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. She could rise to great occasions with a dignity and grandeur worthy of a tragedy queen. Addressing her troops assembled at Tilbury in 1588 to repel the invasion by the Spanish Armada when, William Camden wrote, “incredible it is how much she encouraged the hearts of her captains and soldiers by her presence and speech to them,” “she is reported to have worn a silver cuirass, with an attendant riding beside her with a silver helmet.”

In doing so she emulated the soldier heroes and even heroines—such as Shakespeare’s Joan la Pucelle, who fights “with the sword of Deborah,” and Margaret of Anjou, “she-wolf of France”—of the stage: acting companies had stocks of armor for their dramatic warriors. Wills has a fascinating and informative section on scenes in Shakespeare in which characters are required to don armor: “The cumbrous task of assembling it around the body is indicated by the number of lines spoken while the actors do it. Macbeth… spends twenty-five lines on the process, then breaks it off unfinished and tells Seyton to carry it after him.” When Cleopatra takes over the task of arming Antony from his servant Eros, he needs to “keep correcting her efforts as he teases her about it.” And in The Two Noble Kinsmen Arcite and Palamon “spend almost fifty lines arming each other.” The make-believe of the theater mirrored the reality of the battlefield.

Among the ways that the Queen’s courtiers entertained her was the mounting of extraordinarily elaborate and expensive tilts and tournaments. Sir Philip Sidney, a major supporting character of Wills’s book, was a superb horseman and accomplished tilter, “able to supply his own mini-cavalry of gorgeous horses in the entertainment he and his friends mounted for Elizabeth, The Four Foster Children of Desire.” There is fruitful interaction between life and literature in the use that Sidney makes of his experiences at the Accession Day tilt of 1575, when he was twenty-three years old, in the “Iberian Romance” of his revision of Arcadia.


Somewhat similarly, Wills writes that Spenser’s Faerie Queene “was planned as a great continuation and exaltation of the Accession Day tournaments that annually celebrated Elizabeth.” Though Shakespeare did not write entertainments intended exclusively for the royal court, an interrupted tilt features in Richard II. The tournament for the Princess’s birthday forms one of the great set pieces in Pericles, in which each competitor bears on his shield a device with a cryptic inscription. And among Shakespeare’s final literary tasks, a decade after Elizabeth’s death, was the composition of the motto, now lost, for the impresa carried at the Earl of Rutland’s tilt in 1613 and painted by the dramatist’s actor friend Richard Burbage.

On Elizabeth’s frequent progresses around the country throughout her reign, during which she expected to be elaborately and expensively entertained by her hosts, she was routinely offered a wide range of entertainments such as Sidney’s pageant The Lady of May, described by Jean Wilson as “a charming combination of comedy, sylvan pastoral debate, and compliments to the Queen,” in which she herself was required to take part by deciding which of two suitors the Lady of May should marry.

These progresses, enjoyable though she may have found them, were not simply self-indulgent ways of gaining hospitality at her subjects’ expense. During their course she was “eliciting and confirming loyalties, soothing discontents, or promoting her religious, political, and military ideals.” A recurring theme of Wills’s book is her need to steer her country through the transition from Roman Catholicism to forms of Protestantism that would be acceptable to at least a high proportion of her subjects as well as to herself, while also safeguarding the nation’s position on the world’s stage.

To this end she was willing even to visit conforming Roman Catholic family manors, “assuring them she would not be punitive if they did not harbor seditious priests.” But she could be steely: “When she visited Edward Rokewood at Euston, and a forbidden statue of the Virgin Mary was found on the estate, she had it publicly burned and turned him over to the local court.”

Elizabeth’s skills of self-presentation included the ability, at least metaphorically, to don the garb of humility as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is so reluctant to do. She was willing to “touch” humble people to cure the disease called the King’s Evil during her progresses, and at the annual Maundy Thursday service “she washed each foot of the poor women brought to her, made the sign of the cross on each foot, and then kissed it.” At the very start of her reign, she was officially welcomed into the capital with a great ceremonial procession shortly before her coronation:

Tapestries and emblems blazoned the way, and at ten sites the queen was addressed, sung to, or entertained. Carried in a horse-drawn open litter, she directed that her vehicle be brought close or backed up to hear and see the performances more carefully, to respond to or comment on them.

Presented on her arrival by a boy-angel with a copy of the English Bible, lowered on a silken thread as if it came straight from heaven, she “kissed it [i.e., the Bible], lifted it on high, then clasped it to her breast.”

Two years later, when her cousin Mary Stuart somewhat similarly entered Edinburgh to reclaim the Scottish throne, she too was presented with an English Bible, but, lacking Elizabeth’s sense of how to please an audience, instantly handed it over to her Catholic captain of the guard “and rode briskly on.” Elizabeth’s action became legendary and was frequently reenacted on the stage.

