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's Defence 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.