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For Background, Reading Comprehension

and Vocabulary

Dispensa per gli studenti del corso di

Letteratura Inglese (Lettorato)

Dott. Ewan Glenton



The Elizabethan Age – the period during which Elizabeth I (1558–1603) was England’s ruling
monarch – is often thought of as a golden age in the country’s history. It was the highpoint, for
example, of the English Renaissance, and poetry and literature truly thrived. It was the time of
Elizabethan theatre, when William Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote new, dynamic,
groundbreaking plays. Moreover, the Elizabethan era was one of unprecedented expansion and
exploration abroad, while within England itself, the Protestant Reformation was influencing the
thought and approach of the population as a whole.

It is true that at this time England had a well-organised, centralised, government – mainly resulting
from the reforms of Henry VII and Henry VIII in the first half of the 16th century. Economically,
moreover, the country was beginning to benefit enormously from the new horizons offered by trans-
Atlantic trade. Inevitably, however, the term ‘golden age’ does require some qualification: the rural
working classes (who constituted the vast majority of the population at that time) endured severe,

lasting poverty; the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) was far from successful and economically
debilitating; Elizabethan England had an active role in the slave trade and the repression of Catholic
Ireland; despite the great achievements seen during the Elizabethan era itself, it is worth noting that
the country descended into the Civil War (1642-51) less than forty years after Elizabeth’s death.

The Elizabethan Age is generally recalled more favourably, however – partly because of how it
contrasted with the period before it and the one that was to follow: a brief but colourful interlude of
relative internal peace, between the English Reformation and the conflict between Protestants and
Catholics and between Parliament and the Monarchy that straddled the 17th century. The Protestant-
Catholic divide was settled, for a while at least, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, and
Parliament still lacked the power to effectively challenge the authority of the Monarchy.
Furthermore, England was relatively well-off, in many important respects, compared to other
European countries. The Italian Renaissance, for instance, had faded, stifled by the Peninsula’s
domination by foreign powers. France, meanwhile, had internal religious battles of its own to worry
about, a problem that continued until the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Consequently, and also due to the
fact that the English had been expelled from their last remaining outposts on the continent, the
centuries-long conflict between England and France was in large part suspended for most of the
Elizabethan era.

England’s chief rivals at this time were, of course, the Spaniards: England’s clashes with Spain both
in Europe and in the Americas culminated in the Anglo-Spanish War. Despite the defeat of Philip II

Philip James de Loutherbourg: Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1796)

of Spain’s attempted invasion with the Spanish Armada (1588), England’s fortunes changed for the
worse shortly afterwards, with the disastrous failure of the Drake-Norris expedition to Portugal
(1589). Subsequently, Spain lent its support to Irish Catholics in a damaging rebellion against
English rule, and Spanish forces then inflicted a series of reversals against English offensives both
on land and at sea. Economically speaking, moreover, the consequences of the Anglo-Spanish
conflict were to prove disastrous, as the enormous expenses it incurred were to severely weaken an
economy that, under Elizabeth’s careful leadership, had been so efficiently restored. English
commercial and territorial expansion, in fact, was restricted until the Treaty of London, signed a
year after Elizabeth’s death.

All told, Elizabeth certainly provided the country with a lengthy spell of peace (relatively, or
generally, at least), and increasing overall prosperity. Having inherited a practically bankrupt
nation, her cautious, frugal approach instigated a new sense of economic responsibility. The
founding of the Royal Exchange (1565) – the first stock exchange in England and one of the earliest
in Europe – proved an enormously valuable step for the economic development of England and,
subsequently, for the world in general. Taxes were lower in England than other European countries

at the time, as the economy expanded although the nation’s wealth was undoubtedly distributed
unevenly, there was certainly more money in the state’s coffers at the end of Elizabeth’s reign than
there had been before her accession. And, it was precisely this general peace and prosperity that
allowed the wonderful achievements that are associated with the era – with the ‘golden age’ of
Elizabethan England.


Science, Technology & Exploration

Though Elizabethan England is not generally associated with major technological innovation (the
following century, of course, would be able to boast the Royal Sociey and Isaac Newton), some
significant progress was nonetheless made. Francis Bacon elaborated a new inductive, scientific
approach to reasoning based on observation and research. He thereby rejected the Aristotelian
principles still taught in the universities at the time, challenged the established authority of the
classical authors, and advocated a dismissal of the kind of prejudices that might impede objective

Another, rather more specific, technological development was the advent of coaches as fashionable
and proliferate on the streets of London. Guilliam Boonen, a Dutchman, was brought over from the
continent to act as Queen Elizabeth’s first coach-builder, thereby introducing the new European
invention of the spring-suspension coach to England as a replacement for the litters and carts of
earlier modes of transport.

Much of the scientific and technological progress made during the Elizabethan era and its
immediate Jacobean aftermath was connected with advances in navigational skills. Sir Francis
Drake famously circumnavigated the globe between 1577 and 1581 and became the most celebrated
English sea captain of his generation, while Martin Frobisher ventured into the Arctic. Humphrey
Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh sent colonists eastward in search of profit. Furthermore, the
European wars brought an influx of continental refugees into England, exposing the population to
new cultures.

The Arts
It is often said that the Renaissance arrived relatively late in England, compared to Italy and other
states in continental Europe. The fine arts in England, for example, during the Tudor and Stuart eras
were dominated by foreign or imported talent, such as Hans Holbein the Younger under Henry VIII
and Anthony van Dyck under Charles I. However, a native school of painting was developing:
Nicholas Hilliard, a trained goldsmith as well as painter, is the most widely recognised figure, and
stands as the first great British artist about whom much is known. His first dated portrait of Queen
Elizabeth dates to 1570. George Gower, moreover – a fashionable portrait painter who worked at

George Gower: Queen Elizabeth I of England (1588)

Elizabeth’s court – has also begun to attract growing recognition as knowledge of him and his work
has increased.

