When Queen Elizabeth died without an heir, the English throne passed to the Scottish King James I. He was elusive, intellectual, and a foreigner with Catholic sympathies. Shakespeare responded with Measure for Measure, a play about regime change and political and religious tensions; Timon of Athens, about money, greed, and corruption; and King Lear, about a united England about to be divided.
After the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 attempted an assassination on King James's life, England entered a new age of conspiracy, anxiety, and equivocation. Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus, a tragedy about a leader who cannot equivocate; Antony and Cleopatra, reflecting England's nostalgia for Elizabeth; and Macbeth, about the worst crime imaginable: the murder of a king.
Shakespeare's late plays are often viewed as mellow swansongs. But during the last years of his life, Shakespeare was still experimenting and writing about subjects close to home. The Winter's Tale features a seemingly happy royal family that suddenly unravels. The Tempest bristles with dynastic politics. And in Henry VIII, the bard reflected one final time on the transformational nature of leadership.