home contact

Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron

From Shakespeare's patrons & other essays by Henry Brown. London: J. M. Dent & sons.

Queen Elizabeth entering London. From Cassell's History of England, Vol.2 The poet was throughout his life greatly indebted to the patronage and support of royal and noble personages; his royal patrons were Queen Elizabeth and King James I, both of whom greatly loved the drama. The virgin queen devoted herself to the study of the ancient classical period; she also delighted in our own theatrical entertainments, and used her influence in the progress of the English drama, and fostered the inimitable genius of Shakespeare. In regard to her taste for the ancient stage, Sir Roger Naunton tells us "That the great Queen translated one of the tragedies of Euripides from the original Greek for her amusement." Shakespeare was ardently attracted to Elizabeth and her Court, and proved a faithful servant to his royal mistress. The first evidence of this is in his fine eulogy of the virgin queen in that most sweetly poetical early drama, A Midsummer-Night's Dream, as "a fair vestal throned by the west"; the play was probably produced for a special Court performance. The passage in which these words occur is a gem of poetical beauty and is the most exquisite compliment she ever received from any poet of her day. Our poet thus muses —
"That very time I saw — but thou couldst not —
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm'd: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loos'd his love-shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce a hundred-thousand hearts:
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quench'd in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation fancy free." — Act II., Sc. i.
A story of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare must perhaps be noticed here, the anecdote a mere late eighteenth-century invention relating to Queen Elizabeth at a theatre one evening while Shakespeare was playing a king, and bowing to him as she crossed the stage, but he went on with his part without returning the salutation. The Queen again passed him, and to directly attract his attention dropped her glove; the poet at once picked it up, and, continuing the delivery of his speech, added these lines —
"And though now bent on this high embassy,
Yet stoop we to take up our cousin's glove."
The Queen, we are told, was greatly pleased. The story is obviously absurd and incredible. Elizabeth did not visit the public theatres, and the custom was to sit removed from the stage at both private and also at Court performances, and her majesty, however much she may have estimated plays and players, and Shakespeare in particular, would not thus have forgotten her queenly state and dignity.

Returning to historical fact, we find from the State papers, etc., that Shakespeare, Burbage, and others played in two comedies before the Queen in December, 1594, at the Royal Palace at Greenwich; these players then took the leading position as servants to the Lord Chamberlain, though no record has been discovered of the names of the plays performed by them before the Queen at this period. But it is known that "The Pleasant Conceited Comedy of Love's Labour's Lost" was played before her highness in the Christmas holidays on December 26, 1597, and in this and the following year the Queen witnessed the First and Second Parts of King Henry IV, both new plays, and was very pleased with the performances. Falstaff gave great delight to the royal spectator and her Court, and at her wish to see exhibited the fat knight in love, the poet produced the comedy of The Merry Wives of Windsor; this play gave infinite satisfaction to all beholders. The part of Falstaff was written originally under the name of Oldcastle; some of that family being then remaining, the Queen was pleased to command him to alter it, upon which he made use of Falstaff, a name that now represents the most humorous character the stage or the world has seen.

It is known from the State papers and other authentic documents that the company to which the poet belonged were, in the Christmas holidays of 1598-1599, playing before the Queen at Whitehall and at Richmond Palace; they also played again before her majesty at the latter palace on two occasions in the year 1600, and at the former palace in the Christmas festivities of the same year, and on February 24, 1601, they played before her Majesty at Richmond Palace, and again before the Queen at Whitehall during the festivities of 1601-1602.

In December 23, 1599, it is reported from the Council Chamber, Richmond Palace, in the State papers of that date, that "There is no other news than of dancing, plays, and Christmas pies. The Court is the only school of wisdom in the world."

In connection with the drama it has not hitherto been observed that in the latter part of her life Queen Elizabeth was often at Nonsuch Palace during the summer; her successive and frequent stay there was during the period of Shakespeare's enrolment as actor and servant to her majesty. Elizabeth held court at Nonsuch as early as 1582 till her closing years, and we cannot but suppose that the players frequently acted at this favourite royal mansion, as at her other palaces, and Shakespeare would be one of the number. Eventually the palace came into the possession of Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria, both lovers of the drama.

