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.

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