King of Players, Player of Kings

ImageToday is the birthday (in 1566) of James VI & I of Scotland and England. Although Shakespeare and Jonson are classified as Elizabethan poets, it was under the reign of James, and under his personal patronage, that they both did their greatest work.

James called himself  “The Cradle King,” quite accurately, because he took over the monarchy of Scotland at the tender age of thirteen months, when his infamous mother, Mary, either eloped with or was abducted by the Earl of Bothwell, to make a bid for taking the crown of England away from her cousin Elizabeth.

James, of course, didn’t actually start to rule until his teens, and he was raised with all the advantages of a humanistic education, learning to “speik Latin ar I could speik Scotis.” As he matured, he asserted his absolute right to kingship and resisted both his mother’s and his cousin Elizabeth’s interference in the chaos of the civil war between powerful Scots families, and between Catholic and Protestant factions. His chief supporter, the charismatic Esmé Stuart, has been identified by some biographers as James’s first great love, but James was accustomed to calling the political shots long before he assumed the throne in earnest at the age of 22.


His marriage to Anna, princess of Denmark, was the stuff of storybooks – he claimed to have survived a witchcraft-caused storm at sea to reach her side to solemnize their marriage in Denmark. The alleged attack by the Berwick Coven was taken very seriously by James, whose fascination with witch-hunting he detailed in his own book, Daemonologie

James had won Elizabeth’s trust by agreeing not to protest her execution of his mother in 1587. Although she never formally named him her heir, her counsel assumed he was the best possible Protestant choice, and England welcomed him and his attractive family joyfully in 1603.

One of James’s very first actions as king was to take the most successful theatrical company into his household. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, headed by Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare, became the King’s Men, and scholars agree that all the plays Shakespeare wrote after 1603 are essentially written with the King in mind as his primary audience.

Jonson, too, thrived under James, quickly stepping up to become James’s chief maker of masques and entertainments –


Masquing girls – costume design by Buontalenti, courtesy of

— a relatively new art form imported by Anna from the continent in which courtiers danced and displayed themselves to the accompaniment of music and recited poetry, before a powerful invited audience of courtiers. James did not perform in the masques but his wife and children all did, and Jonson perfected the art of flattering the king while gently instructing the court on what qualities good nobles should possess.


For all his strengths, however, James soon became unpopular with the English people. He was extravagant, condescending, antisocial, and physically awkward (he suffered from nervous twitches and had a speech impediment); he was overly attached to a series of handsome male “favorites,” but worse than his possible homosexuality, in the eyes of his subjects, was his pacifism. He refused to fight on behalf of the European Protestants against Catholic Spain, preferring to create alliances through marriages to his children than take up (expensive) arms.

He was intensely aware that kingship was a form of performance, writing in Basilikon Doron, his book of kingly advice to Prince Henry, “It is a trew old saying, That a King is as one set on a stage, whose smallest actions and gestures, all the people gazingly doe behold”

This fact is frequently noted when scholars investigate his commitment to drama in spite of his own distaste for theaters and public appearances. Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure is often assumed to be imitating James when he says,

I love the people,Image But do not like to stage me to their eyes:
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and Aves vehement;
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it.

In spite of his distaste for “staging,” Vincentio disguises himself as a monk to spy on his people — alluding, possibly, to James’s own unsuccessful attempt  to visit the Royal Exchange while disguised as a commoner, in order to investigate the business dealings of the merchants occupying this early version of a shopping mall.

A complex and contradictory man, James – even more than his predecessor Elizabeth – can be credited with inspiring the greatest plays and characters to appear on the English stage. Macbeth, Volpone, Othello, Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Justice Overdo – all the figures who use their wits to negotiate the shifting tides of power in spite of their flaws and passions – are in some ways aspects of James.

Further reading:
James Stewart, The Cradle King: A Life of James VI & I, Chatto & Windus, 2003.
Jonathon Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature, Stanford Univ. Press, 1989.
Alvin Kernan, Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright, Yale Univ. Press, 1997.
Kristen McDermott, Masques of Difference: Four Court Masques by Ben Jonson, Manchester Univ. Press, 2007.
Gary Wills, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Oxford Univ. Press, 1996.


Jonson, Shakespeare, and Fathers


Walter Ralegh and his son, Wat

Ben Jonson was particularly interested in fatherhood, but most of his experiences were sad ones, not really appropriate for this day on which we celebrate our fathers. His most famous poem, surely, is his elegy for his eldest son, Benjamin, who died at the age of seven, while Ben was away visiting a wealthy patron on his country estate. Whether or not his illegitimate children were comforts to Ben in his later years is a matter for pure conjecture – what is known, is that Ben thought of his poems as his “children”:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

Jonson shared the tragic experience of losing a young son with his friend and colleague, William Shakespeare, who lost his 11-year-old son Hamnet in 1596. Shakespeare, however, had two daughters that he saw reach adulthood and marry, and some of his most poignant scenes include the loving relationships between fathers and daughters in his later plays:

Miranda: Alack, what trouble
Was I then to you!
Prospero: O, a cherubim
Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile.
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have deck’d the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burthen groan’d; which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue.                     (The Tempest, I.2.261-9)

Parenthood in the early modern world was a melancholy business – so many children did not survive to be adults, and the religious and moral teachings of the day warned parents not to be too fond of their offspring, that too much affection would make them immoral. That advice was rarely heeded, however – the literature of the time is filled with the joys and sorrows of parenthood. Here are some useful books on the subject:

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Tom Macfaul, Poetry and Paternity in Renaissance England: Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and Jonson, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500–1800. 1979.

