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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Articles Written For:

The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

Most Popular Posts:

1. Shakespeare's Shylock Solved 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel Solved 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Malvolio Solved 6. Shakespeare's Real Petruchio

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Shakespeare and King James's Ruined Coronation

On 25 July 1603, King James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England.

King James I of England with sceptre and crown

The date of this coronation is rather curious, since the day before was the 36th anniversary of the day that he inherited the Scottish throne from his mother, Mary Queen of Scots.

On 24 July 1567, Mary was forced by Scottish lords to abdicate in favor of her son.

It was a very dramatic event, and I wrote about it here.

King James, by Nicholas Hilliard, ca. 1603-9

This anniversary, of the day that James became King of Scotland, must have been very bittersweet to him.

On the one hand he was pleased to be King, and obviously enjoyed the power and the privilege it afforded him. But on the other hand, it was at the expense of his mother.

He was only 13 months old when he became King of Scotland. For many years, Scotland was ruled by regents. 

From the time he was born, it was clear that he had a very strong claim to inherit the English throne from Queen Elizabeth, who had no children and no apparent heirs.

As James grew older, he did everything he could to protect and increase his chances of being crowned King of England. 

He and Queen Elizabeth corresponded by letter, and kept an open channel through councillors. In fact, at one point, she began to pay him an annual stipend of 4000 pounds.

In all the time that James was King of Scotland, he never met his mother. In 1583, there was a painting done, showing them together, but in fact she had not seen him since he was 10 months old.

Mary Queen of Scots and King James, 1583

There are many theories why he did this, but perhaps the most compelling answer is that his mother Mary was a controversial figure, and disliked by Queen Elizabeth. James did not want to risk his standing with Elizabeth, nor ruin his chances of succeeding her.

When Elizabeth consented to having Mary executed for treason, it was a real test of James’s allegiance. It would seem, that despite how he really felt about the death of his mother, he was more interested in becoming King of England.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that his coronation in London was so close in date to the date of his coronation in Scotland in 1567. I think he chose it on purpose.

I think he wanted to celebrate not only his coronation but the memory of his mother, who had given him this opportunity, and paid with her life.

But whatever grand plans James had for the coronation and the day itself, the day did not go well.

First of all, since almost precisely the time that Queen Elizabeth died in March 1603, a plague was ravaging London. This would mean that he would not get close to the public, for fear of the disease.

By July 25 1603, two Catholic treason plots against James had just been discovered. This would mean that he should not get close to the public, for fear of getting killed.

This was a real fear. His life had been threatened several times before, and political assassinations were not unheard of. Only a few years before, in 1589, the French King Henri III was stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic.

Finally, if that wasn't bad enough, on the day of the coronation, there was a terrible rain!

Whatever good mood James was in, it was probably ruined. He was probably very fearful of the plague, assassination, and getting wet.

At Westminster Cathedral, there were scaffolds on which the public would have been seated to watch his entry and exit, but they were never finished.

What did Shakespeare think of the coronation day? He and his players had just become the official royal playing company, the King’s Men.

He would have seen firsthand what the day was like, and what kind of mood King James was in. 

He would also have seen how the public, what few people turned out, reacted to this new king.

When I read Coriolanus, which was written during the reign of King James, I can’t help but think the “gown of humility” that Coriolanus must wear to get the “voices” of the public has something to do with King James and his relationship with the citizens of London.

Patrick Page in a recent production as Coriolanus

King James disliked, and was generally afraid of crowds. He also detested tobacco smoking (which was hugely popular at the time), for many reasons, not the least of which is that it makes your breath stink.

On that day, Shakespeare may have seen how much James detested having to appear humble before the public and, in the words from Coriolanus, “beg their stinking breaths.”

And like King James and Queen Anne, and the rest of the court, Shakespeare and his players probably got wet.

Did Shakespeare consider all of these things bad omens? Did he sense that the plague, the assassination plots, and the weather were an indication the reign of King James would not be good, and might be very bad for the country?

Shakespeare may have been too happy, what with his recent promotion, to give it any thought on the day itself.

But in the years that followed, Shakespeare wrote some of his bloodiest, darkest and most nightmarish plays -- Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus.

It makes you wonder what else happened that day, and in the years that followed in the court of King James.


