Elizabethan England



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Elizabethan England


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The age of Shakespeare was a great time in English history. The queen on the throne was Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). During her reign England became the leader of the seas. England was also very powerful in trade. England secured its position as powerful with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth firmly established the Church of England.

Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world and became the most celebrated English sea captain of his generation. European wars brought an influx of continental refugees into England, exposing the Englishman to many new cultures. For our countries trade, might, and art, England was famous.

At this time, London was the heart of England, reflecting all the vibrant qualities of the Elizabethan Age. This atmosphere made London a leading center of culture as well as commerce. Its dramatists and poets were among the leading literary artists of the day. In this heady environment, Shakespeare lived and wrote.

London in the 16th century underwent a transformation. Its population grew 400% during the 1500s, swelling to nearly 200,000 people in the city and outlying region by the time Shakespeare came to town.

During the Elizabethan era there were many famous and successful writers for the theatre. These included Marlowe, Greene, Lyly, Kyd, and Peele. Shakespeare outdid them all; he combined the best traits of Elizabethan drama with classical sources, enriching the admixture with his imagination and wit.

England was a land of clear divisions: between the old faith and the new (Catholic and protestant), between the cities and the rural communities, between the known and that which was unknown and therefore frightening.

This was Shakespeare's England - a point in history that he would make timeless. And this was the backdrop to his work, the seething mass of divisions and everyday banalities that inspired a critique of the human condition every bit as relevant today as it was revolutionary back then.


Brief History


Elizabeth I was one of the most popular and long-reigning monarchs in English history—her curly red hair and shrewd political mind are well-known to us through books, movies, and legends.

Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and the infamous Henry VIII of England. She became Queen of England after her half brother and half sister had each briefly reigned and died. Her sister Mary's reign had been particularly brutal and violent, and her persecution of Protestant propagators earned her the nickname "Bloody Mary." Elizabeth became queen at the age of 25 after her sister's death. She never married, but rather used her position as an unmarried monarch to wield power over her possible allies: the prospect of marriage to the "Virgin Queen" was an instrumental factor in the successful establishment of good relations between England and other countries.



Elizabeth Anne Henry Mary

Under Elizabeth, England began colonization of the Americas with Walter Raleigh's excursions to the Atlantic shore. Also, Sir Francis Drake made a mark in history as the first man to circumnavigate the globe, earning prestige for England and for Elizabeth.

But England was not yet the world power it would be. At this time Spain dominated the waves and most of the known world from the Americas to the Far East. Its fleets of heavily armed galleons ruled the seas, and under Phillip II, Catholic ruler of most of the world, those ships raided far and wide on a mission to convert unbelievers and steal whatever precious metals they could.

Denied an alliance with England and its ruler Elizabeth I by marriage, Phillip began to nurture the intent to take England by force. Consequently England was frequently a crucible for paranoia and dissent.

The English Navy's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was an unexpected blow to Spain and a welcome triumph for England, giving the country the precarious title of a world power.




Entertainment and Recreation


Drama enjoyed its high points during the Elizabethan era as the first public theaters were built in England and plays became a popular form of entertainment for all classes of people. Dance was also a frequent recreation, along with music and song. In addition to the arts, the Elizabethan people engaged in sports. Some of the most popular sports are ones that are still enjoyed today: football, swimming, fishing, bowling, wrestling, and tennis. Also, the inhabitants of a town would gather together on holidays for huge parties and festivals, particularly on dates such as All Hallow's Eve and the Twelfth Night of Christmas.

One rather morbid pastime of Elizabethan England was watching the public punishments of criminals in the town. In addition to the most brutal of reparations, permanent fixtures in any town were the stocks and pillory, where felons would be locked into place for the constant jeers and torment of the townspeople.




Food and Medicine


During the Elizabethan period, table manners were very different than they are now. Even noblemen threw bones on the floor when they were finished, and forks were considered an oddity at any table. Bread and meat were the two most important staples of the English diet, and while they also drank a lot of wine and ate cheese, they ate very few fruits and vegetables.

This poorly balanced diet was one cause of the many illnesses that pervaded Elizabethan England. Other sicknesses resulted from malnutrition and improper cooking habits. Also, smallpox and syphilis were common afflictions passed from person to person. But the major cause of death during Elizabethan England was the plague known as the Black Death, which swept through England and Europe carried by the rats living in the streets. People used herbal remedies for many of such ailments, but unfortunately, only the very rich were able to afford doctors or even apothecaries.


