Shakespeare was baptised 26^(th) April, 1564 and buried on the 25^(th) April fifty two year later. His father was a successful glover by trade, became a bailiff and senior alderman, but due to over extension fell on hard times charged with illegal trading, usury and bad debts. By 1592, he had been arraigned “for feare of processe of Debtte”. Shakespeare too frequently engaged in litigation mainly over his various properties.
His father’s elevated status gave Shakespeare a sound Italian Renaissance education in Greek and Latin literature (Ovid, Cicero, Virgil) and history (Plutarch, Livy), tragic/comedy (Plautis, Seneca), though he left school at 15. Oueen Elizabeth encouraged the Arts, and evidence indicates that many travelling troupes of players passed through Stratford upon Avon from 1572 - 1584 inculcating patriotic dramatisations of English history, emphasising the contributions of the Tudors. No doubt these kindled a spark of inspiration in the young Shakespeare.
At eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, twenty five, with whom he had three children, a daughter, Susanna and later twins, a boy and a girl. Not much is known about him until seven year later he moves to London and they become estranged.
We know almost nothing of Shakespeare’s inner life, because we have few records of his personal writing. We do, however, have other primary sources referencing him.
The death of his son, Hamnet, eleven, in 1595 affected Shakespeare greatly. Soon later a plague killed off half the population. He wrote fewer plays and when he began again, they were the dark tragedies of Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. spa
The grieving Constance in King John laments:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form….
The Elizabethan Age was marked by stability, growth and prolific artistic creativity but her failure to provide an heir returned the Stuarts (Jacobean era) to the throne with their ideas of the Divine right of kings and absolute authority of monarchs. Shakespeare was profoundly affected by the transition of monarchs as many of his plays indicate. His concern is about legitimacy, orderly succession and husbandry. King Lear (1606) may be a warning to the new King James I about several issues; the false flattery of courtiers, breaking up kingdoms and whether or not a King is a king forever. All his historical plays explore the relationship of power and good governance.
Shakespeare’s life spanned both Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a dynamic period of change, expansion, exploration and enlightenment, yet his view of the world (Weltanshaung) was quite different from ours.
Though Copernicus had died 21 years before Shakespeare’s birth and he was born in the same year as Galileo, his world view was still geocentric rather than heliocentric; that is most people still believed that the earth was the centre of the world with the sun and planets revolving around it. Shakespeare’s geography is a bit sus. He gives Bohemia a sea coast, sends Valentino from Verona to Milan by ship and has Propero sail from Milan.
His was a uniform, unanimous or monolithic world with one ruler – a monarch, one church – Anglo-Catholic/, one economic system – feudalism, and a conformist conservative outlook in life.
His was a profoundly Christian society, believing in sin, an afterlife of heaven or hell, yet also easily influenced by pagan ideas of fortune, the stars and supernatural spirits, ghosts and goblins. Fortuna, the pagan goddess with her wheel of fortune is prominently referred to in his plays. The occult emerges in many of his plays with ghosts, fairies, witches and child like magic.
Many of his plays are set in pagan eras, though some like Hamlet clearly show the conflicting ideologies such as revenge. Some scholars claim that he may be a closet Catholic.
Anthony D. Baker Professor of Theology, Seminary of the Southwest, contends that:
believe the playwright’s best religious impulses are displayed neither through coded affirmations nor straightforward denials. Writing at a time of great religious polarization and upheaval, Shakespeare’s greatest pronouncements on faith are more like curious whispers – and, like whispers, they require deep listening to be heard.
I see an invitation to this deep listening in one of Shakespeare’s most unusual plays, “The Tempest.”
“Be not afeared,” “the isle is full of noises,
sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”
the half-man, half-beast Caliban tells his companions as they arrive on the island where the play is set,
It is a striking passage, made all the more so coming from a foul-smelling creature accused of attempted rape and repeatedly called “monster.” But in it, Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that there are dimensions of reality that many of us miss – and we might be surprised to find out who among us is paying attention.