An important factor in the proliferation of creative enterprise in the world of letters during the
period was certainly the role played by the country’s two pre-eminent universities – Oxford and
Cambridge. From the mid-16th century, student numbers grew quite rapidly, and included not only
the sons of aristocrats but also members of the middle classes. The number of graduates now
emerging outgrew demand in the kind of traditional intellectual employment reserved for them – the
clergy, secretaryships and court positions. Therefore, they were obliged to look elsewhere for the
chance to make a living, and often literature was the only career path available. With the immense
popularity of stage drama, for example, came a significant demand for playwrights. This market
certainly offered the possibility of considerable fame – but unfortunately, fortune rarely came with
it. A dramatist’s work, previously the domain of noblemen or members of the clergy, did not come
under any protection concerning author’s rights, and was sold off to a theatre company or editor for
a modest, one-off sum; many of this literary new breed scraped by off meagre means indeed. Ben
Jonson was one whose status became such that he went on to enjoy full court privileges during the
subsequent reign of King James, but here, conversely, in the poorer, rougher parts of Elizabethan
London, these ‘University Wits’ – Robert Greene, Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe,
Thomas Nashe and George Peele – despite being looked up to as the literary elite of their day, lived
bohemian lives, in most cases marked by relative poverty and early death.

Though he certainly never became rich (and died before he was fifty), Edmund Spenser might be
said to have fared rather better than many of his contemporaries, in economic terms. His The Faerie
Queen - an allegorical representation of the Tudor Dynasty – found favour with Queen Elizabeth
herself, to such an extent that he was awarded a pension for life, which amounted to fifty pounds a

Edmund Spenser

year. Spenser’s allegory can be seen as representative of an increasing interest in deepening

understanding of English Christian beliefs, just as John Milton’s Paradise Lost was to do a
generation or so later.

Copernicus & Montaigne

The fresh new interest among the writers and dramatists of the age in re-examining man’s place
within the broad context of the world around him owed a great deal, in particular, to the
revolutionary thinking of two intellectuals whose role and stature should not be overlooked while
looking at the milieu into which the English thinkers, artists and poets were born.

Copernicus (1473 – 1543) is recognised as the first astronomer to develop a scientifically-based
heliocentric cosmology that displaced the Earth from its previously sacrosanct central position in
the Universe. Here, the sun was proposed as the centre of the planets, rather than being a planet
itself, revolving around Earth, and to think of the Earth as spinning around something else
constituted, unquestionably, a colossal leap of imagination. His monumental work, De
revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), is widely
considered the basis of modern astronomy. Unsurprisingly, though, his theory was greeted with
widespread suspicion and distrust at the time – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was in fact
banned from publication during Copernicus’ own lifetime – since it could easily be seen as
irreligious, an unwelcome, disconcerting challenge to the accepted view of the universe, of divine
order. Calvin and Luther, for instance, opposed Copernicus’ heliocentric views wholeheartedly,
whereas supporters would include Kepler and Galileo (the latter, of course, came close to losing his
life on account of his faith in the Copernican model).

While Greek, Indian and Moslem scholars had published heliocentric theories long before
Copernicus, his publication of a scientific heliocentric theory illustrating that the motions of
celestial objects can be explained without necessarily placing the planet Earth at the centre of the
universe, was a catalyst that prompted further scientific investigation, a true landmark in the history
of modern science – the Copernican Revolution.

Jan Matejko: Astronomer Copernicus (1872)

One of the great well-rounded men of the Renaissance, Copernicus was a mathematician, physician,
classical scholar, translator, military leader, diplomat and economist, to name just some of the
activities in which he was engaged. Others included, of course, astronomy – and certainly it was in
that field that he made his mark upon the world.

The French writer, Montaigne (1533-92), wielded an influence that can be seen in the work of
literary figures the world over, including Descartes, Nietzsche, Rousseau. Though a conservative
and devout Catholic, his sceptical, anti-dogmatic approach led him to become a founding father of
the ‘anti-conformist’ tradition in French literature. He was, in fact, to subsequently be recognised as
embodying more than perhaps any of his contemporaries, a spirit freely and openly expressed doubt
that emerged during his time, a tendency towards scepticism perhaps most overtly illustrated in his
celebrated remark, Que sais-je? (What do I know?), and in countless reflections that severely
undermined assumptions and modes of reasoning that had previously been relied upon and taken for
granted. It was Montaigne, for instance, who challenged man’s right to consider himself superior to
the animals; it was Montaigne who advocated the cultivation of ignorance in order to allow men to
embrace Christian teachings on the basis of faith alone.

Turning the mind inward in order to examine predominantly secular issues, instead of reflecting
mainly on the soul and the workings of God, was an innovative way of thinking at Montaigne’s
time; he combined an open, inquisitive mind with a questioning scepticism – an awareness of the
complexities and the paradoxical nature of Truth, and a sense of relativity concerning Man’s status
within the universe he inhabits. It is indeed tempting to equate aspects of Montaigne’s worldview
with Shakespeare and, in fact, some scholars have subsequently come to believe that the Bard might
well have been familiar with Montaigne’s work. In the 1920s, for example, George Coffin Taylor
was unequivocal in his insistence upon the influence of Montaigne in Shakespeare’s work:

“Shakspeare was most profoundly and extensively affected by the Florio Montaigne in every
way immediately after he had first had the opportunity to become familiar with the work in its
entirety, […] Shakspeare bore Montaigne’s marks upon him to the grave. In what respects did
Montaigne affect him? Practically in every respect in which a dramatist would naturally be
affected by an essayist.”

