Shakespeare lived during a remarkable period of English history, a time of relative political stability that followed and preceded eras of extensive upheaval. Elizabeth I became the Queen of England in 1558, six years before Shakespeare's birth. During her 45-year reign, London became a cultural and commercial center where learning and literature thrived.
When Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne, there were violent clashes throughout Europe between Protestant and Catholic leaders and their followers. Though Elizabeth honored many of the Protestant edicts of her late father, King Henry VIII, she made significant concessions to Catholic sympathizers, which kept them from attempting rebellion. But when compromise was not possible, she was an exacting and determined leader who did not shy away from conflict. With the naval defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, England was firmly established as a leading military and commercial power in the Western world. Elizabeth supported and later knighted Sir Francis Drake, the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe. She also funded Sir Walter Raleigh's exploration of the New World, which brought new wealth to her country in the form of tobacco and gold from Latin America.
Queen Elizabeth also recognized the importance of the arts to the life and legacy of her nation. She was fond of the theater, and many of England's greatest playwrights were active during her reign, including Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare. With her permission, professional theaters were built in England for the first time, attracting 15,000 theatergoers per week in London, a city of 150,000 to 250,000. In addition to Shakespeare's masterpieces of the stage, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen, and Sir Philip Sidney'sDefence of Poesie were all written during this golden age in the literary arts. The Shakespearean sonnet, Spenserian stanza, and dramatic blank verse also came into practice during the period.
Upon the death of Elizabeth, King James I rose to power in England. A writer himself, he displayed a great love of learning, particularly theater. At the king's invitation, Shakespeare's theater company, Lord Chamberlain's Men, became known as the King's Men, and they produced new works under his patronage. King James also commissioned the translation of the Bible from Latin into English so that it might be more readily available to those who had not studied the language of the educated class. Completed in 1611 by a team of scholars and monks, the King James Version of the Bible has become the bestselling and arguably the most-influential book in the world.
Unfortunately, King James surrounded himself with untrustworthy advisors, and his extravagant lifestyle strained the royal finances and the patience of the Puritan-controlled Parliament. When James died in 1628, his son Charles I ascended to the throne, and tensions between Parliament and the Crown increased. King Charles I eventually lost a bloody civil war to the Puritans, who executed the King (his son Charles II fled to France). For a dozen years, the Puritans enacted many reforms which included closing the theaters. The Commonwealth lasted until Charles II returned from France, claimed the throne, and installed the Restoration. King Charles II also reopened the theaters, but England's theatrical highpoint had passed.
British Peerage and Nobility
The system of British Peerage in Shakespeare's time (which still exists—although altered—in modern day Great Britain) determined one's position in society. many of Shakespeare's characters carried titles that—in the Bard's time—would have immediately told audience members a lot about that person's rank, importance, and authority over his peers. Today's audiences will be less familiar with the British Peerage and Nobility, so here's a quick primer:
Duke: The highest rank in British Peerage; from the Latin dux, meaning leader. The female counterpart to a Duke is a Duchess.
Marquess: Second-highest rank, from the French marquis, meaning march. The female counterpart is the Marchioness.
Earl: This title comes from an old English term that referred to a military leader, and the rank corresponds to a Count in continental Europe. the female counterpart of an Earl is the Countess.
Viscount: A Latin-derived word that translates to vice-count.
Baron: The lowest rank of British Peer; someone who holds land directly from the King or Queen.
Religion in the Elizabethan Age
Religion was central to the society for which Shakespeare wrote. Queen Elizabeth made attendance at Church of England services mandatory, even though many church-goers had to travel long distances. People who did not attend—for any reason except illness—were punished with fines. (Shakespeare's father and sister were reported as absent, though his father's debts probably were the cause of his inability to attend church.)
While it was not a crime to be Catholic in Elizabethan England, there was no legal way for Catholics to practice their faith. It was illegal to hold or to attend a Mass. Powerful people, however, were less likely to be punished than others. Many of the upper classes were exempt from the new oaths of allegiance to the Church of England, and often wealthy Catholic families secretly maintained private chaplains. Elizabethan policy allowed freedom of belief as long as English subjects did not openly flout the law or encourage sedition.