Inevitably there were times when she felt seriously insecure, above all as, toward the end of her reign, the question of who would succeed her on the throne became an ever-present anxiety both to her and to her subjects. A play of central interest here is Shakespeare’s Richard II. As is well known, when it first appeared in print in 1597, probably a couple of years after it was first performed, and in the two reprints of 1598—which demonstrate exceptional public interest in the text—it lacked the scene depicting the King’s deposition, which however does appear in the edition of 1604, the first to be printed after Elizabeth’s death, as well as in the First Folio of 1623.

It is also well known that supporters of the Earl of Essex—another prominent member of this book’s supporting cast—commissioned the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put on at short notice a special performance of the play on February 7, 1601, the day before the Earl led an uprising designed to restore him to the Queen’s favor and, as the play’s most recent editors write, “to pave the way for James VI of Scotland to become Elizabeth’s official heir.”1


It is also recorded that in August 1601, six months after Essex had been executed, William Lambard, an antiquary and archivist to the Queen, presented her with a manuscript in which the name of Richard II occurred, prompting her to say, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” And when Lambard, probably quaking in his boots, admitted that “such a wicked imagination was determined and attempted by a most unkind gentleman [i.e., Essex], the most adorned creature that ever your majesty made,” Elizabeth responded with: “He that will forget God will also forget his benefactor; this tragedy was played forty times in open streets and houses.”

Wills devotes much attention—some of it impassioned to the point of being bad-tempered—to the attempt to dispel what he calls the “myth” both that the performance commissioned by Essex was an act of subversion (this is part of his campaign against New Historicism, especially as represented by Stephen Greenblatt, whom he refers to as the critical movement’s “John the Baptist”) and that Elizabeth had Shakespeare’s play in mind when she spoke of Richard II. In the course of his discussion he examines at length the document that purports to be Lambard’s own account of his interview with the Queen, in which she makes the supposed allusion to Richard II.

Wills is right to question what was said about the place of performance but not about its frequency. “No play by Shakespeare,” he writes, “can have been put on forty times in Elizabeth’s lifetime or even in his.” This is surely wrong: in the ad hoc theatrical system of the time plays could come and go with minimal preparation according to demand, as the theater records of Philip Henslowe amply demonstrate and as the Essex-inspired performance of Richard II itself shows.

Wills’s polemic is inspired by the desire to refute the idea that Richard II was put on as a subversive act, but he cannot deny, and does not try to deny, that the performance was commissioned by Essex’s followers the day before the uprising, or that the members of the company who performed it were hauled into court to give an account of themselves for doing so. It would surely be absurd to suggest that the insurrectionists simply wanted a good afternoon’s entertainment and just happened to alight on this play for the purpose. They would have done much better with A Midsummer Night’s Dream—or even with The Merry Wives of Windsor.

For all Wills’s interest in real-life theatricality, his approach to Shakespeare is essentially that of a reader rather than a playgoer. When he offers comment on performance it is based, so far as he tells us, on films or on other scholars’ accounts rather than on personal theatrical experience. This can result in clear misjudgments. Writing on The Taming of the Shrew, a play that allows him to vent his spleen against feminist critics, he comments that “Ann Thompson notes that Petruchio shares Kate’s deprivations of sleep and food” and that Petruccio “denies Kate meat because it is not good enough for her but denies himself because it makes him choleric: ‘And I expressly am forbid to touch it/For it engenders choler, planteth anger.’” And he criticizes John Cleese in the television version directed by Jonathan Miller (not, as he writes, by Peter Hall) on the grounds that he “slips when he later chews on a morsel of meat.”

Surely this obtusely fails to recognize the slyness of Petruccio’s tactics of pretence. Wills overgeneralizes in commenting that this play “is now staged as a form of martial combat.” And he fails to note that inclusion of the Christopher Sly framework, in which the main plot becomes a form of dream fulfilment, can radically affect interpretation of the main action. His remark that at the end of Measure for Measure Isabella “accepts so easily” the Duke’s offer of marriage shows a lack of awareness of the play’s recent stage history. Ever since John Barton’s RSC production of 1970, in which Isabella, with no violation of the text, did not accept the Duke, this has been a theatrical crux, discussed in an essay that Wills cites in his notes but ignores in his text.

Wills’s prose style is fluent, readable, friendly toward his readers (so long as he thinks they will agree with him), sometimes colloquial, at times even slangy: “Harold Goddard argues that Shakespeare was setting the audience up for a sucker punch,” an expression familiar in America (but not England) as “punch delivered without warning.” It is also, when he discusses the views of critics with whose opinions he disagrees, ironic, sarcastic, and at times downright insulting. His prose becomes particularly colorful in discussions of two characters from the history plays, Prince Hal, later King Henry V, and Sir John Falstaff. Arguing that in portraying Henry V Shakespeare tried “to create a wise and good king,” and that “audiences in the past used to believe the play’s Chorus when he called Henry V ‘this star of England,’” he writes with heavy-handed irony,

now we know better. We see Henry V for what he really is—a cruel and lying war criminal, believing none, deceiving all, cut off from decent human feeling. The king may have fooled his own play’s Chorus, but he can’t get away with it at the Modern Language Association, where convened scholars have spent years peeling away this king’s lies to reveal the cold deceiver under them.