From: Shakespeare’s Debt to Montaigne, by George Coffin Taylor (Harvard UP, 1925)

Such claims are lent credence by the existence of an English translation of Montaigne’s Essais, by
the Italian John Florio, which dates to Shakespeare’s lifetime (1603).

John Florio’s translation of Montaigne (second edition, 1613)


The likes of Florio, moreover, had also brought a taste of Italian language and culture to England,
and a significant community of Italian actors had begun to thrive amid the burgeoning London
drama scene.

The English playwrights of the time were inspired by the Italians’ re-discovery of ancient Greek
and Roman drama – a new drama was thus emerging, and evolving away from the old Medieval
tradition of mystery and miracle plays. It was at this time that the city comedy genre can be seen to
have developed, and in the late 16th century English poetry was characterised by elaboration of
language and frequent allusion to classical mythology. The prominent poets of this era included
Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.

The influence of the continental drama of the Renaissance – and its re-evocation of the ancient
classics – upon the English playwrights of the Elizabethan era, then, can hardly be exaggerated.
Many scholars have in fact argued that the principal theatrical influence on Elizabethan revenge
tragedy, for instance, came from Seneca, a Roman statesman, philosopher, orator, and dramatist
who flourished in the first century AD, and whose works were first translated into the English
language in 1559. While Seneca wrote several kinds of tragedy, the Elizabethan playwrights were
particularly attracted to his Thyestes, Medea, and Agamemnon, all of which dramatize murder and
betrayal and the subsequent quest to exact blood revenge on the villain or villains. These theatrical
spectacles display all of the passions in excess, such as hate, jealousy, and love; they also contain
sensational elements, such as supernatural phenomena, cruel torture, and bloody violence. Other
critics have argued that in addition to Seneca's influence, the Italian nouvelle provided another
literary source for the revenge tragedy. Many of these Italian tales feature a sinister Machiavellian
villains, sexual betrayals that culminate in private revenge, and bloody vendettas between rival
families. Still other scholars have asserted that revenge tragedy was influenced by the medieval
contemptus mundi tradition.

While critics have generally agreed that Kyd – The Spanish Tragedy (1585-90?) – was the lead
innovator of the revenge tragedy, they have also pointed out that his plays are coarse and unrefined

in their exploration of the revenge theme. Commentators have observed that other early revenge
tragedies such as Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar (c. 1590) and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
(1594) tend to reflect this undisciplined model as well. Nevertheless, these tragedies were crowd-
pleasers and became staples of the London theatre repertories. As the Elizabethan dramatists grew
more competent with the revenge tragedy form, they became more sophisticated in their treatment
of the characters, themes and motifs. It was around this time that the genre reached the apex of its
artistic maturity with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, celebrated for its brilliant synthesis of plot,
characterization, and intellectual introspection on the subject of revenge. Other tragedies which
subsequently evolved from this new trend also demonstrated a keen insight into the moral and
spiritual consequences of revenge, including Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (c. 1606) and The
Atheist’s Tragedy (c. 1610-11) and Chapman’s Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (1610-11). Many critics
have characterized the revenge tragedies of the genre's late period as grim, cynical statements on the
moral and spiritual chaos that results from a society in decay and moral disintegration. Works from
this period include Webster’s The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), Ford’s ’Tis
Pity She’s a Whore (c. 1630-33) and The Broken Heart (c. 1630-33), and Shirley’s The Cardinal
(1641). Thus, while Kyd might be credited with having established the basic ‘revenge tragedy’
formula, his successors added ingenious new layers of dramatic suspense, characterization,
symbolism, and ideological representation to the theatrical form. Shakespeare apart, other leading
figures in Elizabethan theatre include Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, and


Marlowe’s subject matter tends to focus primarily on the moral drama of the ‘Renaissance man’,
and Marlowe was both fascinated and terrified by the new horizons opened up by modern science.
It was he who introduced English audiences to Doctor Faustus, a man who makes a pact with the
Devil in order to satisfy his obsession with knowledge, with the desire to push humankind’s
scientific capabilities to their limits. Marlowe’s mysterious heroes may carry something of the
playwright himself, whose early death in 1593 remains one of English drama’s great mysteries. His
work, in fact, seems to echo his own reputation, as his principal characters tend to driven by
uncontrollable passions that drive them, tragically and inevitably, towards their downfall. These are
lost souls, whose surrender to their own passionate impulses is as inevitable as the tragedy to which
that surrender leads – here, the potentially tragic implications of Renaissance humanism are vividly
explored and conveyed.

Prior to his death at the age of twenty-nine (he was born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare),
Marlowe was seen as outstanding among the playwrights of the era, and works like Tamburlaine the
Great (1587) and The Jew of Malta (1589) had already been greeted with acclaim by London
audiences several years before the Bard himself had even had a play produced in the capital. He was
one of the first English dramatists to employ blank verse to great effect – both dramatic and poetic –
in his plays, and he also wrote some classically inspired poetry of very high quality, such as Hero
and Leander, which was not published until five years after his death.

Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe attended the King’s School in his hometown of Canterbury, having won a scholarship to
gain admission to the choir school there. He was then awarded another scholarship to Corpus
Christy College, Cambridge. Marlowe went up to Cambridge at the age of sixteen, gained his
degree four years later, and then went on to study for an MA in Theology.

