Conference Material: Papers and Proceedings

Loyalty as an Elizabethan Practice: Establishing the Queen's Power

By Pete Grubbs
Ohio Shakespeare Conference.
Cleveland, Ohio. 1993.

Copyright 1995 by Pete Grubbs, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Canadian and U.S. copyright laws. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent and the notification of the author (

Unlike his two immediate predecessors, James I came to power smoothly, without the challenges to his rule that had haunted both Mary's and Elizabeth's early years on the throne.His inheritance was more secure than any king of England had ver enjoyed and the first of the Stuarts had the Tudors to thank for this stability. [1] Throughout the whirlwind of events which occurred between Henry VII's coming to power in 1485 and the death of Elizabeth in 1603, the Tudor monarchs governed their realm ever aware of the importance of their image as a tool to manage their people, creating a portrait of royal power which commanded their respect and fidelity. This technique would reach its zenith under the last Tudor. Following the examples set for her by her father and half-sister, Elizabeth would build the power of the throne she bequeathed to James upon the pragmatic management of the ideal of loyalty and would take any steps necessary to create and protect that power.

The concept of loyalty to a crowned head and the practices that arose from it were integral to the structure of Medieval culture in Western Europe. Oaths of fealty sworn to a monarch by members of the nobility were echoed in turn by oaths sworn to the nobles by their own servants. While these practices were established hundreds of years before the Tudor dynasty, they were not only retained as traditions but were codified as laws when Mary and Elizabeth embodied them in acts that were fundamental in establishing their power.Since loyalty lies so close to the heart of power in this period, it is not surprising to find this concept and its practices examined by the playwrights of the time. Loyalty is one of the central issues in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. My purpose is to examine several legal documents that illustrate loyalty's importance in the foundation of the crown's power and then to show how this concept was translated into dramaturgical terms by Marlowe and Shakespeare.[2]

In 1554, Mary defined her position as queen in an "Act Concerning the Regal Power":

An act declaring that the regal power of this realm is in the queen's majesty as fully and absolutely as ever it was in any of her most noble progenitors, kings of this realm. Forasmuch as the imperial crown of this realm . . . is most lawfully, justly, and rightly descended and come unto the queen's highness that now is . . . be it declared and enacted by the authority of this present parliament that the law of this realm is and ever hath been, and ought to be understood, that the kingly or regal office of the realm, and all dignities [etc.] . . . being invested either in male or female, are and be . . . taken in the one as in the other; so that what or whensoever statute or law doth limit and appoint that the king of this realm may or shall have, execute, and do anything as king . . . the same the queen . . . may by the same authority and power likewise have, exercise, execute, punish, correct, and do, to all intents, constructions, and purposes, without doubt . . . (Stephenson 328-9).
The purpose of this act was to establish Mary's legitimacy to the throne by palpably linking her with the traditions of English law and with her brother, father and grandfather, making her the heir, not only of their legal power, but also heir to the devotion that the nation as a whole felt for these kings.

There were four reasons that forced her to assume such a rhetorical stance. These were: the question of her legitimacy (first raised by her father); the issue of her gender (England had not had a queen since Matilda's contested reign in 1135); the problem of her Catholicism and finally, the matter of Edward's last will and testament.In response to Mary's avowed Catholicism and no doubt influenced by Northumberland, Edward bequeathed his crown to Northumberland's new daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, who was the granddaughter of Henry's sister. When Mary came to power immediately after Edward's death, Lady Jane attempted to claim the throne on the strength of Edward's last will and testament. While the effort enjoyed some initial success, it ultimately failed because Mary appealed directly to the English people, invoking her blood ties to Edward and (especially) Henry and appealing to their sense of loyalty to the Tudor dynasty. [3] This strategy was successful and the people overwhelmingly supported her claim to the throne over Lady Jane's, thwarting the attempted usurpation before it had a chance to secure its power. Her subjects' support formed the power base which established and secured Mary's rule.

