Understanding a few things about the era that Shakespeare lived can make reading his plays simpler and more meaningful.
Shakespeare was born during the rein of Queen Elizabeth 1, or the Elizabethan Age. For an actor and a playwright, this was a boon. Before this time actors were at the bottom rungs of society. Most assumed actors were cheats and scoundrels, and public theaters rarely lasted long.
However, Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the theater and great advances in the Arts were made during her reign. She was the last ruler of the Tudor dynasty and she was a force to be reckoned with. She had beaten the Spanish Armada, a feat that had seemed impossible at the time, and had emerged as a dominant power in Europe and the New World.
Within England she was a patron of the arts, and they were thriving. The Renaissance had arrived in England and with it incredible advances in art, science, scholarship and literature. (Italy had started the Renaissance, or rebirth, of Europe over 100 years earlier.) For the first time actors and playwrights were financially thriving and gaining respect and status.
This was also the era of the Reformation, a time of Religious upheaval that had many groups breaking from Catholicism and loyalty to the Pope. In England this movement began when Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and founded the Protestant Church of England. This was done because the Pope refused to allow Henry to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boelyn, Queen Elizabeth’s mother. The Reformation took on different characteristics in different countries in Europe. In England it caused a great deal of unrest and violence, both before and after the reign of Elizabeth. However, during her reign, their was relative peace within England.
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, and the other Explorers. They sought to find a route to India and China 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 this time, many scientific discoveries were being made. These advances not only infused the world with new knowledge and advances, it also caused instability within society. People began to question the social order, power structures, and the role of religion.
Shakespeare benefited by being born into this unique time in England’s history, and all of the changes going on in his society were reflected in his writing. Queen Elizabeth gathered the best and the brightest around her, and Shakespeare was among those she favored. This provided financial stability and respectability, something actors and those involved with the theater had rarely experienced in England. It gave Shakespeare the resources to develop his own acting troupe.
After Queen Elizabeth’s death, James I ascended to the throne. He too, enjoyed the theater and made Shakespeare’s actors The Kings Men. With the patronage of the crown Shakespeare enjoyed even greater freedoms and with a group of investors built The Globe theater.
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.This was not something that escaped Shakespeare’s notice. Most of his plays include a high plot line involving the nobility, and a low plot line involving the common people. Frequently it is these ‘low’ characters that provide the voice of reason or wisdom.
Beyond that many of the challenges of this age (the plague, death in childbirth) didn’t discriminate based on class. Richard III comments in one of Shakespeare’s plays, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Life could be short and difficult.
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.
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 which 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.
With all of this, people needed distractions from the realities of their lives, and the theater was one of their favorites. Shakespeare provided an escape for a few hours.
When we understand the realities of life that Shakespeare and his characters lived with, we can develop a deeper appreciation for his plays. While we are drawn to the universal nature of his themes and stories, we will also observe things that starkly contrast with our own 21st century minds.
I hope this brief overview will be helpful as you read Shakespeare. If you are wondering why you should even bother to teach Shakespeare you can check out my post here.
If you’d like to look at some resources to teach Shakespeare, some of my favorites are here.
Let me know in the comments if you teach Shakespeare to your children, and what you have found to be your greatest challenge and/or greatest help.