How did the Elizabethan era influence Shakespeare?
If every playwright in Shakespeare’s time aspired, as he did, to paint a portrait of an age in their works, his would have been the Mona Lisa, leaving the most lasting impression on generations to come and at the same time, one of the world’s most baffling mysteries. Surely it is no coincidence that the world’s most celebrated dramatist would’ve lived during the time when one of the world’s most powerful rulers in history reigned. Or was it?
How much influence from the Elizabethan era was infused into Shakespeare’s plays? Especially since it was a time of religious reformation and fluctuating political relations, in which England was very much in the thick of. The events and personalities of the Elizabethan age helped Shakespeare create a vivid and colorful world to build his plays on, and in return, Shakespeare’s genius helped to define this pinnacle of English history. To best understand Shakespeare, it is crucial to understand the age in which he lived and worked.
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Defining Elizabethan era
The Elizabethan era was characterized by a renascent interest in the arts, long forgotten because of the many years of turmoil and political unrest that preceded it. Most notably was the War of the Roses, in which the two Houses of Lancaster and York fought over possession of the English crown until finally the Lancastrians were defeated. However, their victory was short-lived for it was soon snatched away by the Duke of Gloucester, the same duke that legend say murdered two young princes in the Tower of London.
He is also known as Richard III. In the end, Henry VII defeated him in Bosworth, which heralded the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. This royal ruling house, reigning for over a century, was able to catapult England from its indigent and inferior international standing as just a pawn between the two powerhouses of the era, Spain and France, to a proud and confident nation, greatly in part to Queen Elizabeth’s brilliant tactical diplomacy and strong foreign policies. At the same time, a religious reformation was taking place in England.
The previous two monarchs before Elizabeth had failed to establish a fair compromise for both the Protestants and Catholics of England; Edward VI, the first heir after Henry VIII, had inherited the Protestant stance of his father and was constantly at odds with the Catholics. Mary, the second to take the throne after Edward’s short reign and Elizabeth’s stepsister, wanted to revert England to Catholicism and utilized drastic measures in an attempt to do so. Part of her father’s reformation program was seizing all ecclesiastical holdings and selling them to the middle class.
This gained him support from the newly made landowner bourgeoisie, who were against Mary’s rule for it would mean they would have to give up their property. When Elizabeth rose to the throne, she saw the disputes and in a decisive move, chose an ambiguous stance over religious matters, although she had a slight leaning towards the Anglican Church. Elizabeth adopted the title of Supreme Governor Etc. , allowing people to append whatever the saw fit at the end. Because of her lenity toward the state religion, the Dutch, German and French flocked to England because they were being persecuted in their own countries.
Shakespeare himself, during his time in England, lodged with a Huguenot family, who were skilled Calvinist craftsmen from France. His parents were ardent Catholics who probably brought up their son with the same principles and teachings, but because of Edward V’s rule and the Reformation, the authority of the Catholic Church in Stratford diminished as all of its property was annexed and the local town government was replaced with rule by the middle class. He brought up his own daughter as a Protestant, but it is never clear which religious beliefs Shakespeare personally held.
Because of his upbringing and the Reformation, which probably heightened his sensitivity toward religious subjects, themes like atonement and redemption have been imparted into some of his plays. Some people believed that Shakespeare was a Catholic because of the references to Catholicism he used in his dramas. An English student from Calvin College writes that, “Several themes that are only Catholic also can be incurred throughout his works. For example, Shakespeare, at times, used the word holy in the sacramental sense that Catholics used it.
Characters in his plays showed devotion to various saints. They also blessed themselves with the sign of the cross. Shakespeare incorporated references to Purgatory into some of his plots… [His] upbringing certainly came into play in his familiarity of these subject. ” (Brydon). It is true that Shakespeare did have all of those references and signs of Catholicism in his plays, it should also be remembered that what a playwright instills in his characters does not necessarily reflect what he himself believes.
Elizabethan era religious beliefs
In any case, because the values and beliefs of the Protestant and Catholic religions were not extremely different, it would have been easy for Shakespeare to cater to both without showing any specific preference towards one or the other. Theologically speaking, they do have different doctrines and leaders, but in the context of Shakespeare’s plays, both religions have a God, Bible, and other foundational values. His play, Measure for Measure, is based on the themes of morals and justice.
