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February 07, 2018


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Howard Wasserman

The confluence of Shakespeare and the great universities with this police state suggests to some that robust free expression is not necessary for artistic genius to flourish.

Anthony Gaughan

Thank you for your comment, Howard. It's interesting to reflect on the fact that Shakespeare's history plays involved so many explosive topics that would make even the most well-loved and secure monarch uncomfortable, including the murder of a king by his brother with the connivance of the queen (Hamlet), a king gone pathetically senile (King Lear), and a wretched and loathsome king who murders his nephews (Richard III). Yet, despite the controversial nature of Shakespeare's plays, Elizabeth I and later James I allowed his plays to be publicly performed. Moreover, at least a couple of Shakespeare's plays were actually performed at Elizabeth's Court, which is amazing to think about. Now, if Shakespeare wrote a play that directly attacked Elizabeth I or James I, I think it's safe to say the outcome would have been very different, and his tenure as a bard would have come to an abrupt and likely bloody end. But it's still interesting that the Tudor and Stuart monarchs allowed at least a degree of artistic license on the stage.

Anthony Gaughan

I should point out that I first wrote "unprecedented" military parade, but changed it to "extremely unusual." It's true that at the end of the Civil War in 1865 as well as at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 there were major military parades in Washington D.C. But President Trump's proposed military parade in Washington later this year does not mark the end of any war, and thus seems to constitute simply a display of force. As a result I don't think there is any obvious precedent in the American historical tradition for what he is proposing.

Ellen Wertheimer

This is a great post and a lot of fun to read, as are the comments. I have been enjoying the show as well.

I have a couple of points to make, especially about Shakespeare and the plays he wrote that were unquestionably relevant to Elizabeth I's monarchy. I don't think that Shakespeare's plays create the inference that he was being particularly brave in what he wrote. Some of his plays were very political, yes, but they adhered to the party line.

First, to the extent that they are relevant to Elizabeth I, Shakespeare's plays were shameless pro-Lancaster (and therefore pro-Tudor) propaganda. Shakespeare had to tread carefully, as Henry VII's wife (Elizabeth's grandmother) was a York, but overall he comes out heavily against the white rose and sides with Lancaster. As a Ricardian myself, I reject the view that Richard had his nephews murdered; it was a view that was developed later as a post hoc justification for killing off Richard and became mandatory for the usurpers in the Tudor line. Along these lines, it is noteworthy that Henry VII claimed the throne by right of conquest, not blood. It was his mother, Margaret Beaufort, a remarkable woman, who won it for him, and of course the winner gets to write the history.

Second, as a religious matter, siding with Malcolm over Macbeth was also a political position putting Roman (Anglican) Christianity above Celtic Christianity and justifying the takeover of Scotland by the lines that led to the unification of Scotland and England under James VI and I, who of course ruled during much of Shakespeare's career. Once again, the winners, in this case the Roman church that was brought to Scotland by Malcolm's wife Margaret, got to write the history. Macbeth actually ruled Scotland for years and was known as "good king Macbeth."

Scholars agree that there was nothing particularly accurate about Shakespeare's historic plays, but it is unlikely he wrote them for any other purpose than entertainment. Who could have foreseen that he would cause Richard III and Macbeth to spend eternity as villains? I'm sure he wouldn't have cared, as long as it made a good story and didn't get him into trouble.

Finally, it is useful to compare England with other nations at this time in terms of the fairness of trials and the like. While Elizabethan trials were horrendously unfair by modern standards (they were worse during Mary Tudor's reign than during Elizabeth's, incidentally), surely it is in comparing trials in England with those in other countries at the same time that produces a more reliable test than comparing them with the trials of today.

Incidentally, Elizabeth and Mary Tudor never met. I wonder what their meeting would have been like had they done so. And as Antonia Fraser points out in her biography, it is one of the supreme ironies of history that every single monarch England has had since Elizabeth I was descended from Mary Queen of Scots, and none from Elizabeth.

Anthony Gaughan

Thank you so much for your comments, Ellen! I loved all of the points you made and I learned so much from them.

I absolutely agree that the quality of justice in Tudor courts must be compared to comparable courts in sixteenth century Europe, and not be unfairly judged by modern standards. Also I loved your points about Shakespeare’s strategic siding with the Lancastrians over the Yorkists, and his strategic partiality to the Anglican church over the Celtic church. The man from Stratford-upon-Avon was certainly a politically savvy person.

Have you seen the PBS program on the scientific examination of Richard III’s skeleton, which was found under a parking lot in Leicester, England five or six years ago? The scientists discovered that contrary to Shakespeare’s depiction, Richard was a strong, vigorous, physically formidable person despite the curvature of his spine. I also find it amazing that in 2016, one year after Richard finally received a proper burial in Leicester Cathedral, the local soccer club won the English Premier League in the biggest victory by an underdog in the history of English soccer!

Thanks again for your comments, Ellen. Have a great weekend!

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