Although his record and attendance as an undergraduate were impeccable, Marlowe’s postgraduate
career was marked by lengthy absences, and Cambridge did not award him an MA at first (this
eventually materialised in 1587). The belief there was that he had gone abroad and embraced
Catholicism, but the reality seems to have been quite different: the consensus is that he was actually
involved in spying activities for Queen Elizabeth’s court. It appears, in fact, that the Queen’s Privy
Council intervened to give him a good reference at Cambridge, praising him for having done Her
Majesty “good service”. No mention was made of the precise nature of this “service”, and the Privy
Council’s letter has indeed fuelled considerable speculation about his activities during this period.

Marlowe subsequently moved to London, to lead a notoriously erratic and bohemian lifestyle. His
ideology – probably influenced by the new approaches inspired by the likes of Copernicus and
Montaigne – developed to embrace the exciting possibilities offered by science. Given the delicacy
of such matters at the time, he eventually found himself accused of atheism, then viewed as heresy.

Marlowe was arrested and charged in 1593, after Thomas Kyd – possibly under torture – named
him as the author of a heretical essay. On the basis of Kyd’s and other indictments, he was actually
due to appear in court the day after he died, killed in a knife-fight in a public house in Deptford,
south-east London. Marlowe himself almost certainly faced torture in order to force a confession,
which in turn would have led to a death sentence. What he may have revealed, and about whom,
whilst under torture (espionage secrets, for instance?) is just one element in the complex tangle of
mystery and intrigue that surrounds his death. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in St
Nicholas’ churchyard, Deptford.

Tributes to him can be found in the writings of Greene, Nashe, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare himself
– a measure of the respect and admiration he commanded among his literary peers. His status as one
of art’s flawed and ill-fated geniuses, however, is encapsulated in the lines of one anonymous
Cambridge contemporary, who wrote:

Pity it is that wit so ill should dwell,

Wit lent from heaven, but vices sent from hell.


Christopher Marlowe’s association with mystery is not limited merely to the events immediately
surrounding his untimely death. He has also been a prime ‘suspect’, so to speak, in the great debate
concerning the true authorship of the works attributed to Shakespeare himself, some prominent
claims within which are outlined in the following text:

There are enough conspiracy theories out there regarding the works of Shakespeare (or
attributed to Shakespeare, if you prefer) that entire careers have been built upon positing
alternate candidates for the true authorship of the works. Whether or not the claim of
Shakespeare is legitimate, the burden of proof would seem to lie on those who wish to discredit
the Bard. On the other hand, it’s only fair to give attention to this debate as it has been ongoing
since the 1700s.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford: This contemporary of Shakespeare has been strongly
advanced since the 1930s as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. A well-educated and well-
traveled nobleman of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, de Vere has been championed by the author
Charlton Ogburn using parallels of the Earl’s life with material from the plays – for instance,
noting similarities between Polonius of Hamlet and the Earl’s guardian, William Cecil. The
Earl of Oxford apparently stopped his literary pursuits at an early age – unless, as Ogburn
postulates, the Earl continued writing under the pen name of William Shakespeare.

Francis Bacon, Philosopher and Writer: Bacon has been a traditional favourite of the anti-
Stratford camp, and retains a high place on the list of potential candidates. Bacon proponents
point toward Bacon’s learning, his correspondences and memoirs (most notably, his notebook,
Promus), as well as ciphers and other coincidences. Although Bacon was an undisputed man of
letters, his style and expression vary greatly from that of Shakespeare’s works. Bacon also
produced such a voluminous output of his own, it’s hard to conceive of him finding spare time
enough to produce the quality output of work attributed to the Bard.

Christopher Marlowe, Playwright: Marlowe would be the ultimate ghost writer, as he was
stabbed to death in a tavern brawl in 1593. However, there are those that say Marlowe really
didn’t die; according to some, he was actually an occasional spy in the employ of the Crown.
This eventually necessitated a fake death, after which Marlowe went on for an undetermined
number of years penning poetry and plays under the nom de plume of Shakespeare.

Other Candidates
Other notable candidates have included William Stanley, Earl of Derby; Ben Johnson; Thomas
Middleton; Sir Walter Raleigh (with or without collaboration by Francis Bacon); and even
Queen Elizabeth I herself. There have been dozens of other such nominations since the Bard’s
death, and none have yet presented proof enough to discredit the man from Stratford.


The ‘arguments against’ include, by way of example, the claim that Shakespeare’s level of literacy
was apparently not high enough for him to have created works of such stature – circumstantial
evidence suggests that his father, despite being an eminent figure in Stratford society, was illiterate,
and it appears that the Bard’s own daughter only scribbled a cross on her marriage certificate, a
common practice, obviously, among those unable to read or write. Moreover, Shakespeare himself
left no manuscripts or notes relating to his work, unlike many of his contemporaries. William
Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon is known to have died in 1616, so why does a poem dated
1607 refer to him as a playwright using the past tense? Or, how could a man who was known in his

hometown as a businessman (not a poet) possibly have had the time to write thirty-seven plays and
over 150 Sonnets? And did the statue in his memory in Stratford initially depict him carrying a sack,
and was it only altered to portray him as a writer afterwards?

Another argument is the sophisticated knowledge of royalty and the courts and the law
demonstrated in Shakespeare’s plays – only a nobleman, the doubters insist, could have had such
insight. The same applies to the apparent familiarity with Italy that emerges in so much of the
author’s work – again, this was the domain of the aristocracy. The debate has in fact stretched to
include the Italian polyglot and man of letters, John Florio, known to have been active in England at
Shakespeare’s time:

Shakespeare is -let us put it this way- the least English of English writers. The typical quality of
the English is understatement, saying a little less than what you see. In contrast, Shakespeare
tended toward the hyperbolic metaphor, and it would come to us as no surprise to learn that
Shakespeare had been Italian, or Jewish, for instance.

