William Shakespeare

Elizabeth I

When Shakespeare began his writing career, Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne for nearly thirty years. She was a popular ruler, and her reign was seen as a golden age in English history. Her grandfather, Henry VII, had ended three decades of civil war, a victory which Shakespeare dramatized in his earliest history plays, the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III (written 1591-93). Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had broken with the Catholic Church and established England as the great power of Protestant Europe. Shakespeare examined the break with the Church and the establishment of English Protestantism in his final history play, Henry VIII (written around 1612). Henry’s break with the Church caused religious conflict in England, but Elizabeth managed to bring an end to the worst of the persecution and bloodshed. During her reign England began to establish itself as a sea power, inflicting a devastating defeat on an invading Spanish naval force in 1588. There was a national mood of patriotic confidence, which Shakespeare captured in Henry V (written in 1599).

Any man Elizabeth married would become king, so throughout her reign many English noblemen and foreign rulers tried to win her hand. Elizabeth was determined to remain unmarried, but she was skilled at manipulating the ambitions of her suitors. She encouraged the noblemen of her court to behave as if they were in love with her, and played her suitors against another. The romantic atmosphere of her court may have inspired the sexual jealousies of the fairy court in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written around 1595). Love’s Labor’s Lost (also written around 1595) tells a story of romantic intrigue between monarchs and courtiers, and we know that Shakespeare’s company performed it for Elizabeth at court. The queen’s interest in the politics of love also helped to popularize sonnet sequences. A sonnet sequence is a long series of poems on a romantic theme or telling a romantic story. Shakespeare’s sonnets are the most famous example of this genre, but when he wrote them he was drawing on hundreds of sonnet sequences composed during Elizabeth’s reign.

By the time Shakespeare had established himself as England’s leading playwright, Elizabeth’s health was in decline. Her refusal to marry meant that she would die without an heir. This situation made England vulnerable. It was rumored that the King of Scotland, James VI, would invade if his claim to inherit the English throne wasn’t acknowledged. In Hamlet (written around 1600), a struggle over who should inherit the throne of Denmark creates an opportunity for the young prince of a neighboring country to invade and take over. There were also widespread fears that when Elizabeth died civil war would break out between Protestant and Catholic families. Julius Caesar (written around 1599) dramatizes the outbreak of bloody civil war in the aftermath of a leader’s death. Elizabeth could have defused all these tensions by naming an heir, and her refusal to do so was seen as irresponsible. In Measure For Measure (around 1603), Shakespeare imagines a city-state riddled with corruption and abuse because the state’s ruler has given up responsibility for his people.