Subtleties like this show up differently across Shakespeare’s plays. “Romeo and Juliet” is not in any overt sense a theological play. But as the tragedy comes to a somber denouement, we have the line:
“See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.”
While there is no clear naming of gods or fates, Shakespeare implies that some great power transcends the destructive feud between the Montagues and Capulets, the families of the two lovers. He calls into question the earthly power of the two houses – heaven, he implies, is also at work here.
Shakespeare was, I believe, in constant search of subtle ways to imagine divine intervention within the human realm. This is all the more impressive given the fraught religious times in which he lived.
Closet Catholic or atheist? Or is it more complicated?
The late 16th century witnessed religious and political polarization greater, even, than our own. Decades earlier, King Henry VIII had separated the Anglican church from Rome and created a Protestant England. His daughter Elizabeth, who sat on the throne for the first half of Shakespeare’s writing career, was excommunicated by Pope Pius V for continuing in her father’s footsteps. The queen responded by making the practice of Catholicism a crime in England.
So even before Elizabeth’s successor, James I, outlawed overt theological humor or criticism on stage, artists hoping to engage in religious themes were under considerable restrictions.
These upheavals affected Shakespeare directly. Shakespeare’s family had deep ties to Roman Catholicism, as likely did some of his closest associates. For any one of them to express doubts about the Anglican prayer book, or even to avoid the Anglican parish on Sunday, was to put themselves under suspicion of treason.
There is little in the way of biographical detail to help scholars looking for Shakepeare’s religious beliefs. Instead, they have generally relied on explicit references to familiar religious language or character types – the Catholic priest in “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance – in speculating about Shakespeare’s faith. Some have suggested that clues and codes in his play suggest the playwright was a closeted Catholic. But to me it is more in what he doesn’t say, or where he finds new ways of saying something old, that Shakespeare is theologically at his most interesting.
Anthony D. Baker Professor of Theology, Seminary of the Southwest, writing for The Conversation
He believed in order; a place for everything and everything in its place, especially in matters of governance. The monarch is supreme and his plays are strongly critical of improper succession of monarchs which could give rise to chaos or anarchy. Shakespeare’s many history plays subtly mirror his society. Hamlet and Richard II warn about proper succession, while King Lear could be a subtle warning to the new King about flatterers and sycophants in his court.
History Plays became a device to bring the cultural and national inheritance to the common illiterate masses. Through entertainment it helped the common people appreciate the famous victories and noble heroes of a great nation. None was more admired than Henry V.
Society believed in hierarchy – the order of degrees in society, though already there is evidence of an emergent middle trading class striving for political power. Yet his language and plots are pitched to the masses.
In CORIOLANUS which explores the power dynamics between the state and the citiizen, he warns that egalitarinism, by erasing distinction, will lead to mediocrity and ruin:
That is the way to lay the city flat,
To bring the roof to the foundation
And bury all which yet distinctly ranges
In heaps and piles of ruin. I. 4 256 – 259.
The smaller world of man, the microcosm, is a reflection of the macrocosm and what happens in the macrocosm is an omen of what will happen in man’s world, indicated by the night Duncan is killed by Macbeth, natural storms presage a disturbance in the social and political order of things. In Julius Caesar, a turbulent night presages the assassination of the ruler.
Finally he believed in the Great Chain of Being with God, the Angels, Man, Animals, Vegetable and last; the inanimate. Man exists in a state between the Angels and was capable of transcending to the level of Angels but also prone to descend to the level of animals.
Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. When Shylock denounces the Christians for their slave trading, he is giving back as good as he got for their abuse of his usury.
Despite some leaning towards monarchy, the plays contain more than enough regicide and Bad Kings to satisfy the staunchest Republican. Shakespeare is full of moral and philosophical ambiguities.
As John Bell states:
“he doesn’t commit himself to any one stance….he didn’t have to believe anything. His great objectivity leads to ambivalence because life is ambiguous.
Of course there are exceptions - Richard III, Macbeth, Coriolanus….