John Florio was a willing accomplice to the creation of a fictitious William Shakespeare with
the assistance of his father, for an intricate array of reasons. Central to these motives was the
fact that John Florio was a prominent foreigner, far too prominent, and therefore envied and
detested. It would have fanned the flames if he had also claimed official credit as the author of
the works of Shakespeare.


The debate continues to arouse interest throughout the literary world; the reasons for doubting
Shakespeare are many; they have all been countered or disproved – more or less convincingly; and
ultimately, the lack of concrete evidence makes any categorical resolution an unlikely possibility.


So much for the prominent figures among Shakespeare’s contemporaries – but what of the socio-
cultural environment in which they lived and worked? London was, by this time, already a modern
capital city, with a total population of something close to 200,000. Two centuries before the
Industrial Revolution would transform towns like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool (to name
just a few) into the large urban centres that we consider them today, it is not hard to imagine the
status of London as the bustling centre, in every important respect, of what was still a
predominantly rural nation.

Only one bridge linked the northern and southern banks of the Thames at the time, standing roughly
on the spot occupied by London Bridge today. Ferries provided a further means of crossing the
river, and they certainly owed a good deal of their income to the regular traffic of theatre-goers
from the north bank heading to and from the south bank playhouses.

The following passage, taken from Burgess’ celebrated Shakespeare biography, brings the London
of the age colourfully and vividly to life.

The city meant roughly what we mean by the City of London – a crammed commercial huddle
that smells the river. The Thames was everybody’s thoroughfare. The Londoners of Chaucer’s
time had had difficulty bridging it; the Elizabethans had achieved only London Bridge. You
crossed normally by boat-taxi, the boatmen calling ‘Eastward-ho’ and ‘Westward-ho’. There
was commerce on the river, but also gilded barges, sometimes with royalty in them. Chained to
the banks there were sometimes criminals, who had to abide the washing of three tides. The
river had to look on other emblems of the brutality of the age – the severed heads on Temple
Bar and on London Bridge itself.

The streets were narrow, cobbled, slippery with the slime of refuse. Houses were crammed
together, and there were a lot of furtive alleys. Chamber pots, or jordans, were emptied out of
windows. There was no drainage […]. And countering the bad, man-made odours, the smells of
the countryside floated in. There were rosy milkmaids in the early morning streets, and sellers
of newly gathered cresses.

It was a city of loud noises – hooves and raw coach wheels on the cobbles, the yells of traders,
the brawling of apprentices […]. Even normal conversation must have been loud since

everybody was, by our standards, tipsy. Nobody drank water, and tea had not yet come in. Ale
was the standard tipple, and it was strong […]. The better sort drank wine, which promoted
good fellowship and led to sword fights. It was not what we would call a sober city.

From: Shakespeare, by Anthony Burgess (Penguin, 1970)

Elizabethan Theatre
By 1592, Shakespeare himself had confirmed his reputation in the London theatrical world, which
had been building on a by now established tradition. Four open-air theatres and seven indoor venues
are known to have been open, while the most famous companies – such as Lord Leicester’s Men,
the Earl of Worcester’s Men, the Earl of Warwick’s Men and the Lord Admiral’s Men – were
frequently performing in the courtyards and inns of the city. Apart from the lack of any reliable
financial reward, theatre life at the time was a precarious and often risky existence indeed. A
comment or reference might be misunderstood, offending a nobleman who would promptly call for
performances to be suspended. Fights inside or outside the venue could also lead to a suspension, or
the fear of plague would lead to the closure of theatres. It is known, in fact, that an epidemic
between 1592-94 disrupted the newly-arrived Shakespeare’s first attempts to make an impact there.

Moreover, the burgeoning Puritan movement were forcefully opposed to theatres as a whole,
viewing them as immoral, even interpreting plague outbreaks as divine punishment for the
immorality theatres so perfectly embodied. The playhouses, it is worth recalling, were also used for
bear-baiting and gambling, and the crowds attracted thieves, beggars, prostitutes and all manner of
criminals. Respectable citizens were concerned about the bawdy behaviour, the drunkenness and, of
course, the threat of plague caused by so many people gathering together in confined spaces. The
Globe Theatre, for example, was to be pulled down by the Puritans only a few decades later (1644),
followed by the demolition of all the capital’s playhouses, which would not be resurrected until the
Reformation under Charles II in 1660. The Globe itself disappeared for centuries, until a massive
project to rebuild it in its original form came famously to fruition in 1997.

The Playhouses

De Witt’s Swan Theatre sketch (1596)

The Globe, we have seen, was one of four open-air theatres in London at Shakespeare’s time. The
Swan was another, De Witt’s precious sketch of which provides us with crucial evidence of the
appearance and layout of these outdoor venues. They all held between two and three thousand
spectators (while most of the indoor ones held several hundred). The following passage describes in
some detail the physical environment of these big Elizabethan playhouses:

Besides the evidence of the builders’ contracts and the de Witt drawing there is a variety of
secondary evidence. The plays themselves in the versions that we use today are frequently
based upon managers’ copies and therefore contain stage directions and other notes which give
hints of the architecture of the theatres in which the plays were performed. They also give clues
as to how certain effects were achieved and, what is more, give strong indications as to what
effects a playwright could reasonably ask for.

