Society and Culture in Shakespeare’s Day
The interplay of culture and society in Shakespeare’s day created the conditions in which his genius could flourish. In Elizabethan England, culture shaped society, and society provided the operative context for culture, to such an extent that it might be almost meaningless to attempt to separate the two. In the end, it was the cultural genius of Elizabethan society that might be its most enduring achievement.
The Age of Elizabeth
Elizabeth I, queen of England, was born September 7, 1533, and died March 24, 1603. Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564 (his precise date of birth is not certain, although April 23, 1564, is widely accepted), in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and died April 23, 1616. One could say it was the overlapping lifetime of a monarch of enormous political genius and a writer of unparalleled literary and artistic genius that made the age what it was and provided its lasting historical significance. It was Elizabeth who set the political and social framework for the period that bears her name: the Elizabethan Era.
Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, was born in Greenwich, England, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. Elizabeth’s immediate predecessor on the throne was Mary I, her half sister and Henry VIII’s oldest daughter by his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Mary I was an adherent of the Roman Catholic Church who sought a restoration of the Catholic Church in England, following her father’s split from the church and papacy. This effort was marked by the persecution of Protestants and the execution of numerous religious dissenters. As a result of this persecution, Mary I became known as “Bloody Mary.” Elizabeth, a Protestant, was imprisoned by Mary after a series of rebellions broke out. She only narrowly escaped execution in 1554.
Elizabeth succeeded immediately to the throne of England upon the death of Mary on November 17, 1558. She would reign until her death in 1603, a remarkable span of nearly 45 years. Her reign was marked by several key events pertinent to our discussion. The first of these is the “settlement” of religion. While Elizabeth was at least nominally Protestant, she was, unlike Mary I, not fiercely partisan in her religious beliefs; indeed, her personal religious beliefs have not been precisely calculated. Rather, Elizabeth consistently took a politic approach to religious matters, viewing them as matters of national polity more than theological correctness. Bloody persecutions and religious vendettas were not part of Elizabeth’s governance. Instead, she sought a middle way, in which religion would be stabilized through a national establishment; a certain degree of tolerance would be permitted, but activities considered subversive would be harshly punished.
Of course, such tolerance did not extend to non-Christians such as Jews and Muslims, who were vehemently vilified, even though—or maybe because—most Englishmen never encountered a member of either group. The Jews were officially expelled from England in 1290; those few who remained had to observe their religion in secret. It would be many centuries before Jews obtained anything resembling civil rights in England. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice explores anti-Semitism. While views of the play, and its treatment of the theme, vary, its anti-Semitic subject matter would certainly be familiar to Elizabethans. Since Islamic armies still threatened Europe at the time, the antagonism to Islam was as much national and xenophobic as it was religious, and deep hostility was the hallmark of the day. Again, Shakespeare took on the subject in his Othello, against the background of war against the Turks.
Elizabeth’s immediate goal was to establish her personal and ecclesiastical legitimacy. This was accomplished to a great extent through the Act of Supremacy of 1559, passed by Parliament with the queen’s support. The act replaced the original act of 1534, passed by Henry VIII, which, following his break with Rome, granted ecclesiastical authority to the monarchy. In turn, Mary I had repealed this act, and she once again recognized the pope in Rome as the authority in religious matters. The Act of Supremacy of 1559 most notably established Elizabeth as “supreme governor” of the Church of England, a quasi-religious, quasi-political title. The act also required that holders of government or church positions take an oath of allegiance, making it treasonable not to do so. While this obviously was not a happy turn of events for Catholics and other religious dissenters, it had the effect, at least during Elizabeth’s reign, of stabilizing religious and, hence, political tension and even outright bloodshed as witnessed during Mary’s reign. While it might be too much to say that literature and the arts cannot exist during tumultuous and violent times, it is reasonable to believe that they cannot flourish in an atmosphere in which personal survival is constantly threatened. If nothing else, the religious “settlement” during Elizabeth’s reign stabilized society so that the arts might have a chance to flourish. Certainly, the religious wars that were to follow the queen’s reign marked a notable downturn in English arts and letters.
One event that perhaps marked Elizabeth’s reign more than any other was the defeat of the Spanish Armada, launched by Philip II of Spain against England in 1588. Philip had been the husband of Mary I and thus was co-monarch of England during her reign. Philip was also a supporter of the Catholic Church, and England’s decisive turn to Protestantism under Elizabeth was a matter of deep dissatisfaction to him. So, too, was Elizabeth’s support of Protestant causes beyond England’s borders, particularly the Dutch revolt against Spain. Philip’s efforts in support of another Mary—Mary, Queen of Scots, who sought to displace Elizabeth—ultimately came to nothing, after Mary was imprisoned by Elizabeth and ultimately executed for treason in 1587.
Thus, in an attempt to resolve his English problem decisively, Philip authorized the sending of an armada against England in 1588. The plan was for the armada to defeat the English sea forces and support a land invasion by a Spanish army to be launched from the Protestant Netherlands. The fleet, of about 130 vessels, set out from Spain. On the night of July 28, 1588, the English used fireships to break up the Spanish fleet formation. In the following engagements, the English decisively defeated the Spanish fleet, which broke and fled from the English Channel. The Spanish fleet was harried by the English and damaged by storms as it tracked around Scotland and Ireland to return home to Spain. It is estimated that about 5,000 Spanish sailors died, and only about 67 ships of the Spanish fleet survived. In contrast, English losses were minor.
