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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Shakespeare and the Sins of the Father


On 4 July 1607, the third session of King James’s first Parliament ended.

It did not pass the proposed union between England and Scotland.

The Parliament would not meet again until 1610.



King James and his Parliament



King James was having great difficulty with his Parliament in realizing the dream he had in uniting the country.

Many of these problems started in the very first year Parliament he summoned in March 1604, and by 7 July 1604, that session was postponed because of the same problems over Union.

James had become King of England in March 1603, and he met with great reluctance from his Parliament. He considered them to be just an advisory council. They repeatedly tried to curb the influence and power of the king. 


King James in 1606



He was so frustrated with his Parliament that he did most of his governing without them. 

In the course of his 22 year reign, which lasted until 1625, he summoned his Parliament only 4 times, with a total of 9 sessions.

After the Addled Parliament, which ended in 1614, King James did not summon them until almost 7 years later!

When he became King of England his greatest dream was to create a united country. It was to be his greatest legacy.

But in his lifetime he could not fulfill his dream, especially through Parliament.

He turned to other things, like the creation of the King James Bible, but he never could effect the change he wanted so much.





For Shakespeare, he must have found it fascinating to watch as the King fought with his Parliament and struggled to realize his dream.

It should come as no surprise then that some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays during the reign of King James are about powerful men who meet their destruction -- Othello, King Lear, Coriolanus for example.



Patrick Page in a recent production of Coriolanus

For the country as a whole, they must have been very frustrated with both the King and his Parliament.

It was no accident that the Gunpowder Plot conspirators chose to assassinate King James while he opened his Parliament in November 1605. These Catholic plotters considered James to be a cruel tyrant and they considered Parliament the place where “cruel laws were made against their religion.”

The fact that he and his Parliament were such rivals was not good for the country as a whole. 

He was sowing seeds of discord, and teaching his son Charles a very bad lesson in statecraft. When Charles succeeded his father, he would further inflame the tensions with Parliament, which would resulted in civil war.

Shakespeare knew something of this, when he paraphrased the Bible when he wrote “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.”



Queen Anne, King James and their son Charles
by Simon de Passe, circa 1612

I often wonder to what degree Shakespeare could predict the English Civil War. 

Not only do I think he could see it coming, I think he was acutely aware of the fact that it could happen at any moment.

Shakespeare lived and worked in the theatre. He was not insulated from the world around him. He was exposed to the highest class of people and the lowest class, and very often both at the same time.

For a playwright who wrote about Jack Cade's Rebellion, and the Gunpowder Plot, and the assassination of Julius Caesar -- Shakespeare was very aware of the mind of the common man.

I think it is impossible to think that he was not aware that the country was heading in the wrong direction with King James.

When he died in 1616, I think he was very grateful that a Civil War was not fought during his life. But he knew it could come one day, and like a tempest, it would blow over the whole country.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


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