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Promo image from Shakespeare In Love


By Natalie Mears

It has been argued that the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) can be divided in two. For the first thirty years, the political agenda was dominated by the related issues of Elizabeth’s marriage, the succession and Catholic conspiracy. The Queen needed to fulfil her duties as a monarch and a woman by providing an heir to the throne; such an heir would also ensure the long-term success of Protestantism, “the best of their [children’s] inheritance,” in the words of Sir Francis Walsingham. The regime was also deeply paranoid, convinced (for the most part, mistakenly) that France, Spain and the Papacy were conspiring to depose the Queen – who was, after all, a bastard and a heretic – in favour of her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

During the final fifteen years of her reign, Elizabeth still lacked an heir of her own body and, though James VI of Scotland was next in line, there were questions about whether he could, or should, inherit. England was at war with the greatest power in Europe (Spain), while continuing to support militarily the Dutch rebels (against Spain) and the Protestant Henry of Navarre, who had inherited the (Catholic) French crown on the assassination of Henry III. The realm was also in economic crisis: prices, taxation and crime were high; wages plummeted, two-fifths of the population lived below subsistence levels, and the country was wracked by bad harvests, influenza and plague. In 1593, the year in which Shakespeare in Love is set, the realm witnessed the worst outbreak of plague in thirty years; an estimated 20,000 died in London alone.

Culturally, the reign can also be divided in two. In the first thirty years, Ciceronian ideas of virtue and quasi-republicanism were common. In the final fifteen years, the regime became much more authoritarian and Cicero was replaced by the more sinister Tacitus, with his emphasis on tyranny and corruption, as the author du jour.

Historians have seen the 1590s as marking a change in Elizabeth herself. Not only was she even more indecisive, she also tacitly condoned others making decisions for her. Certainly, the Queen did indulge some of her courtiers, notably Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, her new favourite. He regularly flouted her orders, even blundering into Elizabeth’s chamber before she was fully dressed, without permission, when he returned from Ireland. But Elizabeth’s intellect and her tongue were as sharp as they appear in Shakespeare in Love. In 1601, she gave her greatest speech to an extremely fractious parliament, the so-called “Golden Speech.” And she was not above boxing Essex’s ears in 1598 when he turned his back on her in anger.

One area in which Elizabeth seemed to struggle to maintain her authority, however, was in the personal – and sexual – lives of her courtiers. Though there is no evidence of court ladies having affairs with poor playwrights, as Lady Viola does, the 1590s saw a noticeable rise in sexual scandals at court. In October 1591 alone, the Queen lost half of her maids of honour to secret marriages and illegitimate pregnancies. As Lord Wessex’s aim to marry Lady Viola reflects, marriage was more of a financial and political contract than a love match – though letters between husbands and wives show that there was much genuine affection, too. Marriages sealed alliances, solidified or extended political connections, merged landed estates (and, hence, enriched families) and, in some cases, injected wealth into the cash-strapped. Much was at stake.

Elizabeth was partly to blame for these scandals. Her reluctance to replace her councillors when they died, or to create new peerages, thwarted the ambitions of male courtiers, making them reluctant to commit to marriage. Her retention of old female companions limited the opportunities for younger female courtiers to enter her service at a time when their marriage prospects were also retracting. War with Spain exacerbated the situation: there was a dearth of men at court and returning soldiers were more willing to flout the Queen’s authority. It would be wrong, however, to see women as always victims in this. Some, like Elizabeth Throckmorton and Elizabeth Vernon, played a strategic game, getting pregnant to make their lovers (Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Southampton respectively) marry them. Others played the men for as much as they had: Elizabeth Brydges milked Charles Lister for £3,000 before refusing to marry him.

Although the 1590s were a bleak time, one sphere flourished: the public theatre. In 1592, The Rose had to be enlarged to accommodate its burgeoning audience. The theatre was a rich venue for representing real-life events (the French Wars of Religion in Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris); for satire (witness Shakespeare’s treatment of the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night); and for exploring the very issues that dominated the court and public discourse: power, tyranny and corruption. Indeed, on 7 February, 1601, Essex’s supporters paid for Shakespeare’s Richard II to be played at The Globe as they prepared to revolt against the Queen the following day. The parallels between the play and reality were not lost on the regime – or the Queen herself, who had a keen eye for the subtle (and not so subtle) messages directed at her through plays.

The theatre was like Marmite: it was loved or hated. For the playwright Thomas Heywood, plays were “the imitation of life, the glass of custom, and the image of truth.” Their purpose was “to persuade men to humanity and good life, to instruct them in civility and good manners, showing them the fruits of honesty and the end of villainy.” To the city authorities, playhouses were dens of iniquity, plagued by prostitutes and pickpockets, that seduced young apprentices away from their work. For Puritans, like Philip Stubbes and John Stockwood, they were “chapel[s] of
Satan” which “maintain bawdry, insinuate
foolery” and “with a blast of a trumpet,
sooner call thither a thousand men than
an hour’s tolling a bell bring to the
sermon a hundred.”

Though Shakespeare in Love does not obviously reflect many of the tensions and problems of Elizabeth’s later years, in the character of Elizabeth herself, Lady Viola’s relationship with Wessex, the renown of its playwrights, the mix of competition and camaraderie between the acting companies, and the hullabaloo surrounding a première rumoured to be a hit, it does reflect some of the essence of the Elizabethan fin-de-siècle.

Natalie Mears is a Senior Lecturer in early modern English history at Durham University in England. She has published extensively on Elizabethan politics, culture and religion. Her books include Queenship and Public Discourse in the Elizabethan Realms.