In 1702, the playwright and critic John Dennis recounted a charming story. According to Dennis, William Shakespeare’s theater troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had performed the Henry IV plays at the court of Elizabeth I. So taken was the Queen with the comic and wise character of Falstaff, she requested a play in which the character fell in love. “She was so eager to see it acted,” Dennis wrote, “that she commanded it be finished in 14 days.” Shakespeare obliged, and the result was the comic Merry Wives of Windsor. For good measure, the play included lots of laudatory allusions to Elizabeth.
While many scholars assume this story to have a basis in fact, for centuries historians and artists have tried desperately to pin down the relationship between Shakespeare and the Queen. A forged letter from Elizabeth to the playwright, Shakespeare in Love and Charles Beauclerk’s assertion that Shakespeare was the Queen’s illegitimate son are examples of our endless fascination.“There is… a long history of people wanting Shakespeare to be Elizabeth's favorite,” Professor Michael Dobson of the Shakespeare Institute explained on the podcast Let’s Talk About Shakespeare. “He’s the father of the national culture; she’s the kind of mother of the nation; obviously they should have been in some sort of relationship.”
Shakespeare may have met Elizabeth I when he was a young boy
There is no doubt the Queen was a great patron of the arts, and personally enjoyed them immensely. “Elizabeth was passionate about theater, and actively protected it from the Puritans who wanted it banned,” Alison Weir writes in The Life of Elizabeth I. “In 1583, she formed her own theater company, the Queen’s Men, of whom her favorite performer was the comic actor Richard Tarleton, whose antics could make her weep with laughter.”
According to Shakespeare biographer Peter Ackroyd, there is a “pretty story” concerning the first time the future Bard may have laid eyes on the Queen. In 1575, Elizabeth stopped at Kenilworth Castle, 12 miles from his hometown of Stratford. Since Shakespeare’s father, John, was a local dignitary, he would have no doubt been called upon to join in the festivities, which included pageants, masques and skits performed on an artificial lake. It has been surmised that he may have brought 11-year-old William along, and some have pointed to lines in A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Twelfth Night which seem to allude to the event.
Shakespeare's theater troupe was a favorite of Elizabeth I's
After the Queen’s favorite Tarleton died in 1588, the Queen’s Men lost their luster. New entertainments were brought into court, and by the 1590s, young Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men were all the rage. We know they appeared in front of Elizabeth in December 1594. In March 1595, Shakespeare and two associates were paid 20 pounds for “two comedies shown before Her Majesty in Christmas last.”
In 1598, the title of a printed edition of Love’s Labor’s Lost read:
A pleasant conceited comedie called, Love’s Labor’s Lost. As it was presented before her Highness this last Christmas. Newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespeare.
By the late 1590s, it appears the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had become something of a favorite with Elizabeth and her court. However, these performances – most often performed at Christmastime – were not intimate, casual affairs but carefully staged events with a clear delineation between the actors and audience. In Shakespeare: The Biography, Ackroyd explains what they entailed:
The actors did not simply arrive, with their costumes and instruments. They first had to rehearse the plays intended for Her Majesty’s pleasure before the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney… Tilney would act as censor, removing those lines that might be indelicate or offensive to the royal ear. He also loaned the company more sumptuous costumes if they were needed; at the court, some of their dresses and cloaks might have seemed threadbare… When all was settled, they took a boat downriver…The great hall at Greenwich had been cleared for the performance; the stage was at one end…and the royal dais was at the other…The musicians were placed on the wooden balcony above the stage, and the actors could use the passage behind the screen as their “tiring-room.” The audience, invited at royal discretion, assembled in their formal robes before the arrival of the queen herself.
It seems 'very likely' that Shakespeare and Elizabeth I met... But they probably weren't friends
So, did Shakespeare and Elizabeth meet? The answer is: probably. "It seems very likely that when the actors played at court they would have been introduced to their host,” Professor Sir Stanley Wells told Let’s Talk Shakespeare. “We’ve got no direct record of that, but especially considering the high number of times that the actors went to court – and we do know also that some of the actors became very friendly with members of the aristocracy.”
However, it is unlikely they were close, or even friendly. The Queen’s friendships were always a topic of intense gossip, and there is no record of any whispers about the two. In fact, they had every reason not to like each other – Shakespeare had known Catholic sympathies at odds with the Protestant Queen.
The playwright often painted royalty in an unfavorable light. In 1601, a visitor reported that Elizabeth commented wryly, “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” and complained that Shakespeare’s drama “was played fortie times in open streets and houses.” She must not have been too angry with him though, because the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed six times at court the next winter. It is also claimed that shortly before she died, Elizabeth requested to see A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
When Elizabeth died in 1603, Shakespeare was publicly chided for not properly eulogizing the Virgin Queen. Only six days after her successor James I was crowned, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were made The King’s Men and Shakespeare a “groom of the chamber.” They would perform for the Jacobean court far more than they ever did Elizabeth’s. And so, it seems accounts of a great friendship between the Queen and the Bard are probably – like many of Shakespeare’s fanciful plays – simply wishful thinking.