blossom and grow. 

But in 1600, when she was 66 years old, and less than 3 years from her death, she may have wanted to take back what she had given.

Playing companies and theatres would not have existed without her, and Shakespeare arguably would never have written the plays he did if it had not been for her.

She gave birth to them out almost as a lark, a happy accident in history, and probably mostly to make Robert Dudley happy. 

Dudley was her "favourite" and arguably the one man whom she would have married had she been free to decide for herself.

Dudley was very fond of actors and entertainers, and had his own unofficial troupe as early as 1559, just after Elizabeth became Queen.

In 1574 she officially recognized these troupes, and there was an explosion of activity with actors and plays.

But by 1600, what had started out very small had grown very big.

What had been a few companies spread among a few of Queen Elizabeth's lord, and was tightly controlled by her royal censor, had grown into a community of artists and their aristocratic patrons who were challenging her rule.

In the 1590’s her court was divided into two camps -- Robert Cecil versus the Earl of Essex.

Essex, usually with his best friend and fellow ward, the Earl of Southampton had been using William Shakespeare as a propaganda tool against Cecil and others in Elizabeth’s court whom they thought were corrupting the Queen.

Shakespeare was willing to be of service to Essex and Southampton, and he wrote characters inspired by these men -- Henry V and Romeo, respectively.

Shakespeare also created characters which were funny and unflattering caricatures of Cecil (and also his father) -- for example, Richard III and Malvolio.

By 1599 to 1600, Essex and Southampton were losing, and Cecil was winning. 

Cecil’s father, William Cecil, who had been Elizabeth’s Lord Privy Seal and Lord High Treasurer, died in 1598. 

His son Robert took over for his father, and became the single most powerful person in England. Essex was all but done for.

Essex tried to win favor with the Queen in 1599, by leading Her Majesty’s forces to fight in Ireland -- which inspired Shakespeare to write Henry V -- but he failed miserably and his reputation was fatally tarnished.

Since Essex and Southampton were known to use the playhouses to score political points against Cecil, and Cecil was in charge of the the Queen's Privy Council, it should come as no surprise that the theatres would be ordered to be closed.

For Shakespeare, and for his friends and patrons Essex and Southampton, this must have felt like a noose was being tightened around his neck, ready to kill him once and for all.

If Cecil, with the blessing of the Queen, was shutting down theatres, what would stop them from shutting ALL of the theatres, for good?

There are many reasons why Essex and Southampton plotted to take revenge on Cecil and why they led a rebellion in 1601.

Closing theatres in London in June 1600 was one such reason.

I think all too often we just look at history as what was inevitably going to happen anyway.

There was nothing inevitable about Queen Elizabeth's gift of theatre and the arts.

There was nothing inevitable about the growth and popularity of the theatres.

There was nothing inevitable about Shakespeare.

Shakespeare understood this all too well. His life was a daily battle against the power of the state and Cecil, and the power of the Queen who could take everything away with a snap of their fingers.

Shakespeare knew that the theatres, his plays, and he himself were happy accidents, and he fought with all his might to save it all.


David B. Schajer

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