William Shakespeare

Performances at Court

Neither Queen Elizabeth I nor King James I went to the theater. Instead, they summoned Shakespeare and his company to perform at their palaces. We know that Elizabeth saw Shakespeare’s plays performed regularly. Elizabeth definitely saw The Merry Wives of Windsor and Love’s Labor’s Lost because both plays were published with title pages announcing that they had been performed for the Queen. When King James first came to London in 1604, he appointed himself the patron of Shakespeare’s company, who were renamed the King’s Men. The King’s Men were paid ten pounds per performance at court, and were given extra cash to buy scarlet royal servant robes, which they wore in the procession at James’s coronation. James enjoyed theater, and Shakespeare’s company performed more often for the King than they had for Queen Elizabeth. The King’s Men performed at King James’s court around ten times a year. Records show that James’s court saw Measure For Measure , King Lear , The Merchant of Venice (twice), Much Ado About Nothing , The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.

The audience at the royal court was made up of the most powerful noblemen and women in the country. Many of these aristocrats were highly educated. Elizabeth I spoke several languages and wrote poetry of her own, while James I was the author of weighty volumes on political and theological subjects. The aristocracy was especially interested in history, and noblemen took it badly if one of their own ancestors was presented in a negative light. When Shakespeare portrayed the historical Sir John Oldcastle as drunken and cowardly, Oldcastle’s descendants took offence, and Shakespeare quickly changed the character’s name to Falstaff. We know the name-change must have been hasty because the plays in which Falstaff appears, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor , still contain a few jokes that don’t make sense with the character’s new name. Shakespeare also had to be careful to omit any negative references to Scottish people before performing his history plays for King James. Had a play displeased the king, Shakespeare could have been thrown in jail.