History 367 Society and Ideas in Shakespeare’s England

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History 367

Society and Ideas in Shakespeare’s England

Syllabus etc.

  • Course description: http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/367/367%20outline.htm

  • Requirements: http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/367/requirements.htm

  • Lecture outlines and readings: http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/367/367%20Schedule.htm

  • Home page: http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/

Click on “Essays and papers” for information on how to do exams and term papers well.


  • Two Midterms (in class 10/11, 11/20)

  • A final (Sunday 12/16, 7:45 AM; place to be announced)

  • Four credit students do a 5-6 page paper due 10/25

  • Honors students do an extra paper, due 12/13

How much are the exams (etc.) worth?

  • 3 credit students: 25% each midterm; 50% final.

  • 4 credit students: term paper 25%; each mid-term 18.75%; final 37.5%.

  • 3 credit honors students: term paper term paper 25%; each mid-term 18.75%; final 37.5%.

  • 4 credit honors students: each term paper 20%; each mid-term 15%; final 30%.

Introduction 01

  • Shakespeare’s Age: strictly April 26 (baptized) 1564-April 23, 1616; April 23 traditionally celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday; it’s also St George’s Day; St George is England’s national saint (though he came from Syria, and died in Turkey around 303); his victory over a dragon is depicted on many English coins, and his cross is the national flag of England.

St George’s Cross: England’s flag

St George and the Dragon 1887

George Noble of Henry VIII (c.1526)

Introduction 02

  • Shakespeare’s Age: more broadly, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and especially the later-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries – when Shakespeare lived.

  • Three main sections to the course: (1) Society and the economy; (2) Ideas, especially of educated people, and especially about society and the state; (3) Popular ideas.

Introduction 03

  • Popular ideas: Shakespeare’s Age saw the decline of a number of widespread popular beliefs, including belief in fairies, and in witches.

  • The persecution of supposed witches peaked in the mid-seventeeth century in the activities of Matthew Hopkins, self-appointed witchfinder general.

  • The last witch hanged in England died in 1685; the last trial was in 1712.

Hopkins’s Discovery of Witches, 1647

Introduction 04

  • Popular belief in astrology also declined in the late seventeenth-century, though it still persists.

  • Why did belief in – and persecution of – witches die out?

  • One possible answer connects the decline of persecution with the Reformation and Protestantism, arguing that Protestants came to link belief in fairies, witches, etc., with Catholic superstition.

  • Another idea points to the rise of science.

Life and Death; lack of hygiene and privacy

  • Little effective waste disposal; towns smelled.

  • Baths ( there were no showers) were a luxury people rarely indulged in; Elizabeth I had a bath once every few weeks; to cover the resulting smell, she put on perfume.

  • Elizabeth’s teeth were black (or missing).

  • In inns, people commonly shared beds with strangers.

  • Even the upper classes lacked privacy; in 1613, James I visited his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frederick the morning after their wedding, and questioned them closely on what they had done in the night.

Monarchs in Shakespeare’s lifetime: Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-25).

Disease and treatment: a flea and a leech

Disease 01

  • Physicians commonly used leeches to draw blood from patients; unclear this helped many.

  • Common and lethal diseases included typhoid, typhus, the great pox (syphilis) and smallpox.

  • Elizabeth nearly died of smallpox in 1562.

  • Sir William Davenant lost his nose as a result of venereal disease; Davenant was a poet and playwright; he became poet laureate in 1638; in the 1640s he was a royalist general in the Civil War. There were rumor he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son (on his way between Stratford and London, Shakespeare stayed at the inn in Oxford run by Davenant’s parents).

Disease 02

  • The mysterious “sweating sickness” (or “English sweat”) struck repeatedly 1485-1551.

  • Not long before Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, England was hit by an influenza epidemic that killed 5-10% of the population (1556-8).

  • The most feared disease was plague; it came in three varieties: septicaemic, pneumonic, and bubonic.

Disease 03

  • Plague first struck England in 1348-9 (the Black Death).

  • It returned at intervals but with diminishing force from then on.

  • A new, virulent strain appeared in 1563.

  • Bad outbreaks occurred – especially in London – in 1592-3, 1603, 1625, and 1665-6.

