Share this page

Did Shakespeare Know Queen Elizabeth I?

In the sixth episode of Let's Talk Shakespeare we ask "Did Shakespeare know Queen Elizabeth 1?"

This is something that people love to imagine, that these two icons of British culture could have had a relationship. In this episode we look at Shakespeare's royal patronage, performances at court, and whether or not anyone could really have had a relationship with a monarch at all.

Image: Ye Bard - hys Birth... ye immortal bard cometh to town - ergo, he is Born in ye merrie town of Stratford, A. D. 1564, c1850, by unknown author

This week's guests (in order of appearance) are:

- Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT
- Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT
- Dr Anjna Chouhan, Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the SBT 
- Ben Crystal, Actor, Director and producer.

Narrator: Jennifer Reid


REID: Hello, and welcome to the sixth episode of “Let’s Talk Shakespeare”, a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid, and today we’re asking “Did Shakespeare know Queen Elizabeth I?”

Now this is an idea that has been around for many, many years; people love to fantasise about this, but it was made particularly popular in the recent years by the wonderful film Shakespeare in Love. And the first clip I have, by way of introduction today, is from Michael Dobson, who is the director of the Shakespeare Institute, and Michael has written on this subject and the nation’s obsession with Queen Elizabeth I.

DOBSON: I am tempted to gesture towards that book cover up there, since I have written a lot about why people cared so much about whether Shakespeare knew Elizabeth I. Shakespeare, of course, knew Elizabeth I in that everyone knew who was on the throne - and if you are in a very successful theatre company, you got hired to give performances at court. There is a quarto edition of Love Labour's Lost that specifies that it was performed in front of the Queen at court. Merry Wives of Windsor was probably performed at court when George Carey Lord Hunsdon was made a Knight of the Garter, which is why that play drops in lots of illusions to Elizabeth and all that irrelevant stuff about the order of the Garter.

Whether Shakespeare had any kind of personal friendship with Elizabeth seems deeply unlikely insofar as anybody could have a personal relationship with a reigning monarch. I mean, monarchs don’t have personal lives. They have entirely symbolic ritualised lives in which they have no solitary time whatsoever, least of all Elizabeth I - I mean, there was never a moment where she wasn’t under scrutiny and attended by numbers of people. He doesn’t seem to have written nearly as effusively about Elizabeth I as most Elizabethan writers felt obliged to do. Somebody criticised him for not writing an elegy when Elizabeth I died, the way a lot of other writers did. But no, there’s no evidence to suggest that they ever had cosy chats about which plot he was going to produce next or whether he was going to produce a play called Twelfth Night for Christmas now that Gwyneth Paltrow was out of his life or anything like that, sadly! But, there is, as I say, a long history of people wanting Shakespeare to be Elizabeth's favourite. You know, he’s the father of the national culture, she’s the kind of mother of the nation; obviously they should have been in some sort of relationship. They weren’t, but in a lot of imaginations they sort of were. We still think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan writer, despite the fact that actually he completes his career and writes some of his best stuff as a Jacobean. People don’t seem to fantasise about Shakespeare having cosy chats with James I in anything like the same way, which perhaps is a pity...? I don’t know. He performed much more for James I. I mean, we know James I watched his company act far more often than Elizabeth did. But, never mind.   

REID: So Michael's pretty much summed up the entire argument for us there and why people are so determined to find a connection between these two iconic characters, so let’s pick it apart a wee bit. Liz Dollimore is the Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and she is of the same opinion as Michael that any friendship or relationship between the two is extremely unlikely. But she has some different evidence to bring to the table for that conclusion.

DOLLIMORE: Well they certainly would have known of each other and have at least, to some degree, met one another. Shakespeare’s company was often asked to go and do performances at court, so Queen Elizabeth certainly knew of his work very well and made several requests for specific plays that she liked. She made a request to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, not long before she died/when she was very elderly, so certainly there was some kind of reciprocal something there. However, when you talk about ‘knowing’ someone, it is very hard to know whether [what] was between Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth was purely a business arrangement - he was an entertainer, she hired him and his company - or whether there was any kind of personal like or regard between them. It’s also impossible to know whether they ever really conversed - you can imagine that somebody like the Queen who hires in a company of entertainers might be quite condescending and not really converse with these minions from outside - or whether or not they talked about stuff and had any kind of friendship. So I’m afraid it’s up for grabs; nobody really knows.

