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The Elizabethan Era (1558-1603) Jacobean Era (1603-1625)

____________William Shakespeare ______________________________ Macbeth (1606) ______


 Shakespeare's play bridge/span Queen Elizabeth's reign and James's I

 age of international expansion (mostly naval)
 Era of the Protestant Reformation (John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin)
They created a schism within Western Christianity by protesting the doctrines, rituals, and
leadership of the ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church.
The RCC responded w/ a counter-reformation spearheaded by the Jesuits

 The Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604), which resulted in the defeat of the Spanish Armada
and the supremacy of the British fleet. (Francis Drake was her main commander)
 This brought about a great sense of national pride.
 It was an era of great international expansion through trade (esp. transatlantic trade to the
Americas, West Africa and India), and an era of great economic prosperity and peace.
 It was also an age of political conspiracies as Catholics tried to kill or overthrow Queen
Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.

(From The New Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. 2: The Age of Shakespeare. ed. Boris
Ford, London, Penguin: 1982).

Part I: The Social Setting

 Europe in the 16th C was dominated by kings, and culture, moulded by the Church of Rome.
But the Middle Ages in this sense came to an end in England w/the Reformation of Henry
VIII (1529-39), and afterwards, when Elizabeth became Queen, the Church of England
remained national, Protestant and with the monarch as supreme governor.

 Thus, the new literature of Elizabeth's reign was centred on the Crown.
 A new kind of aristocracy arose that helped the Tudors govern more effectively.
Administration and diplomacy called for a class of educated, landed magistrates (merchants,
lawyers, yeomen), and educated gentry learned, wealthy and willing to serve the crown.

 The Renaissance in England was thus bound up with the consolidation of the Tudor regime.

 By Shakespeare's lifetime (1564-1616), a gentleman of any ambition needed some

accomplishment in languages and literature (birth of a new humanist culture: Roman &
Mediterranean settings, character studies of princes, new vocabulary of poets w/ classical or
foreign words and references).

 Besides the Humanism of universities and the Court, was the persistence of popular customs
of speech and thought and entertainment rooted in the communal life of medieval towns and

 Shakespeare's theatre is addressed to a mixed public, more trained in listening than in

reading, and is supreme is expressing sensation and the outward, demonstrative aspects of
feeling. It tends continually towards a super abundant eloquence.

 A tradition of entertainment in the form of festival or pageantry – communal celebration of

communal events-- accounts for many prominent features of Elizabethan plays.

 And the central theme of Elizabethan literature is the clash between individuals and the
claims of social order.
 Prosperity depended on foreign trade and all the main events of the reign were connected
with the rise of merchant capital (such as the long duel w/Spain, the raids on Spanish
treasures, the expansion of British trade to all four continents)
 The realm abounded in riches: people purchased and ate meat, drunk, feasted, they bought
better apparel and new buildings were erected. This implies a rising standard of living for
many, a thriving atmosphere in which newly built theatres could prosper.

 The rise of capitalism affected society in two contrasting ways. It strengthened the
monarchy, especially against Catholicism, and by such means as the Puritan sermon, the
printing press, the commercial playhouse, it helped knit together a new national

 The individual and the order of nature: the Tudors inherited from the medieval world-
view a coherent system of beliefs bearing on social order. The Creation consisted of
numberless but linked 'degrees' of being, from the four physical elements up to the pure
intelligence of celestial beings. The whole universe was governed by divine will; Nature was
God's instrument, the social hierarchy a product of Nature.

 Subordination and unity were the natural rules for families and corporations and, above all,
for the state, a 'body politic' which should be subject to a single head. But at the same time,
the order founded on Nature existed for man's benefit, and man as such was an integral part
of it.

 Man's god-like qualities had been depraved by the Fall, and he was constantly visited by
divine wrath –manifest, for example, in wars, plagues, even thunderstorms. Yet he could
enjoy a civilized happiness, provided that he treated this world as preparation for the next,
and kept his body subject to his soul. This was the main task of human reason, enjoined by
Nature and Revelation alike.

 The need to maintain a regulated order, then, is dictated by man's place in the universe, and
is stressed during the Renaissance with the notion of order conveyed by the terms “cicil”
and “civility” (which implied good breeding, sobriety of men associated in well-governed
cities and corporations). (From here, then, stems the notion of civilization, and civil servant).

 The Renaissance spanned the period roughly from the 15th C to the 17th C. It began in
Florence, Italy, w/the Medici, and then spread unevenly across Europe. The Renaissance is
said to be a bridge between the Middle Ages and Modernity. It was an age of intellectual
inquiry, the humanist method in study (based on observation, Galileo Galilei, Copernicus),
and searched for realism and human emotion in art (linear perspective was developed in
painting, for example, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael). Scholars studied
classical Latin and Greek, Cicero, Seneca, Petrarch, Neo-Platonism), plus an interest in the
vernacular languages, as learning became more widespread with the invention of the
printing press.