  • Plague disappeared after 1666.

A consequence of plague?: Shakespeare’s first publication, 1593

Old St Paul’s; Wenceslas Hollar 1656

St Paul’s Churchyard and Shakespeare

St Paul’s, designed by Sir Christopher Wren; built 1675-97.

Disease 04

  • The causes of plague were unknown, but it was clear that it caused high mortality in towns, and in crowded places generally.

  • The rich left town in time of plague.

  • The authorities in London closed the theaters when plague struck.

  • In 1592-4 the theaters were closed; instead of writing plays Shakespeare turned to poetry, writing Venus and Adonis (published 1593) and perhaps other works including some of the Sonnets.

Population 01

  • Despite lethal diseases such as plague, which hit towns more severely than the countryside, London’s population increased dramatically 1500-1700, from 50,000 to over 500,000.

  • The theater thrived in London, because its population had grown large enough and educated enough to supply audiences.

  • The growth of London had important effects on the development of England as a whole.

The theater was just one form of popular entertainment; others included bear- and bull-baiting.

  • Philip Henslowe (d. 1616) was a major theatrical manager; Edward Alleyn (d. 1626) was a leading actor; together they were also Master and Keeper of the King’s Bears (1604); in 1613 Henslowe built the Hope, a theater and a baiting center.

London c. 1560 (published 1572)

London 1676

Population 02

  • The population of England at Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 was about 3 million.

  • At his death in 1616 it was about 4.5 million – and increase of 50% in just over 50 years.

  • After 1616, population continued to increase, reaching 5.25 million by 1656.

  • Then it began to decline slightly, leveling off at about 5 million in the decades up to 1700.

Population, the Economy, and Climate 01

  • The population rose because, despite plague and other diseases, more people were born than died.

  • The economy had difficulty coping with the increased population.

  • One reason for sluggishness in economic (and especially agricultural) productivity was low temperatures.

Population, the Economy, and Climate 02

  • The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries coincided with an especially cold part of the Little Ice Age (LIA).

  • The longest existing monthly temperature series for anywhere in the world is the Central England series (CET) which runs from 1659; it documents the cold conditions of the seventeenth century; 1683-4 had the coldest winter of the past 350 years.

Population, the Economy, and Climate 03

  • The coldest part of the Little Ice Age coincided with the Maunder Minimum (1645-1715) when there was very little sunspot activity.

  • It was not much less cold in Shakespeare’s day; the Thames froze over three times in his lifetime, nine more times in the rest of the seventeenth century, and seven times since then; the last time was in 1814.

  • Londoners sometimes held frost fairs on the frozen river; people opened shops, had parties, played sports, and rode coaches and horses on the Thames.

The Frost Fair of 1683-4 (Thomas Wyke)

Population, the Economy, and Climate 04

  • The first recorded frost fair on the Thames was in 1607-8.

  • On that occasion, people lit coal fires on the iced over river, to warm themselves and passersby.

  • In Coriolanus 1:1:172, Shakespeare refers to “the coal of fire upon the ice”; Coriolanus was probably written in 1608-1609.

  • The last frost fair (so far) was in 1814.

Population, Prices, and Wages 01.

  • Despite the growth of London, and of overseas trade, the English economy was largely agrarian.

  • The most important annual event in most people’s lives was the harvest.

  • The large growth of population in Shakespeare’s time meant more mouths to feed.

  • But despite some agricultural innovations, the economy found it difficult to feed them.

Population, Prices, and Wages 02.

  • Since demand for food increased more quickly than supply, food prices went up.

  • As population increased, demand for industrial goods also went up, but not as sharply as demand for food (people can do without industrial goods if they have to; they cannot do without food).

  • In the sixteenth century, food prices increased fivefold, while the price of manufactured goods doubled.

Prices and Real Wages 1260-1600

Population, Prices, and Wages 03.

  • Prices continued to rise until the middle of the seventeenth century (in 1650 they were about eight times as high as in 1500); then they began to stagnate or gradually fall.

  • Rising prices are fine if your income rises at the same rate as prices.

  • But the income of most people did not keep up with prices; by the 1620s, real wages (wages expressed in terms of buying power) were roughly 40% of what they had been in 1500.

