Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Life Without Elizabeth: Portrait of the Tudor Dynasty examines the hot topic of who would be next on the throne.
Susan Doran, University of Oxford
In 1571 or 1572 when this painting was made, the question of Queen Elizabeth’s marriage was still alive. There were negotiations for her to marry in the French Royal House; there were the two young princes so candidates for marriage were possible, even though in many ways marriage was unlikely. Of course, Elizabeth could also have married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. She was young enough still, despite being in her late thirties, to have children and that would have resolved the question of the succession.
At this time there were considerable problems about the succession because there wasn’t only the danger that Elizabeth might die naturally and Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, would gain the throne, but that she would actually be assassinated. There had been a Papal bull that called for her deposition and there had been a plot, the Ridolfi plot, which was an international conspiracy designed to supplant Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.
Everyone knew that there was an international conspiracy, that there had been a rebellion in 1569 designed to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne and that Philip II of Spain was behind the Ridolfi plot, so those people looking at the painting would have been aware of the threat to Elizabeth’s own life and therefore the problem with the succession.
In 1571, the Treasons Act was passed which made it treason to discuss the succession, particularly the title of any potential successors to Elizabeth. Another policy was passed in 1581 which reinforced that need for silence on the succession.
The issue of the succession was evident not just in Shakespeare’s plays but in other plays as well, in masques and entertainments. Questions about what kind of succession there should be, whether it should be an elective or hereditary succession are present in Titus Andronicus. They’re there in chronicles, they’re there in plays and they would have been easily read by audiences of Shakespeare’s plays.