There is evidence in de Witt’s notes with his sketch and in letters and diaries of the time that
the playhouses of London gave an impression of “great beauty”. They were brightly painted
and sometimes the back of the stage was hung with a bright arras. The most common shape for
the whole building was octagonal or circular with the centre open to the sky, making the shape
that Shakespeare called “this wooden O”. The stages were not necessarily an integral part of the
fabric of the building. (We must remember that some playhouses were still ‘playhouses’ or
‘gamehouses’ in the old sense of the word and sometimes reverted to bear-baiting. The Hope
may have done this regularly and, in consequence, had a non-permanent wooden trestle stage.)

Judging by de Witt’s sketch, the stage he was drawing was like what we should now call a
thrust stage with the audience on three sides. There seems to be no doubt that it was a custom
for what were called the sixpenny gallants to sit upon the stage itself. We must not forget these
stoolholders when visualising any Elizabethan performance. If they were present in any
numbers, then they must have reduced the available acting space by perhaps 20 square feet or
more. The stage floor could have been up to six feet above the ground level and, if so, then
safety considerations suggest that it may well have been surrounded by a railing.

There is some evidence to suggest that the audience could have surrounded the stage on all four
sides, that is to say behind the stage as well. Around the walls were galleries, reached by the
staircases from ground level by those who paid the extra to go upstairs and sit down. The upper
story was roofed in thatch. The groundlings remained standing in the open air. It is no
exaggeration to say that without them Elizabethan theatre could not have worked, in the sense
of transmission of power from actor to audience. The groundlings were nearest to the stage,
most ready and willing to react, easily bored perhaps, but most appreciative when pleased.
When theatres were rebuilt, so that the sixpenny gallants occupied the front rows and the
groundlings were sent up to the gallery, something was lost.

It used to be presumed that one regular feature of the Elizabethan theatre was the inner stage or
‘within’. It was supposed to be either a recess in the back wall, under the gallery known as the
‘above’, or it was a structure built out from the back wall with its own front curtain. It could
possibly be thought of as a booth-stage upon a booth-stage. Evidence from the plays themselves
suggests that such an area was indeed frequently called for to serve as a cave, a hermit’s cell, a
general’s tent, Juliet’s tomb, and so on. It could be used for dramatic revelation, as when
Prospero reveals Ferdinand playing chess with Miranda. Or, in revenge tragedy, for the
working of the trick beheadings and dehandings and other such bloodstained horrors.

The actors’ costumes were magnificent and part of the capital investment of the company, or
the impresario himself. Sometimes they were the property of the individual players. In any
case, they must have made a grand display and thus proved the old adage that actors are
scenery. The Shakespearean actor might well have played a Roman Emperor in costume that,
for him, would be modern dress but, when we remember the magnificence of aristocratic
Renaissance costume, we can scarcely be critical of a lack of verisimilitude. More than that,
similitude would have meant little to the average spectator and indeed cut across the symbolic

value of the costume that was contemporary to them. They tended to see Julius Caesar as a
Renaissance prince in a Renaissance universe.

Abridged from: ‘The Elizabethan Playhouse’, by J. Mitchley & P. Spalding, in Five Thousand Years of Theatre
(Batsford Academic & Educational Ltd., London, 1982).

While costumes might have been lavish and abundant, performances in these outdoor theatres
tended to use few props and no ‘sets’ in the modern sense of the term. This lack of stage scenery,
however, facilitated rapid, flowing action, as one scene followed another in uninterrupted fashion.
And imaginative language, of course, was of paramount importance for the dramatist. Since scenes
were not shown visually, they had to be described, evoked for the audience through suggestive,
poetic language. Moreover, the close, intimate contact between actors and spectators (the stage was
surrounded on three or four sides by the audience) allowed dramatists to fully exploit devices like
asides, anachronisms and topical allusions. Thereby, some of the most glorious features of
Elizabethan drama can be seen to have emerged out of the circumstances in which they were
originally performed, and for which they were conceived.

APPENDIX 1: William Shakespeare Biography

For all his fame and celebration, William Shakespeare remains a mysterious figure with regards
to personal history. There are just two primary sources for information on the Bard: his works,
and various legal and church documents that have survived from Elizabethan times. Naturally,
there are many gaps in this body of information, which tells us little about Shakespeare the

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, allegedly on April 23, 1564. Church
records from Holy Trinity Church indicate that he was baptised there on April 26, 1564. Young
William was the son of John Shakespeare, a glover and leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a
landed local heiress. William, according to the church register, was the third of eight children in
the Shakespeare household – three of whom died in childhood. John Shakespeare had a
remarkable run of success as a merchant, alderman, and high bailiff of Stratford, during
William’s early childhood. His fortunes declined, however, in the late 1570s.

There is great conjecture about Shakespeare’s childhood years, especially regarding his
education. It is surmised by scholars that Shakespeare attended the free grammar school in
Stratford, which at the time had a reputation to rival that of Eton. While there are no records
extant to prove this claim, Shakespeare’s knowledge of Latin and Classical Greek would tend
to support this theory. In addition, Shakespeare’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, wrote that
John Shakespeare had placed William “for some time in a free school”. John Shakespeare, as a
Stratford official, would have been granted a waiver of tuition for his son. As the records do not
exist, we do not know how long William attended the school, but certainly the literary quality
of his works suggest a solid education. What is certain is that William Shakespeare never
proceeded to university schooling, which has stirred some of the debate concerning the
authorship of his works.