He sets his characters into contemplating some tough ethical issues, which could be applied to both Protestantism and Catholicism. Another student from the same Calvin College explores the religious aspects of the play, starting with the title, Measure for Measure, which expresses a “concept of justice… interpreted Biblically as ‘an eye for an eye’ or with the concept of returning good for evil. ” (Togtman). The Duke, incognito amongst the characters as a friar, “represents Christ in that he lives among his people as a ‘savior in disguise’. And also, “two of the characters in the play, Claudio and Angelo, must seek reparation for their sins of immorality. ” Whether or not Shakespeare himself was a Protestant, Catholic, both, or an atheist, as some have suggested, the Reformation was a fitting background on which to build some his plays with more religious undertones on. Unlike the conflicting views of the Reformation, a generally agreed-upon view of the universe adopted by the people of the Elizabethan era was the natural order of things.
This, known as the Great Chain of Being (Bleck), dictated that everything in the universe had its place. Everything, from the elements to the angels, had a place in this hierarchy of life. The bottom was composed of the elements and plants and minerals. Animals came next for they had not only existence and growth, but passion as well. Mankind is placed above the beasts for he had the power of reason. The soul of man and the angels’ act as intercessors between the earthly, secular world and the realm of the divine.
On the top of this hierarchy was God, who not only possessed the qualities that man had and the intuition of the angels, but more. Shakespeare incorporated this system into his play, and many times, his characters either fall in line with this Chain of Being, or they violate the order, causing tragedy to ensue. Almost all of the “serious” relationships he crafted for the characters in his play follow this order or are punished for disrupting the order; the serious relationships being ones that actually carry on the plot and are not just there to get the audience to chuckle.
For example, in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the Queen of Fairies, Titania, is put under a spell in which she falls madly in love with the first creature she sees upon waking up. This turns out to be a simple weaver, Nick Bottom, who had his head turned into that of a donkey! Her infatuation with him is used as a comic device by Shakespeare and is not really a relationship that will survive to the end of the play, since it violates the laws of the chain of being, a grandiose Queen of Fairies having an affair with a common weaver and catering to his every whim.
In the end of the play, all the mishaps and mistakes of the night have been set straight, and the Queen of Fairies reconciles with Oberon, the King of Fairies. Even the pair of lovers who were caught in a complicated love triangle before have found happiness with each other. As a result of this harmony and balance, the play ends on a high note with much celebrating and festivity and all the characters live happily ever after.
It should also be observed that the “serious” relationships Shakespeare creates are all neatly categorized by class and prominence within the cast. The successful relationships that survive to the end of the play are always comprised of characters that have partners within their own class, such as the matches made in the end with Titania and Oberon, Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena. This is also demonstrated in The Merchant of Venice, in how Portia marries Bassanio, a nobleman, and his friend Gratiano marries Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting.
A contrasting view would be the disaster and suffering that Shakespeare bestows on his characters if they do, in fact, upset the order. Macbeth murders his liege and lord, Duncan, the King of Scotland and the devastating effect of this reverberates throughout the rest of the play. The rest of the characters feel its seismic ramifications on the universe as they go on and discuss amongst themselves the strange events that have started occurring; an owl kills a falcon and one of Duncan’s stately and well-trained horses eats another horse.
There are many more examples of this running rampant in Shakespeare’s other works, such as the tragedy that befalls the two young lovers in romeo and juliet when they disobey their parents and the tumultuous times that result when Brutus murders Caesar. Living during the English Renaissance meant a renewed interest in the Latin and Greek classics. In many of his plays, Shakespeare has incorporated pagan themes and characters. Texts like Venus and Adonis, Julius Caesar, and the Rape of Lucrece all have classical setting and characters.
As a schoolboy, Shakespeare would’ve studied the works of three Roman historians: Ovid, Livy and Plutarch, which he drew on extensively from. Because of the renewed interest in classical themes, it is no wonder that Shakespeare has such a strong classical basis in some of his plays. Borrowing themes from Plutarch, Shakespeare crafted Antony and Cleopatra. The poetry of the play resembled that of Plutarch’s translator, Sir Thomas North, so much that some have suspected plagiarism. Nevertheless, the emphasis Shakespeare places on Cleopatra and the focus she receives after Antony dies is enough to differentiate him from his source.
A Midsummer’s Night Dream is set in Athens, and one of the major stories in the play is centered around the bumbling mechanicals hurrying to put on their version of “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” as entertainment for the Duke of Athens’ wedding. This play is the inspiration that Shakespeare most likely used to write Romeo and Juliet, as it is also the tale of a pair of young lovers who, going against their parents’ will, fall in love and attempt to escape together but wind up in a double suicide as a result of a misunderstanding.
