The Elizabethan World

The Elizabethan era was a time of great change and upheaval in England. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the country experienced a period of religious reformation, economic growth, and exploration.

Introduction to Elizabethan England

The Elizabethan era was a time of great change and upheaval in England. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the country experienced a period of religious reformation, economic growth, and exploration. The Protestant Reformation had a major impact on the religious landscape of England, and the Queen’s reign was marked by religious tolerance towards Catholics despite the establishment of the Church of England. During this period, England also experienced a period of economic expansion and growth, as the country began to explore new markets and trading opportunities. 

This period also saw the establishment of the colonial East India Company, which would become a major force in the global economy. Finally, the Elizabethan era was a time of exploration, as English explorers ventured to the New World and beyond. These explorations would have a lasting impact on the culture and literature of England, and Shakespeare was no exception. For example, in his epic poem ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, Carribean colonialism is referenced as a metaphor for sexually oppressed women. By the time Tarquin has finished with her, ““like a late-sack’d island, [she] vastly stood”.

Theater laws in early modern England

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, theater was not officially sanctioned by the government and was, in fact, considered a criminal activity. This was due to the fact that the Church of England had declared all forms of theater to be immoral and a threat to public order. Despite this, theater flourished in the period, with the majority of performances taking place in the open air. This was due to the fact that the authorities accepted that they were unable to enforce the theoretical ban on theater and so, it was allowed to continue.

The situation changed during the reign of King James I, who was a great supporter of theater. He granted a royal patent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which allowed them to perform in the newly-built Globe Theatre. However, all plays had to be run past government censors, meaning that many plays had Royalist messages.

This was a major turning point for theater in England, as it gave the profession a certain level of legitimacy and allowed it to flourish. This period also saw the emergence of some of the greatest playwrights of the time, including William Shakespeare. Thus, it can be seen that the legal status of theater in Elizabethan and Jacobean England had a major impact on the development of the art form.

“The purpose of playing[…] is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to Nature” – Hamlet

The popularity of theater in Shakespeare's lifetime

In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, theater was a popular form of entertainment and was enjoyed by people from all social classes. The popularity of theater was due in part to the fact that it was relatively inexpensive and accessible to all. Theaters were often located in the poorer areas outside the London city walls, and tickets were affordable even for those on a limited budget. This meant that theater was accessible to people from all walks of life, and it was not seen as an activity that was only for the wealthy.

Theatre was also seen as a way to express social and political opinions, and it was often used as a platform for veiled criticism. For example, in ‘Measure for Measure’, Shakespeare criticizes heavy handed policing as a reaction to new laws in London. Instead, Shakespeare asks his audiences to “condemn the fault and not the actor of it”.

This meant that theater was seen as a powerful tool for social change and was embraced by many people. Theater was also seen as a form of education, as it allowed people to explore different ideas and themes. This meant that theater was seen as a valuable tool for learning and understanding the world around them.

Religion in Shakespeare's lifetime

The Elizabethan and Jacobean eras were a time of great religious and political controversy. The Reformation had taken hold in England, and the Church of England was established as the official religion. This caused a great deal of tension between those who supported the Church of England and those who were loyal to the Catholic Church. This importance of the Church is shown in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, where the friar serves as an important go-between.

“The devil can cite scripture for his purpose” – The Merchant of Venice

Additionally, the country was divided between those who supported older, medieval-style monarchy and those who wanted more modern systems of government. These tensions were reflected in the works of Shakespeare, who often wrote about the struggles of his time. For example, in ‘Julius Caesar’, the tensions between individual and collective power are explored.

The religious and political controversies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras had a profound impact on the works of Shakespeare. Through his works, Shakespeare was able to show the world the consequences of these divisions and the importance of understanding and respecting each other’s beliefs.

Early modern drama

The Elizabethan and Jacobean eras saw a flowering of literature and culture, with a particular focus on the theater. The popularity of the theater during this period was due to the patronage of the court and the development of the professional theater companies. The plays of the time were often based on classical sources, like how Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is based on Ovid’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. However, they also explored contemporary issues such as politics, religion, and morality. 

The works of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson were some of the most influential of the period. These writers explored the human condition, often in a humorous or satirical manner, and their works are still studied and performed today. The works of these writers also had a profound influence on the development of the English language, with many of their phrases and expressions still in use today.