Education in the Elizabethan Age
Boys were educated to be literate members of society. Teaching techniques relied heavily on memorization and recitation. The language of literacy throughout Europe was Latin, and students were expected to be proficient in it. Boys started grammar school at the age of six or seven. Their typical school day ran from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Classroom discipline was strict, and often involved corporeal punishment. In the lower grades, boys studied Latin grammar and vocabulary. In the upper grades, they read the poetry and prose of writers such as Ovid, Martial, and Catullus. Most boys began an apprenticeship in a trade following grammar school. Sons of the nobility attended the university or the Inns of Court (professional associations for barristers).
Formal schooling was not encouraged for girls unless they were the children of nobility. For those who were educated, schooling focused primarily on chastity and the skills of housewifery. Young girls from wealthy families were often placed in the households of acquaintances where they would learn to read, write, keep accounts, and manage a household and estate. They were also trained in leisure skills such as music and dancing.
While no one would argue that Elizabethan England presented the greatest of opportunities for universal education, literacy significantly increased throughout the sixteenth century. By 1600, at least one-third of the male population could read, and Puritans pushed for significant increases in funding for grammar schools.
Elizabethan literature, body of works written during the reign of Elizabeth I of England (1558–1603), probably the most splendid age in the history of English literature, during which such writers as Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Roger Ascham, Richard Hooker, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare flourished. The epithet Elizabethan is merely a chronological reference and does not describe any special characteristic of the writing.
The Elizabethan age saw the flowering of poetry (the sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, dramatic blank verse), was a golden age of drama (especially for the plays of Shakespeare), and inspired a wide variety of splendid prose (from historicalchronicles, versions of the Holy Scriptures, pamphlets, and literary criticism to the first English novels). From about the beginning of the 17th century a sudden darkening of tone became noticeable in most forms of literary expression, especially in drama, and the change more or less coincided with the death of Elizabeth. English literature from 1603 to 1625 is properly called Jacobean, after the new monarch, James I. But, insofar as 16th-century themes and patterns were carried over into the 17th century, the writing from the earlier part of his reign, at least, is sometimes referred to by the amalgam “Jacobethan.”
Elizabeth, while Queen of England, rarely mentioned her mother. In fact she did not even attempt to have her birth legitimized as her sister, Queen Mary I had done before her. (Her father, Henry VIII, while he did put her in line for the succession had also claimed she was a bastard, as did her brother, King Edward VI after her.) With her reign tenuous in the beginning, and threats and plots throughout, bringing light to the topic of her birth would have only made her hold on her reign weaker. Many did not even believe she was Henry VIII's true daughter, despite how similar her appearance and bearing was to his.
Elizabeth I, imprisoned many of her ladies when they dared to marry without her approval.
Suspicion, to this day, surrounds Elizabeth I and her role in the death of her long time love, Robert Dudley's wife, Amy Robsart.
Elizabeth's Secretaries of State, Cecil and Walsingham, developed an intelligence agency and ring of spies that spanned all of Europe and more.
Elizabeth had forty pairs of velvet shoes until, in 1575, she decided to switch to Spanish leather. Don't panic! She didn't get rid of her shoes, simply had them refurbished.
Female characters in plays were played by men--not women.
Shakespeare became a popular playwright during the Elizabethan era, but in fact, it was very late into Elizabeth's reign. He was not even born until she'd been Queen for several years. His first play was published and acted in the 1590's. Elizabeth did see at least one or two of his plays. Many vicious rumors abound that Elizabeth is Shakespeare's mother, but these are just rumors.
People drank beer at breakfast.
Of every 100 babies born alive--not stillbirths--about 70% survived to their first birthday. Less than 50% would make it to the age of 5.
Farting and peeing were to be done in private. (If you farted in public, you were supposed to try and cough to cover the sound). Belching at the table was totally acceptable. But it you had to blow your nose or spit you had better turn away.
The Elizabethan period in England had a daily life based on social order: the monarch as the highest, the nobility as second rank, the gentry as third, merchants as fourth, yeomanry as fifth and laborers as sixth. The queen was believed to be God’s representation here on Earth. It was also believed that God had formed these social ranks and showered blessings on each rank. The Parliament regulated the clothes that can only be worn by each rank and it was considered a defiance of the order if a laborer wore clothes of the rich. Sumptuary laws were imposed by rulers to curb the expenditure of the people. These laws applied to food, beverages, furniture, jewelry and clothing. They were used to control behavior and ensure that a specific class structure was maintained. Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws dictated what color and type of clothing individuals were allowed to own and wear. This allowed an easy and immediate way to identify rank and privilege.
