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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Shakespeare and King James's Birthday


Happy Birthday King James!

He was born on 19 June, 1566.


King James as a boy



He was a very unique and peculiar man. But he was also one of the most consequential men in England's history. There are so many ways that England, and Scotland of course, would never be the same after he became King of England in 1603.

Just think of what is happening today. There is the distinct possibility that Scotland may become independent of England for the first time since King James united the countries in 1603. 

If you think that this Scottish independence movement is controversial, just think of what it was like when King James talked of union in his time.

But today, for his birthday, I would like to consider one question: 

What if King James had never been born?


Age 20



I love the film It's A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. It is very powerful when he is shown what how the world would have been different had he never been born at all. 

King James had no brothers or sisters. He was the first child to Mary, Queen of Scots. Soon after he was born, she became pregnant again, with twins, but miscarried both of them, at the same time she was forced to abdicate her throne.

If King James himself had never been born, or was miscarried, during those tempestuous days of Mary's reign, the world we know would be very different.

If he was not born, then who would have succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, when she died in 1603?

The people who had the greatest claim to the throne were Anne Stanley and Edward Seymour.  Had James not become King James VI of Scotland and I of England, there might have been Queen Anne, or King Edward VII.



Edward Seymour, as a baby.



It is very doubtful that either of them would have united Scotland and England, or even considered it at all. It probably would never have entered their imagination. Why would it?

Scottish union with England might have come eventually, perhaps during the Industrial Revolution, starting somewhere after 1760.

Had King James never been born, it is possible that the Protestant Reformation would have been more problematic in England. King James was perhaps not the best manager of the religious change in the country, but he was a Protestant, and he carried on the Religious Settlement established by Queen Elizabeth, which followed in the footsteps of her father, King Henry VIII.

It is possible that a Queen Anne, or a King Edward VII would have moved the country back to Catholicism. Perhaps England would have faced even greater religious turmoil without King James. One could say that the religious tension between Protestants and Catholics and Puritans might have been greater without King James. It is also true that the religious tensions might very well have been better without him.

Had he never been born, there might not have been a King James Bible. 





Few books in history have had an impact as great as his translation, and it is impossible calculate how history would have unfolded without this translation. The other translations into English, like the Geneva Bible or the Bishop's Bible would have sufficed, and other English translations would have been made, but arguably they would have not had the effect that the King James version had on England's history, and world history.

King James made peace with Spain in 1603-4. This was very controversial, and it is doubtful that a Queen Anne or King Edward VII would have made such a peace with England's greatest foe. After all, it had been only 15 years since the Spanish Armada. 


"The Invincible Armada"


How did England benefit from such peace? Perhaps the greatest benefit was  a rather strong economy during his reign. Since England did not have to financially support military efforts against Spain, it could invest in its own economy. Spain and England would war againt each other later of course, but for the time being, they did not.

Perhaps a Queen Anne, or King Edward VII would have renewed the war against Spain, and continued the fight. Perhaps they might have been victorious, and defeated Spain once and for all. Or they might have suffered a humiliating defeat. Spain might have invaded England for all we know, as they had planned. So, in conclusion, for better or for worse, King James made peace with Spain.

Had King James not been born, there might not have been a Gunpowder Plot against his life. 


The Gunpowder Plot conspirators



It was one of history's worst terrorist plots. I personally think the Gunpowder Plot would not have been hatched against a Queen Anne or a King Edward VII, and it had everything to do with King James personally. 

For example, King James's father, Lord Darnley, had been assassinated with a gunpowder explosion, so it was no coincidence that Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes used that particular weapon against him. 

But I also think that every monarch, and leader, is faced with the threat of assassination and terror. If it was not an explosion of gunpowder, it would have been something else. King Henri IV of France was killed in 1610 by an assassin with a knife!

Had King James never been born, there might have been no Shakespeare.


Shakespeare, a King's Man


What I mean is that he may not have been remembered as he is today. He may have been remembered just as one of several playwrights who were successful at the time. 

Think of the plays that Shakespeare wrote during the reign of King James: King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, The Tempest, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, to name a few.

Yes, Shakespeare wrote masterpieces during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Hamlet, most notably.

But what he wrote during the time of King James is astonishing. I think these plays are the greatest historical achievements during the reign of King James.

When King James rode down from Edinburgh to London in 1603, he made Shakespeare and his fellow actors, known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, into the King's Men, the official royal playing company for King James.

One could say that before King James, Shakespeare was a great playwright. But once he became a King's Man, Shakespeare secured his place in history.

I doubt that a Queen Anne or a King Edward VII would have done the same. I think they would have treated Shakespeare much like Queen Elizabeth did, as a playwright who could write and make money, and occasionally perform at the royal court. I doubt they would have invited him into the court as King James did.


ca. 1606



King James was obsessed with plays, with literature, and I think he loved Shakespeare above all other Englishmen. He made Shakespeare.

The irony is that Shakespeare could not have written those plays for any other monarch. They were all written for King James, but more importantly, they were about King James. He is in those plays. He is Othello, he is King Lear, he is Macbeth -- a Scotsman!

Finally, Shakespeare's wrote these masterpieces for King James. Had King James never been born we would not have these magnificent plays.

Yes, there would have been other plays, and yes they would have been excellent. But what made them so spectacular is the fact that Shakespeare could stop writing plays about monarchs from the past, and speculate about their motives and their actions.

With King James, Shakespeare could paint portraits of James. He had an almost unprecedented view of King James.

With these plays, we can see the artist and the subject, together.

As far as world history goes, for better or for worse, King James inherited Queen Elizabeth's throne in 1603.


in 1606



But as far as culture, and literature, and art is concerned, we should be very grateful to King James for having made Shakespeare, and for the plays he inspired.



Cheers,


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