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james’ literary political court

Mary, Queen of Scots* gave birth to James on 19 June 1566; upon her escape to England slightly more than thirteen months later, he was crowned King James VI of Scotland. Thus, in July 1567, the infant James might have lost his mother, but he gained one kingdom and, through the Tudor antecedents of both parents, the possibility of another. Initially, as the pawn in Scotland’s turbulent religious and political struggles, James was used, by several factions, to extirp his Catholic mother’s claim during her remaining life, the first twenty, formative years of his own.

James could be regarded as the last humanist king of the Renaissance, and his education during those early years certainly substantiates that claim. In common with other Christian princes of Europe, James’ education in the classics and theology was of primary political importance. To rule an increasingly anti-Catholic Scotland, this son of a Catholic mother especially needed sound Protestant theological upbringing. Accordingly, James’ tutor was one of the most brilliant, Protestant men of letters in Scotland, George Buchanan. In his late teens, James made deliberate attempts to create an intellectual and literary court, publishing a collection of verse that included his Ane Short Treatise conteining some Reulis and Cautelis to be obserrvit and eschewit in Scottis Poesie (1584); the poet/king attracted the best contemporary Scotch poets to his court to form a “Castalian Band” to promote Scotch vernacular literature.

Gradually assuming control over rival factions in Scotland, James married Anne of Denmark in 1589 and, through both secret negotiations and publications such as Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1599), launched a campaign to be named heir to the throne of England. After succeeding to the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603, James transferred his court to London and followed a policy of negotiated peace in foreign and religious affairs, which he promulgated in several treatises published between 1604 and 1620. Although his reign was marked by economic and constitutional difficulties, James avoided involving England in the Thirty Years’ War and bequeathed a kingdom at peace to his less able son, Charles, in 1625.

Although there have been many biographical studies of James’ reigns (particularly in England), for the past thirty-five years scholarly consensus has been that David Willson’s biography, King James VI and I , is the most comprehensive account of the monarch. Nevertheless, Willson yokes his scholarly consideration of James to a thinly veiled dislike for his subject; Willson’s unsympathetic attitude toward James is, one hopes, the last influential account of the king and his life to foster moralistic censure. As Maurice Lee, Jr., Marc Schwarz, and Jenny Wormald have shown, negative versions of James’ character and policies have persisted for more than 350 years, the product of several generations of parliamentary historians who have condemned James’ ideas of kingship and perpetuated the idea of James’ political incompetence in dealing with Parliament. Thus, the view that James caused the civil war by creating an opposition between the Stuart monarchy and the Commons has persisted. That this construct is a misleading oversimplification is immediately apparent to anyone who has consulted earlier parliamentary records in which Elizabeth’s head-on confrontations with the Commons are documented.


As a self-consciously intellectual monarch inculcated in violent theological debate, James’ publications reflect his ongoing concerns with the nature, identity, and practice of kingship and the centrality of interpretation in the understanding of Christianity. James’ presentation of himself as a practicing Christian and king persistently oscillates between images of absolute clarity, and the twin mysteries of God’s elusive presence among sinners and a king’s unavoidable distance from his subjects. Like other seventeenth-century European monarchs, James seems to have been acutely aware of the theatrical nature of both his particular political role and the increasingly necessary display of monarchical power as a means to perpetuate it. This preoccupation with theatrical display can be seen as part of a larger and older concept of the world as the “theater of God’s judgement” and the playing out of his providential script.


Literary analysis of James’ writing can be primarily divided into three unequal parts; curiously, the smallest body of traditional literary criticism is the most important to the ongoing study of texts authored by James. A large and influential new historicist canon analyzes James’ cultural influence, while a group of critics argues that contemporary authors used James as a dramatic source.

G.P.V. Akrigg gives a useful overview of the critical tradition regarding “The Literary Achievement of King James I” and has issued a call, so far largely unanswered, for a positive reevaluation of James’ writing. The traditionally pejorative view is expressed by Willson, who accuses James of plagiarism during his English reign: “[H]is writing had an ulterior motive to defend himself and promote his material interests” (‘‘James I and His Literary Assistants,” 57). Jenny Wormald, a determined champion for a Scottish perspective on James, has extrapolated from her historical and biographical research the literary theory that James “turned to writing to clarify his thought” (“James VI and I, Basilikon,” 37). On the contrary, R.D.S. Jack, another apologist for James, has repeatedly argued, in general, for the uniqueness of Scottish poetry with its Continental flavor and for James’ poetic ambitions in particular. James’ influence on the Castalian group of poets is assessed by several critics; J. Derrick McClure analyzes James’ sonnets and longer poems and his patronage of the “Castalian band” of Scottish poets. A. Walter Bernhart concludes that James’ emphasis on the musical basis of meter reflected his humanist concerns to promote “‘harmonious’ political conditions in his state” (455). As does Jack, Murray F. Markland and Richard M. Clewett contend that English poets had much less impact on James’ poetic theory that did the poets of the Castalian band.

Leeds Barroll helpfully questions the theoretical foundations of new historicism’s interest in James and suggests that it is patriarchally skewed and issues a call for new discourses. Jonathan Goldberg has written extensively on the cultural influence that James’ use of theatrical metaphors in his writing and the connections of his authorship with royal authority exerted over contemporary English authors. Stephen Orgel has illuminated political acts of theater at James’ court in several valuable contributions. Similarly, Kevin Sharpe has collected and written divers analyses of the frequently intersecting tropes of politics and the culture of James’ court.

The most sustained interrogation of James’ character and interests as a source for Jacobean dramatists can be found in book-length treatments. Leah Marcus highlights James’ overriding political concerns about the nature of kingship and his cherished plan to unify his two kingdoms in Shakespeare’s* plays. Similarly, the third and fourth chapters of Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare’s Genres (1986) assess James’ strategies for the display of monarchical and patriarchal power and ally them with genre characteristics of Jacobean plays. David Bergeron has explored James’ familial and political roles both in general and as a source for Shakespeare’s late plays. Aspects of other Shakespeare plays ( Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Othello, The Tempest and Henry VIII ) have been illuminated by the comparison of James’ known characteristics and interests, as have plays by Chapman,* Middleton, and Barnes.

James has been a prime subject of two influential schools of thought. Until very recently he and his career have been regarded in the most pejorative terms by parliamentary historians and biographers. In the past two decades, however, serious considerations have animated new historicist consideration of the politics of his court’s culture and its influence on literary history. Now it seems, with the work of scholars such as Craigie, Lee, Akrigg and Wormald, a revitalized and validated appreciation of James is emerging. This is a most propitious opportunity for reevaluating his literary output.

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