British Museum blog

The theatre of monarchy

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Europe: Triumphs of the Past looks at displays of power.


Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare scholar

Ceremony is the thing that makes a monarchy happen. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King reflects on the importance of ceremony, but he refers to it as `idol’ ceremony.

The English have always done royal ceremony and pageantry very well and it is one of the main devices that keep the monarchy going. So in Shakespeare’s time, something like the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth or the coronation procession of King James would have been huge public events, the streets of London would have been thronged and the elite would actually have been there in the Abbey, at the front when the coronation or the burial took place.

There is an interesting difference between the way that Queen Elizabeth and King James used ceremony. Elizabeth, perhaps because of her insecurity about her own position on the throne, as a woman, a woman without an heir, and a Protestant, relied a lot on public ceremony, processions through the streets and indeed through the nation; visitations to great aristocratic households. She also moved a lot from palace to palace; the court was mobile. One week they would be at the palace at Whitehall and another week they would be down river at Greenwich, another week up river at Nonesuch or Richmond. The public saw this extraordinary bejewelled figure of the Queen.

King James was reluctant to display himself in public in this way. He did make use of ceremony, in particular made use of theatrical entertainments with the court masks in which the royal family and the courtiers participated in theatre and music and dancing. But this was very much an enclosed thing aimed at the elite who were invited to attend, aimed at visiting royalty, visiting diplomats and so on. So there is an interesting contrast between the importance of public spectacle for Queen Elizabeth and this more private, enclosed sense of the court that King James had.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Europe: Triumphs of the Past

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Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-80), who appears on the coin set in this ring, is best known for his philosophical work, The Meditations. Although he was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire, he dwelt on the emptiness of glory: 'Shall mere fame distract you? Look at the speed of total oblivion of all and the void of endless time on either side of us and the hollowness of applause... For the whole earth is but a point, and of this what a tiny corner is our dwelling-place, and how few and paltry are those who will praise you.' It is ironic that such sentiments as these have preserved his fame to this day.
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