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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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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.

Cheers,


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