The Actor and Spanish Armada

It is likely that Shakespeare acted on the stage throughout his career. According to some reports he specialized in playing older men, including the ghost of Hamlet's father, the old servant Adam in As You Like It and many of the kings in the history plays. We do have a handbill for the play Every Man in His Humor by Ben Jonson in which Shakespeare is listed as one of the actors. He had come to London to be an actor, and it was as an actor that he first came to prominence. Just as we do not know when he came to London, we do not know the circumstances under which he began to write for the stage as well as acting. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest how this transition may have occurred.

In 1588 Phillip, the King of Spain, decided that he had had too many provocations from the English. Pirates, like Drake and Hawkins, plundered the Spanish colonies in the New World with the connivance of Queen Elizabeth. Phillip had tried to settle the problem through diplomatic means by proposing marriage to the queen, but she turned him down. So Phillip organized the largest invasion fleet Europe had ever seen, the Spanish Armada, to conquer England.

Englishmen knew the invasion was coming, and they contemplated their fate as they waited for the Armada to arrive. Thousands flocked to the English Channel to watch as their fates were decided in a series of sea battles. (In much the same way Englishmen in 1940 watched the Royal Air Force battle the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.) The English ships were smaller and more maneuverable and outfought the over-sized Spanish galleons. The weather turned bad, and the surviving Spanish ships were dispersed. The effect of the victory on the English was electric. It was as if God had selected them as his chosen people.

This new awareness of English identity was reflected in the theater very quickly. Plays about English history, what were called "chronicle plays," became the newest rage. Before the defeat of the Armada, there were few if any plays about English history; in the decade after the Armada, there were hundreds of such plays written. Among the first of these plays written were those of Shakespeare, his series about the 15th century king, Henry VI.


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