The story of Pyramus and Thisbe was originally from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who wrote it some 1,500 years before. Another thing is that Shakespeare frequently used the archetypal tragic hero, a staple persona within classical literature described by Socrates as “that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity but by some error or frailty…” (Daniel 739). Two of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, Macbeth and King Lear, both contain a tragic hero as their main character.
Macbeth’s downfall is caused by his paranoia and avarice, while King Lear’s fault is not realizing the genuine love his youngest daughter Cordelia has for him, but instead, lapping up the sugarcoated sweet talk tantalizingly fed to him by his sycophant eldest daughters, who were really just after his kingdom. All through Macbeth and King Lear, the women that Shakespeare has portrayed are not the helpless damsels in distress that were ubiquitous in typical Medieval and Renaissance literature.
Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (The Courtier), written in 1528, was a handbook for society, part of which dictated that women should strive to please the man. The romantic chivalrous knights in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) further stipulated that women were weak and always in peril. In contrast to this stereotype of women, Lady Macbeth is the proponent of all of her husband’s heinous deeds, manipulating him and mocking his lack of masculine toughness when his conscience intervenes.
The daughters of King Lear certainly were not subservient to their father and were also able to influence their husbands into their sway. What might’ve contributed to this view of independent women may have been the fact that Queen Elizabeth was reigning at the time, and her superb political talents and skills may have influenced Shakespeare into creating strong female characters in his plays. Elizabeth was a cunning and wise leader, who often upstaged the men who would have dominated her.
The empire she built from the ground up caused the male rulers of two of the most powerful countries, France and Spain, to fear her. In 1588, she even defeated the mighty Spanish Armada. Her father’s many wives and affairs probably conveyed in her, at an early age, an unromantic view of love, if such a thing even existed for her. She never married, dying a virgin queen, because she was confident about her skills and felt she would rule better alone than being controlled by some intruding foreign prince. With this kind of monarch, Shakespeare has created numerous memorable females in his dramas.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Katharine is a spirited and hot-tempered young woman who refuses to marry. When forced into a marriage with the irreverent Petruchio, she rebels against him. Portia from The Merchant of Venice is an intellectual noblewoman who single-handedly saves her friends by impersonating a male lawyer. Although Shakespeare does restrict his characters in this way (female lawyers were unheard of in Elizabethan England), many of his characters are able to breach the regulations set by society and triumph in her own right.
In this way, Shakespeare was able to create fresh and appealing characters inspired by leading ladies such as Queen Elizabeth without having to be too controversial and radical by disconcerting society’s place for women at the time. In conclusion, many of Shakespeare’s tales may have been set in places quite unlike that of Elizabethan England. After a cursory glance over the settings used in his works, one could even tentatively conclude that his influences and inspiration originated from everywhere except from Elizabethan England.
In fact, not one of his plays have ever been set in the context of his own time period, except for The Merry Wives of Windsor, and even today the integrity of that play is doubted. In spite of this, it is evident, even from just reading one of his works, that his sources and influences were indeed rich with the flavor of the Elizabethan era. Ivor Brown’s book, Shakespeare in His Time presents a compelling view of how Shakespeare viewed his own craft through a passage in Hamlet, in which the Prince of Denmark is giving some advice to a group of actors. …he explained his opinion of ‘the purpose of playing’… He said that one of the actor’s duties was to show ‘the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’… The drama, he further said, is to hold the mirror up to nature… he regarded the stage as both making and recording history. The drama was not just happening in a void or as a piece of entertainment unconnected with the nation’s way of life” (Brown 10).
Brown suggests that through this passage, Shakespeare himself was voicing his own views on the very essence and nature of theater; that an actor should not just act for entertainment, but to reflect the “very age and body of the time”. He then continues on to suppose that was what Shakespeare strived to do in his plays, which one can see was very well his goal from the ways that the personalities of Elizabethan England provided rich ideas for underlying character development and the circumstances as subtle backdrops.
He didn’t just merely reflect an era in his works, for any good chronicler in his time could go and achieve the same effect, but he painted the portrait of an age in his dramas. This helped define the Elizabethan era as one of England’s most glorious and triumphant periods, and once again reestablish the fact that Shakespeare is one of the most celebrated literary geniuses of all time.
Written by Ann Jennalie Cook (2008)