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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Shakespeare & The End of Mary and Beginning of James

446 years ago today, on 24 July 1567, Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate her throne, and her 13-month-old son James became King James VI of Scotland.

Mary and her son James

Mary had led an eventful life, full of drama, and the two years before this moment were some of the most dramatic.

Mary, in 1559

She had been married to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Their relationship was not very good. He wanted more power, and there is also evidence that she abused her husband.

When she was pregnant with James, her personal secretary, the Italian David Rizzio, was suspected of fathering the child.

Darnley was so enraged that he and some of his men killed Rizzio in cold blood at a dinner party, stabbing him to death -- in front of Mary, and while she was pregnant!

Murder of Rizzio

There was also suspicions that the real father was James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. It would certainly make sense. Why would she name the child James and not Henry, after Lord Darnley?

Mary would have her revenge on Darnley when he came to visit his estranged wife in Edinburgh and stayed at Kirk o’ Field. While he was sleeping, gunpowder exploded in the room beneath his.

It seems that the explosion did not kill him, and as he struggled out of the house, he was strangled to death in the garden.

It was suspected that Bothwell had strangled Darnley himself.

Not long after that, Mary went to visit her son James at Stirling Castle, under the protection of the Earl of Mar and his wife. Little did she know perhaps that it was to be the last time she saw her son.

On her journey back, she was abducted by Bothwell and they were soon after married.

The marriage was a scandal at court, since Bothwell was hated by most of the Scottish lords, and especially since both Bothwell and Mary were suspected of her husband’s murder.

Also, Mary was pregnant again. It was clear that the children had to be Bothwell’s. This only increased the pressure on her to give up the throne.

26 Scottish lords challenged her authority, and summoned an army against her, which led to a confrontation at Carberry Hill

Bothwell ran from the fight and Mary was taken into custody and imprisoned.

Bothwell was exiled, and he travelled to Denmark, where he was imprisoned. He went insane and died 11 years later in 1578.

While Mary was in prison, pressure was put on her to give up the throne, and give it to her son.

Her pain must have been great, because she miscarried the twins she was carrying. James would never know his siblings, who were lost while his mother was in prison.

The miscarriage was between 20 and 23 July. On 24 July she abdicated.

Her son James became King of Scotland under very strange circumstances.

He was crowned in the Church of the Holy Rude, in Stirling.

Church of the Holy Rude

William Shakespeare was only 3 years old in 1567 when this was happening, and would probably would not have known anything about it.

But as the years went by, he must have learned every little rumor and conjecture about the strange events of Mary’s reign.

If he was like any young man in England at the time, he would have been fascinated by these highly dramatic stories, from a land not that far from his own.

When Shakespeare became a playwright, and wrote history plays, he would have investigated these stories about Mary even further, and it is very likely that they show up in his plays?

Was Shakespeare referring to Darnley, murdered in a garden by his wife’s lover, when he wrote about Hamlet’s father murdered in a garden by his wife’s lover?

Is the murder of Hamlet's father in the garden based on the murder of Darnley (top right)?
Is the character of Prince Hamlet, possibly driven mad by the ghost his parent that haunts him meant to suggest King James? 

Is King James the real Hamlet?

If Hamlet is a portrait of James, then is the play asking a question: will James possibly be driven mad by the ghost of his mother?

Is there something of Mary Queen of Scots in the story about another Scottish Queen, Lady Macbeth? Is the character of Macbeth meant to suggest Bothwell?

Are Mary and Bothwell the real Macbeths?

If Mary is Lady Macbeth and James is Hamlet, then it would suggest that Shakespeare saw with his own eyes how rotten the state of England was, when James became King of England in 1603.

I explore these questions in my version of Hamlet, and will explore them further in my upcoming version of Othello.


David B. Schajer

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shakespeare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Lady Glamis

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Macbeth play, Macbeth is the Thane of Glamis.

A thane is the chief of a clan, and one of the king's landholding barons.

Glamis is small village in Angus, Scotland.

Glamis Castle, rumoured to be haunted

But the real historical Macbeth was NOT the Thane of Glamis.

So why did Shakespeare make it up?

Did it have anything to do with Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis?

On 17 July 1537, she was burned at the stake... for witchcraft.

Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis

For many long years, King James V of Scotland hated Janet Douglas and her entire family. He fought them and persecuted them over the years.

King James V of Scotland, ca. 1536

She was charged with poisoning her husband. The murder charge was dropped and she was free to marry her second husband.

Almost immediately she was accused of plotting to poison the King. She and her husband were imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. He was later killed, after he escaped from the dungeon.

To convict her of the charges, her family and servants were questioned and tortured.

She was convicted and executed, on the Esplanade at Edinburgh Castle. Her son was made to watch while she was burned alive.

It would seem that the charges of witchcraft were entirely false and fabricated.

She is believed to be one of many ghosts that haunts Glamis Castle.

What does this have to do with Shakespeare and his Macbeth play?

Shakespeare wrote this Scottish play for the Scottish king: the new King of England, James I, who had been King James VI of Scotland beforehand.

King James I of England and VI of Scotland
around the time Macbeth was written in 1606

King James was fascinated by witchcraft, and it would seem that Shakespeare was trying entertain his new monarch with a subject he had an interest in.

King James had conducted very famous witch trials while he was King of Scotland, and many of these witches were executed at Edinburgh Castle, too.

But King James was also the grandson of King James V, the king who had persecuted the Douglas family and had executed Lady Glamis.

It would appear that Shakespeare is making a connection between Lady Glamis’s execution for witchcraft and King James’s witchcraft trials.

If that is true, then is Shakespeare making a connection between King James V and his grandson King James VI?

If so, what is Shakespeare saying about the king for whom he wrote the Macbeth play, King James VI?

Is Shakespeare comparing King James VI to the blood-thirsty Macbeth, whose ambition drives him to murder and ultimately to his own bloody end?

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the nightmarish period after the Gunpowder Plot, when Catholic conspirators tried to kill the king and blow up Parliament. There were many trials, and many people were executed, including priests.

Is Shakespeare making a comment that the blood that was on King James V's hands was like the blood on Macbeth's hands, and perhaps that King James VI had the blood of the Gunpowder plotters on his hands as well?

Alan Cumming in the recent Macbeth on Broadway

Did Shakespeare think that the souls of the executed would haunt
Whitehall Palace in London in the same way that Lady Glamis haunted her castle in Scotland?

It has often been written that Shakespeare made a connection between King James VI and the good character Banquo, from whom it is believed that James was descended, in order to flatter this new king.

That may be true.

But it would seem, with this little curious clue, in calling Macbeth the Thane of Glamis, Shakespeare might be saying something else entirely.

What do you think?


David B. Schajer

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Shakespeare and Walter Raleigh's Arrest

On 17 July 1603, Sir Walter Raleigh was arrested, on treason charges.

Arrest of Sir Walter Raleigh, from Cassell's Illustrated History of England

He was implicated in plotting to remove King James from his throne, and put Arbella Stuart (James’s cousin) in his place.

James had been King of England only a few weeks, since March 1603. He had not even had his coronation yet -- that would happen one week later, on 25 July 1603.

He had been King of England for such a short time, and already there were those who wanted to see him removed.

It must have been a very confusing and turbulent time for everyone in England, including William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare had benefited a great deal when King James arrived. King James gave Shakespeare and his fellow players a promotion. He made them the official royal players to the King, the King’s Men.

This promotion would enrich Shakespeare personally, and helped secure his fame while he lived and after he died.

Imagine what it must have been like for Shakespeare, in the earliest days of King James’s reign. He has just been given this tremendous and very prestigious honor.

But then Sir Walter Raleigh is arrested.

There is no evidence to suggest that Shakespeare and Raleigh liked each other, or were well acquainted with each other.

But there is no doubting that Raleigh was one of the most important and famous men of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. He is well known for spreading his cloak for Queen Elizabeth to walk across when she came to a muddy patch on the ground.

If Raleigh was conspiring against King James, then it spoke to a deep level of distrust and fear that many people in London, and in England in general, had of this new king.

I have written before that the imprisonment and later trial of Raleigh marked the end of the Elizabethan era. An era that had known for such wonderful freedoms, like theatre and playwrights like Shakespeare, and for its adventure and exploration, like Sir Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, had come to a definite close in the summer of 1603, with Raleigh’s arrest.