And before long, mounted upon one of his feistiest hobby horses, he is tilting his lance against the New Historicists, “the Hal Haters,” as he calls them. Arguing against those who—like Andrew Gurr in his New Cambridge edition—take an ironic view of the Chorus’s praise of the king, Wills again resorts to sarcasm:

Why on earth would a playwright do that—tell an audience to heed him now, in order to avoid heeding what he presents later? And then keep bringing Chorus back, at intervals, to say the opposite of what the play is showing you?

All this, he writes, “goes against common sense, theatrical tradition, and Shakespeare’s own practice.” Wills makes excellent points in his defense of Hal but his vehemence is likely to alienate rather than persuade both those whose views he attacks and those who have been persuaded by them.

Having inveighed against moralistic criticism of Henry V, Wills himself proceeds (and also, to adopt one of his own criteria, against theatrical tradition) to advocate an intensely moralistic attitude toward Hal’s companion Falstaff. Here his chief whipping boy is Harold Bloom who, he writes, “assures us that Falstaff, unlike Hal, ‘betrays and harms no one.’” Now we are off:

Harms no one? Ask the widows and relatives of the poor stragglers he sends into war, on two occasions, in order to line his own pocket. Assigned to collect troops, the only civic duty asked of him as a knight, Falstaff turns war profiteer both times. He takes bribes, in preparation for battles at Shrewsbury and Gaultree…to let able-bodied men escape service. Then he fills out his ranks with the feeble and the defenseless, what he himself calls “food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better.”

He mocks Bloom for having fallen

in love with Falstaff at the age of sixteen when he saw Ralph Richardson play him onstage. He has had a schoolboy crush on Falstaff ever since. His awed gaze at the great man is something we know from other boyish hero worshipers. Falstaff is Alan Breck to Bloom’s David Balfour, or Long John to his Jim Hawkins, or Steerforth to his David Copperfield. Boys at a certain age are suckers for cocksure swaggerers. But those boys saw in time the flaws in their heroes. They grew up. Bloom never did.

Wills’s disapprobation of many aspects of Falstaff’s character and behavior and of some critics’ attitudes toward him is rationally justified but critically unbalanced, lacking a sense of theatrical perspective. It makes no allowance for the affection that Falstaff inspires even in his victims, such as Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, for Hal’s recurrent though not infinite tolerance of his faults, and for the poignancy of Quickly’s account of his death. Shakespeare’s capacity for forgiveness, his willingness to show compassion even for that other notable misleader of youth, Paroles in All’s Well That Ends Well—“There’s place and means for every man alive”—was greater than Wills gives him credit for.

Interaction between theater and state affairs continued, of course, after Elizabeth’s death into the reign of her successor, James I, and here the most significantly dramatic event was the Jesuit-inspired Gunpowder Plot of 1605. “The denunciations of the Gunpowder Plot,” writes Wills, reworking material from his earlier book, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth,2 “focused heavily on Jesuits, since their superior in England, Henry Garnet, was not simply captured and executed for the plot, but a book he wrote—A Treatise of Equivocation (1598)—was found in searches for the plotters.” In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the witches bring about the hero’s downfall through their equivocal prophecies. “It is not surprising,” writes Wills, “that Macbeth, first performed in the year following the plot, has equivocation as a theme.” Macbeth’s account of the witches—

And be these juggling fiends no more believ’d,
That palter with us in a double sense
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope

—is indeed “an exact description of Jesuitical equivocation.” And when, after Duncan’s murder, the Porter comes on having heard a “knocking at the south entry,” he appears to welcome into his imagined Hell three people: “a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty,” “an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven,” and “an English tailor come hither for stealing out of a French hose.”

It has been generally agreed that the “equivocator” alludes to Father Henry Garnet, who justified his use of equivocation under interrogation at his trial for treason; he had been hanged, drawn, and quartered on May 3 (not 6), 1606. “There has,” writes Wills, “been wide disagreement on the identity of the other sinners hailed by the Porter,” but he argues with interesting though not conclusive evidence that “there are not two other sinners” but that the Porter greets Garnet “in his various shapes as the witches had greeted Macbeth under three different titles: Glamis, Cawdor, and King.”

Some support for this may be provided by the fact that at his trial “it was testified that one of the false names Garnet had used during his days in disguise was ‘Farmer,’” and Wills provides interesting evidence from a contemporary poem about Garnet’s death to support his theory that the Porter’s “farmer” also alludes to Garnet. It is so far as I know an original suggestion that can neither be proved nor disproved.