restricted access William Shakespeare’s Regnal Connections: Whose Court Is This Anyway?
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William Shakespeare’s Regnal Connections:
Whose Court Is This Anyway?

“Shortly after his arrival in London to ascend the throne of England, King James took under his protection the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who were thenceforth known as the King’s Men.”1 This twentieth—and nineteenth—century way of thinking about Shakespeare in his milieu should by this time seem as out- of-date as the notion that Stratford-upon- Avon was a sleepy country village. Yet it is easy to understand how the yoking of England’s premier poet with King James still holds an attraction for the authors of recent biographical comments about William Shakespeare. “The King’s Men”: the phrase has a jaunty feel to it, redolent of camaraderie and masculinity—as in “Robin Hood and his Merrie Men,” “Men of Harlech,” “Give me some men who are stout- hearted men,” and so on. Moreover, some kind of temperamental alliance between the king of England and England’s king of poets seems to many commentators like a good idea because clearly Shakespeare had rare intellectual gifts and so, to some extent, did James. Yet this linkage, however intriguing, really has no place in appraisals of Shakespeare indicted in the second decade of the twenty- first century. It’s therefore time to once again urge a narrative that conforms to our understanding of the cultural history of the period. This history suggests that if any royalty in the new Jacobean period was socially and intellectually situated to even be aware of [End Page 185] William Shakespeare, writer of stage plays in London, it was not King James but his consort, Anna, the new queen. Before such argument can be reaffirmed, however, we should briefly consider the three main documents most commonly cited to demonstrate King James’s respect for, and even protectiveness toward, Shakespeare.

First there is the patent prepared in the lord chancellor’s office and dated May 19, 1603, which did “license and authorize these our servants Lawrence Fletcher, William Shakespeare,” and seven other actors by name as well as “the rest of their associates” to give plays and other entertainments “for the recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure when we think good to see them during our pleasure.” We hear nothing here of the king’s merry “men”; rather, we note now, and always when Shakespeare’s company appears in such decrees about them, that they are the king’s “servants.”

And in regard to this matter of “servants,” it’s good to remind ourselves that James had many, many “servants” in multiple contexts—a far more complicated landscape than often allowed by literary historians. Indeed, a lack of “specialness” as regarded these particular “servants” is ultimately apparent in the contexts of the second document, which, we are to understand, reemphasizes a putatively high royal standing for Shakespeare and his fellows. In this document, the Crown authorized disbursal of four yards of red cloth to Shakespeare and each of eight of his fellow actors at the time of the king’s “royal proceeding through the city of London” to his delayed coronation. An honor, perhaps, but not a singular one. A disbursal of equal value was accorded to each of the ten actors recently named “Servaunts of the Queen,” and to each of nine actors now known as “Servaunts of the Prince.” That any of these twenty- eight actors actually marched in the procession has been doubted by three scholars, one of whom has also noted that “red”—as opposed to “scarlet”—was the lowest grade of cloth awarded to “servants” in these circumstances. Moreover, elsewhere in this document, the same measure of red cloth was also awarded to the king’s “Fawkeners &c. &c.” It is possible that, judging from how much of his time he spent hunting, James might well have had a more companionable feeling for his falconers than for his actor- servants. My point, however, is not so much to equate the social standing of Shakespeare’s company in his time with that of huntsmen as it is to remind us that, as in our own century, state [End Page 186...