We live in a Post-Modern world of subjective values, no absolute truths and a pluralistic world of varied cultures, beliefs and values. Our highest virtues are honesty, compassion, tolerance… The Western world has accepted empirical knowledge, egalitarianism, feminism and tolerates a wide, diverse form of life styles. To someone from Shakespeare’s time this would appear chaotic, confusing and distressing.
He does exprees a view of the relativity of morals when he has Hamlet say:
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Or in Corialanus he has Aufidus say:
So our virtues
Lie in the interpretation of the time:
And power, unto itself most commendable,
Is this evidence of a Machiavellian mindset? Richard III also expresses similar diassociated morality.
Where he does show his hand is his intolerance of pretence or affectation. He lampoons pomposity and is bigoted towards posturing and all forms of hypocrisy.
His tragedies are is a rich mother lode of layers and layers of meaning.
Shakespeare often gives the best lines to his worst characters such as Polonius’ advice to Leartes regarding integrity:
“This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man”
or Iago (Othello) pontificating on the importance of “reputation”. Some people can “talk the talk”, but fail to “walk the talk” or demonstrate that theory and practice can be quite dissonant.
Integrity is related to a sense of honour; that of your name or reputation. Shakespeare again addresses this issue in Othello when he has Iago tell Othello,
“Who steals my purse steals trash; …………
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.”
Sometimes a throw-away-line can convey profound sentiments as during the Ghost swearing scene Hamlet tells Horatio:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Is this Shakespeare having a swing at academics, that life has many imponderables not evident to intellectuals in their ivory towers?
Here is Helen Razer on recovered ancient wisdom of Shakespeare
Some of us look for a return to the idea of universal truth in art and this, in part, is why Shakespeare has survived for centuries.
Shakespeare was, of course, very good and we can still take authentic pleasure in his filth, his wit and his durable rhythms. But, his works can claim to give us no universal truth; other than those aesthetic ones he himself created. This doesn’t stop everyone, from directors to feminist scholars to earnest teachers of English, making the claim that Shakespeare is universal.
Like everyone, Shakespeare came to us within a sociohistoric context. Talent is not sufficient to deliver anyone from their time and it will not deliver access to those “fundamental” truths we have deluded ourselves we no longer need but chase with unprecedented passion. Still. People go on about how Macbeth is eternal and no fewer than 50 film directors have sought to prove this on screen; perhaps least notably, Australian Geoffrey Wright whose 2005 casting of the witches as sexy schoolgirls show us how a desperation to believe in a noble truth from outside ourselves — in this case, Shakespeare — accidentally reveals an obscene truth from inside ourselves. I.e. I think sexy schoolgirls have mystical powers.
Thomas Bowdler, now rightly reviled as a silly censor, was really just doing the same accidental strip-tease with his famous Family Shakespeare where he turned Ophelia from a vessel for suicidal feminine shame into someone who accidentally fell into a river.
In offering “trigger warnings”, as some English departments in American colleges now do, or in “modernising” Shakespeare as many directors are compelled to — if I had my way, every production of Shakespeare would be performed entirely by men dressed in doublet-and-hose — the contemporary interpreter is at odds with himself. The urge here is to make great works available and palatable to a more diverse audience and to agree, at a very basic and flawed level, that the human experience is social and historic and is not universal. But, to achieve this by taking the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn or, as is often the case, the anti-Semitism out of Merchant of Venice, seems a bit upside-down. Of course, in the case of these two texts, there is an argument to be made that the authors were decrying and were not endorsing racism but even, and especially, if they were not, why spare Twain or Shakespeare the trouble of being seen as racists?
It is easy to understand the urge of professors to seduce their students from detachment with literature. But, it is not so easy to understand how a discussion of Merchant or Finn would be possible without addressing the racism that informs not only these texts by the eras in which they were produced. Universalising the human condition could itself be seen as the foundation of racism. By the Bowdlerisation of these texts, and former Globe theatre director Mark Rylance has admitted to taking the anti-Semitic references out of Merchant, we permit the idea of the “universal” Shakespeare.