Population, Prices, and Wages 04.

  • Real wages began to rise again in the second half of the seventeenth century, reaching 60% and more of the 1500 level by the end of the century.

  • Thomas Robert Malthus; the Malthusian trap.

  • Though prices rose sharply over the sixteenth century, they sometimes fell for short periods.

  • Long term causes of changes in prices included population change, and the amount of money in circulation; the more money people had, the more they could pay for things, which drove prices up.

A Debased Testoon (Shilling) of Henry VIII, 1544-7.

Money and Coinage

  • Merchant of Venice, 2:7:55-57: “They have in England/ A coin that bears the figure of an angel Stamped in gold”.

  • King John, 1:1:141-3: the Bastard: “my face so thin/ That in mine ear I durst not stick a rose/ Lest men should say “Look where three-farthings goes!”

  • Merry Wives of Windsor, 1:1:141: Slender: “seven groats in mill-sixpences”

The Monetary System

  • £ s d : libra, solidus, denarius;

  • pounds, shillings, pence.

  • £1 = 20s ; 1s = 12d ; £1 = 240d.

  • Crown : 5 shillings.

  • Angel : 8 shillings 1544; 10 shillings 1550-1612, 1619-43; 11 shillings 1612-19.

  • Mark : 13s 4d (not a coin).

  • Sixpence : 6d (half a shilling).

  • Groat: 4d (a third of a shilling).

  • Halfpenny (half a penny); Farthing (a quarter of a penny).

Elizabeth, Fine Sovereign (30s), 1591-5.

James I, Laurel (Pound; 20s), 1619-20.

Henry VIII, Angel, 1513-26 (Archangel Michael)

Elizabeth, Crown (5s), 1601.

Commonwealth Double Crown (10s), 1651.

Edward VI, (Fine) Shilling, 1551-3.

Elizabeth, Milled Sixpence, 1562; (Eloye Mestrel)

Henry VII, Groat (4d), 1504-5.

Elizabeth, Threefarthings, 1561.

Population, Prices, and Wages 05.

  • One cause of the increase of the money supply was the manufacture of debased coins (by debasing the coinage with copper, more coins could be made by the government out of a given quantity of silver/ gold).

  • The Great Debasement (1544-51) fueled inflation; it was not repeated until 1920 (to pay for World War I), and 1946 (to pay for WWII).

Population, Prices, and Wages 05.

  • A second reason why the money suppy increased was the importation of gold and especially silver by the Spanish from Central and South America (esp. the great silver mine of Potosí in Peru/ Bolivia).

  • But long-term rising prices resulted most of all from rising population.

  • The most important factor in short-term price fluctuations was the harvest.

Population, Prices, and Wages 06.

  • Bad harvests meant hunger and high prices; good harvests led to low prices and plentiful food.

  • A run of bad harvests could cause really difficult times, fostering malnutrition, disease, and even starvation.

  • There were bad harvests in 1556-8, 1594-7, and 1621-2.

Population, Prices, and Wages 06.

  • In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2:1:88-114, Titania refers to bad weather, which has destroyed crops and livestock; this is probably about conditions in England in 1594-6, when the play was written.

  • For a small-holding farmer, even worse than a sequence of bad harvests, was a run of poor harvests followed by a superbly good one: the bad harvests got him into debt, the good one ensured he could not get out of it; so he sold the farm – or hanged himself:

  • Macbeth (1606) 2:3: 4-5 refers to “a farmer that hanged himself on th’expectation of plenty”

Population and Poverty

  • High population led to unemployment; some unemployed lived as vagrants or vagabonds.

  • Others took the road to London, in search of work – and often found disease (though London grew greatly, deaths outnumbered births there).

  • The immigrants to London formed the suburbs which now constitute the East End; the accent there is Cockney

Population, poverty, and wealth 01.

  • Population growth, and limited economic resources, meant poverty for many.

  • But the same factors gave opportunities to the wealthy; they could store surplus grain in times of abundance, and sell it when the price was high in times of scarcity.

  • Large landowners also profited from sheep, producing wool, which was turned into cloth; woolen cloth was England’s main export.