He can’t have been really, really close to the Queen because there was a lot of talk and gossip about people who were really, really close to the Queen, because that was felt as kind of threatening because they might have influence and things like that. So there’s no kind of mention of Shakespeare in any kind of context like that, which suggests that they weren’t best buddies, certainly, but whether or not they spoke, got along, or any of those other things is an unknown question. The King was a patron of the theatre and the King’s men processed in the … coronation, and there’s a record of the cloth being given to Shakespeare to make his coronation/procession robe/cloak - it was a red cloth - so, in that sense, he was part of the wide periphery of people who were involved in some way with the court and court practice. But again, there’s no sense of whether or not he had any influence or the King had any influence over him or whether they sat and talked about anything of any import at all.

REID: So Liz mentioned there this idea of actors being part of the court, of integrating with it, of making friends and being part of it, so the next clip I have is from Stanley Wells, and he takes a slightly different approach to answering this question than the others: thinking more about the acting companies’ relationship with the people at court and the aristocracy.

WELLS: It seems very likely that when the actors played at court they would have been introduced to their host, you think. We’ve got no direct record of that, but especially considering the high number of times that the actors went to court - and we do know also that some of the actors became very friendly with members of the aristocracy. Shakespeare himself was friendly with the Earl of Southampton, who would have been present, presumably, at many of the court performances. Shakespeare dedicated his two great poems to the Earl of Southampton; the second one in very affectionate terms, talking about “the love I bear your worship” and so on. And also, Burbage, we know - the great actor - was a great favourite of the Earls of Pembroke and more courtiers. One of them said he couldn’t bear to go and see Pericles soon after Burbage had died, because he had so much admired Burbage’s performance in the part. So yes, there were close relationships between members of the court and members of the acting companies. It’s very likely indeed that Shakespeare met both the Queen and the King from time to time. What he thought of them and what they thought of him, we don’t know, except that it’s fairly clear that they thought highly of his company and of his plays because they called for the plays - his plays - to be performed at court. We have lots of records not only of the company playing at court, but of the company acting Shakespeare plays at court too. Court performances were normally given during the Christmas season - which was the long period, the long Christmas season - and there would be invited guests of the royal family and the aristocracy - with their friends, the aristocracy, the courtiers, and visiting dignitaries too, probably

REID: We’ve mentioned court performance a few times there, so let’s think about that for a second. A court performance was sort of the epitome of performance for an acting company; it was the ultimate goal, but would this provide an opportunity to meet the reigning monarch?

CHOUHAN: So, in terms of court performances, we know that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men then became the King’s Men in 1603 when King James I took the throne, and with the responsibility of being a playing company comes the ability and the need to adapt to your audience, and by definition of being in the King’s Men, you are going to be commanded in front of the King: you’re going to have to rock up in front of James I and perform, and we know that Shakespeare absolutely did that on several occasions in front of James. In terms of Queen Elizabeth: yes, he was commanded to royal performances, but the likelihood of him knowing Elizabeth personally is so slim, I don’t even know where to start with that.

REID: So that was Anjna who’s a lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and she clearly thinks the same as everyone else today, that no, Shakespeare would not have known Elizabeth I.

So let’s stay for a minute on court performance: to be able to act at court in front of the monarch, a company and its plays would had to have been vetted by the Master of the Revels. The Master of the Revels was in charge of, amongst lots of other things, theatrical performance at court, or the ‘revels’ - hence his name. Now, he would have had the power to have edited and sensored the plays to remove anything that might have been deemed offensive or shocking to the audience, but what sort of things would he have seen fit to remove from Shakespeare’s plays? It occurs to me that, although there are some pretty tame cuss words in the plays, there are certainly plenty of dirty jokes, so back to Anjna to explain this.

