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. (more…)