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Friday, August 9, 2013

Shakespeare: Glorious Victory and Shameful Peace


On 8 August 1588, the Spanish Armada was defeated at the Battle of the Gravelines by the British fleet.



English ships and the Spanish Armada, 1588



This was one of the greatest military battles in England’s history, and it was the single most important event in the Anglo-Spanish War, which had begun in 1585.

It was a victory to celebrate, and England had every right to be proud.






William Shakespeare had gone from Stratford-upon-Avon to London by this time to break into the theatre world and become the famous actor and playwright he was.

Queen Elizabeth herself gave arguably her most famous speech to mark the occasion, when she visited her troops at Tilbury.



Queen Elizabeth's Armada Portrait



The speech is probably most famous for the line: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.”

Shakespeare, like any Englishman at the time, would have been proud of Queen Elizabeth. Whether you liked or disliked her, she was a strong Queen to have stood up to Spain, and defeat them!

She also said in the speech: “My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but, I do assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects.”

Queen Elizabeth, who was under threat of assassination, and who was unpopular with some people for different reasons, was appealing to her country -- she loved England and she wanted England to love her back.

Shakespeare would eventually write plays and perform them for Queen Elizabeth, and during the 1590’s he would become the greatest playwright, almost completely without a rival.

When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, King James inherited the throne.

I have written before about the beginning and the end of the Elizabethan era.

As James became King of England, Shakespeare must have seen all sorts of changes around him, as is natural when one monarch succeeds another.

One such change was when King James promoted Shakespeare and his playing company. Shakespeare and his men became the official royal playing company to the court of King James, the King’s Men.

The King’s Men were expected to perform all sorts of duties, including performing plays.

One of their duties was to welcome a delegation of Spanish envoys to England in May 1604. They came to negotiate a peace treaty.

King James wanted to make peace with Spain, which had been fighting with England off and on since 1585.

This is another very important moment of change. This was another very clear sign that the Elizabethan period was over.

It is hard to imagine that Elizabeth would have ever made peace with Spain, but James was a different kind of monarch. Elizabeth, who had declared that she had placed her "chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill" of her subjects was replaced by a King who seemed to care less about the hearts and minds of his people.

For Shakespeare, and any Englishman at the time, the news that King James was negotiating a peace treaty with Spain, would have been very confusing, and maddening.

There were many reasons to make peace with Spain, and it was good for Spain and for England. But at the time, during the actual treaty process, it was controversial. Many in the English delegation were suspected of taking bribes from the Spanish.

Also, Spain and England would resume their hostilities in 1625.

It is hard to know what Shakespeare thought of the peace treaty with Spain, the Treaty of London, signed on 18 August 1604 -- almost 16 years to the day that the Spanish Armada was defeated.



The Treaty of London delegations,
 the Spanish on the left,
and the English on the right

It is very likely that while he was entertaining King James and the Spanish during the summer of 1604, he was writing Othello and Measure For Measure. These were the first two plays that Shakespeare wrote for King James.

If these plays are any indication, Shakespeare was not pleased at the direction the country was going in. 

Corrupt and evil men, like Angelo in Measure for Measure, and Iago in Othello, could very well have represented the kind of men he was meeting, as the peace negotiations were dragging on.

Shakespeare lived during some of the most consequential moments in England's history. In the case of the Treaty of London, he had a front row seat. 

He had known a Queen who had the heart and stomach of a King, and he knew her successor, a King who seemed to have no heart nor stomach.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


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