Our era of self-examination leads us to hide our history. We feel we have addressed racism, sexism and other grave ills by redacting them from Shakespeare and other texts. And this approach to “universal” art that exceeds time and social conditions is as good as giving Willy Loman the keys to the car.
Reasons Behind Shakespeare’s Influence and Popularity #
From Shakespeare Online.
Ben Jonson anticipated Shakespeare’s dazzling future when he declared, “He was not of an age, but for all time!” in the preface to the First Folio. While most people know that Shakespeare is, in fact, the most popular dramatist and poet the Western world has ever produced, students new to his work often wonder why this is so. The following are the top four reasons why Shakespeare has stood the test of time.
1) Illumination of the Human Experience
Shakespeare’s ability to summarize the range of human emotions in simple yet profoundly eloquent verse is perhaps the greatest reason for his enduring popularity. If you cannot find words to express how you feel about love or music or growing older, Shakespeare can speak for you. No author in the Western world has penned more beloved passages. Shakespeare’s work is the reason John Bartlett compiled the first major book of familiar quotations.
Here are some examples of Shakespeare’s most popular passages:
• The seven ages of man
• Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
• We band of brothers
• The green-eyed monster
• What’s in a name?
• Now is the winter of our discontent
• If music be the food of love
• Beware the ides of March
• We are such stuff as dreams are made on
• Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
• To be, or not to be: that is the question
2) Great Stories
Marchette Chute, in the Introduction to her famous retelling of Shakespeare’s stories, summarizes one of the reasons for Shakespeare’s immeasurable fame:
William Shakespeare was the most remarkable storyteller that the world has ever known. Homer told of adventure and men at war, Sophocles and Tolstoy told of tragedies and of people in trouble. Terence and Mark Twain told comedic stories, Dickens told melodramatic ones, Plutarch told histories and Hans Christian Andersen told fairy tales. But Shakespeare told every kind of story – comedy, tragedy, history, melodrama, adventure, love stories and fairy tales – and each of them so well that they have become immortal. In all the world of storytelling he has become the greatest name. (Stories from Shakespeare, 11)
Shakespeare was acutely aware of the distinctions of time and place. Most of his plays are set outside England or in times past; yet as Ben Jonson put it “He was not of an age, but for all time!”
Shakespeare’s stories transcend time and culture. Modern storytellers continue to adapt Shakespeare’s tales to suit our modern world, whether it be the tale of Lear on a farm in Iowa, Romeo and Juliet on the mean streets of New York City, or Macbeth in feudal Japan.
3) Compelling Characters
Shakespeare invented his share of distinctive stock characters, but his truly great characters – particularly his tragic heroes – are unequalled in literature, dwarfing even the sublime creations of the Greek tragedians. Shakespeare’s great characters have remained popular because of their complexity; for example, we can see ourselves as gentle Hamlet, forced against his better nature to seek murderous revenge. For this reason Shakespeare is deeply admired by actors, and many consider playing a Shakespearean character to be the most difficult and most rewarding role possible.
4) Ability to Turn a Phrase
A seventeen year old student, interviewed after first seeing Hamlet commented that while he enjoyed the play, he found the language cliched!
Many of the common expressions now thought to be clichés were Shakespeare’s creations. Chances are you use Shakespeare’s expressions all the time even though you may not know it is the Bard you are quoting. You may think that fact is “neither here nor there”, but that’s “the short and the long of it.” Bernard Levin said it best in the following quote about Shakespeare’s impact on our language:
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare. (The Story of English, 145)
Chute, Marchette. Stories from Shakespeare. New York: World Publishing Company, 1956. Levin, Bernard. Quoted in The Story of English. Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Viking: 1986).
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Why Study Shakespeare? Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/whystudyshakespeare.html >.
ELIZABETH I 1558-1603 #
The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was a remarkable woman, noted for her learning and wisdom. From first to last she was popular with the people and had a genius for the selection of capable advisors. Her mainstay was Robert Dudley. They were suspicions of intimacy despite his marriage. William Cecil served her faithfully until his death, when Robert Cecil took over. Thomas Gresham appeared to restore the national economy, however later revelations proved these illusory as he duped many through double entry book keeping.