Yes, there had been plots against Queen Elizabeth, too. Yes, Elizabeth was known to have an effective and ruthless intelligence network, and was not above torturing suspects and traitors. She was not shy about executions. 

But when she died, there was a great deal of hope that with her death, England could become a better country, a country that was more free, and would finally allow people of different faiths to co-exist in peace.

Many believed that King James would allow religious freedom for Catholics in England. While he was King of Scotland, he had made many assurances to that effect. One could argue that he could not have become King of England if he was not seen as friendly towards the rather large Catholic community in England.

When King James allowed Raleigh to arrested, it was a clear signal that the hopes of a newer and better England were in vain.

In the days that followed, many people, perhaps including Shakespeare himself, believed that King James would be lenient to Raleigh, and let him out of jail.

But as the days and weeks passed, while Raleigh sat in jail, it was clear that King James was not quite the king everyone wanted.

With Shakespeare’s promotion to King’s Man, it was a signal that King James wanted the arts to continue to flourish, and he wanted theatres to remain open.

In time it was also clear that King James wanted exploration to continue. It was in 1607 that Jamestown, Virginia was established in the Americas.

But it was also clear that spy networks, arrests, and religious persecution, including against Catholics, would also continue.

I think that Shakespeare was very pleased when he became the King’s Man. 

But 410 years ago, on 17 July, Shakespeare may have realized that he got more than he bargained for.


David B. Schajer

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Robert Greene and Shakespeare the Upstart Crow

Robert Greene was born 455 years ago today, on 11 July 1558.

He was one of the most famous and popular writers in London when Shakespeare was first beginning his career.

Robert Greene, in a woodcut from after his death
He is shown writing in his funeral shroud
Greene was only about 6 years older than Shakespeare, but by the time that Shakespeare arrived in London in around 1587, Greene was already well established.

By 1587, Greene, Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe were arguably the most well known writers of all.

Greene wrote in many genres, not just in plays. He is considered to be perhaps the first man to support himself as a professional writer in England.

He was a very colorful figure, wearing very fashionable clothing, and styling his red beard into a point.

It would seem that Greene was not interested in just being a writer. He wanted to create a very flamboyant identity in London that was unlike any other.

He matched his unusual style with unusual writing. He wrote stories about the underbelly of society, on the mean streets of Elizabethan London, with dark and shady characters, including a character of himself as a notorious rascal.

I think Shakespeare would have met Greene, and like any other actor and writer of the period, he would have wanted to learn how to become as successful an artist as Greene, or Kyd, or Marlowe was.

I also think that artists like Marlowe and Greene, who both went to Cambridge, would have looked down on a country bumpkin like Shakespeare as unwelcome upstart. Shakespeare did not attend university due to his father’s financial losses.

Greene's pamphlet in which Shakespeare is mentioned
Published shortly after Greene's death

Nowadays, Greene is most remembered for having written a pamphlet in 1592 that is the first historical mention of Shakespeare:

"...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey"

A rough translation would be: Shakespeare is nothing but an attention-grabbing upstart, who makes himself seem talented by performing our plays, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and thinks that he can write as well as us:  he is a Jack-of-all-trades who is conceited enough to think that he is the best actor in the country.

Bitter words.

Do they accurately portray Shakespeare? Was Shakespeare a status-seeking social climber?

It may have seemed like that to Greene. 

By 1592, Shakespeare was just getting going, and receiving his first acclaim as a writer, of the Henry VI plays. 

In 1592, Robert Greene’s greatest work was behind him, with Pandosto (1588) and Menaphon (1589).

Robert Greene must have been terrified by someone as ambitious and talented as Shakespeare.

It was a fear that Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd and any other writer in London must have felt.

By the end of 1592, Greene was dead. He probably drinked himself to death. He was only 34 years old.

By 1593, Marlowe was dead.

By 1594, Kyd was dead, and Shakespeare had no real competition in London as a writer. For almost the rest of Shakespeare's life, there was no one else who could touch him.

It is important to look at the early years in Shakespeare’s career as closely as possible, even with what little we know about those days.

It would seem that Shakespeare did not follow in the footsteps of Greene, Kyd and Marlowe. He just wrote. He was just a writer.

When Greene was drinking, and buying expensive clothes, and hanging out with Elizabethan London’s low-lifes, Shakespeare was hard at work writing.

