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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Edward Burne-Jones was born #onthisday in 1833. This watercolour from his ‘Flower Book’ is titled ‘White Garden’. This was a name for Atriplex hortensis, a small garden plant that has edible leaves. In this painting Burne-Jones has created an imaginary ‘white garden’, populated with lilies that are being picked by two white-clad angelic figures. Like other figures in his works, they appear dressed in classically inspired white robes, with their blonde hair tied back.
#EdwardBurneJones #BurneJones #PreRaphaelite #flowers In this second watercolour from the ‘Flower Book’ of Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, we can see the goddess Venus walking through the night’s sky with doves. This painting is titled ‘Rose of heaven’ – a name given to the plant campion, a small pink flower. Burne-Jones took inspiration from the name of the flower and its connotations, rather than what the flower actually looks like. The depiction of Venus seems to be heavily influenced by Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’, with flowing blonde hair and a dynamic pose.
#EdwardBurneJones #BurneJones #PreRaphaelite #flowers To mark the birthday of Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) this week, we’re featuring paintings from his ‘Flower Book’ – a sketchbook full of watercolours and drawings that contained fantasy artworks inspired by the names of flowers. This painting is titled ‘Love in a tangle’ – a name sometimes used for the climbing plant clematis. The scene suggests the story of Ariadne, who gave Greek hero Theseus a ball of golden thread to unwind as he wandered through the labyrinth in search of the minotaur (a mythological creature – half-man and half-bull). Here she waits anxiously for her lover to follow the thread back out of the maze. The clematis and its maze of tangled foliage inspired Burne-Jones to represent this story from ancient Greek mythology in his Flower Book.
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