Turning again to the language of the act, we should note a certain irony in the phrase "queen's majesty" as it applies to Mary. Her father, Henry VIII, the same man who threatened her with execution if she did not admit her "bastardy," thus forfeiting any claim to the throne, was also responsible for introducing this phrase as the accepted form of address for the English monarch. Mary's use of it in this act, and the implied connection it makes with her father, are two more indications of her awareness of the final source of her authority. Her use of the "Act Concerning the Regal Power" to connect herself with the Tudor mystique was a direct and effective attempt to acquire the loyalty of her people through an explicit petition to their nostalgic identification with her Tudor heritage. Mary's ultimate success in establishing her power is a tribute to that understanding of monarchy begun by Henry VII and perfected in the reign of Henry VIII. Her successor would build upon this foundation, lashing her subjects' loyalties to the mainmast of the ship of state and carrying them whether they would or no.

Like Mary before her, Elizabeth was not her predecessor's choice and this forced her to take steps similar to Mary's to establish her authority. One of her first goals was to sever the bands with Rome that Mary had reestablished. This took the form of the 1559 "Act of Supremacy." A section of this act is of importance to this discussion:

[T]hat all and every archbishop, bishop, and all and every other ecclesiastical person and other ecclesiastical officer and minister . . . and all and every temporal judge . . .and other lay or temporal officer and minister, and every other person having your highness's fee or wages within this realm . . . shall make, take, and receive a corporal oath upon the Evangelist . . . that is to say--

"I, A.B., do utterly testify and declare in my conscience the queen's highness is the only supreme governor of this realm and . . . therefore do I utterly renounce and forsake all foreign jurisdictions, powers, superiorities, and authorities, and do promise that from henceforth I shall bear faith and true allegiance to the queen's highness. . . . (Stephenson 345)
This oath hangs the concept of loyalty from a legal frame work and attempts to create it where it may not already exist. Like her sister, Elizabeth had to deal with questions concerning her legitimacy, having been declared a bastard by Parliament. From this uncertainty arose an early need to establish a sense of authority rooted in the loyalty of her subjects. While this task wasn't complicated by a will directly bequeathing that authority to someone else, the innate difficulties in her efforts to disentangle her crown from the ties that Mary had made with the Catholic Church were similarly involved with the chore of consolidating a divided power base, and this is the intent of the greater part of this act. But it is also important to note that, as she established her authority over the clergy of the Church of England, she exacted a pledge of loyalty from any person "having your highness's fee or wages." This was the first in a series of statutes that would eventually bind every subject in the realm into his proper position. These included the "Act of Uniformity" (1559), which established the standards for prayer, liturgy and sacrament within the Church of England; the "Treasons Act" (1571) which defined a traitor to be anyone who " . . . shall, within the realm or without, compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend the death or destruction . . . of our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth" (Stephenson 351); and finally (for the purposes of this discussion), the "Act Against Sectaries" (1593), which provided punishment for any who did not regularly attend Anglican services. The design of this statue is clearly displayed in its opening lines:
An act to retain the queen's subjects in obedience. For the preventing and avoiding of such great inconveniences and perils as might happen and grow by the wicked and dangerous practices of seditious sectaries and disloyal persons: be it enacted by the queen's most excellent majesty . . . that if any person or persons above the age of sixteen years . . . obstinately refuse to repair to some church, chapel, or usual place of common prayer to hear divine service established by her majesty's laws and statutes in that behalf made . . . that every such person so offending as aforesaid and being lawfully convicted shall be committed to prison, there to remain without bail or mainprise until they shall conform and yield themselves to come to some church, chapel, or usual place of common prayer and hear divine service according to her majesty's laws and statutes aforesaid. . . . (Stephenson 354)
"An act to retain the queen's subjects in obedience." The not-so-subtle sub-text here is: "Those who do not attend the C. of E. are 'seditious sectaries and disloyal persons' and are, at best, criminal in intent, at worst, traitors." Loyalty, which had been courted in the early days of Mary's reign, is now a matter of legislation and anyone who protests religious affiliation with the State's church will do so with a prison sentence hanging over his head.

