Since I’m sharing on the blog things I’m writing or thinking of I thought I’d post this. It’s a quick summary of Shakespeare’s England I just wrote up for my students. (With some help from several sources…all easily available on the internet. One has to love the ease of research these days.)
This is how Shakespeare described England in his day.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
In 1588, under the rule of Queen Elizabeth, England was a force to be reckoned with. The Tudor dynasty had been around for 100 years or so. Queen Elizabeth (Good Queen Bess to her friends) had blown the Spanish Armada out of the water, a feat some said could never be done, and emerged as the dominant sea power in Europe. She was also expanding her colonial empire. Within England itself, art, literature and music were flourishing. (Although since she didn’t have an heir she would also be the end of the Tudor’s, and James would start off the Stewart’s.)
This was during the Renaissance, or rebirth of Europe. It was a time of incredible advances in art, science, scholarship, and literature during the 15th and 16th centuries in England. (Although Italy was the birthplace of the movement in the 14th century.)
This was also the time of the Reformation, a movement away from the dominance of the Roman Catholic church as leaders of the movement sought ‘reforms’. In England the movement was begun when Henry VIII split from the Pope and founded the Protestant Church of England so that he could marry Queen Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boelyn.
As if that weren’t enough, this is also the Age of Exploration. During this era there was a huge expansion in terms of geographical knowledge and trade and commerce. This is the era of Columbus, Cabot, etc. as they sought India and instead found new lands (the America’s) that they hadn’t known existed. They also began to explore the continent of Africa. New knowledge of the rest of the world was flowing into Europe at an unprecedented pace.
Age of Discovery is also used to describe the many scientific discoveries made during this period. We discovered that blood circulates, that veins have valves, that planets move, and how to make a telescope. Science was infused with new scientist who began to examine the world in a truly scientific fashion.
The English Renaissance was at it’s height under the reign of Queen Elizabeth and this time came to be known as the Elizabethan Age. Shakespeare was able to cash in on this because Queen Elizabeth’s gathered the best and the brightest around her. This provided financial stability and respectability, something actors and those involved with the theater had rarely experienced in England.
While this may have been an exciting time to live if you were royalty or wealthy, it was still a very difficult time for the average citizen. Richard III comments in one of Shakespeare’s plays, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Most families lived in the countryside barely scraping up enough food to eat. Disease and disasters were a given. The population was growing faster than crops and famine frequently threatened. Many people, in desperation, fled to the cities. London grew in size. In 1563 London had 93,000 people, which grew to 224,000 people in 1605. The Bubonic Plague was the number one killer as it spread across Europe carried by diseased rats who lived among the filth that was Renaissance Europe. Sanitary conditions was a concept whose time had not come. Even the toothbrush wouldn’t be invented for another century. Ditches were used as public toilets. Trash, slop, and bedpans were emptied out windows onto the streets. Butchers threw their carcasses out into the streets to rot…it was not a pretty place. The Plague was not the only threat, smallpox and tuberculosis were also spreading. (Small wonder.) Most people had rotten teeth, running sores, and constant stomach aches.
People needed distractions from the realities of their lives, and the theater was one of their favorites. There was also bear of bull-baiting. (dogs attacking the bull or bear which was tied to a stake…seems pretty unfair, but there you go.) There was cockfighting, public executions and burnings, and your general riots and brawls. Not a very ‘civilized place.
There was a strict social order in place in Elizabeth’s England. Just as rulers ruled the country, father’s ruled families. People didn’t marry outside of their class, race, or financial groups. The church and the state were tightly connected with made for it’s own challenges. This structure had been in place for a long time, but it was beginning to crumble from within. Just as science was beginning to challenge the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe, and geographers were challenging the idea that Europe was the only great civilization, so people were beginning to question the social order at home. The unrest that this brought is often reflected in Shakespeare’s plays.
On a side note, most of us have been taught that people married younger in Shakespeare’s day, but that seems to actually not be the case. Although there were brides as young as 14 or 15 like Juliet it was less common than you may have been led to believe. Most people had the practical consideration of having to feed and provide for their families so having too many children was a real problem. In a world where birth control was non-existent most people just waited longer to get married. The average age for a woman was 25 and for a man 28. Considering that the average life expectancy was only 20-30 years, well, often marriages were short.