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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fun Facts about Elizabethan England

With the ever present threat of assassination by supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots and Catholic dissidents, Elizabeth I surrounded herself with a spy network headed by Francis Walsingham. A ruthless spy, Walsingham uncovered the Anthony Babington plot in 1586 to restore Mary to the thrown that secured her execution. Elizabeth was highly concerned with written forms of rebellion, such as subversive plays, and meticulously led an authoritarian counter-revolutionary campaign of propaganda, speeches and statutes.

Elizabeth's "Rainbow Portrait," featuring eyes and ears on her gown to symbolize the power of her spies at court.

“The Virgin Queen” was a problematic figure for Shakespeare and his audience. If a female “King of England” wasn’t troubling enough, Elizabeth had not provided an heir. In 1566 Parliament even tried to deny Elizabeth any funding until she married. By the time Richard III was produced, Elizabeth was an aging monarch and the audience’s anxieties about an “unnatural” ruler with no Tudor male heir were at their height.

Religious persecution was rampant throughout Elizabeth’s lifetime, during which time the English monarchy changed religion from Protestant to Catholic, and then back again. Heretics were burned, monasteries, convents, hospitals and schools dissolved and churches defaced. Theatre played an integral part in this religious conflict during Shakespeare’s time, functioning both as overt Protestant propaganda and as clandestine Catholic code. Although Elizabeth was fully aware of Shakespeare’s many subversive meanings encoded in his plays, he was skilled enough to hide them well and escape censorship and punishment.

Bloody Mary Tudor, the Catholic monarch between Edward VI and Elizabeth I.

Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's threat to the throne.

Read more about Relgion in Shakespeare's England here.

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