Very often, it is not necessary to teach the history behind Shakespeare’s plays to enjoy them in the classroom. It is merely enough to speak the words, explore the text, and get to know the characters.
If possible, however, the influence of monarchs on Shakespeare’s plays can be just as interesting.
How is Macbeth a dramatization of the Gunpowder Plot? Why was a certain scene in Richard II banned from performance? Why did the play Henry VIII end with praise for baby Elizabeth and not a beheading? Why do we now remember Richard III as a hunchbacked murderer?
And why, for goodness sake, did he write Merry Wives of Windsor?
Because the royals requested it.
Last night I saw a performance from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival of Bill Cain’s highly acclaimed Equivocation, which – through fiction – explores the dangerous but necessary link between politics and art, and how they each influence each other. I left with my head buzzing around things I’d never considered about the two. Their study materials were a very interesting read (if a bit high-scholarly).
If the means are available, consider the history behind the plays’ performances. What was the political state at the time? Who was on the throne? Who had caused a scandal at court? What was happening in London (or made world news) at that time? Elizabeth I and James I both had a noticeable influence on what Shakespeare wrote about, and how his plays were received.
I would love to hear if anyone’s done a student project on anything like this before – and what was gleaned from it. Or perhaps it could be fun for the few students left in your classrooms the day before Thanksgiving to read up on the history around the play you’re studying this semester and create a timeline or parallel guide to the fact and the fiction. Has anyone done any lessons on these links before, or plan to?