Though the Spanish fleet was decisively defeated, the English had no way of knowing that with certainty at the time. Also, the threat of invasion from the Spanish army remained real to English defenders. In an episode that, perhaps, “made” Elizabeth’s reputation, the queen traveled to Tilbury on August 12, 1588, to address the English defenders. In a stirring speech, Elizabeth told her troops that she “had come resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all—to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honor and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king—and of a king of England too.” In the event, the invasion never came off, but Elizabeth’s actions and words endeared her to her subjects, resolved her authority, and contributed to her personal legend. The defeat of the Spanish Armada also had the effect of catalyzing English national feeling, much as in this age, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States had the effect of catalyzing feelings of national unity and purpose (however temporarily). The effect of the armada’s defeat produced something of a national “high” that undoubtedly provided further impetus to the heightened social and cultural dynamic that marked the Elizabethan era.
One other aspect to examine before turning to Shakespeare concerns English maritime exploration and colonization. The defeat of the armada granted England dominance of the seas, which English privateers roamed, frequently attacking and taking Spanish merchant vessels. More substantially, the period is often called the Golden Age of Exploration. English explorers such as Sir Francis Drake (1542–96), Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539–83), Sir John Hawkins (1532–95), Sir Richard Grenville (1541–91), and Sir Martin Frobisher (1535–94) traveled the globe. English colonizers even established two colonies in the New World of the North American continent: the short-lived Roanoke, off the coast of what is now North Carolina; and Jamestown, in what is now the American Commonwealth of Virginia, named after Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” Such signal works as Richard Hakluyt’s Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America (1582) and The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation (1598–1600) were published. From the vantage point of social and cultural history, the effects of these travels to remote points of the globe were to further engender English national feeling, as well as to expand the psychological horizons of the English beyond their island native ground, which, in relative terms, was still a small country. England did not yet control Scotland, and its hold on Ireland and Wales was tenuous and contentious. This sense of distant places and new worlds can be found in many of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly The Tempest. Even more notably, this sense of English pride and uniqueness is wonderfully articulated in Shakespeare’s Richard II, probably written about 1595 and published in 1597, in lines delivered by the dying John of Gaunt:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred 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.
On a national scale, therefore, the reign of Elizabeth can be said to be marked by a revival of national spirit; a cessation, or at least a minimization, of internal political and religious strife; and an expansion of horizons, both physical and psychological. Certainly, such factors were relevant, if not decisive, in allowing society and culture to flourish during this era.
Education and the English Language
Perhaps one way to trace the culture and society of Shakespeare’s age is to start out with Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was born, and follow him to London, where he was made. Stratford was a market town set along the River Avon, 22 miles south of Birmingham and about 105 miles from London; the population in Shakespeare’s time probably did not exceed 2,000 residents. The biographical information on Shakespeare is well known, if also somewhat scant. Shakespeare was the son of Mary Arden, the daughter of a yeoman (an independent small farmer), and John Shakespeare, a glover (a craftsman and small manufacturer of gloves) as well as a minor municipal official. The facts of Shakespeare’s birth and lineage, while hardly auspicious by conventional standards, apparently did not constrain his future possibilities, and this in itself is a significant facet of English society in the age of Shakespeare. Perhaps in an earlier age, he may have had to content himself with a rural, small-town life. In Elizabethan England, however, new social forces were stirring that opened up possibilities for a man of talent like Shakespeare.
Shakespeare probably attended the Stratford Grammar School (the records of the school from that time no longer appear to exist), also known as the King’s New School, until early adolescence, at which time it is believed that he left to serve as apprentice in his father’s glovery. Grammar schools were of two types: public, actually endowed and supported by rich patrons; and private—that is, students paid a fee to attend. At this time, school was still limited to boys and men.
In keeping with the standards of the era, Shakespeare would have studied the trivium, consisting of English grammar, logic, and rhetoric. He undoubtedly also studied Latin and read from the Latin classics, including such authors as Julius Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Suetonius and Livy and the dramatists Seneca, Terence, and Plautus. This would have given Shakespeare a grounding in the classical world, later reflected most visibly in such plays as Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, and the poem Venus and Adonis. Had he gone on to a university education, he would probably have studied geometry, astronomy, law, more Latin, and perhaps Hebrew.
The important thing here is that the study of the English language went hand in hand with the development of the English language, and if the Elizabethan era can be known for anything, it is the emergence of a new, flexible, dynamic, and omnivorous language, for English was emerging from the shadows of its presumed inferiority to French and Latin, and it was taking on a new role in the beginnings of the modern era. Shakespeare may be said to have been the product of this newly catalyzed language as well as one if its most important developers and practitioners. English absorbed and combined its Latinate and Germanic roots to become a highly versatile and dynamic medium of expression. The development of literary English was also aided by the influential work of Sir Philip Sidney (Astrophel and Stella [1581, published 1591], An Apology for Poetry [1581, published 1595], and The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia [1580, published 1590]) and Edmund Spenser (the epic poem The Faerie Queen, initially published in 1590). Lyric poets including Thomas Lodge and Shakespeare himself brought about advancements in lyric poetry, especially in the sonnet form.
The development of English as a vehicle of expression was aided by the growth and spread of schooling in England at both the grammar school and university level. Education normally depended on one’s social group. Laborers were usually illiterate, but merchants and other members of the developing middle class were generally better educated. Gentlemen were almost always literate and had the opportunity of attending one of England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, where they could study classical literature, theology, philosophy, medicine, and law.
Through the beneficence of donors, typically members of the aristocracy, rich merchants, and well-to-do clergy, such notable grammar schools as Rugby (1567) and Harrow (1590) came into existence. On the university level, Emmanuel College at Cambridge University (1584) and Jesus College at Oxford University (1571) were founded, and the famed Bodleian Library was established (1587–1602) through the patronage of its namesake, Sir Thomas Bodley. This growth in schooling helped increase levels of literacy and humanistic knowledge throughout England.
This growth in educational opportunities was mostly limited to men, though Elizabethan women from wealthy and noble families were sometimes allowed an education of sorts. They were usually instructed by tutors at home, and their lessons typically consisted of domestic arts, music, dance, and a foreign language, most often French. Women were not allowed to go to university. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, this newly literate class became both producers and consumers of literature and popular reading material. The production of books from English printers increased rapidly during the 16th century and in particular during the period of time when Shakespeare was in London.