Bruce Wilson Young, Family Life in the Age of Shakespeare, Greenwood, 2009.

And the Newberry Library in Chicago has a great collection of primary documents related to the topic: Marriage and Family in Shakespeare’s England.

I’ve discussed Jonson’s interest in parenthood in my own scholarly research:

“’He may be our father, perhaps’: Paternity, Puppets, Boys and Bartholomew Fair,” in Critical Essays on Ben Jonson, ed. Robert N. Watson (New York: G.K. Hall): 60-81.


Jonson’s Gossips and the Stuart Family Drama,” Early Theatre 9.1 (Summer 2006): 61-83.

The Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire

May 11, 2013

ImageFifty years ago today, the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire took place in North Hollywood, CA. Born of the same creative energy that spawned many other artifacts of the Sixties, the event was initially a project begun by teacher/artists Phyllis and Ron Patterson, designed to enhance arts and performance education in their community. The art form known as “living history” met the free-wheeling playfulness of Southern California culture, and countless turkey legs and huzzahs later, RenFairs have become a thriving industry in historically-themed improvisational entertainment.

I’ve experienced Renaissance Fairs and festivals as an attendee rather than a performer, but a slew of friends, not to mention my husband, consider the “original” Renaissance Fair in Southern California their artistic second family, and experienced the Faire though a variety of historical alter egos. It’s always fun to sit in on a conversation with veterans of the “real” Faire as they discuss the crimes against historical accuracy perpetrated by the vast network of “Renaissance” fairs that crosses the US today.Image

Turning history into entertainment is a time-honored business in the US and Europe (read Julian Barnes’ England, England for a particularly dystopian treatment of the selling of culture).The academy has recently turned its attention to this phenomenon as well.


Many more books can be and have been written about what American pop culture does with (and to) history – a topic I might pursue in more detail later. But if you want the phenomenon in a nutshell, a visit to a RenFaire will give you a good idea. Sadly, it won’t show you what the Pattersons and the makers of the California Faires achieved for a few brief decades, but this book, written by my dear friend Maggie Secara, gives you a sense of what the creators and performers of the Faire were striving for:


Bess of Hardwick

ImageThe letters of Elizabeth Talbot (c.1521-1608), known historically as “Bess of Hardwick,” have just been made available as a searchable database. This is a treasure trove of domestic history and an insight into the life of probably the most influential non-royal woman of her time. She was the matriarch of a powerful dynasty that produced the first Dukes of Devonshire and Newcastle, and was best known for the huge estates she built and oversaw, including Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall (“more glass than wall” – a mark of extreme luxury at a time when glass windows were both an expensive innovation, and heavily taxed).

A bit of Hardwick-related fun: one of the treasures of the house is the Eglantine Table, a gorgeous piece covered with inlaid images of Renaissance pastimes – board games, music and instruments, including the notation for


a madrigal by Thomas Morley. Recent visitors to the Hall were delighted when some young people inspecting the table suddenly broke into a lovely rendition of the song. Yes, there are Renaissance flashmobs!

She married four times, each husband richer than the last (like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath). Unlike most women – even noble ones – of her time, Bess held many of the magnificent properties she acquired with her third husband in her own name, and made sure that her fortune and the that of her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, would be bound together by marrying two of her children to two of the Earl’s.

She and her husband had the unenviable responsibility for keeping the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, but her familiarity with that tragic queen and with her family taught Bess early on that the Scottish Stuart dynasty would be the key to England’s future after the childless Queen Elizabeth died. Bess married her eldest daughter to Mary Stuart’s nephew Charles, and their daughter, Arabella, had the nearest claim to the throne after her cousin King James of Scotland. She became her granddaughter’s guardian when the girl was orphaned at the age of seven, but her relationship with Arabella was troubled, mainly by Queen Elizabeth’s reluctance to allow the Stuart girl to marry and produce possible claimants to the throne of England. Arabella suffered from depression and anxiety due to her lack of freedom, and busied herself by secretly encouraging various suitors to help her escape Bess’s custody. Bess had a nearly full-time job placating the Queen every time Arabella’s antics brought the royal wrath upon Hardwick Hall.

It’s easy to stereotype Bess’s power as being, like an Elizabethan Martha Stewart’s, related solely to her domestic acumen. Historians have not been kind to her, characterizing her as social-climbing, money-grubbing, scheming, litigious, and overly controlling of her children and granddaughter. But, as the letters in this database show, her many correspondents at court kept her well-informed of – and sought her advice about – the important events of the day. She lived to be more than 80 years old – an unusual feat for anyone, and particularly for a woman who had borne eight children.


You can still visit Hardwick Hall today, and see her initials – ES – proudly built into the capitals of the house’s six rooftop pavilions.