When Marlowe and Kyd were getting in trouble with the authorities, and in Marlowe’s case possibly working as a spy, Shakespeare was writing.

Shakespeare’s success and his longevity as a writer and an artist was based, it seems very clear, on the fact that so many of the “best” writers before him did not just write. 

He saw their failures, and he learned not to make their mistakes. 

I think there is a very good moral to the story of Greene's life, as compared to Shakespeare's.

Shakespeare's genius was not just in the quality of his writing. 

Any writer will tell you that it is impossible to control the quality of the words they write.

But the quantity of time they spend writing is what they can control the most. The quality of their writing is directly a result of the time they put into it.

Shakespeare learned early on that while everyone else was busy in the taverns, he was hard at work. He sat down and wrote.


David B. Schajer

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Shakespeare Glimpses His Future

In July 1575, Queen Elizabeth I visited Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire.

She stayed for 19 days, from 9 to 27 July, at the invitation of her “favourite” Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

He wanted her to marry him, and this was his last best chance to make her say yes.

A model of Kenilworth, as it would have appeared in 1575

He spent a lot of money to woo her, and did everything he could to entertain her.

There were pageants, fireworks, bear baitings, mystery plays, hunts and lavish banquets. 

More than any other person, Leicester was responsible for the birth of playing companies. He had playing companies, and actors, of his own for many years. He had petitioned the Queen to give them license to perform freely and organise into troupes.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
in his tilting armor, a drawing by Zuccaro 1575

At Kenilworth in 1575, he would have had many of these actors with him, including James Burbage. Burbage would build The Theatre, the very first permanent structure built as a theatre in England since the Roman times.

Burbage had a son named Richard Burbage, who would go on to be the leading actor in Shakespeare’s plays (and arguably the greatest actor of all time) -- the first actor to play Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and so many more.

Richard Burbage would have been 8 years old in 1575, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he was with his father at Kenilworth in 1575

Queen Elizabeth, in 1575

Kenilworth Castle is only 23 kilometers away from Stratford-upon-Avon.

It is believed that a young William Shakespeare, who would have been 11 years old at the time, may have witnessed much of the festivities.

Was this the first time that he saw Queen Elizabeth? Perhaps. 

She had made a short trip to Kenilworth 3 years earlier in 1572, so perhaps Shakespeare had seen her then.

But in 1575, he could have gotten a really good look at her. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went to Kenilworth every day to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth, and Leicester and all of the excitement they had brought to his relatively simple Midlands life.

Queen Elizabeth dancing La Volta with Leicester

But what is almost even more interesting is that he saw not only the Queen, but he also saw Leicester, the father of playing companies, he also saw James Burbage, the father of theatre in England, and he probably saw Richard Burbage, who would be the first true superstar of England’s theatre.

Just think of that. When Shakepspeare was only 11 years old, in July 1575, he was getting a glimpse of his future. One day he would act and write for the Queen, in the company of these very men.

I think Shakespeare fell in love with theatre and plays and acting earlier in his life, when he was 5 years old.

But if there was any doubt that he would go on to become an actor and a writer, all doubt would be gone in July 1575.

I like to imagine that the young boy Shakespeare walked among the festivities and entertainments, with his jaw dropped open and was delighted by everything he saw.

What he saw stayed with him his entire life. He must have seen Leicester’s fireworks and a spectacle of a 24-foot-long dolphin emerging from a lake, inside of which was an actor playing the Greek poet Arion.

Arion on a dolphin's back

When Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night many years later, he referred back to “Arion on the dolphin’s back” and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream he referred to the fireworks and the “dolphin’s back” again.

I have this image in my mind of this young Warwickshire boy witnessing what sounds like the grandest entertainment of the 16th century, staring up at the sky as the fireworks explode -- and whatever dreams he had get even bigger with every explosion.

Fireworks over Kenilworth Castle

Somewhere inside him, he must have decided that when he grew up, he wanted to act in and write plays for the Queen.

Around 13 years later, by the end of the 1580’s, that little boy was a young man. Shakespeare would be in London, part of a playing company, and acting and writing as much as he could to secure his future and fortune on stage.

But one of the most important moments in his life that led him to London was at Kenilworth in July 1575.


David B. Schajer

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