Another important dimension of this growth in literacy and reading is the concomitant growth in the development of a secular culture. Forces leading to a vernacular literary language might also be detected in religious applications as early as 1549, with the first publication of the Book of Common Prayer. The vernacular King James Bible, published in 1611, also notably reflected cultural imperatives in Shakespeare’s age. Certainly, religious material, such as sermons and books of devotions, were an important part of the reading public’s consumption. However, one could also find a wide range of popular works, including plays, poetry, ballads and songs, almanacs, histories, travelogues, and works of domestic culture. “Chapmen” peddled chapbooks, pamphlets containing simple poems, ballads, or stories. Adjusted for the passage of time, one might find a similar range of published works on today’s best-seller lists. Interestingly, Shakespeare might be seen as one who, then and now, spanned the usual divide of high and popular literature.
Family and Country Life
We can use our knowledge of Elizabethan culture to speculate on Shakespeare’s family life. In 1582, at age 18, he married Anne Hathaway, eight years older than him and also from a yeoman family. Six months later, a daughter, Susanna, was born, suggesting that William and Anne’s marriage might have been as much of necessity as of inclination. Two years later, the twins Hamnet and Judith were born to William and Anne; they were baptized on February 2, 1585. Hamnet died in 1596, at the age of 11.
Little is known for certain of Shakespeare’s life during this period, often referred to as Shakespeare’s “lost years.” Perhaps he worked with his father in the family business or worked as a country schoolmaster. It is tantalizing to think of Shakespeare taking the first steps toward a career as a playwright at this time, perhaps sketching out plays or poems, even as he worked at more mundane tasks, maybe dreaming of a London career. We cannot be sure, but we do know that, to this point, Shakespeare’s family life followed the conventional pattern.
English families typically consisted of between four to eight members, usually parents and children residing under the same roof. Extended families, more common on the Continent, were not common among the English. The English family unit was subject to continuous changes, often severe or disruptive, whether caused by illness, by the death of a child or a parent, or by sending children to boarding schools or as apprentices to other families, where they were expected to learn a trade and to initiate their own participation in society. Children of the nobility or gentry were often sent to university for further education. Mortality was a fact of Elizabethan family life due to the high rate of disease, lack of effective medical care, and often unhygienic conditions The rates of child mortality and death in childbirth (estimated at almost 33 percent) were particularly significant. A quarter of children died before their 10th year; an eighth died before their first year. Consequently, there was a certain feeling of transience within the nuclear family unit. Shakespeare’s own family life provides an example. Shakespeare was the third of eight children; the two sisters who preceded him died of plague. As noted, his only son, Hamnet, died at an early age. Shakespeare attended the local grammar school but left to work either in the family business or in another line of work. Only one of his siblings lived to an older age than Shakespeare, who died at the age of 52 in 1616. Visitors to England were often struck by the apparent coldness or insensitivity of English parents to their children. Perhaps this was a result of the rate of high mortality and frequent transience among children, which probably made it natural for a certain reserve or caution to influence the relations among family members.
Shakespeare’s marriage also followed a typical Elizabethan pattern for members of his socioeconomic group. It was expected that intended marital partners receive the approval of their parents. The bride’s parents were also expected to pay a dowry—a sum of money, property, or a quantity of substantial goods—as part of the marriage arrangements. Betrothal, announcement of the banns, the issuance of a marriage license, and the wedding celebration at church were the usual steps toward formal marriage. The church marriage had not always been necessary, but by the Elizabethan era, it was a necessary part of the marriage process.
Marriage was the vehicle by which existing families became deeply linked and new families forged. In the case of Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, the wedding banns were announced only once, rather than the usual three times; instead, a surety bond was posted to guarantee that no impediment existed to the marriage. The reason for the shortening of the nuptial process was obvious six months later when Anne gave birth to their first child. Certainly, the indication of premarital sex might have offered some embarrassment to the bride and groom and to members of their families, but it would have been far from shocking. Then, as now, premarital sex, while not condoned, was acknowledged as a fact of life, and pregnant brides were not a rarity, at least among the lower and middle classes. One major reason for this was the lack of effective contraceptive devices. Children born out of wedlock (and thus were “bastards,” which appeared with some regularity in contemporary writing, including Shakespeare’s, as, for example, in Much Ado About Nothing) became a recognizable problem during this time. Such illegitimate children often became charges to the local community if abandoned.
To avoid such situations, women of the higher classes or nobility were usually more insulated and protected from casual liaisons, as often considerable social, political, and economic interests were attached to their persons. This is not to say that such complications never arose. In general, marriage was the preferred and desired state for most women of the time. One reason is that other options were quite limited. If not of the upper classes, single women went into the domestic service of another family to serve in such roles as maids, housekeepers, or nannies.
Once married, the wife came almost totally under the legal and social sway of her husband. Wives had little or no control over their property, nor could they inherit property or title (except in the royal succession), which would pass to their brothers. They were expected to show obedience to their husbands and, indeed, to all their male relatives. Disobedience might be punished by whipping or beatings. While a husband was supposed to show respect for his wife, his mistreatment of her was not uncommon. Men considered women to be weak in mind and body, and so, of necessity, they had to be guided by their husbands. Husbands were masters and rulers of their wives.
Such an attitude seems ironic when it is considered that England was led by a “Virgin Queen,” and that the history of Elizabethan times is virtually that of actions taken by women: Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth must have taken account of the prevailing custom by asserting her strength and authority as inherent in her position as monarch, rather than in her person as a woman. Her refusal to marry was a politic way to avoid questions of women’s subservience to man as well as to avoid the force of marital conventions herself. As the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth exemplified the importance attached to chastity, even if it was often more observed in the breach than in the practice.