Drake, Raleigh, Hawkins, the Cecil’s, Essex military heroes made England respected and a feared naval power.
Elizabeth began as the model of tolerance; “we will not make windows of men’s souls”. Most Catholics simply went underground. The vast majority of the nobility remained covertly Catholic, while most of her advisors were “fair weather” Protestants. Most fireplaces harboured holes to hide Priests. Religion meant everything so the wisdom went:
“Obey the Pope in religion; the Queen in politics”.
A Papal Bull ordered her execution for heresy and Phillip II to attack England. Mary Queen of Scots sought refuge in England and her supporters agitated for Elizabeth’s assassination and Mary’s ascension. In 1572, Francis Walsingham was recalled from Paris (where he had witnessed the St Bartholomew’s Massacre) to become her intelligence chief and protector. His spies uncovered various plots and over 750 suspected Catholics were interrogated, tortured and executed.
The Spanish Armada was decisively defeated in 1588 and Raleigh’s first Virginian colony was founded. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots marred what was a glorious time in English history. Shakespeare was also at the height of his popularity.
She refused to marry preferring to be known as the “virgin Queen, pledged in marriage to her people”.
“Better a beggar woman and single, than a Queen and married”.
She cultivated a cult of personality as a virgin Queen, good at rhetoric, but in plain speaking. When her beauty began to fade, she used lead based cosmetics causing scars and pock marks and loss of hair requiring the use of wigs.
Under her reign England prospered into the “Golden Era” and by defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588 emerged as a powerful naval force – “They who rule the waves, can waive the rules”. Much of its ill-gotten wealth came from pirating Spanish gold from South America, but soon England founded its own colonies and under its mercantilist policy became extremely wealthy and expansionist to the point where “the sun never set on the British Empire”. Elizabeth never married, leaving no heirs but was loved by all her subjects and by history.
Elizabeth made herself visible to her subjects, displaying her connection to the people and the magnificence of her power by progressing around the county with her entourage of 400 carriages and wagons, armed outriders, banners and buglers, 2400 horses and a court of about 350. The nobility lived in fear, because any visit by her to your estate could bankrupt you. She formed a troupe of players called the Queen’s Men who travelled the country performing plays more as a public relations exercise portraying the Tudor histories in a good light. Magnificence costs money and Elizabeth did tax the people heavily. Royalty depends on a bureaucracy of comptrollers, treasurers, chaplains, clerks, stewards, private secretaries, lord servants, lord chamberlains, physicians, apothecaries, cooks, pages, and servants to the servants.
In court Elizabeth had to make do with only 30 female attendants, many who became frisky and uncontrollable due to lack of duties. Her groom of the stool – literally the supervisor of regal bowel movements, became one of the most powerful, providing great access. Elizabeth’s godson is credited with inventing the first flush toilet. Proximity to power, is itself great power and groom of the stool evolved into one of the gatekeepers. By Charles II’s time, paid 5 thousand pounds per year.
Despite this expense, Elizabeth I is duly acknowledged as England’s most celebrated monarch. She is questionably famous for her inspiring speech to her soldiers as the Spanish Armada threatened:
“I may have the body of weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”.
King James I #
JAMES I and VI of Scotland 1566 -1625 Ruled 1603 - 1603
James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley. He was the first king to rule over Scotland and England. Mary was defeated by rebel Scottish lords, abdicated the throne, leaving Scotland in 1568, and never saw her son again. Raised by foster parents, James, became king of Scotland in 1567, one year old,.
Elizabeth sent a company of English actors to Edinburgh, Scotland from Oct. 1599 to Dec. 1601. When the Kirk Sessions, denounced them as:
vile fellows unworthy of any honourable person’s regard,
and sought to silence them, King James I forbade and overruled this insult to the actors and the drama:
The players were neither to suffer restraint nor censure. but the King would not hear of their being slandered, and gave them the highest possible honour.
When James became King in England, the company were now styled the King’s players.