The last time the company had the honour to perform before the aged Queen, so long and to the last their devoted patroness, was at the palace at Richmond on February 2, 1603, her death following soon after a brief illness on March 24th of the same year. Shakespeare did not forget, though he has been accused of forgetting, his royal patroness; he could not well eulogize her in a set of verses, as his old friend and patron the Earl of Southampton was at the time imprisoned in the Tower, and with the Earl of Essex, who had then suffered his sad doom, he had long been in bitter enmity against the Queen. Our poet, however, took a better way of recording the praise of his royal mistress, by indicting a most ardent eulogy of the then dead Queen in the last scene of the play of King Henry VIII. This would be heard merely by the audience at the Globe and not be proclaimed broadcast in print, and that course might possibly have incurred the ill-feeling of the partisans of Essex and Southampton. The poet has most certainly extolled her and sung of the glories of her reign, though some doubtless erroneously think the lines were inserted by another from variations in the style of the verses, forgetting that our protean-poet was all poets in one, sometimes by the very sporting of his genius resembling others, then again giving full Shakespeare, hence Ben Jonson aptly styled him the "Soul of the Age"; he resembles all men's minds, all men's styles. Here are the lines, and they are fine enough for Shakespeare, and we believe them to be his.1 The poet briefly places before us a picture of her from her cradle to her grave, and makes Cranmer the speaker. Addressing the King on the newly named child Princess Elizabeth, he utters a most laudatory prophecy —

"Let me speak, sir,
For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter
Let none think flattery, for they'll find 'em truth.
This royal infant — heaven still move about her —
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be -
But few now living can behold that goodness —
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be lov'd and fear'd; her own shall bless her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour.
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep wnth her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new-create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself; "

"She shall be, to the happiness of England,
An aged princess ; many days shall see her,
And yet no day without a deed to crown it.
Would I had known no more! but she must die, —
She must, the saints must have her, — yet a virgin;
A most unspotted lily shall she pass
To the ground, and all the world shall mourn her.

King Henry. O lord archbishop,
Thou hast made me now a man! never before
This happy child did I get anything;
This oracle of comfort has so pleas'd me.
That when I am in heaven I shall desire
To see what this child does, and praise my Maker."
Assuredly the solemnity and general tone of these thoughts resemble Shakespeare more than Fletcher or any other writer for the stage of that period. A later writer speaks in her praise for her patronage of the drama and for her regard for the actor's art: "Our late Queen Elizabeth of blessed memory, rightly styled the world's Phoebe; among women a Sibylla, among Queens a Saba, how well she approved of these Recreations, being (as she termed them) harmless spenders of time, the large exhibitions which she conferred on such as were esteemed notable in that kind may sufficiently witness. Neither did she hold it any derogation to that royal and princely Majesty which she then in her royal person presented, to give some countenance to their endeavours, whereby they might be the better encouraged in their action."2

The following verse from the Threnos, written by Shakespeare and appended to his poem, The Phoenix and the Turtle, appear allusively to refer to the death of Elizabeth —

"Beauty, truth, and
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd in cinders lie."

"Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be."
All in all, we may therefore well suppose that Henry VIII was written not long after the entreaty by Chettle to Shakespeare upon the death of Elizabeth to mourn for her and —
"Drop from his honied muse one sable tear,
To mourn her death that graced his desert,
And to his lays opened her royal ear."3

From the first to the last the poet had an unwavering lofty opinion of the Queen's supreme goodness, virtue, and purity.


1: The play, evidently a work written in haste, is equal or but little below much of the poet's latest writing, either in dramatic construction, nor is it in the supposed added portions inferior to some of his later versification.

2: "The English Gentleman," by R. Brathwayt, fol., London, 1652, p. 106.

3: "England's Mourning Garment," 1603.

How to cite this article:

Brown, Henry. Shakespeare's patrons & other essays. London: J. M. Dent & sons, 1912. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


Related Articles

 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 Entertaining Queen Elizabeth (bear-baiting)
 Elizabeth I Demands Falstaff
 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Sports and Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
 Sports and Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]

 Essential Globe Information
 Shakespeare's Audience in his Day
 Going to a Play in Shakespeare's London
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare's Boss

 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time
 Theatre Closures Due to Disease
 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 Shocking Elizabethan Drama
 The King's Men

 Shakespeare's Reputation in Elizabethan England
 Worst Diseases in Shakespeare's London
 Shakespeare's Language

 Quotations About William Shakespeare
 Shakespeare's Boss: The Master of Revels