CHOUHAN: So, Shakespeare wasn’t the only playwright that was subject to the laws of censorship. I mean, obviously you’ve got… the Master of the Revels, for example, is making sure that all these plays conform to standards of respectability, and also are not being blasphemous - I mean there are blasphemy laws, for example, that come in towards the end of the 1600’s, which mean that, when plays are published, things get edited out and moved around. For example, there’s lots of insults and lots of blasphemy in Henry IV Part I, and lots of those insults had to get chopped around, so references to ‘God’ and ‘God’s foot’ and, you know, when you make expostulations that pertain to blasphemous origins, those things get moved around/get edited because of censorship laws. So you cannot have playwrights writing plays about monarchs being deposed. It’s not just disrespectful to Elizabeth, it is also a way of enlisting, or somehow eliciting this kind of discontent amongst a mass of people and suggesting that it is OK. I mean, yes, it’s OK to feel discontented with your authority, but the very idea you could countenance deposing a monarch - which is what Shakespeare does in Richard II - it is extraordinary that he got away with it. [laughs] It is absolutely extraordinary. I mean, we know at the time that that particular scene when Richard II is deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke was not performed because it was so outrageous. The idea that you could depose a divinely ordained monarch and take away that divine right was - it’s insane.

REID: So the last clip I have today is from Ben Crystal, and I always end with a clip from Ben, perhaps because he has a good way of summarising the discussion, but, as always, I apologise for this quality of the recording; you can hear the full symphony of London City centre sounds around us.

CRYSTAL: So, soon after Shakespeare arrived in London he started to become a bit of a success, and shortly after that, his company - well, relatively shortly after that - his company became patronised by the Queen; they became the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and so they would have performed for the Queen - court performances. As that relationship continued, he may well have gained private audience with her. He seems to have written a number of sonnets to her to persuade her to leave an heir, to get married, to have children, as was the hopes of many of the Elizabethans, because the future was increasingly unsteady as the virgin Queen seemed to be leaving no line to the throne.

Is David Cameron friends with Queen Elizabeth? They see each other weekly. [laughs] Whether they’re friends or not, well, I just don’t know, but she seemed to have liked what he and his company were doing, otherwise they wouldn’t have had their patronage continued. And yeah, some people think they got on so well that they had a secret relationship, or that the Earl of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth had a secret relationship and Shakespeare was their bastard offspring, but this is all just people desperately trying to understand the man’s biography - having no evidence and tie things together - because they don’t like the idea that Shakespeare didn’t have a university background and so on and so forth. The idea that is so beautifully portrayed in Shakespeare in Love is a lovely idea but it’s nothing more than that; there’s no way she could have. The performances at the Globe, it was a sort of mutual understanding that the Globe performances were just previews before the court performance; nothing but a rehearsal, and that everything, every type of entertainment, was for the Queen.

Well, James is an interesting one. He became James I at a very, very, very young age in Scotland. It became apparent that he was next in line to the English Throne. Elizabethan London would have been relatively terrified; it was only three or four years before in Henry Vwhere the worries of the Scots invading was aired by King Henry - in the play - which would have had a resonance with the Elizabethan audience. Elizabeth gets sicker and sicker, and it’s not just the future of the English monarchy that is suddenly in question, but the future of the company’s patronage. What if James arrives to London and decides that he’s going to pick another company of actors to be, essentially, the “royal players”? It seems that Shakespeare turned his writing to encourage that continued patronage with Macbeth and that kind of thing, even though it was a couple of years after James arrived, but you know, indeed, the company changed from being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men/James’ Men, right the way through to the end of Shakespeare’s writing career. His writing suddenly shifts towards the tragedies, and you have Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, and King Lear, even TimonTempest; you have all of these strong men put in unusual and difficult situations, and the question of power and monarchy and rule… that couldn’t be seen to be flattering the King, and questioning the King and challenging him as well, so a continued relationship with the monarchy, but a very different one.

REID: So that’s us out of time for the podcast. Thanks for joining us, and thanks to all the people who spoke to me for today’s podcast: that’s Michael, Stanley, Liz, Anjna and Ben. A huge thanks to the Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, without who this podcast would not be possible.

Don’t forget to join us next Monday when we will be asking “Was Shakespeare Gay?

Related posts:

Searching for Elizabeth in the Collection
Royal Signatures: Queens Elizabeth

Where Shakespeare's story started Relive Shakespeare's love story Walk in Shakespeare's footsteps