Town life often enforced social orthodoxy. Public opinion was a potent force to be reckoned with. Characterizations of small-town life of the time have been marked by gossip; backbiting; neighborly hostility; and satirical, even defamatory, rhymes and songs. Townsfolk also engaged in allegations of witchcraft, adultery, and other charges. Some of these neighborly disputes spilled over into the law courts of church and state. Towns even saw such spectacles as the “skimmington,” in which an offending wife or husband, or both, were placed on a cart and taken through the town to the accompaniment of pipes and drums, jeers, and catcalls; they were sometimes pelted with objects and mocked for their failure to live up to the expected roles of wife and husband. Such severe treatments were reserved for notably shrewish wives and weak husbands. Clearly, the idea of privacy was less commonly held then than it is today. The personal activities of the community’s members were often the community’s business.
Lest town life sound impossibly hellish, as it may have been for some, one should also note its pleasures. Market days, town fairs, and religious days of celebrations provided opportunities for neighborly contact and communal fun. So, too, did weddings and funerals, which were often community events. The church and pub were usually the mainstays of each village, places to gather and socialize. Townsfolk were known for private charity toward less fortunate members of the community. Town life thus provided closeness and neighborliness as often as it caused friction and antagonism.
Marriage being what it is, there must have been a sufficient number of good marriages, or merely workable marriages, and when a marriage went bad, there was little remedy for it. A divorce was practically impossible to obtain, and even a legal separation was extremely difficult. As a result, de facto separations took place, with one spouse or the other leaving. Is this what Shakespeare did, leaving Stratford for London to pursue his career as a playwright? Was the departure fueled by a burning ambition to make his name on the London stage? Or was it motivated by a desire to escape the demands of being a father and husband, and by the quotidian realities of such a mundane life? Or was it a desire to escape small-town life for the excitement of London? Perhaps it was some combination of these factors. While Shakespeare may have sought the opportunities London offered, the fact of marriage and marital relations is a theme that marks many, if not most, of Shakespeare’s plays, not just the comedies, but the tragedies as well. He could no more escape the bonds of matrimony in art than he could in life. Shakespeare continued to return to Stratford for a part of every year, and upon his retirement from the stage, he returned to Stratford for his final years, but he made his name in London.
London and Its Society
We know that Shakespeare was in London by 1592, when his early literary efforts were attacked in print by the playwright and pamphleteer Robert Greene, who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow.” It is nearly certain that Shakespeare began his career as a playwright a couple of years before that, as the plays that attracted Greene’s notice—probably Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3,—had already been staged. With the staging of Richard III in 1592, Shakespeare’s career—and fame—began in earnest.
London was the great economic, cultural, and social base of England in the age of Shakespeare. It was the vital center of important changes in English culture and society, the laboratory for a new, modern world that would sweep away the last vestiges of feudalism. Just the city’s population alone would make it significant in English life then, and even now. From a population of about 50,000 at the end of the first quarter of the 16th century to 200,000 by the end of the century and 225,000 by the death of Elizabeth I, the rapid growth of London, and its sheer size, gave it dominance over English life. So, too, did London’s role as the administrative center of the English state and the conduit for government revenues. Furthermore, the royal court was located in Westminster, now part of central London.
Much of London was dirty, unsanitary, ratridden, and crowded. Outbreaks of plague affected the city throughout Shakespeare’s time. An outbreak in 1603 carried off 30,000 inhabitants. Poor inhabitants of London lived in crowded, filthy wooden housing on the periphery of the city, breeding grounds for disease. Life here could be nasty, brutish, and short. But housing was not what brought most people to London—including Shakespeare. Rather, it was probably the opportunities for commerce, trade, and jobs, and for freedom from the mores, restrictions, and drudgery of small-town or agricultural life. During the Elizabethan Age, there was a migration from the country to London. For some, London was the great escape; for others, it was a place of opportunity. For playwrights, actors, and musicians, it offered a chance to perform in the place with the biggest and best theaters, the largest audiences, and the biggest payouts.
Getting to London was no easy thing. Travel was slow, arduous, and expensive. One traveled by river, stagecoach, or horse—or walked. Roads were poor and sometimes impassable due to rain. Robbers or “highwaymen” might take your money and sometimes your life. Overseas travel was for the rich; furthermore, government permission was needed. Shakespeare is not known to have ever left England. Yet London’s location on the River Thames effectively connected it with the rest of the world through shipborne trade, providing it with both an economic pipeline and a cosmopolitan atmosphere.
London society was well-defined and essentially hierarchical, although the seeds of long-term change were already taking effect. At the top of the social pyramid was the aristocracy, which consisted of the most powerful of the nobility, who had their own retinues of supporters, servants, advisers, dependants, and extended family members. Some of the most powerful could, and sometimes did, challenge the power of the royal family, as did Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex, who mounted a coup against the queen and was executed as a result in 1601.
Immediately below the aristocracy were the gentry and citizens, those who inherited their status by birth, blood relations, and landed wealth, although they could sometimes achieve their status through eminence of conduct or achievement. Shakespeare’s Falstaff—a fictional character who appears in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and, less notably, in The Merry Wives of Windsor—is an example of the gentry, albeit a dissolute and rakish member of the class. It might be that Falstaff survives his trespasses only because of his status as a member of the gentry by blood; rank had its privileges.
Below the gentry were the citizens, typically merchants who had their homes in London and derived their wealth from trade or business. They were associated with the craft guilds, business societies in such areas of commercial work as silver, gold, leather, and wood. Citizens tended to the municipal functions of government, staffing the city councils and mayoral office. The key thing was that the citizens were not affiliated and did not associate with the aristocracy. Their status did not derive from blood or landed estates but from the money and assets developed through their own businesses and commerce. Due to their earnestness, focus on money and business, and lack of social graces, citizens were often the object of mockery and satire by members of the aristocracy and gentry. In addition, the Puritans and other conservative religious elements often came from the citizen class.
