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Life Without Elizabeth

Episode 4 of 20

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 19 April 2012

Radio 4 with a new object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 4. LIFE WITHOUT ELIZABETH - Painted in 1571 to justify and celebrate Elizabeth I's position in the Tudor succession, by the 1590s, with no direct Tudor heir, this image had very different implications.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

  • Portrait of the Tudor Dynasty

    Date: c.1572  

    Size: H:1312mm, W:1840mm  

    Made in: Unknown  

    Made by: Lucas de Heere  

    Material: Oil paint on panel


    In the 1590s, the nation was gripped by a constitutional crisis in waiting. As Elizabeth I drew closer to her three score years and ten, the question of who would succeed her to the throne became a pressing matter.

    But the queen herself was a little tetchy on the subject. In 1571, she made it an act of treason to discuss the issue of succession, and in later years added further laws to guarantee silence.

    If the issue couldn’t be spoken or written about in words, then it could be pictured. This portrait of the Tudor dynasty from 1571 (and a popular print version issued 20 years later) demonstrates the power of metaphor and allegory in exploring such sensitive subject matter. And on stage, Shakespeare too was exploring ideas of dynasty – but behind the veil of ancient Rome and historical England.


    This object is from the National Museum of Wales


    British Museum Blog: Why was a picture like this made? by Susan Doran, Historian, University of Oxford

  • Quotations

    'England hath long been mad, and scarred herself;/The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,/The father rashly slaughtered his own son,/The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire:/All this divided York and Lancaster'  

    Richard III, Act 5 Scene 5

  • Background

    • The succession crisis in 16th century England spanned the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I
    • Elizabeth famously refused to name a successor
    • Shakespeare would not have been permitted to write about the specifics of the English succession but the general topic was acceptable and a regular feature of his plays
    • The purpose of this painting is to assert the legitimacy of Elizabeth's reign and her place in the orderly succession of Tudor rulers
  • More from Radio 4: Legacy


    How the monarchy has dealt with a series of dynastic crises, and a look at some objects that are being brought into the service of both Queen and country today.


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  • More from Radio 4: The Thistle and the Rose

    The Thistle and the Rose

    An intimate view of a monarchical succession told through the correspondence between James VI of Scotland and the gaoler of his mother, Elizabeth I.


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  • More from Radio 4: The Tudor State

    The Tudor State

    Melvyn Bragg discusses the role of the Tudor dynasty in reshaping the British state and whether their government of England laid the political foundations of our own age.


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  • More from Radio 4: The Death of Elizabeth I

    The Death of Elizabeth I

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the death of Queen Elizabeth I and its immediate impact, as a foreign monarch became King in the face of plots and plague.


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