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 James first came to London in 1604, he appointed himself the patron of Shakespeare’s company, which was renamed the King’s Men. The King’s Men were paid ten pounds per performance at court, and they 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 him than they had for Elizabeth. The King’s Men performed at James’s court around ten times a year. Records show that James’s court saw The Comedy of Errors,Henry V,Love’s Labor’s Lost,Measure for Measure,The Merry Wives of Windsor,Othello, and The Merchant of Venice (twice).
The audience at the royal court was made up of the most powerful noblemen and noblewomen in the country. Many of these aristocrats were highly educated. Elizabeth I spoke several languages and wrote poetry of her own, while James I authored weighty volumes on political and theological subjects. The aristocracy was especially interested in history, and noblemen took it badly if a historical play presented one of their own ancestors in a negative light. For instance, when Shakespeare originally penned Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, he portrayed the historical figure Sir John Oldcastle as a drunken coward. Oldcastle’s descendants took offense, and Shakespeare hastened to rename the character Falstaff. Curiously, these plays still contain a few jokes that don’t make sense with the character’s new name. Playwrights whose works appeared at court also had to take special care not to offend the monarch, lest they face severe punishment. Shakespeare may have written his Scottish play, Macbeth, specifically to curry favor with James. Not only did the play’s strategic use of witches speak directly to the king’s fascination with the occult, but the moral elevation of Banquo also complimented James, who was in fact Banquo’s descendant.