In everyday terms, this was an attempt to stifle the Catholic plots and rebellions which had been on the rise since 1569. It might also be seen as an answer to the papal bull in 1571 that absolved all England's subjects from their allegiance to Elizabeth. It was also a pragmatic way for Elizabeth, the head of the Church of England, to further strengthen her control over her people. This act reaches into every household. It touches the lives of every citizen. With this kind of impact, it is not surprising that it also had a significant effect upon the theatre. In dramaturgic terms, the results of these practices, and the social conditions which produced them, can be readily seen in two plays by Marlowe and Shakespeare, The Jew of Malta (1590) and The Merchant of Venice (1594).

The themes of both these plays are at once concerned with loyalty and religious affiliation. The antagonist in each struggles against the existing order. In both plays this character is, by legal definition, a seditious sectary, a disloyal person, and, in the terms of the acts passed during Elizabeth's reign, enemy to the queen. These characters are, of course, both Jews. Despite this and other important similarities, their modus operandi differs remarkably.

Although Marlowe's Barabas is cunning and capable of manipulating events behind the scenes, his plots are filled with murder and mayhem, actions that refuse to remain well hidden. He is an outsider, a pariah, and he makes little attempt to get inside the Christian system to work. Nor does he go to great lengths to hide his hatred of the Christians and their laws. Rather, he is a rival power who seeks the destruction of his enemies by force. His power is not founded on loyalty or birthright, but money. This becomes apparent as he describes the condition of other Jews like himself.

They say we are a scattered nation:

I cannot tell, but we have scrambled up
More wealth by far than those that brag of faith . . .
Ay, wealthier far than any Christian.
I must confess we come not to be kings;
That's not our fault: alas, our number's few,
And crowns come either by succession,
Or urged by force; and nothing violent,
Oft have I heard tell, can be permanent.
Give us peaceful rule, make Christians kings . . . (1.1.120- 34)
While a king's throne may have its advantages, Barabas is more interested in someone else ruling peacefully so that he can continue his business without interruption. Another reason for his disinterest in overt power is suggested by the opening lines of the play, where we find an indication of the relative worth of kings in Barabas' world. Here, where the Moor walks through his yard, picking up
Bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts,
Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds . . .
And seld seen costly stones of so great price,
As one of them indifferently rated,
And of a carat of this quantity,
May serve in peril of calamity
To ransom kings from captivity,
a king's price is reduced to a single jewel. (1.1.25-32)
Barabas' "Infinite riches in a little room" (1.1.37) could serve to buy several kings. With these jewels readily available to him and kings priced so cheaply, why would Barabas feel any need for a crown? The fact is that Barabas already sees himself as a king's equal if not his better.

This image of Barabas as a ruling power is strengthened if we closely examine one of his speeches. When rival powers confront one another in this play, they do not mince words but plainly declare themselves and their intentions. In the same manner, Barabas never attempts to disguise his great hostility for the Christian society around him. His sense of self worth is embodied in his language and we get a feel for it when compare two speeches, one by Ferneze, the Governor of Malta, the other by Barabas. Both speeches are replies to a powerful enemy.

Near the end of Act III, the Governor, encouraged by the Knights of Malta, has decided to refuse Calymath's demand for tribute and delivers the information to latter's emissary.

Basso, in brief, 'shalt have no tribute here,
Nor shall the heathens live upon our spoil:
First will we raze the city walls ourselves,
Lay waste the island, hew the temples down,
And, shipping off our goods to Sicily,
Open an entrance for the wasteful sea . . . (3.5.11-16)
The tone of this speech is openly defiant. There are no attempts at diplomacy or reconciliation. Ferneze boldly tells Calymath's basso that he and the Knights of Malta are prepared to move to Sicily, leaving behind a flooded shell of a city, rather than pay any more tribute to the Turk. He uses a rhetoric that suggests that he is speaking to an equal, with no attempt made to minimize the damage done. If we turn now to Barabas, we will find this tone in one of his speeches.

