Shakespeare’s Times



  • Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived during the reign of two monarchs, Elizabeth I and James I.Most of his life was lived during the time of Elizabeth I, with a comparatively short period under James I.
  • Before the reign of Elizabeth I, England was rent by disruptive civil wars such as:

* the Wars of the Roses
the long and bitter struggle for the English throne between the House of York (white rose), and the House of Lancaster (red rose); resulting in the ascendency of the House of Tudor ( with Henry VII, a Lancastrian supporter) to the throne in 1485.  Four of Shakespeare’s history plays deal with this period  –  Henry VI, Parts I, II, III  and Richard III.

* and the Reformation
originally a movement that began in Germany with Martin Luther, but quickly spread elsewhere.  It sought to change many of the fundamental doctrines and practices of Catholicism, as well as attack the spiritual authority of the Pope.  In England, during the time of Henry VIII, the Reformation primarily aided the King in his quest to re-marry and have a male heir.  In the process it resulted in the breaking away of the English church from the authority of the Pope in Rome; this then led to conflict between the Protestants (reformers, under King Edward VI,1547-1553) and the Catholics (traditionalists, under Queen Mary,1553-1558).]

  • Elizabeth I became queen in 1558 after the death of her older half-sister, Mary Tudor.Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (one of the many wives of Henry VIII).  Mary Tudor had been a Catholic, whereas, Elizabeth I was a Protestant.  While Mary attempted to restore Catholicism in England, Elizabeth I, during her reign, established Protestantism as the state religion and made Catholicism illegal.
  • Friction between Protestants and Catholics, however, appeared to lessen to some extent during the reign of Elizabeth I with the establishment of the Anglican Church; a national church, which sought in part, to unite Protestants and Catholics.This new national church broke its ties with Rome, but kept many of the beliefs and practices of Catholicism.  This has been seen by some commentators as Elizabeth I’s attempt to find some kind of compromise, a middle way, between the contending factions.
  • Many Protestants and Catholics, though, did not agree with Elizabeth I and her new church.One Protestant group, the Puritans, sought to eliminate many of the remaining rituals and practices associated with Catholicism from the Anglican church.  Elizabeth I disliked the Puritans, whom she regarded as too extreme, and attempted to suppress them because they threatened to upset the religious “peace” she had established.  Many Catholics, on the other hand, deeply resented this new church which compelled them to be members (and which required them to attend services, or else, face severe penalties).
  • Other important events occurred during Elizabeth I’s monarchy.Internally, various political intrigues threatened the stability of her reign, while externally, Catholic Spain and Catholic France both threatened the English kingdom.  Elizabeth I achieved peace with France through a defence alliance, but not with Spain.  One significant event that reflected Spanish hostility towards  Elizabeth I’s reign was the Spanish Armada in 1588.  The Armada was a large fleet of approximately 130 Spanish ships (carrying about 19,000 soldiers), which sailed towards England with the intention of invading the country and restoring Catholicism there.  The Armada was defeated by the English fleet, however, and this victory became a source of great national pride, as well as an important unifying factor. Perhaps one of the things Elizabeth I’s long reign is most remembered for is the upsurge in patriotism it engendered.
  • The reign of James I began after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.As Elizabeth I had never married and had no child to inherit her throne, she was the last of the monarchs from the House of Tudor.  James I (who was already James VI of Scotland) gained the English throne for the House of Stuarts.  Although James I maintained the religious settlement (“middle way”) of his predecessor, he experienced problems with parliament over his assertion of the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings.  He also alienated many with his pro-Spanish policy.  Nevertheless, James I’s rule remained relatively intact until his death in 1625.  The situation, however, seriously deteriorated with James I’s successor, Charles I and by 1642, England was once again plunged into civil war.
  • It is sometimes suggested that Shakespeare’s plays mirror obliquely the changing mood in the nation, from one of patriotic pride and optimism, to one of increasing uncertainty and pessimism.Thus, Shakespeare’s history plays and romantic comedies, written during 1590’s, shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, reflect the growing feeling of national pride and hope, while his later tragedies and comedies, written after 1600, have a more gloomy, pessimistic quality.
  • Shakespeare’s time is notable for other reasons.It was a time of intense trade and commerce and a time of great exploration by English navigators.  It was also a time which saw a great flourishing of literature, particularly in theatre.
  • From the point of view of theatre, the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I were very important.  Through their royal patronage the theatres in London were given support and protection from the officials of the City of London and from the Puritans, both of whom wished to close the theatres down.  The City of London officials regarded the theatres as sources of crime and trouble, whilst the Puritans condemned the theatres as sinful places.

Social Conditions: 

  • Elizabethan and Jacobean society was very hierarchial.  At the top, of course, was the monarch, followed by the important members of the nobility such as dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts and barons, as well as the important church officials such as bishops and archbishops.  Next were the lesser gentry made up of knights, esquires and gentlemen (usually those who derived their income from owning land, although the gentlemen class could include some other groups, for example, university educated people). Other ranks in the society included yeomen (usually farmers, who owned freehold land of a certain value), husbandmen (who seldom owned land, but leased it) and farm labourers.  Although Elizabethan society was still rural based, the importance of towns (especially London) with their urban classes, was growing.
  • During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I many important social changes occurred.In addition to the political tensions of the time, many of these social changes also led to a feeling of unease and uncertainty. These social changes were influenced by some of the following factors:

*  Changing economic conditions over the period caused the cost of living to rise dramatically. This had its greatest impact on wage-labourers in the countryside and wage-earners in the towns, whose purchasing power declined severely.

*  The population increased rapidly, from less than two and a half million in 1520, to approximately four and a half million by about 1620.  This rise in population added to the competition for land and also increased the number of people migrating to towns, particularly London (during Shakespeare’s early years in London, the population grew to about 200,000 people).  Because these changes adversely affected large numbers of people, poor laws were introduced to help their swelling ranks.

*  While the number of poor grew larger, others groups profited through trade and the changed economic conditions.  The number of people with wealth increased in this period, especially amongst the gentry and middle classes.  In particular, the merchant class grew as the increased wealth of the upper classes created greater demand for foreign and domestic goods.

*  One important consequence of the growth in numbers enjoying wealth was the desire by many to change their social ranking.  Despite its stratification, Elizabethan society had some fluidity.  Wealthy yeomen, merchants and other businessmen could gain access to the ranks of the gentry through their increased wealth.  (Shakespeare, after becoming successful, obtained a coat of arms for his father; an important sign that he and his family had changed their position in society.)  With an increase in wealth many of the newly rich also wanted a greater share in political power.  This caused them to become competitors for positions of power with the established ruling elite.

*  The city of London was particularly important in the changes occurring in Elizabethan society.  Not only had London become the most important banking and commercial centre in England, it had become one of the most important commercial centres in Europe; attracting people of all ranks from all over England, as well as travellers from Europe.  With such an interesting mix of people, London became a force of social and cultural change in itself (and perhaps helped to provide Shakespeare with inspiration for some of his characters and knowledge of foreign lands).

  • Despite the many social and political changes occurring during Shakespeare’s time, the period in which he lived, compared to the periods that had preceded (the Reformation) and followed it (the Civil Wars), was one of relative peace and stability.Some historians have argued, however, that the seeds of the strife which followed Shakespeare’s time, were sown during this period.

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