Shakespeare and the Struggle for Power

Gordon Anthony/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
John Gielgud in Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1938

The twin stars of Garry Wills’s immensely well-informed and wide-ranging book are Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, but it also boasts a glittering supporting cast of courtiers, poets, statesmen, and playwrights other than Shakespeare. The theatrical metaphor is inevitable because of the resemblances in the Elizabethan Age between the theater and the great stage of the world, where politics, drama, and the other arts interacted and reflected one another.

Wills writes that the aim of his book is “to look at the various kinds of imaginative construction that went into [Elizabeth’s] reign—at its make-believe love, make-believe monarchy, make-believe religion, make-believe locales, and make-believe war.” Drama is at the book’s center because the plays of the time are full of self-dramatizing characters “who put themselves on a stage to delight in their own performance.” Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard II, and Antony and Cleopatra, Marlowe’s Edward II and Tamburlaine, are just a few of the most obvious examples. And among these the “most grandiose self-presenters are men and women who seek or hold power.”

In real life, too, persons in positions of high power needed to use dramatic means to project their personalities, to exercise control, and even to sustain their personal identity. Elizabeth’s subjects put pressure on her, not least in the matter of marriage, but “the pressures on her changed over the years from urging her toward marriage to guarding her from marriage.” She negotiated her course in this as in many other difficult matters with consummate skill. As a result, during her long reign she won the admiration, even adulation, of a great number of extraordinary and diverse followers, many of whom figure in this book’s cast.

Of course, courtiers tend by nature to be sycophantic, and many expressions of praise for a monarch are insincere and self-serving. But Elizabeth was intelligent enough to preserve her integrity. She knew her own worth, writing in her private prayers:

I am unimpaired in body, with a good form, a healthy and substantial wit, prudence even beyond other women, and beyond this, distinguished and superior in the knowledge and use of literature and languages, which is highly esteemed because unusual in my sex.

Especially toward the end of her reign she received adulatory tributes from poets such as Edmund Spenser, dramatists such as George Peele, musicians such as Thomas Morley, and a great bevy of lesser courtiers. But she had strength of character enough to distinguish between true and false praise.

Like a great actor, she was a mistress of the art of self-projection, aware of her theatricality. Wills quotes her own words: “Princes, you know, stand upon stages so that their actions are viewed and beheld of all men.” Throughout her reign she presented herself to her people with the flair and manipulative self-knowledge of a virtuoso performer.…

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