“The Virgin Queen” was a problematic figure for Shakespeare and his audience. If a female “King of England” wasn’t troubling enough, Elizabeth had not provided an heir. In 1566 Parliament even tried to deny Elizabeth any funding until she married. By the time Richard III was produced, Elizabeth was an aging monarch and the audience’s anxieties about an “unnatural” ruler with no Tudor male heir were at their height.
Religious persecution was rampant throughout Elizabeth’s lifetime, during which time the English monarchy changed religion from Protestant to Catholic, and then back again. Heretics were burned, monasteries, convents, hospitals and schools dissolved and churches defaced. Theatre played an integral part in this religious conflict during Shakespeare’s time, functioning both as overt Protestant propaganda and as clandestine Catholic code. Although Elizabeth was fully aware of Shakespeare’s many subversive meanings encoded in his plays, he was skilled enough to hide them well and escape censorship and punishment.