James was more of a scholar, lover of poetry and drama, than a man of action. He had already met and watched Shakespeare’s troupe of players perform for him in Scotland and continued to subsidise the new King’s Men. Shakespeare’s plays were performed 107 times in Court.
The far-seeing poet doubtless quickly added to his praise of Elizabeth the vista of newly and more widely extending glories of the reign of her successor, and in King Henry VIII, Act V., Sc.iv., he appends to his sketch of Elizabeth’s reign, when paying that noble tribute to her life and death which we have noticed, and in reference to the blessed times of peace and prosperity enjoyed in her reign, he quickly foresaw the like happiness would be extended onward in the reign of King James I. He says of the new King:
“Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new-create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix’d: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant.
Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him:
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish,
And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches
To all the plains about him: — our children’s children
Shall see this, and bless heaven.” From Shakespeare Online
James I did enact some inhibiting laws that curbed the language of plays, fining publishers for any offensive swear words.
James believed in royal absolutism, divine right of kings and his conflicts with an increasingly self-assertive Parliament set the stage for a brutal civil war against his successor, Charles I in the 1640’s. In 1605 the Gunpowder Plot was hatched: Guy Fawkes and his Catholic friends tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but were captured before they could do so.
The young king was given a good education until the age of 14. He studied Greek, French, and Latin and made good use of a library of classical and religious writings aroused in him literary ambitions In 1589 James was married to Anne, the daughter of Frederick II of Denmark, who in 1594 gave birth to their first son, Prince Henry. James’s rule of Scotland was basically successful. He was able to play off Protestant and Roman Catholic factions of Scottish nobles against each other, and was able to rule Scotland almost as absolutely as Elizabeth I ruled England. The king was a convinced Presbyterian, but in 1584 he secured a series of acts that made him the head of the Presbyterian church in Scotland, with the power to appoint the church’s bishops. When James at length succeeded to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I (March 24, 1603), he was already, as he told the English Parliament:
“an old and experienced king” and one with a clearly defined theory of royal government.
Unfortunately, neither his experience nor his theory equipped him to solve the new problems facing him, and he lacked the qualities of mind and character to supply the deficiency. James hardly understood the rights or the temper of the English Parliament, and he thus came into conflict with it. He had little contact with the English middle classes, and he suffered from the narrowness of his horizons. His 22-year-long reign over England was to prove almost as unfortunate for the Stuart dynasty as his years before 1603 had been fortunate.
This is James speech to parliament on 21^(st) of March 1610:
Kings are justly called Gods for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes of God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a King. God has the power to create and destroy; make or unmake at his pleasure; to give life or send death; to judge all and to be judged, nor accountability to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure. And the like power have Kings.
Henry IV of France called him “the wisest fool of Christendom”.
When an noted lawyer, Sir Edward Cook, suggested there were limitations to the King’s prerogatives, King James thundered:
“So then I am under the law. It is treason to say that!”
Cook threw himself flat on all fours in terror and obeisance at the royal rage.
Thirty years later Cromwell’s lawyers produced the first trial of a Head of State – that of Charles I. It traces the memorable career of John Cooke, the radical barrister and visionary social reformer who had the courage and intellect to devise a way to end the impunity of sovereigns.
Geoffrey Robertson’s paper, Ending Impunity: How International Criminal Law Can Put Tyrants on Trial has been published in the 2005 Cornell Law J ournal (issue 3, Volume 38).
38 years later King James’ son, Charles I lost his head upholding the same principle.
There was admittedly much that was sensible in his policies, and the opening years of his reign as king of Great Britain were a time of material prosperity for both England and Scotland. For one thing, he established peace by speedily ending England’s war with Spain in 1604.
But the true test of his statesmanship lay in his handling of Parliament, which was claiming ever-wider rights to criticize and shape public policy. Moreover, Parliament’s established monopoly of granting taxes made its assent necessary for the improvement of the crown’s finances, which had been seriously undermined by the expense of the long war with Spain.
James, who had so successfully divided and corrupted Scottish assemblies, never mastered the subtler art of managing an English Parliament. He kept few privy councillors in the House of Commons and thus allowed independent members there to seize the initiative.
