William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) is the most famous English writer, poet, playwright, and theatre actor of all time. This talented author is nowadays admired by millions of people as a genius of literature and theatre, and this title is a deserved one. The heritage of William Shakespeare, consisting of over 30 plays, hundred of poems and sonnets, etc., constitutes today the golden fund of the world literature and amazes people all over the world (Meagher, 2003).
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The influence of this writer and his works over the social, cultural, and spiritual lives of many generations of people has always been great, but the present paper will examine one of the least studied aspects of his creative work. This paper will focus on the political influence of William Shakespeare on England of the XVI-XVIIII centuries.
To start with, however, it is necessary to define a certain background of this issue. First of all, it goes without saying that culture and arts have always had a great impact on the socio-political processes in a country, and England was not an exception.
The time under consideration, and namely the late XVI and the early XVII centuries, was the time of great changes for England connected with the increase of its international power and military strength. Moreover, domestic events in England were rather controversial. After the death of Henry VIII, his descendant carried out a cruel and bloody war for the throne of the kingdom.
As a result, Henry’s illegitimate daughter Elizabeth became the first Queen of England. Her policies were rather strict but modernist and progressive at the same time (Meagher, 2003). It goes without saying that the role of William Shakespeare in this fact was rather substantial. The major instruments of his political influence were his writings and theatre performances (Fulton, 2006).
Thus, the major peculiarity of Shakespeare’s style was the trend towards the gradual simplification of his rhymes and the manner of writing itself. The first plays like “Titus Andronicus” or some others are filled with pompous and not always understandable expressions, comparisons, and phrases.
However, with the development of the author’s talent, Shakespeare comes to the more balanced manner of writing where the artistic needs are incorporated into the necessity of vivid and real depiction of life. Such one of his plays as “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and especially “King Richard II” are the brightest examples of his true-to-life but the still picturesque manner of creation (Meagher, 2003).
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Accordingly, when speaking about the political importance of his plays and his own influence upon the political life of England in the XVI century, it is necessary to state that historical chronicles are the most notable among his works. That is why discussing the relations between the poet and the English Queen Elizabeth I, the historical context of his writing, should always be kept in mind.
In other words, reading Shakespeare’s chronicles, one can not help comparing his depictions with the events that were contemporary to him (Levin, 1994). For example, reading the play “King Richard II,” it is impossible to avoid comparisons between those events and the rule of Elizabeth I. Thus, the case when Richard II transfers the majority of his powers to his counselors was rather similar to what Elizabeth did in favor of her close advisors.
Nevertheless, for Shakespeare as a supporter of a free and democratic society (Fulton, 2006), these parallels were positive signs. Consequently, it can be concluded that Shakespeare’s influence upon Elizabeth I was rather substantial.
Scholars like Levin (1994), Meagher (2003), and some others suppose even that there was a kind of close relationship between the poet and the Queen, and from this, they make assumptions about her deep perception of his ideals (Levin, 1994).
The Queen was also compared and associated with some of the female characters created by Shakespeare, like Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, or even Ofelia from the same play (Levin, 1994). Thus, for example, “King Richard II” draws more parallels and points out the rationality of the King who divided his powers among his closest people to ensure democracy and avoid tyranny:
We were not born to sue, but to command,
Which, since we can not do to make you friends,
Be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry, upon St. Lambert’s Day.
(Shakespeare, p. 75)
Furthermore, there were certain political events that allow making a conclusion about the great importance of Shakespeare and his views for the Queen. For example, the Essex Rebellion led by the earl of Essex in 1601 was connected with the writer. The rebels hoped for the bomb effect of Shakespeare’s play “King Richard II” that had to raise people in London to join Essex troops.
Scholars even accept the possibility that Shakespeare was in a plot with the rebels, and agreed to perform that play exactly on the day they planned to enter London.
Due to the above mentioned controversial parallels between Richard II and Elizabeth I, this performance was rather dangerous on that very day. However, the royal troops managed to fight that rebellion, while Shakespeare and the actors from his Globe theatre were forgiven by the Queen (Meagher, 2003).
Drawing from this, it can be stated that the political influence of William Shakespeare was built first of all upon his deep understanding of the political processes in England. Knowing history quite well, Shakespeare was well aware of the consequences of the open criticism of the authorities and tried to exercise the power of his art in a hidden form.
For instance, the positive attitude Shakespeare had towards republican movements in England was hidden in his works under the images of royalty that was not able to resist rebellions and was always thrown off by the new power. As Fulton (2006) notices, Shakespeare “interacted with the republican culture” (1317) and was one of the numerous artists who tried to make changes to the social organization of England.
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However, it is obvious that Shakespeare’s influence was not integral and comprehensive. The ideas of this famous author did not prevent England led by Elizabeth I from carrying out numerous colonization wars and expansion over the sea. This resulted in the conflict with Spain and caused numerous victims from the side of the English army (Fulton, 2006).
Moreover, the violence that the then authorities exercised against all people who dared to disagree with the official opinion of the Queen was also familiar to Shakespeare, but it was beyond his possibilities to overcome it. For instance, in 1583, William Arden, one of Shakespeare’s mother’s cousins, was arrested and executed for the alleged attempt of killing the Queen (Levin, 1994).
Thus, it is obvious that Shakespeare had considerable influence on the political and social life of the country and upon the attitudes of Queen Elizabeth I. But it is also necessary to admit that this influence was not unlimited, as the most important political questions, both domestic and foreign, were decided in accordance with the strategic goals of the state rather than with the poetic ideals of the English genius.
However, the social influence of the works by Shakespeare was tremendous as far as the people of England started to appreciate their culture more after Shakespeare took it to the highest level of development.
The beauty that was worshipped by Shakespeare helped people understand the main social processes of their time and react to them accordingly. Drawing from this, the indirect political influence by William Shakespeare can be observed in such phenomena as the increase of respect to English society and culture abroad as well as the growth of prestige of being English.
Thus, to make the respective conclusion of this paper, it is necessary to state that William Shakespeare is a genius of the world literature, and his importance for the English nation can not be overestimated. His works had artistic meaning and social impact, but as well they impacted the political life of England substantially, making it closer to the establishment of the constitutional monarchy and equality of rights for all the layers of the society.
Shakespeare’s political influence was great at the time of his life, and even nowadays, his works impact world politics to some extent. From Shakespeare’s masterpieces, people learn about the past and act already having knowledge of the possible effects of their political deeds.
Fulton, Thomas. “Shakespeare and Republicanism.” Renaissance Quarterly 59.4 (2006): 1317+.
Levin, Carole. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
Meagher, John C. Pursuing Shakespeare’s Dramaturgy: Some Contexts, Resources, and Strategies in His Playmaking. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
Shakespeare, William and Andrew Gurr. King Richard II. Cambridge University Press, 2003.