Nevertheless, citizens represented a key development in English society, one with far-reaching consequences: the rise of a new urban middle class. Then, as now, a middle class would be a major market for religious books, such as sermons and books of devotion; secular books, such as travelogues and histories; plays; and pamphlets. This ready market for the written word in turn spurred the book and print trades. In the case of Shakespeare and contemporaries such as Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, the middle class would also produce its share of literary and cultural luminaries who produced as well as acquired such literary productions. Furthermore, this sense of urban life—this immersion in the city’s dynamic, cultured, and textured life—created a cosmopolitan lifestyle that remains the attraction of London and other urban centers such as New York, Paris, and Berlin.
The next stage down, below the citizenry, was what might variously be called the “underclass”: laborers, transients, beggars, prostitutes, petty (and not so petty) criminals, and others without social status or position, including itinerant actors. Less charitably, this underclass formed, in the minds of more socially advantaged members of the society, the “mob,” an entity dreaded and detested for its potential violence and destructiveness, which was not mere suspicion. The London mob had struck out against its social superiors previously, when conditions became too tight or authority too repressive—for example, when it forcibly deposed Edward II in 1327.
This hierarchical anatomy of society has been described as the Great Chain of Being, an order reaching from God at the top through the queen (or king), his earthly representative on the earth, and down through the ranks of aristocracy, gentry, commoners, and the rabble—all in their place, and a place for all allowed for the hierarchical stratification of society. That, at least was the belief, and whether all accepted the premise was another question. This social philosophy was almost entirely extinguished with the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Cromwellian Interregnum, when the Puritan middle and lower classes overthrew, at least for a time, the aristocratic social order. But for the moment, this hierarchical arrangement, anchored by a revered queen, was a philosophy that stabilized Elizabethan society. One observes in Shakespeare’s plays that the question of royal legitimacy and the downfall of kings was a subject matter frequently, if carefully, explored; carefully because plays were still subject to censorship if they aggressively questioned royal authority or exacerbated religious tensions. By setting his plays in distant locales, back in time, or in some fantastical realm, Shakespeare was able to explore what made for a good king or queen or, conversely, what brought about their downfall. He was also able to address social issues such as the place of women, relations between men and women, marriage, justice, class, and even race, among others. In a sense, much of Shakespeare’s writing was a negotiation of contemporary political and social currents through the prism of tales of remote times and places. The “great chain” was already feeling the strain of competing social interests, and Shakespeare was not alone in his attraction to the subject.
The Elizabethan theater descended from several theatrical traditions. There were medieval mystery plays, performed by local amateurs around church holidays and focused on biblical and religious themes. Italian commedia dell’arte, with its rough, often vulgar qualities, performed mostly by itinerant actors, also influenced the theatrical tradition. At a far remove from the commedia dell’arte were the masques, based on classical themes and featuring elaborate costumes and staging, which are performed at nobles’ houses and even at the royal court by courtiers and professional actors, musicians, and singers.
Companies of actors—strolling players, as they were called—would often perform in marketplaces, in village squares, or on temporary stages set up in courtyards of inns in small towns. Occasionally, the actors would be invited to perform at the houses of the landed gentry or nobility. For pay, they “passed the hat,” as street performers continue to do to this day. It is not unlikely that Shakespeare saw performances by itinerant acting companies at Stratford. A famous example of strolling players can be found in the “play-within-a-play” device in Hamlet, where Hamlet uses the visiting acting troupe to reveal the misconduct of his mother and stepfather. Eventually, troupes of professional actors developed, usually attached to nobles’ households for patronage and, equally important, for protection, since itinerant actors were considered vagabonds, or worse. In 1572, a law was passed requiring acting companies to obtain a noble patron. By attaching themselves to a royal patron, the actors acquired a certain status. Shakespeare’s own company of actors in London obtained the patronage of Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, and were therefore known as “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” A less-positive result of licensing and noble patronage was that freedom of expression became much more limited. Whereas strolling players might deliver some barbed criticisms of the rich and powerful, licensed players had to be more circumspect.
The London theater was the magnet for every ambitious actor and playwright. The city had the largest population and hence the largest potential audiences. It also had theaters commensurate in size and importance. Ironically, the City of London, its municipal offices dominated by Puritans and other religious conservatives, was hostile to the theater. One must keep in mind that their objections involved not only the presentation of material that officials deemed immoral or offensive (which, to their mind, was most of it), but also to those who tended to gather the theaters, including prostitutes, gamblers, pickpockets, other petty criminals, and vagrants. Restrictions imposed by the city on the theaters in 1575 led them to withdraw to Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames River, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. There, substantial new theaters began to rise. If anything, these restrictions and the relocation of the theaters outside the city proper made them even more popular. There are many laments written by the clergy decrying the far larger attendance at theaters than at church services.
In passing, it should be noted that crime was dealt with severely. Criminals and even the homeless poor were treated severely. Vagrants were generally whipped, and even those who could read and pleaded “benefit of clergy” were branded with hot irons to make sure that they did not use the excuse again. Serious crime usually meant that the accused would be hanged. There were other punishments for less serious offences: Courts could order offenders to be put in the stocks, a device that held the prisoner by the feet, or the pillory, which held the prisoner by the arms. These punishments were carried out in public, both to make the crime and criminal known and to impress on the criminal, as well as townsmen and onlookers, that justice would be dealt out severely. Public punishment often formed a sort of entertainment and attracted crowds to see offenders whipped, pilloried, and even hanged. The last words of the condemned (or purported last words) often were captured by enterprising writers and published in pamphlets. These gallows writings formed a subgenre of their own.
