Since I’ve been pouring over books and online journals all day, I thought I’d post the tentative abstract for my thesis so you can all see what I’ve been hard at work on. So far, I have about 40 pages out of 100 written. Enjoy.
William Shakespeare’s plays can be split between those that were written under the rule of Elizabeth I and those that were written under the rule of James I (Elizabethan and Jacobean, respectively). As the ruler of England changed so did the general themes in Shakespeare’s plays. Was this shift due to Shakespeare’s need to become a court propagandist? Did Shakespeare tailor his plays to suit the monarch in power? Or was Shakespeare merely a dramatic historian whose writings were a reflection of the political and social theatres of the time?
It is my finding that Shakespeare was indeed a court propagandist, whether it was a conscious choice and effort is not known, as the life of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is a bit of a mystery. What I have deduced through countless hours of research is that Shakespeare’s plays written in the Elizabethan era (pre-1603) were more carefully crafted to please the long-reigning Tudor queen. These plays include all of Shakespeare’s Tudor history plays which highlight Tudor rulers (including Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII) overcoming monarchical obstacles and defeating the Plantagenets for the throne as well as plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream which focuses on the “cult of a Elizabeth,” a new way of seeing England’s monarch as the “virgin queen” and comparable, if not more credible, than the virgin Mary.
Like in the Elizabethan period those plays written in the Jacobean period (post-1603), were full of propagandist undertones, but they aimed to please and stroke the ego of England’s new King, James I. As James I was an avid supporter of the theatre, these plays were mostly court masks laced with compliments and allusions to the new Scottish king. Plays like Macbeth tell the honorable way in which James’ family reached the throne, and The Winter’s Tale made allusions to the gunpowder plot that threatened to being down James I.
Though the plays of both periods have a solid propagandist core they differ in the ways that they represent their monarch toting arguments. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays focus solely on depicting Elizabeth and her Tudor lineage as divine, and a religious cult to we worshipped. These plays are mostly historical or focus on socio-economic issues of the period in relation to how they were perceived, handled, and represented by the Queen. Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays, on the other hand, were more focused on James’ rule rather than the social and economic issues surrounding it. These plays aimed to heighten awareness of James’ rise to royalty and the differences (for better or for worse) between his rule, and the rule of Elizabeth. Shakespeare, in his Jacobean plays, seemed to continue a bit with his Tudor propaganda in many plays like Othello and Measure for Measure which, were critical of James I and his tendency to rule with undertones of despotism. They focused on tyranny and treason, not social issues or foreign threats.
I base this all on heavy reading a research of scholarly articles in literary journals, and those complied in anthologies. I have taken the ideas and observations of established literary critics and historians and used them to help me creatively craft my own argument on the natures, similarities, and differences between Shakespeare’s two main types of plays. Taking into account these observations as well as historical context and the context of Shakespeare’s own life and ideals I have crafted, what I think is, a solid argument determining the reasons for Shakespeare’s propagandist writing, and a reason for the shift in his plays’ subject matter after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.
The following pages are the extrapolated findings of my research.