Population, poverty, and wealth 02.

  • While the living standards of much of the population fell, the rich grew richer.

  • Many splendid country houses were built.

  • The Spencers made money especially from sheep farming; in 1688 Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, built Althorp palace on the family’s 14,000 acre estate.

  • The Hicks family profited from farming, the cloth trade, and government service, and built Chipping Campden (Gloucestershire), twelve miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Althorp, ancestral home of the Spencer family

Tourism helps keep Althorp going; visit for about $20-25 a day.

Still to be seen on the Althorp estate, the original source of the Spencers’ wealth: sheep.

Chipping Campden Market Hall; built 1627

Cottages built for the poor by the Hicks family, 1612; Chipping Campden.

Economy: industry and mining

  • Cloth production: clothier; domestic industry; piece rates; slump in early 1620s.

  • Building industry.

  • Mining: silver (Wales); tin (Cornwall); lead (Derbyshire); iron (West Midlands); coal (North).

  • Coal transported by sea from Newcastle to London.

1624 Crown of James I with Welsh Plumes.

Authority, obedience, and ideas 01.

  • Widespread poverty; great social inequality; no standing army or professional police force.

  • But little rebellion, and rebellions rarely aimed at radical social change.

  • There were rebellions in 1536, 1549, 1554, 1569; and civil war in 1642-6, 1648.

  • Demands for major social/ political change expressed only late and by few: Levellers; Diggers 1640s.

  • Mary Astell (1666-1731) argues for women’s rights from 1690s.

Mary Astell’s Serious Proposal to the Ladies went through 5 editions 1694-1701.

Authority, obedience, and ideas 02.

  • Why was there not more rebellion/ unrest?

  • Because people believed it was wrong to resist authority.

  • The church supported social hierarchy and condemned disobedience.

  • Bible: Fifth Commandment: Exodus 20:12: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long

Authority, obedience, and ideas 03.

  • St. Paul in Romans 13:1-5: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

  • “ye must needs be subject … for conscience sake.”

Authority, obedience, and ideas 04.

  • Social hierarchy seen as natural:

  • Troilus and Cressida 1:3:85-6, 109-10: “The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre Observe degree, priority, and place … Take but degree away, untune that string, And hark what discord follows.”

  • The Great Chain of Being.

Social Structure

  • Nobles (titled); gentry/ gentlemen/ gentlewomen; gentles (lesser nobility); yeomen; citizens/ burgesses; husbandmen; labourers; vagabonds.

  • Noble titles: duke (duchess); marquess (marchioness); earl (countess); viscount (viscountess); baron (baroness).

  • Baronet (baronetess); from 1611; country gentry; parish gentry.

  • Two Houses of Parliament: Lords, Commons.

Monarchs and Events 01.

  • Tudors: Henry VII (1485-1509): reducing power of great nobles. Humanism; Renaissance.

  • Henry VIII (1509-47): 6 wives; Reformation; crown asserts Supremacy over church.

  • Edward VI (1547-53): boy king; introduction of Protestantism.

  • Mary I (1553-58): restoration of Catholicism; persecution of Protestants as heretics; marriage to Philip of Spain.

Henry VII and Henry VIII

Edward VI and Mary I

Monarchs and Events 02.

  • Elizabeth I (1558-1603): Elizabethan Religious Settlement 1559; Protestantism restored; moderation; ceremonies; opposition from Catholics and puritans; Spanish Armada 1588; Ireland conquered 1603; royal debt.

  • Stuarts: James VI and I (1567/1603-1625); continued puritan and Catholic opposition; Hampton Court Conference 1604; Gunpowder Plot 1605; problems with parliament.

Monarchs and Events 03.

  • Charles I (1625-49). Financial and Religious problems; Arminianism; Forced Loan 1626-7; Petition of Right 1628; Civil War 1642-6, 1648; execution of Charles I 01/30/49.

  • Abolition of monarchy and House of Lords 1649; constitutional experiments 1649-60; Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell 1653-8.

  • Restoration 1660; Charles II (1660-85); James II (1685-88); Glorious Revolution 1688-89.