 Renaissance theorists held that art was, or should be, a construction of human reason,
continuing and completing the work of Nature; and so too with their views of organised

 In Britain, a much celebrated homily from the Protestant church run thus: “such subjects as
are disobedient or rebellious against their princes, disobey God and procure their own
damnation” (1571, Church Homily).

 In terms of the wars of religion, the next debate of the time was the court affirmation of
James I –'No bishop, no king'--, and the disputed that followed.
The Elizabethan literary Renaissance (L.G. Salingar, ch.2, The New Pelican Guide to English
Literature, Vol. 2: The Age of Shakespeare. ed. Boris Ford, London, Penguin: 1982)

 If Shakespeare's plays and poems are the monument of a remarkable genius, they are also
the monuments of a remarkable age. (genius + context: Renaissance & Elizabethan England).
So we cannot here simply speak of 'his genius.' Context plays a fundamental role.

 The greatness of Shakespeare's achievement was largely made possible by the work of his
immediate predecessors: Spenser and Sidney (mastery of verse), Marlowe and the
University wits (theatrical management of character and situation), Jonson's satires, Francis
Bacon in the philosophy of Science, and the Renaissance confidence in the power of human
reason to interpret Man and Nature (also present much later in Gothic fiction), and in the
dignity of modern English as a literary medium, as well as previous drama such as the
Morality plays.

 Behind the new literature was the training in classical imitation of a long line of humanist
scholars and translators, reaching back to the time of Erasmus at the beginning of the

 Humanism could flourish in the popular theatre because it was attached both to long-
established traditions and to powerful emergent sentiments of nationalism and
inidividual self-consciousness.

 The underlying theme of a great part of Elizabethan literature is a conflict between

this demonstrative individualism and the traditional sense of a moral order. This
conflict is projected on to the stage.

 Humanism alone, however, was not the source of vitality in Shakespeare's theatre. Its
vitality was also due to its broad contact with popular entertainment and popular
thinking, quickened by the Reformation.

 The Reformation contributed immensely insofar as the English language was sifted in
its Anglo Saxon and its Latin elements for fitness to render accurately the dignity of the
Bible, and at the same time to be understood even by vulgar people. Thus, the Reformation's
Authorized Version of the Bible was a decisive achievement in its capacity to combine
allegory, words and idioms that were both close to everyday speech yet which retained
some figurative subtlety.
 The theatre was the point of closest contact between humanism and popular taste. The
great majority of plays were written for the commercial theatres (as opposed to the
court or the university), whose repertory the Court shared, and were attended both by
the highest born and the lowest born who could afford to pay a penny. This 'popular'
audience saved the drama from academic stiffness and preserved its essential bias
towards entertainment, towards a high-spirited entertainment which was also a
criticism of life.

 It was these people who made Shakespeare a success, not only with the 'wiser' sort at
the universities, but with 'all', esp. the 'vulgar' element. This relation to all social
classes was vital to Shakespeare's work, both practically and artistically, as there was
something for everybody, lofty speeches, but also clowns and buffoons.

 Literary playwrights borrowed freely from popular sources, from folk traditions as
such, or from material already familiar through older plays, sermons, ballads, or
pamphlets. From the double tradition of the Mystery and the Morality play came stock
characters like the comic Vice and Herod the tyrant.

 In its exhibitions of spectacular violence, its loose and episodic plotting, and its mingling of
comedy with tragedy, the drama followed popular taste, not classical instruction. But
grammar schools and universities had trained their students in rhetoric with the aid of
Seneca, thus, Seneca's Ten Tragedies joined the broad stream of Elizabethan translations.

 The Senecan material of Hamlet and the major Jacobean tragedies had also been influenced
by the Spanish Tragedy (1589) of Thomas Kyd, with its clamorous ghost and its public and
gory revenges. The Spanish Tragedy is an Elizabethan tragedy written by Thomas Kyd
between 1582 and 1592. Highly popular and influential in its time, The Spanish Tragedy
established a new genre in English theatre, the revenge play or revenge tragedy. Its plot
contains several violent murders and includes as one of its characters a personification of
Revenge. The Spanish Tragedy was often referred to (or parodied) in works written by other
Elizabethan playwrights, including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Christopher
Marlowe. Many elements of The Spanish Tragedy, such as the play-within-a-play used to
trap a murderer and a ghost intent on vengeance, appear in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

 Among the university wits, the most influential writer was Christopher Marlowe (born
same year as Shakespeare -1564), which stands apart not only for his vastly superior force of
imagination but for philosophical depth. He was a great influence on Shakespeare, as he
incorporated like no other the Senecan revenge theme (Marlowe, however, died early on in
1593). His greatest play was The Tragic History of Dr. Faustus, and also well-known was
Tamburlaine the Great, The Massacre at Paris, and The Jew of Malta. (all his plays were
controversial, and he was stabbed to death in the street, after having been arrested for
 The main themes behind Shakespeare's histories are the main themes of Tudor political
thought ---kingship, the sinfulness of rebellion against God's deputy on earth, the
problems arising from royal misgovernment. The main public events of Shakespeare's
youth were the plots against Elizabeth (coming from Catholics, like Mary, the Queen of
Scots), and the commercial-religious war with Spain.