“What a piece of work is man? How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties … and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” – Hamlet

The intellectual climate of Shakespeare's lifetime

The Elizabethan world was a vibrant and exciting place, with a variety of influential figures in the arts and politics. Many of these figures were contemporaries of William Shakespeare, and it is likely that he interacted with them in some way. One of the most influential figures of the time was Francis Bacon, a philosopher and statesman who wrote extensively on the sciences, politics, and literature. Bacon was a great admirer of Shakespeare’s work and wrote a number of essays praising his plays, especially Shakespeare’s shunning of the revenge doctrine in ‘Hamlet’. 

Another important figure was the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. He was a patron of the arts and a close friend of Shakespeare, and it is likely that he provided financial support for some of his works. This led to Shakespeare dedicating his poem ‘Venus and Adonis’ to the Earl in 1603. Southampton was also a great admirer of the playwright, and wrote a number of poems and letters praising his work, leading some scholars to speculate that they engaged in a romantic relationship.

Marriage and gender in early modern England

The Elizabethan era was a time of great change in many aspects of life, including ideas about love, marriage, gender and sexuality. 

“Frailty, thy name is woman” – Hamlet

During this period, the traditional view of marriage as a union between a man and a woman was challenged, with King James being rumored to have engaged in a series of homosexual relationships. Moreover, the concept of marriage for love rather than financial stability was becoming increasingly popular. This was reflected in the literature of the time, with many authors exploring the idea of love in their works. For example, Shakespeare explored romance against the wishes of parents in ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

“I would not wish any companion in the world but you.” – The Tempest

His plays often feature characters who challenge traditional gender roles and explore the complexities of love. For example, in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Beatrice and Benedict begin as enemies but bond over the common interests.

In his comedies, Shakespeare often uses the conventions of romantic love to create humorous situations, while his tragedies often explore the darker side of love, such as the pain of unrequited love and the consequences of betrayal.

Theatrical conventions

The theatrical conventions of Elizabethan England were quite different from those of today. At the time, the audience was expected to be an active participant in the performance, and the actors relied heavily on their reactions to shape the performance. 

“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – As You Like It

The plays were often performed in the open air, with the audience standing around the stage, and the actors had to be able to project their voices to the back of the crowd. The plays were also highly physical, with actors often engaging in sword fights and other stunts.

“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” – Twelfth Night

The plays were also heavily reliant on stock characters, such as the fool, the villain, and the hero. These characters were often used to represent certain aspects of society, and their actions and words were used to comment on the issues of the day. Shakespeare was able to use these characters to great effect, creating complex and nuanced characters that could represent different sides of an issue. His use of these conventions helped to create some of the most memorable characters in literature.

Elizabethan audiences

Theaters were a popular form of entertainment in Elizabethan England, and the public had a great appetite for plays and performances. Theaters were often built in the outskirts of towns and cities, and the public would flock to them to watch the latest plays. The plays were often based on classical stories, and the audience would be familiar with the plot and characters. Shakespeare weaponized this by altering these tropes and subverting expectations.

Theaters were also a place of social gathering, and the audience would often be made up of people from all walks of life. 

The audience was also a source of inspiration for the playwrights, as they could observe the reactions of the audience and use them to create more engaging and entertaining plays. Shakespeare was inspired by this when in ‘Hamlet’ he includes a play within the play.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” – As You Like It

Tropes of the early modern theater

The Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical tropes were a major influence on the works of William Shakespeare. These tropes were used to create a sense of drama and tension in the plays, and were often used to explore the complexities of human emotion. One such trope was the use of soliloquy, a monologue which was used to explore the inner thoughts and feelings of characters. This allowed the audience to gain a deeper understanding of the characters and their motivations. For example, in ‘Macbeth’, Lady Macbeth uses a soliloquy to expose her naked ambition.

“Ambition should be made of sterner stuff” – Julius Caesar

Another trope was the use of irony, which was used to create a sense of dramatic tension and to explore the complexities of human relationships. For example, in ‘Hamlet’, the titular character responds sarcastically to his uncle to avoid committing direct treason against the King.

By using these tropes, Shakespeare was able to explore the Elizabethan and Jacobean world in a unique and powerful way.

Spectacle in the early modern theater

The Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical tropes were also used to create a sense of spectacle and entertainment. This suspension of disbelief was achieved through the use of music, costumes, and set design.

“And by the strength of our illusion, shall draw him onto his confusion” – Macbeth

Music was used to create a sense of atmosphere and to heighten the emotions of the audience. In the area above Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, known as ‘heaven’, orchestral players would create an atmosphere matching the dramatics.

Costumes were used to create a sense of grandeur and to emphasize the importance of the characters. Set design was used to create a sense of realism and to create a believable world for the audience to experience. By using these theatrical tropes, Shakespeare was able to create a unique and powerful theatrical experience for his audience.

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