Elizabeth I and James I

Charles I and Oliver Cromwell

Charles II and James II

Monarchy and Government 01

  • Monarch at center of government; appoints Privy Council, officers of state (who ran central government); Justices of the Peace (J.P.s), Lord Lieutenants, Deputy Lieutenants (who ran county government).

  • Executive and legislative powers not clearly distinguished until 1640s/ 50s.

  • Privy Council (and crown): legislative functions: monarch can veto parliamentary legislation; Councillors often draft bills and manage parliament.

Monarchy and Government 02

  • Privy Council: judicial functions: Star Chamber (Merry Wives 1:1-2: Shallow: “I will make a Star Chamber matter of it”); Court of Requests

  • Executive functions: appointments; licenses (markets etc.); patronage; patrons and clients; “masterless men”; actors/ vagrants.

  • Royal powers = prerogatives; included summoning and dissolving parliament; dispensing people from laws; pardoning;

Star Chamber, Westminster.

Monarchy and Government 03

  • Prerogatives: issuing proclamations; imprisoning without cause shown (to 1628); wardship; purveyance; granting monopolies (e.g. Elizabeth granted monopoly of importing sweet wines to Ralegh and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex; Mompesson and licensing alehouses; soap); controlling foreign policy (making peace and war).

Monarchy and Government 04

  • 3 central institutions potentially limited royal power: the judiciary, parliament, and the church.

  • The judiciary: judges of King’s Bench/ Queen’s Bench; Common Pleas; Exchequer.

  • Judges sat at Westminster, and visited the country on assizes.

  • In theory, judges could interpret law in ways with which monarch disagreed; in practice this was risky, as (until 1688) monarch appointed and could dismiss judges; dismissal of Sir Edward Coke 1616.

Parliament 01

  • Parliament: House of Lords (hereditary titled nobles, and bishops); House of Commons (elected members: knights of the shire and burgesses/ citizens).

  • Younger sons of lords were commoners; lords paid taxes.

  • Laws made (/unmade) by Monarch, Lords, and Commons.

  • Impeachment (to mid-1400s; from 1621).

  • Taxes require parliament’s consent.

Parliament 02

  • House of Lords acts as a court; Commons tries cases involving its own privileges.

  • Monarch had greater control of Lords than of Commons; monarch appointed (Arch-) bishops, and could create new lords temporal (/peers).

  • Franchise: forty shilling freeholders (county);

  • 1600: 400 MPs: representative? Pocket and rotten boroughs; Old Sarum.

Elizabeth meets Parliament 1601

Central Bureaucracy

  • Three seals: Great Seal (Lord Chancellor/ Keeper); Privy Seal (Lord Privy Seal); Signet (Secretary).

  • Exchequer; Lord Treasurer.

  • Wolsey; Lord Chancellor. (John Williams, Lord Keeper; William Juxon, Treasurer)

  • After Reformation gentry/ lawyers replace clergy in high administration.

  • Judges part of royal bureaucracy.

  • Only about 1,000 jobs in central bureaucracy; no state departments of e.g. health, education, environment, foreign affairs.

The Great Seal of Henry VII

Local Government 01

  • No professional army or police force.

  • Justices of the Peace; quarter sessions; expansion of numbers (fivefold in 1500s) and powers; increasingly well educated; universities of Oxford and Cambridge; Inns of Court).

  • Justices of the Peace unpaid volunteers.

  • Monarch appointed people to the commission of the peace (and other commissions) and could dismiss them; but relied on the co-operation of the (county) gentry as a class.

Educational Revolution? (St John’s College, Cambridge; founded 1511)

  • Rising population increased competition for good jobs, e.g. in royal administration; many young men went to university; graduates of St John’s, Cambridge, included William Cecil, Robert Cecil, Sir Thomas Fairfax, Thomas Wentworth, John Williams, and Richard Neile.

Local Government 02

  • State power grew in the course of the 1600s-1700s.

  • But for much of the period 1500-1700 England was lightly taxed, and local decision-making was largely left to locals;

  • People of status below the gentry often held local offices such as jurors (judges of fact and law?) constables and churchwardens;

  • This has led some modern scholars to speak of Elizabethan England as a “monarchical republic”.

The Church 01

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