The Theatre and the Curtain were the first of the major outdoor theaters to rise in London. Their success paved the way for the Rose (1587), the Swan (1595), the Globe (1599), and a number of other theaters. The fame of the Globe Theatre, of course, has endured, due to its association with Shakespeare. The Globe was typical of the major outdoor theaters. It was built in Southwark in 1599 by Shakespeare’s company of actors, the Chamberlain’s Men; the timbers from its predecessor, the Theatre, were used in its construction. The original structure had been destroyed by fire on June 29, 1613. The theater was rebuilt on the same site by mid-1614 and remained in operation until the closing of the theaters in 1642 by edict of the Puritan Parliament. The Globe was demolished in 1644.
It is staggering to consider that, had Puritan forces been able to fully act on their opposition to the theaters in the first part of the 1600s and closed them rather than merely force them to the outskirts of London, it is quite possible that Shakespeare would hardly, if at all, be known to us today, an almost incomprehensible loss. Shakespeare took his own small revenge on the Puritans with his depiction of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. There, Malvolio criticizes any kind of enjoyment, yet he acts ridiculously when he believes that one of the female characters, Olivia, is in love with him. The other characters strenuously abuse and make fun of Malvolio, but his parting words proved prophetic: “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.”
Although the exact dimensions of the Globe are not known, reconstructive efforts indicate that it was a three-story, open-air, wooden structure, somewhat in the shape of a wooden “O” with an open roof. In the prologue to Henry V, Shakespeare appears to refer to the theater in which the play was being performed as “this cockpit” and “wooden O,” suggesting its general shape and structure. The theater could hold approximately 2,500–3,000 spectators. The rectangular stage was about 48 feet wide and 28 feet deep, with trapdoors through which dramatic figures could appear and disappear and stage rigging to produce scenic effects. The stage projected into the audience, which heightened the interaction between actors and audience. The area in front of the stage was the “pit,” where the “groundlings” could stand on the dirt floor and watch the play for a penny—which might represent a day’s wages for many in the pit. If it rained, the groundlings got wet (as did the actors if they were in the front of the stage). Above the pit and around the sides of the theater were the galleries, which offered seating and protection from the elements, at a price; this was where the affluent took their places.
Since there was no artificial light, theater performances were held in the afternoon. Both men and women (not all “respectable”) attended plays, although women of superior rank wore masks in an attempt to protect their identity or dignity. As noted, the theaters were extremely popular. Plays were typically well-attended, and theaters actively vied for customers. This was a golden age for the theater. In addition to Shakespeare, there were other talented playwrights and actors, such as Ben Jonson (1572–1637), who, like Shakespeare, both wrote plays and acted in them. Shakespeare is believed to have acted in Jonson’s first “hit,” Every Man in His Humour (1598). Such Jonson works as Volpone and The Alchemist continue to remain popular and are still often performed.
Other playwrights, including Thomas Nash (1567–1601) and Thomas Dekker (ca. 1572–ca. 1632), ensured a steady supply of material for the stage. It is sobering to keep in mind that hundreds of Elizabethan plays, performed but never published, are now lost to us, so that our knowledge of the Elizabethan stage is necessarily limited. Although debatable, it is possible that even some of Shakespeare’s plays have been lost.
Shakespeare was one of those rare figures who mastered and fused high and popular literary forms, producing works that brought in the groundlings, the middle class, and the nobility equally and made money doing so—and who continues to do so into our own era. Shakespeare himself became a well-to-do man, from his part-ownership of the Chamberlain’s Men and the Globe Theatre. Profits were shared between members of the Globe company and the owners of the theater, who included James Burbage; his son, the actor Richard Burbage; and five others, one of them being William Shakespeare. Shakespeare received approximately 10 percent of the profit, although he had a 20 percent stake in the acting troupe as James Burbage owned the lease for the land that the Globe was built on. Shakespeare wrote the plays and acted in some of them. In 1603, upon the accension to the throne of James I (James VI of Scotland), the new king accepted patronage of the company, thereafter known as the King’s Men.
The Elizabethan era witnessed an interesting interaction between the theater and the law, in the form of the Inns of Court. This was and still is an assemblage of buildings and lodgings in which barristers (lawyers) practice their profession and aspiring lawyers receive practical and professional training. The Inns of Court consist of the Middle Temple and Inner Temple within the historic City of London, but independent of its jurisdiction, and Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn, near the western boundary of the City of London. Although students can study law at a university, to practice as a barrister, one must be a member of one of the Inns of Court. In Shakespeare’s time, many others attended the Inns of Court with no intention of becoming lawyers; they merely wished to round out their education or simply participate in the camaraderie and social life that marked the Inns. One major part of this social life was the staging of theatrical productions. Students staged their own plays, which were often designed to satirize lawyers and the law. The Inns of Court also occasionally saw productions by professional players. For example, The Comedy of Errors was performed by Shakespeare’s company at Gray’s Inn in 1594, and his Twelfth Night appeared at Middle Temple in 1602. Shakespeare even referenced the Inns in Henry VI, Part 1. The barristers and law students who made up the Inns also formed an important audience for Elizabethan theater elsewhere. They were part of that developing urban middle class that would be vital to sustaining the arts and entertainments of a cosmopolitan city.
When plays were not being presented, the theaters offered such violent and crowd-pleasing spectacles as bullbaiting and bearbaiting, in which dogs fought with bulls or bears, sometimes to the death of one or the other of both combatants, although since bears were harder to come by for this purpose, the contests were usually ended when the bear showed signs of being defeated. Other forms of popular entertainment included attending the local pub or tavern, an institution that became characteristic of English society. In addition, cock-fighting, playing cards and dice, bowling, and other sports were also popular forms of entertainment. While some of these activities were criticized by church and civil authorities, they flourished during Elizabeth’s reign since the queen herself enjoyed them as much as any of her subjects. While she imposed some restrictions to keep order, they were never so burdensome as to suppress the playhouses or other entertainments.