 Influences: Wilson's Art of Rhetoric (1533, a work on logic and rhetoric), Edmund
Spenser's The Shepherd's Calendar (1579, a pastoral poem, depicts the life of a shepherd
through the 12 months of the year), Sidney's Arcadia, a romance in five books or “acts,”
partly prose romance, partly classical drama. The work is often called "tragicomic" for its
combination of a "serious" high plot centering on the princes and Duke Basilius's household
and a "comic" low plot that centers on the steward Dametas's family), E. Spenser's The
Faire Queene (an epic but allegorical poem that folows several knights in an examination of
several virtues), Donne's songs and satires, and Francis Bacon's Essays of 1597 (in the
humanist tradition).

 The triump of humanism, however, involved a profound conflict of cultural standards; for
'civility,' esp. in its Puritan setting meant reducing the 'barbarous' influence of folk
tradition and popular taste. Popular entertainments and 'idle pastime' in general were the
targets of moral condemnation by Puritan. Literary decorum (consistency and fitness of
style, formal conventions being observed and symmetrical proportion), in particular,
objected to popular taste in comedy on both moral and aesthetic grounds; as it
contradicts classical decorum by 'mingling kings and clowns,' and it is morally dangerous in
preferring gross laughter to intellectual delight.

 Elizabethan literature is a literature of the spoken word, and an important aspect of this
situation was the popular enjoyment of vigorous speech and the conscious artifice of
eloquence. But in terms of style, rhetoric is all important.

 The Elizabethan poet is continually reasoning, persuading, demonstrating analogies,

and logical connections, even his imagery and his rhythm are marshalled into
argument. The aim of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination. Hyperbole, antithesis,
and a number of oether rhetorical devices are all used to 'amplify' and 'illustrate' and
argument, and this must be done 'aptly' by the aid of reasoning, not by mere agitation
or intensity of feeling. Imagery is concerned with raising the mind to a more high and
lofty concern, rather than being simply there for ornamentation. So, rhetoric actually
moves the argument forward, in terms of plot, characterisation and argument or

 The crisis of the early 17thC was a far-reaching conflict of values ---btwn the religious
traditions of the Middle Ages and the secular bias of the Renaissance, btwn values
relating to the social order and values centred on the individual. This is a key theme in
Macbeth. (p.98)

 In general, during this period, tragedies were regarded as a variant of the medieval Morality
play, by which tragedy was the story of a fall from high state.

 The chief mark of tragedy was held to be its passionate and weighty eloquence. Thus
Jonson speaks of 'truth of argument, dignity of persons, and gravity and height of
elocution”. These are the chief elements for moral instruction and amplification. The
horrors of action, and the choice of exalted or remote protagonists are meant, in part at least,
to 'aggravate' or amplify the moral theme. The characters are both tyrants and high examples
of Everyman.

 The importance of poetic imagery, the repetition of poetic symbols and the general
handling of language mould the imaginative structure as much as action and character.
Imagery connected with storms or shipwreck, with music, with jewellery, etc, takes part in
the action throughout Shakespeare's writing; there are cumulative metaphors of disease in
Hamlet, comparisons btwn men and beasts in Lear, references to blood and sleep in
Macbeth, etc.

 A Shakespeare play is a closely knit stage poem, unified in 'personification, atmospheric

suggestion, and direct poetic-symbolism. It's like an expanded metaphor, with some
resemblance to the Medieval Morality play (such as the appeal to universal
significance) but also with the idea that both aspects of life, the personal and the
political, the idea of man 'as a little kingdom' and the state as a 'body politic' both
aspects are always treated together, while beyond them the heavens themselves
participate in the death of princes.

 Shakespeare's attachment to the popular (Medieval) tradition is also seen in his

treatment of the hero is Everyman, and he dwells on the 'frailty of greatness', or when
he looks at the prince through the eyes of the clown. In Lear and Macbeth he boldly merges
history into an allegory of Nature ---at once the base of civil order and the chaos
surrounding it. But at the same time, the vivid sense of humanity's uniqueness that burns
through Lear and Macbeth, detaches them from the past and exposes the incompleteness of
the traditional map of Nature. Herein lies the tensions between the medieval outlook still
persisting in Shakespeare and the Renaissance spirit. Shakespeare thus remains a man
of his age, in this tension between two eras.

 However, the frailty of human pride and reason seems more poignant to the
Elizabethans than to Chaucer or the writer of Everyman.
 The characters, as they see themselves and as others see them, are made and remade
by the turns of language, exalting and qualifying, weaving a dense tissue not only within
the play but between the actors and the audience.

 Only Shakespeare could consistently project himself to the inner minds of the people as
distinct individuals, and yet retain a total vision of his world of the theatre and the outer
world as represented.