In Act I, Barabas is despoiled of all his wealth when he challenges Ferneze's decree that the Jews be taxed for half their belongings to pay the delinquent tribute. After the officers return from seizing all he has, Barabas beards Ferneze.

Well then, my lord, say, are you satisfied?
You have my goods, my money, and my wealth,
My ships, my store, and all that I enjoyed;
And, having all, you can request no more;
Unless your unrelenting flinty hearts
Suppress all pity in your stony breasts,
And now shall move you to bereave my life. (1.1.140-6)

The sarcasm, the bitter, railing tone that lashes out here is every bit as defiant as that Ferneze will employ two acts later. Indeed, it is more so. Like the Governor, Barabas makes no attempt to placate his enemy. He does not whine or wheedle, but openly challenges Ferneze's right to take his wealth. He roundly insults all of his enemies ("Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are" (1.1.115)) and defies them to find a just reason that he should be so used. His address of Ferneze as "my lord" is in the same manner as Ferneze's use of " basso," a perfunctory honorific with no real depth of meaning. Again like Ferneze, Barabas makes no attempt at damage control; quite to the contrary, he invites an even greater destruction. His rhetoric also shows that he is dealing with an equal, not suing for mercy from a superior. When Ferneze details the destruction of Malta that he is prepared to deal, it is an attempt to forestall Calymath's retribution as well as a challenge thrown into the basso's teeth. In the same manner, when Barabas has (apparently) been stripped of all his wealth, he dares Ferneze to complete the pillage by taking his life as well. Here Barabas shows greater mettle than his enemy, who is prepared to run to Sicily to save his life. In Barabas' mind, he is Ferneze's equal, if not his superior, and does not hesitate to openly confront him as such. He will go on to wage unrestricted warfare against all who oppose him.

On the surface, Shakespeare's Shylock has a great deal in common with Barabas. If Marlowe's Jew is physically reminiscent of medieval satanic figures, so too is Shakespeare's, who was apparently portrayed on stage with a red beard and a hooked nose. [4] On the other hand, Shylock, while every bit as cunning as Barabas, combines his remorseless drive to devastate his enemies with a degree of subtlety which allows him to infiltrate his enemy's position, turning this power against itself. His desire from the outset is to bring Antonio to harm, but, unlike Barabas, he is a patient half-member of this society, making his attempt on Antonio's life from within its laws.

Antonio, seeking a loan for Bassanio, upbraids Shylock for usury, promising to spurn him again even if the loan is accepted. Shylock then offers a counter-proposal that covers his real intent with a semblance of friendship.

I would be friends with you and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stained me with,
Supply your present wants and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys . . . (1.3.139-42.)
This speech prefaces the terms that he offers for the loan of three thousand ducats: a pound of flesh cut from Antonio's body at a point specified by Shylock. This pound of flesh "Is not so estimable, profitable neither;/As flesh of muttons, beefs or goats. (1.2.167-8), but Shylock is willing to grant such easy terms on "single bond" (1.3.146) as a demonstration of his willingness to embrace the Christians in friendship.

The rapidity with which Shylock seizes upon this bond as a means of revenge for the seduction of his daughter and her subsequent theft of his wealth lends credence to the idea that he was, at best, insincere when he first offered the terms. His remarks concerning Launcelot's move to Bassanio's service (2.5.1-5, 2.5.46-50) and his own desire "to feed upon/The prodigal Christian" (2.5.14-5), display his hostility toward Antonio and Bassanio in particular and the Christian world in general. When Antonio's ship founders and he is unable to make good the debt, Shylock is overjoyed in his sudden opportunity to strike back at the Christian world. His reasons for insisting upon his bond instead of accepting Bassanio's offer to pay twice the principal of the loan are contained in "a lodg'd hate and a certain loathing" (5.1.60). Frustrated in this attempt and betrayed by his own narrow insistence upon the letter of the law, he must, at last, convert, surrendering his heritage and his fortune to the state and his enemy, Antonio.