In addition to the popular entertainments the queen enjoyed, a courtier culture developed around Elizabeth. Courtiers included Sir Walter Raleigh, who, in addition to trying to colonize what is now the Commonwealth of Virginia, also wrote poems for, or in praise of, his queen. The royal family did not, of course, attend plays in the common theaters of the time, but to satisfy Elizabeth’s interest, plays and masques were performed at court. Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men would, on occasion, be requested to perform for the queen. During Christmas 1594, Shakespeare acted before Elizabeth in her palace at Greenwich in two separate comedies, and during Christmas 1597, the Chamberlain’s Men performed Love’s Labour’s Lost for the queen in her palace at Whitehall. In 1603, Shakespeare also performed on several occasions before King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth I on her death, as well as at the houses of high-ranking noblemen.
It should be noted that Elizabeth herself displayed some of the humanistic qualities evident in this period. She had been tutored by one of the notable scholars of her time, Roger Ascham, author of “The Scholemaster” (published 1570), a work on education that argued learning should be enjoyable, not painful. Elizabeth was one of the best-educated women of her time, one who could read and write in English, Latin, and Italian and who devoted some of her leisure time to translating Latin classics. In a sense, she exemplified the very best traits of the Elizabethan era: humanistic learning, an appreciation for culture, vigorous enjoyment of the popular pastimes, politically moderate, and filled with a strong nationalism. Elizabeth and the members of the royal court played an instrumental role in encouraging, supporting, and protecting the development of the arts and humanities during this period.
Elizabethan Music, Architecture, and Art
When one thinks of the Elizabethan era, the first thought is undoubtedly of Shakespeare and the theater, then maybe of Elizabeth or the Spanish Armada. Quite simply, the other arts, perhaps not unjustifiably, have been overshadowed by the legacy of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theater. Possibly only music can stake a claim to artistic stature during this time. Music was an integral part of the theater experience, where instrumental and vocal music interludes were part of most plays. The roster of Elizabethan composers and musicians is impressive: William Byrd (1543–1623), Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–85), Christopher Tye (ca. 1505–ca. 1572), Orlando Gibbons (1538–1625), Thomas Morley (ca. 1557–1602), John Dowland (1563–1626), Thomas Campion (1567–1620), and others. Of these, Byrd is perhaps the most eminent and is often considered to be to Elizabethan music what Shakespeare was to Elizabethan theater. Byrd’s genius was such that, despite remaining a Catholic during this Protestant era, he served as a member of the Chapel Royal, providing music for the liturgy of the Church of England. Byrd was a prolific composer; his collections of motets and English songs are an important contribution to music, as was his keyboard and instrumental music. Tallis engaged in some musical ventures with Byrd and was an important composer in his own right.
Tye was an organist; Elizabeth once complained of his playing, saying it was out of tune, to which Tye reportedly responded that it was the Queen’s ears that were out of tune. Gibbons wrote church, secular vocal, keyboard, and consort music (instrumental music, usually consisting of viols or bowed string instruments), which became very popular. Dowland’s melancholy songs, lute music, and lute songs (for one voice with lute accompaniment) are still quite popular among fans of early music. Campion also wrote many fine lute songs, as well as music for masques and popular songs.
Perhaps one of the modes of music in which the Elizabethans were particularly adept was madrigal, a polyphonic vocal form, originally performed without instrumental accompaniment by three to six vocalists. Byrd, Dowland, Gibbons, and Morley were all particularly gifted in this musical form. These composer-musicians fostered a rich and vital tradition of English song and instrumental music.
Elizabethan architecture, while perhaps not as aesthetically or developmentally important as Elizabethan music, has nevertheless endured in popular appreciation, coming to represent something essentially English for many people, both in and out of England. The architecture of Shakespeare’s age was a period of transition between the earlier Tudor style, which itself contained many elements of medieval architecture, and the later Palladian style introduced by Inigo Jones, who was strongly influenced by Italian design and whose best work commenced near the end of the age of Shakespeare. The “look” that most now associate with Elizabethan architecture is that of a tall, peaked building faced with dark timber and white plaster. For many, such buildings fairly reek of “Ye Olde England.” The black-and-white half-timbered plaster facades have often been imitated in homes built in subsequent centuries, even into the current day.
The Elizabethan period was also marked by the building of many large—sometimes monstrously large—country manor houses, great “halls” that were intended to show off the vast wealth and power of their owners. The best known of these include Longleat House, Kirby Hall, Penshurst Place, Burghley House, Montacute House, Wol-laton Hall, Longford Castle, and Haddon Hall. These great homes were typically marked by symmetrical design, imposing towers, great halls in the medieval style, and substantial bedrooms. The houses were usually set off by carefully designed landscaping and formal gardens. Flemish and Italian craftsmen were often imported to carry out the execution of the building’s ornamentation. It took great wealth to sustain these magnificent, costly buildings; few are in private hands today, and most are now on the itineraries of sightseeing tourists.
Achievements in painting and sculpture in the age of Shakespeare need be considered subordinate to those of theater and music. Those who could afford paintings were desirous of having imposing portraits, richly done, that would convey their important position in the world, so that much of the painting of the era was given over to portraiture. The portraits are typically somewhat stiffly posed and richly detailed. Perhaps most eminent of the British portraitists was George Gower (1540–96), serjeant painter to Queen Elizabeth, whose portraits of the queen are iconic.
Interestingly enough, at the other end of the spectrum, Elizabethans were fond of miniature paintings, which descend from the traditions of illuminated manuscripts and Renaissance portrait medals. The miniatures were usually painted in watercolor on vellum or in enamel. Besides being often quite lovely in themselves, they were, of course, highly portable, so that pictures of loved ones, or even potential spouses in a marriage arrangement, could be carried long distances relatively safely. Such miniatures were kept in lockets that could be worn by the bearer. Foremost among the miniaturists of Shakespeare’s time was Nicolas Hilliard (1547–1619), who painted miniatures of members of the Elizabethan court, including several miniature portraits of Elizabeth I.