Moreover, his lavish creations of new peers and, later in his reign, his subservience to various recently ennobled favourites loosened his hold upon the House of Lords. His fondness for lecturing both houses of Parliament about his royal prerogatives offended them and drew forth such counterclaims as the Apology of the Commons (1604). To parliamentary statesmen used to Tudor dignity, James’s shambling gait, restless garrulity, and dribbling mouth ill befitted his exalted claims to power and privilege.
When Parliament refused to grant him a special fund to pay for his extravagances, James placed new customs duties on merchants without Parliament’s consent, thereby threatening its control of governmental finance. Moreover, by getting the law courts to proclaim these actions as law (1608) after Parliament had refused to enact them, James struck at the houses’ legislative supremacy. In four years of peace, James practically doubled the debt left by Elizabeth, and it was hardly surprising that when his chief minister, Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, tried in 1610–11 to exchange the king’s feudal revenues for a fixed annual sum from Parliament, the negotiations over this so-called Great Contract came to nothing. James dissolved Parliament in 1611.
The abortive Great Contract, and the death of Cecil in 1612, marked the turning point of James’s reign; he was never to have another chief minister who was so experienced and so powerful. During the ensuing 10 years the king summoned only the brief Addled Parliament of 1614. Deprived of parliamentary grants, the crown was forced to adopt unpopular expedients, such as the sale of monopolies, to raise funds. Moreover, during these years the king succumbed to the influence of the incompetent Robert Carr, earl of Somerset. Carr was succeeded as the king’s favourite by George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, who showed more ability as chief minister but who was even more hated for his arrogance and his monopoly of royal favour.
In his later years the king’s judgment faltered. He embarked on a foreign policy that fused discontent into a formidable opposition. The king felt a sympathy, which his countrymen found inexplicable, for the Spanish ambassador, Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, count of Gondomar. When Sir Walter Raleigh, who had gone to Guiana in search of gold, came into conflict with the Spaniards, who were then at peace with England, Gondomar persuaded James to have Raleigh beheaded. With Gondomar’s encouragement, James developed a plan to marry his second son and heir Charles to a Spanish princess, along with a concurrent plan to join with Spain in mediating the Thirty Years’ War in Germany. The plan, though plausible in the abstract, showed an astonishing disregard for English public opinion, which solidly supported James’s son-in-law, Frederick, the Protestant elector of the Palatinate, whose lands were then occupied by Spain. When James called a third Parliament in 1621 to raise funds for his designs, that body was bitterly critical of his attempts to ally England with Spain. James in a fury tore the record of the offending Protestations from the House of Commons’ journal and dissolved the Parliament.
The duke of Buckingham had begun in enmity with Prince Charles, who became the heir when his brother Prince Henry died in 1612, but in the course of time the two formed an alliance from which the king was quite excluded. James was now aging rapidly, and in the last 18 months of his reign he, in effect, exercised no power; Charles and Buckingham decided most issues. James died at his favourite country residence, Theobalds, in Hertfordshire.
Besides the political problems that he bequeathed to his son Charles, James left a body of writings which, though of mediocre quality as literature, entitle him to a unique place among English kings since the time of Alfred.
David Mathew The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Both William Shakespeare and John Donne lived and wrote under the rule of this Absolute Monarch. Each makes some denigrating references about the King and yet somehow survive and even prosper. In Donne’s case it was his holy sonnets, his religious tracts and his sermons so impressed King James that Donne was ordained a priest and eventually appointed Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the highest offices of the Church of England by King James I.
Many of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies were written and performed during the reign of King James I with many scholars finding subtle suggestions about his serious concerns of responsible governance. There is documentary evidence that King James attended some of Shakespeare’s performances. There are few indications of his reactions. MacBeth may have subtle cautionary messages about the limitations of a monarch, while King Lear has some clearer warnings regarding flatterers in court and how they can undermine the King’s real power.
James’s reign saw the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible, though this caused problems with the Puritans and their attitude towards the established church. In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers sailed for America in their ship The Mayflower.