Whatever his ultimate purpose, Shylock attempts to discredit, to subvert the system by either forcing its supporters to commit an obvious atrocity in the name of justice or to break their own law to avoid this, stripping it of all sense of authority. Here is his most marked difference from Barabas: while Barabas strives to batter down the walls from without, Shylock works from within the system, seeking to manipulate it to achieve his own ends or to render it meaningless within its own context. He is, of course, no more successful than Barabas.

In either play, we are presented with a figure beyond the Church's (and thus, the queen's) pale, hell-bent on destruction. If we view the worlds of these plays as reflections of Elizabethan England, both Barabas and Shylock, by virtue of their Jewish blood and practices, are enemies of the crown. These characters are anti-subjects, paradigms of subversion. Their fates within the plays are tangible warnings to anyone who may consider stepping out of line.

Two of the most significant themes in The Jew of Malta are the importance and nature of loyalty, but when we note that the "Act Against Sectaries" binds the idea of loyalty tightly to religious identity and then place The Jew of Malta across from it, we are suddenly presented with an additional dimension within the play that demands our attention.

Religious identities allow the major characters of the play to be readily divided into two mutually exclusive and antagonistic groups: Jews and Christians. When attempting to recreate an Elizabethan reading, it is tempting to view the Christians portrayed here in a more or less positive light, even when we see the excesses of which they are capable. This temptation increases as we attempt to read the play in Elizabethan terms, given the explicit anti-Semitism common during the period and rampant throughout the play. This, coupled with Barabas' truly evil nature make it easy to see the Christians in a rosier light. As bad as the Christians are, Barabas is (just barely) worse. However, I believe that a reading that is this charitable to these Christians may be in error, given the particular flavor of Christian we are seeing. Consider Friar Barnardine's lines in 3.6 immediately following Abigail's confession and death:

Ay, and a virgin too; that grieves me most:
But I must to the Jew and exclaim on him,
And make him stand in fear of me. (3.6.41-3)
It appears that the good friar regrets the death of this young innocent slightly less than he regrets the fact that he did not have a chance to claim her maidenhead before she died. Barnardine tells Abigail that anything said in the confession will remain confidential but, before her body is cold, he makes plans based upon that confession to extort money from Barabas. All of this becomes even more distasteful when we remember that Abigail's dying breaths were spent entreating for her father's soul as well as her own.

We often make much of Abigail's conversion, but since she has converted, not to the Church of England but to that church's enemy, the Church of Rome, we may be reading this more in modern, rather than Elizabethan terms. It is important that we refine our concept of "Christian." At a time when the English were a minority of Protestants who had only recently survived a serious military threat from Spain, the greatest Catholic power in the world, any reference to nuns, friars, priests and Catholicism in general may have elicited more contempt or anger than sympathy. To an audience which largely disliked Jews, whose (soon-to-be-enforced) church attendance would have brought them into weekly contact with anti-Catholic messages, the opportunity to see a Jew massacre all the nuns in a convent only to fall a victim of his own machinations later on must have been both humorous and ironic. His daughter's fate may have seemed only slightly less.

The Jew of Malta pre-dates the "Act Against Sectaries" by at least three years, so any discussion of the play's relevance to this legislation in particular must be speculative. [5] On the other hand, Marlowe's close ties within the court and his awareness of the political difficulties surrounding Elizabeth's throne are compelling reasons to consider this play in a prophetic light. The savage fate reserved for the Jew of Malta is truly different from that described in the "Act Against Sectaries," and yet the full weight of this statute, as interpreted in The Merchant of Venice, is not without consequence.

His attempt to turn the law to Antonio's and its own destruction frustrated, Shylock stands before the court of Venice with his options laid out plainly before him: He must forfeit his wealth and then his heritage. If he refuses, he will hang. He must surrender such power as his wealth could buy him and become one of the very group whose name is anathema to him. This is an accurate picture of England at this time for Jews, Catholics and Dissenters. While they might escape hanging, they would suffer under a state-sanctioned persecution, which made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to attain position or wealth until they consented to attend "some church, chapel or usual place of common prayer." That is, they must publicly convert and conform to the accepted standard. In this way, Shylock and those like him, whether they will or not, become loyal subjects to their queen.

