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Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds So we’ve begun our journey of discovery into William Shakespeare, his world, and his work. We started with his baptism in the little town of Stratford-Upon-Avon and his family, John Shakespeare, the glover. He marries unusually young, has three children. His father and the family business have fallen on hard times. So he goes to London, falls into the theatre world, becomes friends with the actors, publishes some of his work, through the good offices of his old school friend, Richard Field. He collaborates with and also has elements of rivalry with other dramatists off the time. That’s the outline of Shakespeare’s career.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds He had his patrons supporting his work and the acting company. The patrons were, of course, aristocrats - members of the royal court. But at the top of the pyramid was the monarch. In the first half of Shakespeare’s career, that was Queen Elizabeth I. In the second half, it was King James. Elizabeth, the Virgin queen, a skilled diplomat, and, indeed, a queen who used the idea of not marrying in order to keep all her options open. She said that she was married to her people. But because she wasn’t married and had no child, there was a problem about her succession. Who would be the next monarch of England?

Skip to 1 minute and 40 seconds In 1603, when she died, King James of Scotland became King of both England and Scotland. That’s why we call him King James VI and I - sixth of Scotland, first of England. Here in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Shakespeare’s hometown, I’ve got some wonderful documents that bring alive the importance of those monarchs, the sense they are the ultimate arbiters of his age. We have a document signed by Elizabeth herself - Elizabeth R., Elizabeth Regina, Elizabeth the Queen. And then we have another document that is signed with the great seal. It has the seal attached to it. The seal of King James I and VI. On one side, he’s on horseback suggesting his military prowess.

Skip to 2 minutes and 34 seconds On the other side - which we can see here - he’s sitting on his throne in the archetypal pose of the monarch. He wears his crown. He holds his sceptre, his orb. He faces squarely on as if to say, I am the King. I am God’s representative on earth. The acting companies relied on the patronage of the royal court. It was really why the theatres were allowed to keep going, so that the actors could provide plays for the entertainment of the court at occasions of celebrations, diplomatic visits, and so forth. There was a very deep sense in which all of Shakespeare’s work is bound to what’s symbolised by this image of the king sitting on the thrown.

Skip to 3 minutes and 29 seconds So many of Shakespeare’s plays have kings or substitute kings in the form dukes or other rulers and the sense of the authority of the monarch, but also the questioning as to whether a monarch is good or is bad. These are things at the heart of so many of his plays. Queen Elizabeth. King James. She was Queen of England. He was King of Britain. That’s to say, as King of both England and Scotland, he was very interested in the possibility of uniting the two separate nations of England and Scotland.

Skip to 4 minutes and 15 seconds And what we’ll see as we explore Shakespeare’s plays over the coming weeks is that there’s a shift in emphasis between English questions - for instance, in the play Henry V, “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and St. George”, which were written in the time of Queen Elizabeth - and British questions, Scottish questions, too. For example, in Macbeth, plays written in the time of King James. Was Shakespeare an English dramatist or a British dramatist? The simple answer is that he was English in the time of Queen Elizabeth, but British in the time of King James.

Skip to 4 minutes and 56 seconds There’s something particularly interesting about this wonderful little document with the signature of Queen Elizabeth on it. What it is is it’s a licence for a gentleman called Sir John Fortescue to get some new livery. Livery is a sign of being a royal servant, a loyal royal servant. When Shakespeare’s acting company became the King’s Men, when King James came to the throne, they were given livery - yards of cloth - in order to show that they were the King’s men. But the livery in this document is going to be provided by a man called Ralph Brooke, who is the York Herald.

Skip to 5 minutes and 40 seconds Status was so important in Shakespeare’s England, and the Office of the Heralds of Arms - the people who gave out the coats of arms - was of tremendous importance. Now, Shakespeare’s family - as we’ve seen - had fallen on hard times. But in the 1590s, because Shakespeare began to make money out of his plays, he was able to do something to restore the family fortunes. He, on behalf of his family, applied for a coat of arms. So he had to go off to Ralph Brooke and his colleagues in the office of the Heralds Office. The coat of arms was duly granted, so Shakespeare could call himself a gentleman.

Skip to 6 minutes and 32 seconds And no doubt his father was very, very pleased that the family name was restored in this way, and they were given their coat of arms. You can still see a reproduction of it over the door of the birthplace house today, with its mustard background and its spear as in “Shakespeare”.

Skip to 6 minutes and 52 seconds But Brooke - the man named on this document signed by Queen Elizabeth - wasn’t very pleased at the idea that someone who was involved with a disreputable profession of theatre should get a coat of arms and call himself a gentleman. He wrote a document objecting to the granting of a coat of arms to Shakespeare, the player.

Skip to 7 minutes and 18 seconds Round about the same time, Shakespeare wrote a play, a comedy, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, in which a character disguises himself as someone called “Brooke” and has a great deal of fun at his expense. And it may well be that what Shakespeare is doing there is biting back, making a little joke at the expense of the man who did not approve of Shakespeare, the player. Because as we’ll see next week, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is - of all Shakespeare’s plays - the one that is closest to his experience in small-town Stratford, closest to his origins.

The Monarchs

Featured SBT item: Signature of Queen Elizabeth I.

  • Reference no: ER 115 (SBT Archives Collection)

Find more online: Royal signatures: Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth in the collection

Featured SBT item 2: Seal of King James I.

  • Reference no: Dr 37/1/1695 (SBT Archives Collection)

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