Shakespeare lived during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and died while her successor, King James I, ruled. During this time, England saw a rebirth of poetry, literature and theatre. Due to the prolonged period of political unrest and upheaval that came before it, the Elizabethan age was marked by a resurging interest in the arts that had been long ignored. In this summary, you will discover the world that shaped Shakespeare's work and left an imprint on his legacy from the Globe to the cultural ideas of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.
The period in which Shakespeare created his literature was turbulent in terms of politics and religion. After the reign of Queen Mary, the country had an era of unstable religious leadership, until Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, took the throne. As such, religion influenced Shakespeare's work. He incorporated themes like atonement and redemption into some of his plays due to his upbringing and the Reformation, which heightened his sensitivity to religious subjects. Even though Shakespeare's plays do contain Catholic references and symbols, you should also keep in mind that what a playwright writes does not necessarily reflect their own beliefs.
After England's first public theatre opened during the Elizabethan period, going to the theatre was a very popular form of entertainment. Even the Queen enjoyed it! But she never visited the public theatres, instead she had special productions performed for her by the royal court. Shakespeare's theatre company, known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men, built the Globe Theatre in 1599. It was an open-air theatre that was visited by everybody. If you didn’t have much money, you could buy a “groundling ticket” for a penny and stand to watch the plays with no shelter. If you had more money to spend, you could sit in the galleries closer to the stage.
No women were involved in the theatre. They weren’t allowed to perform. That meant all female roles (e.g. Juliet, Portia, Lady Macbeth and Ophelia) were performed by men. Women in this time had very few rights but still managed to have influence, which is reflected in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Portia in The Merchant of Venice or Lady Macbeth in Macbeth.
London was a bustling metropolis with a population of roughly 100,000 people from all walks of life; merchants, nobles, prostitutes, courtiers, beggars and thieves. Due to the booming trade of London, as they walked around the city, Londoners would hear a variety of accents and languages - a chorus of voices from all over Europe. London appears as a setting in several of Shakespeare's history plays, including Henry IV's two parts. This cultural fusion inspired Shakespeare in his writing.
The Merchant of Venice - Antonio, a merchant in Venice, defaults on a large loan made by Shylock, a moneylender.
Values were crucial during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. People were expected to uphold these values, and doing otherwise was seen as highly disturbing. Although there were several principles, gender roles, families, marriage and morals were some of the more prevalent ones. These principles served as the cornerstone of daily life. In his in comedies and romances, Shakespeare's view of morality differs significantly from that of his tragedies, focusing instead on the moral aspects of social interaction, ranging from politics to love and desire.
The Elizabethan era in England was marked by a strong emphasis on hierarchy, which made it possible to comprehend key aspects of that period's history. In those days, there was a clear social distinction between people's ranks and responsibilities, this particular time had its own set rules regarding the social structure that everyone had to abide by.
The myths and tales that are passed down within a community are known as folklore. Some believe Elizabethan folklore was inspired by Greek Mythology and the ideas that came from them. They were widely believed back then and played a significant role in people’s life. There were many contributing factors, including insecurity, ignorance, lack of modern scientific knowledge, myths and false conceptions.
A Midsummer Night's Dream - Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, are to be married and great celebrations are planned. Fairies appear as characters in this play. They represent the mythical and magical 'Green World.' This play is a story of order and disorder, reality and appearance and love and marriage.
In the 1500s and 1600s, supernaturalism and witches were common themes. The fear of witchcraft was common, so much so that in 1563, to prove how much they believed in this, the Witchcraft Act was passed to persecute those witches said to invoke evil spirits to commit murder. The three main features of witches were:
Almost everything unexplainable was attributed to them; including plagues, famines, disease outbreaks, and low harvests. King James I, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth, even wrote a book about witches and thought a witch was responsible for a storm that nearly capsized his ship.
Macbeth - In this tragedy, three witches visit Macbeth and tell him that he will be the king of Scotland. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth kills the king and becomes the new king (The witches in this play were possibly included to please James I).
Astrology is the idea that the stars' positions have an impact on what happens on Earth, and, during Shakespeare's time, this was widely accepted. The fascinating aspect of astrology is how closely it was linked to magic during the Elizabethan period. Many citizens held some form of Christian belief yet, they relied on magic as a result of studies conducted by many astrologers. Reading horoscopes nowadays shows that this interest is still present. Queen Elizabeth I even had her own personal astrologer since it was thought that astrologers could foretell the future. Many of Shakespeare's plays reflect these ideals. Astrology was widely regarded as the primary science of the Elizabethan era. It wasn't just for exploration; it was also used for calendars, medical purposes, horticulture, agricultural practices, navigation and a variety of other things.
Romeo and Juliet - This is a tragic story where the two main characters, Romeo and Juliet, are supposed to be sworn enemies but fall in love. In the play, they are described as 'star-crossed lovers' meaning that the position of the stars may have had something to do with their tragedies.
Question: Did Shakespeare believe in witchcraft?
Answer: The fear of witchcraft was common, so much so that in 1563, to prove how much they believed in this, the Witchcraft Act was passed to persecute those witches said to invoke evil spirits to commit murder.
Question: Did religion influence Shakespeare?
Answer: As such, Religion influenced the work of Shakespeare. He infused themes like atonement and redemption into some of his plays due to his upbringing and the Reformation, which heightened his sensitivity to religious subjects.
Question: Who reigned while Shakespeare was alive?
Answer: Shakespeare lived during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and died while her successor, King James I, ruled.