Have you heard the one about Elizabeth I, James VI and William Shakespeare?
The story begins in 1599 when Elizabeth I (old and childless) was struggling to cope with rebellious courtiers, difficult wars in Ireland and elsewhere, and the threat of a Spanish invasion. One of her few pleasures came from private performances by troupes of actors, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – with Shakespeare as a member – was one of her favourites.
In Scotland, James VI waited for Elizabeth to die, desperate to be named as her successor. But the Queen kept stringing him along, and meanwhile he had to deal with his own rebels, as well as the religious extremists of the Presbyterian kirk who openly defied him. It was for good reason he wore a stab-proof tunic.
Shakespeare was not having an easy time either. The Chamberlain’s Men had recently been shut out of their own theatre, and were forced to dismantle it and rebuild it in Southwark, as the Globe.
Shakespeare owned a share in the new venture, but was under pressure. Not only did he have to keep writing hit plays, but the playhouses of London were under threat of closure.
The Privy Council and civic authorities wanted the theatres ‘plucked down’ because they feared the plays encouraged immoral behaviour and sedition. Regular outbreaks of the plague also closed the playhouses, forcing actors to go on tour in the provinces.
To add to Shakespeare’s woes, the Chamberlain’s Men had serious competition for the Queen’s affections, whilst her death was sure to make them vulnerable to their enemies.
Here’s where we add an obscure English comic actor named Lawrence Fletcher into the mix.
The religious zealots of the kirk ensured Scotland had no public theatres, but King James (a poet, writer and linguist) coveted the cultural scene down in London.
Fletcher found a position as the ‘King’s Servant’, arranging plays for James, and organising visits by English actors.
In late 1599, Fletcher arranged for one group of actors to come to Edinburgh, with records showing payments made to ‘Inglis Commeidianis’. This appearance infuriated the Church (or Kirk, as it was known in Scotland) who tried to ban the troupe, but an incensed King James forced the Kirk to back down.
It seems reasonable to think Shakespeare was part of this troupe of actors. He was already a well-known poet and playwright, and Fletcher would have wanted to impress James.
Historian Michael Wood noted that as well as being “the greatest performing art of its day, theatre was also the most political”.
Indeed actors were routinely sent on tours by their wealthy patrons for propaganda reasons, serving as cultural diplomats and spies.
It seems plausible that Elizabeth would have sanctioned the visit, and wanted an ‘A’ team of actors to build goodwill with the Scottish king.
A man as shrewd as Shakespeare may also have wanted to go to Scotland, given it afforded the opportunity to impress James and secure patronage from the future King of England.
There is no evidence regarding where the English actors performed, but it may have been at the Tennis Court theatre at Holyrood Palace.
Elizabeth died in 1603, and James arrived in London in May that year to take her throne. Just six days later, a Royal Patent was issued confirming the rights of the Chamberlain’s Men to perform in London, and promoting them to the ‘King’s Men’.
Soon they became ‘grooms of the chamber’, leap-frogging their rivals, and now safe from their enemies.
During Shakespeare’s lifetime the King’s Men would perform for James 187 times.
Why would King James have made such a swift decision about Shakespeare and his colleagues without first seeing the competition? Perhaps he had already made up his mind after seeing the troupe perform in Scotland.
Crucially, the Royal Patent lists the key members of the King’s Men. Lawrence Fletcher is listed first, ahead of Shakespeare. This is strong evidence that Fletcher and Shakespeare were linked long before 1603.
Shakespeare’s ability to navigate the complex world of Elizabethan politics had paid off handsomely.
We will never know what really happened, but it is nice to think of Will Shakespeare strutting along the Royal Mile, avoiding the Kirk, and trying to find a decent pint with his mate, Lawrence Fletcher.
This article first appeared on our sister title, i.