The era called the Elizabethan England was a time of many changes and developments and was also considered as the Golden Age in English history. This era was led by Queen Elizabeth I, the sixth and last ruler of Tudor. Queen Elizabeth I was considered by many to be England’s best monarch. She was wise and a just Queen and chose the right advisors and was not dominated by them. She ruled the Elizabethan era for 45 years and during this time was the height of the English Renaissance and the time of the development of English poetry and literature.
Society began to form along new lines during the Tudor years and it was an age of individuality. Nobility and knights were still at the top of the social ladder. These men were rich and powerful, and they have large households. The real growth in society was in the merchant class. Within the nobility class there was a distinction between old families and new. Most of the old families were Catholic, and the new families were Protestant. During Shakespeare’s time there were only about 55 noble families in England. At the head of each noble family is a duke, a baron or an earl. This class is the lords and ladies of the land. A person becomes a member of nobility by birth, or by a grant from the queen or king. Noble titles were hereditary, passing from father to oldest son. It took a crime such as treason for a nobleman to lose his title. Many nobles died during the War of the Roses, a series of civil wars fought during the 15th century. The Tudor monarchy, Elizabeth, her father Henry VIII, and her grandfather Henry VII rarely appointed new nobles to replace those who died. They viewed the nobility class as a threat to their power and preferred to keep the number of them small. Being a member of the nobility class often brought debt rather than profit. The expectations of the class and the non paying honorific offices could bring terrible financial burdens. They maintained huge households, and conspicuous consumption and lavish entertainment was expected. Visiting nobles to England were the responsibility of the English nobility to house and entertain at their own expense. Appointment to a post as a foreign ambassador required the ambassador to maintain a household of as many 100 attendants. Most of Queen Elizabeth’s council, chief officers in the counties came from the noble families. They were expected to serve in an office, such as being an ambassador to a foreign country, at their own expense of course.
The Gentry class included knights, squires, gentlemen, and gentlewomen who did not work with their hands for a living. Their numbers grew during Queen Elizabeth’s reign and became the most important social class in England. Wealth was the key to becoming a part of the gentry class. This class was made of people not born of noble birth who by acquiring large amounts of property became wealthy landowners. The rise of the gentry was the dominant feature of Elizabethan society. They essentially changed things, which launched out new paths whether at home or overseas, provided leadership and spirit of the age, who gave it character and did its work during this era. The gentry were the solid citizens of Elizabethan England. Francis Drake, the famous explorer and Sir Walter Raleigh, who led the way to the English colonization of America were of the gentry class. Two of the queen’s chief ministers, Burgley and Walsingham were products of the gentry. Francis Bacon, the great essayer and philosopher also came from this class. The gentry were the backbone of Elizabethan England. They went to Parliament and served as justices of the Peace. They combined the wealth of the nobility with the energy of the sturdy peasants from whom they had sprung.
The Tudor era saw the rise of modern commerce with cloth and weaving leading the way. The prosperous merchant class emerged from the ashes of the Wars of the Roses. The prosperity of the wool trade led to a surge in building and the importance cannot be overstated. Shipping products from England to various ports in Europe and to the New World also became a profitable business for the merchants. Prices for everyday food and household items that came from other countries increased as the merchants gained a monopoly on the sales of all goods under the pretence it would benefit the country where it really benefited the pocket of the merchants.
This was the “middling” class who saved enough to live comfortably but who at any moment, through illness or bad luck be plunged into poverty. This class included the farmers, tradesmen and craft workers. They took their religion very seriously and could read and write. This class of people was prosperous and sometimes their wealth could exceed those of the gentry, but the difference was how they spent their wealth. The yeoman’s were content to live more simply, using their wealth to improve their land and expand it.
The last class of Elizabethan England was the day laborers, poor husbandmen, and some retailers who did not own their own land. Artisans, shoemakers, carpenters, brick masons and all those who worked with their hands belonged to this class of society. In this class we can also put our great swarms of idle serving-men and beggars. Under Queen Elizabeth I, the government undertook the job of assisting the laborers class and the result was the famous Elizabethan Poor Laws which resulted in one of the world’s first government sponsored welfare programs. This era was generally peaceful as the battles between the Protestants and the Catholics and those between the Parliament and the Monarchy had subsided.