Thomas Cogswell, James 1: The Phoenix King (Penguin Monarchs series), (Allen Lane: London, 2017)
Studying or teaching Shakespeare’s plays, the figure of Elizabeth looms in the background, like the spectre at the feast.
We see it in the ever-present censorship, in the light of the Treasons Acts in 1571 and 1581, outlawing public discussion of the succession. Or, more positively, in the ‘Gloriana’ cult that produced works like Spenser‘s The Faerie Queen, and flattering nods to Elizabeth wherever you look – like links between her and Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We see it in her discomfort with comparisons to Richard II, and the propagandic lionization of Henry VII.
Reading Cogswell‘s short, sympathetic biography has made me reassess the extent to which we / I ignore James until the succession question becomes absolutely critical.
My teaching schedule for the past few years has tended to rely on Macbeth as sole representative of Shakespeare’s Jacobean works. To teach that at GCSE, I rarely need to go much further back in James’ life than Daemonologie (1597) and Newes from Scotland and Agnes Sampson (1591). Other than that, he might get a passing mention in any discussion of Mary Queen of Scots.
Yet he was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, born just two years later, and I think there are some good reasons why we should consider him more in the context of Elizabethan England:
- he was Scotland’s king from infancy – his behaviour would be noted and remarked on from an early age, in a way that a less exalted person’s would not;
- the relationship between England and Scotland, and their geographical positions would have facilitated a constant and easy flow of intelligence; and
- he would have been on the list of candidates to replace Elizabeth probably from around the time the penny began to drop that she would die childless. This has to coincide, broadly, with the beginning of the careers of the major dramatists of the period
So maybe we overlook him, and the potential of his influence …
So I offer these quotations as interesting examples of what the ‘newes from Scotland’ might well have included around the time our playwrights were casting around for topical subject matter:
Handsome young men attracted him, and his emotional life had long revolved around them. The precise nature of their sexual relationship remains unclear. James adopted the role of the older, wiser man, educating surrogate sons. Yet he publicly caressed and slept with them. His sexual tastes puzzled some contemporaries and horrified others, who whispered about sodomy. These whispers cast a dark pall over James’ Arcadian life. His long stays in isolated houses, a contemporary recalled, ‘pleased the king’s humour well, rather that he might enjoy his favourite with more privacy, then that he loved the sports.’
His tiny retinue was almost exclusively male. In 1584, a French diplomat reported that James ‘loves indiscreetly’, and four years later an English agent observed that the king was ‘too much carried by young men that lie in his chamber’. These whispers were so insistent in 1592 that James startled the Edinburgh ministers by ordering them to preach against the common libel that he was a ‘buggerer’.
This extraordinary request highlighted concerns about his sexuality, concerns that would have become even more widespread if he had not married Anne of Denmark.
Note the dates in the second quotation. I offer these, in part, to my students who are well aware of James’s later relationships, but potentially lose marks in answers that refer to these – post-dating the plays – as contextual influencers of our texts.
Some might correctly point out that James had several children with Anne, but that is to ignore the royal imperative for an heir, and indeed, as James’s story proves, a spare or two.
This isn’t to judge James’s proclivities at all, and nor does Cogswell, in what I have already described as a broadly sympathetic portrait. The point is, if we can look at Edward II, for example and say – ‘aha, Henri III of France’, I think we can say ‘James of Scotland, too’ when we find suggestive behavioural matches … just not necessarily George Villiers, who cannot have had any influence on the writing of the plays.