Fashions of the Day


The fashions of both men and women were extravagant and complicated. Men and women alike were very hair-conscious; they spent a lot of time and money getting their hair dyed red or blond (the most fashionable colors). Men would trim and style their beards, and women wore their hair in combs, nets, or jeweled pins. At the time, a high forehead was considered very attractive, so women would pluck the hair from their front hairlines. Both sexes wore wigs, especially when they lost their own hair or if it turned gray.

In terms of clothing, women wore very long dresses that dragged on the ground, and their bodices were very tightly-laced and came to a point at the waist. The sleeves were puffy around the shoulders and tight around the lower arms. Very large ruffles around the neck were popular with both men and women, and were considered a status symbol for the upper classes. Men wore shorter breeches or pants with brightly colored stockings underneath. Large, ornate jewels were worn by both sexes, and were often so heavy that it made dancing difficult.




 The Globe


Mass entertainment might have started with the Greeks but it was no less popular with the Elizabethans. The area around Southwark, close to Bankside where Shakespeare would finally site The Globe, might be thought of as a kind of Elizabethan Mall or multiplex. Here, out of the jurisdiction of the city, could be found contemporary entertainment red in tooth and claw. Only recently archaeologists have discovered the remains of bear pits where bears and mastiffs would do battle to the death, and a thick layer of discarded hazelnut shells – the Elizabethan's equivalent of popcorn. Bull baiting would also have taken place here, while the inns and brothels hereabouts were plentiful and rowdy.

The contrast between the rural and urban existence is key to much of Shakespeare's works. The clear divisions that he saw around him every day – the city and the land, the Catholic and the Protestant - and which he found himself for the most part sandwiched in between will manifest themselves in his works time and time again.

The Globe Theatre—along with the Rose, the Swan, and the Hope—was one of the foremost theatres in the London area during the 16th century. Due to the genius of Shakespeare's writing, the acting prowess of Richard Burbage, and the reputation of Lord Chamberlain's Men (later, the King's Men), the Globe became the most famous and successful theatre of its time. The rocky history of the Globe, however, is not indicative of its steady popularity. Having survived a devastating fire, a law suit, Puritan outrage, and a move to the other side of town, the Globe Theatre—as it still exists today—stands as a symbol of the permanence of Shakespeare's legacy.

An open-air octagonal amphitheater, the Globe could seat up to 3,000 spectators in front of a stage platform nearly 43 feet wide and 28 feet deep.



In 1613, the Globe was reduced to ashes due to the firing of a cannon during a performance of Henry VIII, which set the thatched roof of the theatre in flames. Although work began promptly to resurrect the Globe and was completed shortly before Shakespeare's death, the new Globe was destroyed in 1644—two years after the Puritans banned plays and other forms of entertainment.

For over three hundred years, the theatre of one of the most influential playwrights of all time existed only in historical documents and memory—that is, until actor Sam Wanamaker started the reconstruction of the Globe in the early 1990's. Using traditional methods and materials, builders modeled the new Globe after what had been determined about the original Elizabethan theatre's design. Thus, the new Globe boasts of wooden benches and a standing-room only area, and plays in the open-air theatre are performed regardless of the weather.

Changes in literacy – from Latin to an English bible – to Claxton’s printing press in 1470.



The origins of the story
The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was first produced about 1595. From the first moment it was performed it was a popular play. It was performed at a time in England when sonnet writing was at it’s height of fashion – therefore poetry and the study of love was a popular topic.
The story, in one form or another was told often in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but Shakespeare’s source was an English poem published in 1562, called the ‘Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet’ by Arthur Brooke.

Brooke’s poem was long and tedious; he had the action taking place over two months whereas Shakespeare’s play begins and ends over just five days.
But is it a true story? Who knows! In the 13th century in Italy, there were two families, the Montechi lived in Verona, and the Capelletti lived in Cremona, sixty miles away! No-one knows whether the had children called Romeo and Juliet but the myth has always been very popular in Italy and in France.




  1. Which dates did Queen Elizabeth reign? _____________

  2. What was the Queen alternatively known as? ______________________

  3. Why? _____________________________________________________

  4. Why had she chosen to live her life like this? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  5. How was London changing at that time? ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  6. Which two religions were important in England at that time? ________________________________________________________________

  7. Why were the English very proud of their country? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  8. Why was the theatre so popular then? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  9. When was Romeo and Juliet written? ______________________________

  10. Where did Shakespeare get his idea from? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  11. Why was the play so popular? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


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