The next documented event in Shakespeare’s life is his marriage to Anne Hathaway in
November, 1582. William was 18 at the time, and Anne was 26 – and pregnant. Their first
daughter, Susanna, was born in 1583. The couple later had twins, a boy, Hamnet and daughter
Judith, born 1585 and christened at Holy Trinity. Hamnet died in childhood at the age of 11, in

For the seven years following the birth of his twins, William Shakespeare disappears from all
records, finally turning up again in London some time in 1592. This period, known as the ‘Lost
Years’, has sparked as much controversy about Shakespeare’s life as any period. Rowe notes
that young Shakespeare was quite fond of poaching, and may have had to flee Stratford after an
incident with Sir Thomas Lucy, whose deer and rabbits he allegedly poached. There is also
rumour of Shakespeare working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire for a time, though
this is circumstantial at best.

It is estimated that Shakespeare arrived in London around 1588 and began to establish himself
as an actor and playwright. Evidently, Shakespeare garnered envy early on for his talent, and he
certainly must have shown considerable promise. By 1594, he was not only acting and writing
for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (called the King’s Men after the ascension of James I in
1603), but was a managing partner in the operation as well. With Will Kempe, a master
comedian, and Richard Burbage, a leading tragic actor of the day, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
became a favourite London troupe, patronised by royalty and made popular by the theatre-
going public.

Shakespeare’s success is apparent when studied against other playwrights of this age. His
company was the most successful in London in his day, and had plays published and sold in
octavo editions, or ‘penny-copies’ to the more literate of his audiences. Never before had a
playwright enjoyed sufficient acclaim to see his works published and sold as popular literature
in the midst of his career. In addition, Shakespeare’s ownership share in both the theatrical

company and The Globe itself made him as much an entrepeneur as an artist. While
Shakespeare might not be accounted wealthy by London standards, his success allowed him to
purchase New House and retire in comfort to Stratford in 1611.

Shakespeare wrote his will in 1611, bequeathing his properties to his daughter Susanna
(married in 1607 to Dr John Hall). To his surviving daughter Judith, he left £300, and to his
wife Anne left “my second-best bed.” He allegedly died on his birthday, April 23, 1616. This is
probably more of a romantic myth than reality, but he was interred at Holy Trinity in Stratford
on April 25. In 1623, two working companions of Shakespeare from the Lord Chamberlain’s
Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, printed the first Folio edition of his collected plays,
of which half were previously unpublished.

William Shakespeare’s legacy is a body of work that will never again be equaled in Western
civilization. His words have endured for 400 years, and still reach across the centuries as
powerfully as ever.


APPENDIX 2: The Droeshout, Chandos & Cobbe Portraits

The Droeshout Portrait

This is the image in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s Plays published in 1623, seven years after
his death. When Shakespeare died Droeshout was only 15 and probably never met the
playwright. It is certain however that it was used with the consent of friends and family and
therefore must be a reasonable true life image. It is not meant to be a true life portrait but was
done to the idiosyncratic style of the day which left many portraits looking the same. Ben
Johnson’s advice in the verse opposite the engraving “since the graver had a strife with nature”
one should “look not on his picture, but his book”.


This signed and dated engraving by Martin Droeshout (1601- after 1639) is the frontispiece to
the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1623. It is therefore one of the earliest
portraits of Shakespeare. However, it seems unlikely that a young, freshly trained twenty-two
year old captured a likeness with such apparent exactitude, of a man who died when he was
only 15. Droeshout may have read a record of Shakespeare’s appearance in a verse decribing
the poet, written by his close acquaintance Ben Jonson (1573-1637). Furthermore, the
engraving was commissioned and approved by the compilers of the First Folio, John Hemmings
and Henry Condell, both members of the King's Players, Shakespeare’s acting company. The
testimony or involvement of these three men is our best evidence for the print's value as a
portrait. Despite the stiff and oddly-porportioned garments, the evidence points to the
authenticity of this likeness of England’s most celebrated playwright.

An engraving is not worked directly from life, but from a flat model, either a painting or a
drawing. Droeshout must have been given a painting or drawing of Shakespeare as a young
man, from which to engrave his plate. He is a competent, if undistinguished, craftsman working
within a Flemish engraving tradition, derived from such engravers as Cornelis Cort (1533-
1578). The sculpted portrait bust over Shakespeare’s tomb in the church of the Holy Trinity,
Stratford fails to capture more than a general likeness but serves as a comparison to this


The Chandos Portrait

After more than three years of detailed study of paintings – six of them – the National Portrait
Gallery has come to the conclusion that the Chandos portrait by a little known 17th century
artist is the nearest in looks of Shakespeare. The study has been carried out for one of the
biggest exhibitions on Shakespeare in his own time.

According to Tarnya Cooper, who has curated the show, the first painting of the poet, known to
have been donated to the institution some 150 years ago, could be the best guess. The Chandos
portrait dates back to the lifetime of Shakespeare and many scholars have vouched that it is the
correct depiction of the Bard of Avon. Cooper says the claim of the Chandos portrait to
represent Shakespeare has “increased, but it’s not absolutely watertight. We may never find the
clincher piece of evidence – though it may yet turn up”.

A detailed forensic examination of the paintwork has concluded that some of the details in the
portrait, like the earring and necktie, represented the time when Shakespeare was alive. An 18th
century antiquarian, George Vertue had done great work on Shakespeare, tracing him via a
theatre manager, who was Shakespeare’s godson, William Davenant, and also the painter, John
Taylor, who has done this portrait. Dr Cooper says that unfortunately there are no surviving
works by John Taylor. He was not a great artist. “If Davenant was making up claims, you
would expect him to say it was by someone more famous. I’m sure Vertue’s evidence is
absolutely accurate but we’re relying on a chain of Chinese whispers. What is clear is that it
was assumed to be Shakespeare within 50 years of his death. It’s a pretty close link.”