Because of his refusal to accept Christianity and relinquish his Jewish heritage, Barabas will never be accepted as a full member of his community. In spite of his wealth, he is lower in social standing than the most common Christian beggar on the street. Ironically, that same wealth makes him the economic and political equal of the princes of Malta. What we see in Barabas is a portrait of an influential subject who stands in opposition to the lawful ruling authority. Like a loose cannon on a ship in heavy seas, he careens across the gun-deck, destroying everything in his path until he is finally made fast by the chains of death. Barabas' refusal to accept Christianity, combined with his Judaism and his criminal acts mark him as an enemy to the established order and, as such, there can be only one acceptable end for him. Unlike Shylock, who does convert, thus becoming an accepted, if despised, member of society, Barabas, as a character within the plot of a play, cannot be allowed to live. If he remains a Jew and alive, he remains a threat to the Elizabethan idea of order, not only through his possible actions, but through his very existence. Shylock will, under duress, attend services in a church or chapel. Barabas will not. According to the "Act Against Sectaries," Barabas is a rebel, even if he foments no rebellion. Although this play was written three years before that Act, it proves to be prophetic in its depiction of the conditions faced by those who did not conform to the religious restrictions imposed by Elizabeth. I believe that it is a fair barometer of the prevailing attitude in the country, an attitude that would continue from Elizabeth's reign to James'. As we have seen, in the real world, statutes were written to create loyalty where it may not have existed. In dramatic terms, they insure loyalty by either destroying or converting the enemy.

By tracing the evolution of practices involving loyalty to the crown through the statues and acts of the period, we can see how attitudes toward loyalty changed. In Mary's reign, loyalty was solicited. In Elizabeth's, it was demanded, the prerequisite required of the subject if he or she wished to live anything approaching a normal life. The penalties for a subject's disloyalty were made plain, not only in the legislation of the time, but also in the theatre. If the legislation defined and set its penalties, the plays gave life to the legislation, drawing the character of Disloyalty in huge strokes and illustrating his downfall and punishment in lurid detail. During reigns whose beginnings were obscured by doubt, the efficient establishment of a power base compelled these queens to define their own power in terms of the loyalty of their subjects. We may be tempted to characterize these efforts as despotic, but their success insured domestic tranquility and made it possible for the first Stuart king to ascend his throne with greater security than any monarch in the history of the realm.


  1. Blair Worden, "Introduction," Stuart England, ed. Blair Worden (Oxford: Phaidon Press, Ltd. 1986) 7. Back

  2. Especially Henry VIII, who spent the better portion of his life cultivating an image calculated to inspire fidelity. For a more complete depiction of this, see: David Loades, The Tudor Court (New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1987) 31. Back

  3. Walter Phelps Hall and Robert Greenhalgh Albion, A History of England and the British Empire (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1937) 276-7. See also: Michael Foss, Tudor Portraits: Success and Failure of an Age (London: Harrap, 1973) 84. Back

  4. David Bevington, foreword, The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare (Glenview: Scott, 1973) 503. Back

  5. Fraser and Rabkin, citing various sources, give the year of 1590 as a "likely guess." Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin, Drama of the English Renaissance I: The Tudor Period(New York: Macmillan, 1976) 263. Back

  6. En. in Ps. 39:7; quoted in Deane, p. 45. Back

    Works Cited

    Foss, Michael. Tudor Portraits: Success and Failure of an Age. London: Harrap. 1973, 19.

    Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta. Drama of the English Renaissance I: The Tudor Period. Ed. Russel A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin. New York: Macmillan, 1976.

    Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. Hardin Craig and David Bevington. Glenview: Scott, 1973.

    Stephenson, Carl and Frederick George Marcham. Sources of English Constitutional History: A Selection of Documents from A.D. 600 to the Interregnum. Rev. ed. Vol. 1. New York: Harper. 1972.

    Tillyard E.M.W. The Elizabethan World Picture. New York: Vantage, n.d. 8.

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