During the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, a play’s message had to please the patronizing royal courts or grave consequences could follow. William Shakespeare, however, somehow avoided the wrath of royal authorities while fellow playwrights were jailed for writing controversial works. Donald Watson writes, ‘Within these general contexts of State censorship and Court patronage, the professional theatre of Shakespeare’s time developed as an institution of Elizabethan culture and generated both its capacity for pleasing the Queen and its potential for subverting the pyramidal structure of monarchy and its hierarchical ideology.’  Conversely, the Elizabethan court was modelled as a performance in chivalry and courtly behaviour.  ‘All the world's a stage’ was a theme of Elizabeth and James VI and I’s rule and the courts acted their roles accordingly.
When James VI and I came to the British throne he chose to patronize plays personifying his interests of ancient epics, rising empires and Arthurian legend. It is plausible that because late Renaissance theatre often conveyed political messages to the public, James’ patronage subliminally marketed his reign by indirectly comparing his actions to those of great leaders of the past. Because theatrical performances are responses to circumstances and preconceptions of exterior sources containing the same or similar material, James’ patronization acted as a form of political promulgation. 
However, to playwrights such as Ben Jonson, the promotion of some messages proved unsound. Copies of Jonson and Thomas Nashe’s 1597 play the Isle of Dogs, were destroyed and both men spent time in jail owing to the content. The Privy Council questioned Jonson over his play Sejanus in 1603 regarding themes of political corruption; and in 1605, he found himself in jail again over anti-Scottish sentiment within the play Eastward Ho.
Shakespeare never lost the opportunity to introduce messages, patronized or personal, within his plays either. By illustrating examples of political and social conduct within his plays, while excluding practical tests of theory, Shakespeare demonstrated how to abandon or adhere to political doctrine without personally taking sides.  Othello examined forbidden love, yet never sided on the social deviance presented. Hamlet touched upon the role of kingship, faith and moral consequence. Anthony and Cleopatra expounded the tragedy of lovers. Contemporary debate in King Lear questions the bard’s use of actors in dual roles, to demonstrate concepts of hidden friendship, trust and foolishness.  Nevertheless, to serve their own political agendas, others did exploit Shakespeare’s plays.
On the 8th February 1601 a rebellion began, and failed, to place the Earl of Essex on the English throne. The previous evening the conspirators paid Shakespeare’s company to perform the play Richard II, which discusses similar events. In a subsequent investigation, several of those who attended the play were executed for treason, although the actors themselves were acquitted of any wrongdoing.  Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote the politically charged Edward II, a play about a deposed monarch, at a time when Elizabeth I could have suffered the same fate.
Shakespearian theatre provided the opportunity to challenge the social and ‘natural’ hierarchies of period England without overtly creating political statements against nobility or the crown.  Yet, Shakespeare never was a political propagandist.  The portrayals within Shakespeare’s plays merely provided a venue for the public to question their own perceptions of the social and natural order of life and make choices after viewing these interpretations.  While politically sensitive, Shakespeare managed to express political ideas within plays yet avoid the labels of traitor or anarchist.
Ralph McLean and Gregory Sheridan
1. Donald G. Watson, Shakespeare’s Early History Plays
. (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 25. Return to text
4. Blair Worden. Shakespeare and Politics. Catherine Alexander, Ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 30. Return to text
5. See: And My Poor Fool Is Hanged in the Study Tools King Lear section. Return to text
6. Louis Montrose, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre (London, 1996), p. 67 Return to text
8. Robin Wells. Shakespeare, Politics and the State. (London: Macmillian, 1986), p. 61. Return to text
Alexander, Catherine, ed. Shakespeare and Politics. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
James VI, The Basilikon Doron of King James VI. Ed., James Craigie (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1944)
Montrose, Louis, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre (London, 1996)
Watson, Donald G., Shakespeare’s Early History Plays. (London: Macmillan, 1990)
Wells, Robin. Shakespeare, Politics and the State. (London: Macmillian, 1986)