Sculpture was typically applied to decorative touches on mansions and tombs. The work was often performed by foreign craftsmen brought to England. The English were also fond of elaborate silverwork and tapestries and needlework for the home.
If the arts made substantial, if somewhat variable, progress during this era, it must be acknowledged that science lagged behind. We have already noted the mortality rates for children and women in childbirth. Medicine was still not a science, and indeed, it was rather basic. Elizabethans faced the deadly and frightening threat of bubonic plague, or the Black Death, as it was popularly known. Shakespeare’s two older siblings died of the plague, which even caused the closing of the theaters on occasion. Typhoid was also a serious problem. The fundamental problem was lack of sanitation; rats, fleas, and lice abounded in London and helped spread diseases. Filth and waste was dumped into the Thames, which also served as a water source. Water pumps were breeding grounds for typhoid. The lack of hygiene as a cause of illness was not yet understood as a cause for much disease. In addition to plague and typhoid, Elizabethans suffered from a variety of illnesses, including anemia, tuberculosis, gout, influenza, and syphilis.
The prevailing theory of the human body was the theory of “humours” (humors), inherited from the ancient and medieval medical traditions. In this theory, the human body was composed of four kinds of fluid: phlegm; blood; choler, or yellow bile; and melancholy, or black bile. Physical and mental characteristics were explained by different proportions of humours in individuals. An excess of phlegm produced a “phlegmatic,” or calm, temperament; of blood a “sanguine,” or passionate, one; of yellow bile a “choleric,” or irascible, one; and of black bile a “melancholy,” or depressive, one. Hamlet, for instance, was understood as having an excess of black bile, which made him melancholy. An imbalance of the humours could supposedly be treated by diet or bleeding, often using leeches to draw blood from the patient (or, often enough, victim), or corrected through astrological projections, which was still bound up with the emerging science of astronomy. While our medical capabilities are far superior today to those of the Elizabethans, terms such as sanguine and choleric are still part of our vocabulary when describing the traits of an individual.
The appearance of the Elizabethan physician would strike us today as highly unusual, even bizarre. Doctors of the time wore long, dark robes with pointed hoods, leather gloves, boots, and birdlike masks with long “beaks” filled with a citrus oil. Physicians would douse themselves with vinegar and chew angelica, a candied plant stem, before approaching a plague victim. These measures protected the physician to a large degree from contagion, even though the reasons were only imperfectly understood, by forming a barrier to the patient’s infected breath and from any disease carriers. While strange by today’s standards, we can see that Elizabethan physicians were actually forerunners of today’s physicians who, for the same reasons, wear long hospital gowns, gloves, and surgical masks when treating patients.
Medicines were usually compounds of herbs, dispensed by an apothecary, an Elizabethan version of today’s pharmacist. Apothecaries were often held in low regard, as their concoctions were as often harmful, or even poisonous, as they were helpful. It is an apothecary who dispenses poison to Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Surgeons were still formally and popularly associated with barbers; in fact, they shared the same professional association at the time. While surgeons could perform such operations as treating gunshot wounds or broken bones, barbers were restricted to pulling teeth or letting blood. Of course, there was no anesthesia at the time.
The ability to obtain medical treatment depended on one’s ability to pay for it. Thus, the best medical care, as defined by the standards of the time, was reserved for the rich and well-to-do. Poorer patients usually received poorer care, and they usually depended on the charity of church, family, or friends. Often, local women skilled in the study and use of herbs were called upon to treat the sick before a doctor was consulted. Bonesetters treated broken bones, and midwives handled childbirths. By these varying means, some assistance, however imperfect, was given to the ill.
Other areas of Elizabethan science were still an admixture of ancient traditions, mysticism, and actual scientific knowledge or practice. The Elizabethans followed the classical Ptolemaic model of the universe; that is, the sun and other heavenly objects revolved around Earth, and the heavenly bodies were nested within revolving concentric spheres.
One person who summed up in his person the status and situation of science in Elizabethan times was John Dee (1527–ca. 1608). Dee was a noted mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, navigational expert, mystic, alchemist, and bibliophile. His reputation was such that he often served as an adviser to Elizabeth I and may even have been in her service at times. Dee was an ardent proponent of exploration and British expansion. He was also an important collector of books; he amassed the largest library in England and one of the largest in Europe, a valuable work of bibliographic preservation. While he had a solid grounding in what would now be considered true scientific disciplines, he also kept an attachment to things of a mystical, even magical, nature. He also devoted much of his life, especially his later years, to Hermetic, or mystical, philosophy. He attempted to commune with angels and find universal mystical truths. He also practiced alchemy, the effort to turn lead into gold or silver. Dee is a fascinating, albeit transitional, figure.
From this survey, we may conclude that the age of Shakespeare—and Elizabeth—was one that brought society and culture into fruitful interplay. A substantial period of internal order and stability; a rise of national identity; an expansion of geographical and psychological horizons; an increase in literacy; the development of a middle class, and especially of an urban, cosmopolitan population; an explosion in the quality and popularity of the theater; positive developments in music, painting, architecture, and domestic arts; the growth of a humanistic culture; and, steps, however falteringly at times, toward greater scientific knowledge and understanding all make the era memorable. Life in the age of Shakespeare could be nasty, brutish, and short, but it could also be exciting, rewarding, and, if any particular sense of the era is manifest, joyous. Elizabeth I lives on in English life, law, and governance. Shakespeare, too, lives on, through his work. For those who wish to experience the Elizabethan era, the advice is simple: Read Shakespeare. It’s all there.
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—Anthony G. Medici