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James VI And I And His Patronage Of The Arts

During the reign of James the VI and I the theatres enjoyed a period of cultural association with the royal family which has led to subsequent commentators indicating that James was a champion of the theatres and a lover of plays. In his political work Basilikon Doron (1599) which was intended as advice for the correct application of kingship to his son Henry, he even referred to himself as a player-king. [1] While it would be fair to say that James provided patronage to a greater degree than his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth, he was more interested in how the theatre could be used to bolster his own political agenda.

The reign of James proved beneficial for Shakespeare’s company. Within two months of coming to the throne, The King’s Servants were patented (May 11th 1603) and eventually became known as the King’s Men. [2] The benefits of such patronage were immediate. It meant, primarily, a rise in social status for the acting profession, as now all the players in the company were entitled to call themselves gentlemen. Furthermore it gave them certain protections from the opponents of the theatre such as the Puritans. Royal approval allowed these players to escape the career-threatening prohibitions and restrictions on playing which were sought by such groups. Royal sanction also meant that during bad times for the theatre, there would be tangible proof of support, as well as court performances to ensure a steady wage for the actors.

Court patronage should not be overestimated however. Most of the company’s money would be made by playing to the general public. The difference between playing at court and not, did not make the difference between success and going out of business, but it did make the difference between subsistence and living well. For example, Christopher Wortham notes that outbreaks of plague kept the theatres shut for much of the summer season during Shakespeare’s remaining years. The company made up their losses by touring the county towns, but the winter season of court performances yielded a substantial portion of their income. [3]

During James’s first year in England there were eighteen plays performed at court during the Christmas period. Of those eighteen, most were seen by Anna, his wife, and Henry, his son. However, James still managed to see eleven plays performed by five companies. [4] Indeed, Leeds Barroll has suggested that it was his wife Anna who was the more avid patron of the arts, as she was known to be a great admirer of plays, and she also had a troupe of performers under her patronage. [5] Although James provided patronage to Shakespeare’s company he did not appear to have been a favourite of the king. Unlike other prominent literary figures of the day such as John Donne and Ben Jonson, Shakespeare did not have firsthand dealings with him.

Nevertheless, James was aware of the potential power which the theatre had in transmitting his ideas, particularly those of kingship and the desire to unite Britain more comprehensively than by just the Crowns. As there were no effective forms of mass communication at this time, the theatre was one of the more effective ways of reaching larger groups of people with the same message. As Christopher Wortham writes: ‘While one must not exaggerate the perceived importance of mere players in national life at the time, it is not improbable that James I needed Shakespeare at least as much as Shakespeare needed him.’[6]

A prime example of this type of association between the king and role of The King’s Men as his assistants, can be found in King Lear. In Act Three when Gloucester enters the hovel he greets Lear with the words, ‘What, hath your grace no better company?’ (3.4.138), in which he is referring to his companions Kent, disguised as Caius, Edgar, disguised as Poor-Tom and the Fool, all of whom are pretending to be different people. As Jonathan Gibson has eloquently put it: ‘What better company could there be than The King’s Men?’ [7] While ultimately the King’s Men need the King for support, Shakespeare reminds the audience, that monarchs likewise require the support of their followers and men in order to function properly. Therefore, while James VI and I may not have been the great Patron of the Arts, for the sake of art, which he is often purported to be; nevertheless he was aware of the political advantages of retaining a company who could eloquently articulate his message to the people.

Ralph McLean


1. James VI, The Basilikon Doron of King James VI. Ed., James Craigie (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1944). Return to text

2. David Ward, ‘TheKingand Hamlet’, Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 43 (1992), p. 281. Return to text

3. Christopher Wortham, ‘Shakespeare, James I and the Matter of Britain’ English: The Journal of English Association Vol. 45 (1996), p. 98. Return to text

4. Leeds Barroll, ‘A New History for Shakespeare and his Time’, Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 39 (1988) pp. 441-164. Return to text

5. Leeds Barroll, ‘Assessing ‘Cultural Influence’: James I as Patron of the Arts, Shakespeare Studies Vol. 29 (2001), pp. 132-164. Return to text

6. Wortham, ‘Shakespeare, James I and the Matter of Britain’, p. 100. Return to text

7. Jonathan Gibson, ‘King Lear and the Patronage System’ The Seventeenth Century Vol. 14 (1999), p. 114. Return to text



General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
The Wife as Property in Othello