The Gallery has conducted tests on several so-called Shakespeare portraits, subjecting them to
X-rays, ultraviolet examination, microphotography and pigment analysis. It found that one of
the best-known images, the Flower portrait owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was a
fake, painted 200 years after the writer’s death. Forensic studies revealed that the chrome
yellow paint used in the portrait was first used in 1814. That portrait has been widely
reproduced and is often printed on the covers of his plays.

Studies also showed that the Grafton portrait, which shows a dark-haired, highbrowed young
man in a rich scarlet jacket was not true. While the painting could be dated to 1588, when the
poet was 24, there was no evidence that it depicted the poet. Cooper says it was unlikely that
Shakespeare, then a young struggling actor, could afford such luxurious clothes.

All said and done, paintings and pictures fade into insignificance, as Ben Jonson said in his
preface to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays: “Reader, looke not on his Picture, but his


The Cobbe Portrait

We all know what William Shakespeare looked like: similar to a hippie uncle – balding, moustached,
longish hair in back. How do we know? Mostly from an engraving by Martin Droeshout that appeared
with the First Folio, the collection of Shakespeare’s work that was published in 1623, seven years after
his death. That engraving is reproduced with almost every edition of Shakespeare’s work that offers a
picture of him.

But engravings are typically copied from another source, like a drawing or painting. Shakespeareans
have been tantalized for generations by the possibility that a genuine life portrait of the man survives
somewhere. Now Stanley Wells, professor emeritus of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University
and one of the world’s most distinguished Shakespeare scholars, says he has finally identified one.
Wells is convinced that an oil painting on wood panel that has rested for centuries in the collection of
an old Irish family was painted from life around 1610, when Shakespeare was 46. If that is so, it would
be the only true likeness we have of the greatest writer of the English language.

The painting has languished for centuries outside Dublin at Newbridge House, home of the Cobbe
family, where until recently no one even suspected it might be a portrait of the Bard. Three years ago,
Alec Cobbe, who had inherited much of the collection in the 1980s and placed it in trust, found himself
at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London called ‘Searching for Shakespeare’. There
he saw a painting from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., that had been accepted
until the late 1930s as a portrait of Shakespeare depicted from life. Looking at it, Cobbe felt certain the
Folger painting was a copy of the one in his family’s collection. He asked Wells, an old friend, for his
help in authenticating it.

The two men arranged to have the Cobbe painting subjected to a series of scientific tests These tests
produced convincing evidence that the panel indeed dated from around 1610 and was the source for
the Folger painting, among others. Wells is now sure of it. “I don't think anyone who sees [the Cobbe
painting] would doubt this is the original,” he says. “It’s a much livelier painting, a much more alert
face, a more intelligent and sympathetic face.”

It is also significant that the Cobbe painting seems to have been copied more than once (Wells believes
the famous Droeshout engraving was made from one of these copies and not the Cobbe original). In
addition to the Folger, there appear to be three other versions, all from the 17th century. “It suggests
that this is someone who was famous enough that there was a demand for copies,” says Wells. “We
have a fascinating reference in a play from 1603 in which there is the character of a young man who
was obviously a fan of Shakespeare. He quotes bits of Romeo and Juliet and is rather foolish. And he
says the line: ‘Sweet master Shakespeare, I have his picture in my study at the court.’ That also shows
that there was likely to be a demand for his portrait.”

And how will the Cobbe painting change our picture of Shakespeare? For one thing, it shows us a man
of substance. Although Shakespeare came from relatively humble beginnings – his father was a
glovemaker – he ended up a wealthy man. “The Cobbe portrait will show people a man who was of
high social status,” says Wells. “He’s very well dressed, wearing a very beautiful and expensive Italian
lace collar. A lot of people have the wrong image of Shakespeare, and I’m pleased that the picture
confirms my own feelings – this is the portrait of a gentleman.”

In April, the Cobbe painting will go on display for several months at the Shakespeare Centre in
Stratford-on-Avon. After that it will return to the Cobbe family trust. Wells says that, to his
knowledge, the family has no plans to sell the painting. The Cobbe collection includes works handed
down from the family of the third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s only known patron (the Bard,
of course, made most of his money by running a theatre company). Shakespeare dedicated to the Earl
both of his long-narrative poems, Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. The
second inscription is particularly intimate: “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end ...” This
is one of several reasons that the Earl, who was 10 years younger than Shakespeare, is often supposed
to be the ‘fair youth’ who appears in some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Wells mentions a rumour dating back to the 18th century that the Earl once gave Shakespeare a
thousand pounds, possibly to allow the Bard to purchase the second largest house in Stratford-on-
Avon. That would be an extraordinary amount of money even from a patron who was, as Wells
describes him, “very rich and very generous, almost profligate.” But if the rumour is true, it might be
another sign of the very high regard that the Earl had for his favoured poet.

It has not been established whether the Cobbe portrait is one of the paintings that came to the family
via the Earl, though Wells believes the evidence is strong that it is. But if so, that inevitably invites
speculation that the Earl might have commissioned it. Could it even have been a keepsake for himself,
a memento of his loving admirer?

Adapted and abridged from:,8599,1883770,00.html

In a subsequent article which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on-line magazine,
Katherine Duncan-Jones challenges the authenticity of the Cobbe portrait:

The man portrayed, with his elaborate lace collar and gold embroidered doublet, appears
far too grand and courtier-like to be Shakespeare. Though a leading ‘King’s Man’,
Shakespeare was no nobleman, and even his status as ‘gentleman’ was repeatedly called
in question by some of the heralds. When players dressed above their rank offstage, it
tended to get them into trouble. It is hard to believe that Shakespeare would have been
rash enough to permit himself to be portrayed in such grand array.