Shakespeare was a poet and play writer during the Elizabethan Era. He helped us to understand what London was like, what his personal life was like, and what the theater was like during the Elizabethan Era.
What the City was Like:
Quote #1: “The crowded streets helped give London an air of bustling activity. But other factors also made London an exciting city. It was the commercial and banking center of England and one of the world’s chief trading centers. London was also the capital of England. The queen and her court lived there for much of each year, adding to the color and excitement. The city’s importance attracted people from throughout England and from other countries. Artists, teachers, musicians, students, and writers all flocked to London to seek advancement” (Lander).
Commentary: London was a busy and exciting city. It was the capital of England, therefore the queen as well as her court lived there often and brought even more excitement, color, joyfulness, etc. Artists, teachers, musicians, students, and writers from other countries came to London so they could gain more knowledge.
Quote #2: “During most of Shakespeare’s lifetime, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth I. Her reign is often called the Elizabethan Age. Shakespeare’s works reflect the cultural, social, and political conditions of the Elizabethan Age. Knowledge of these conditions can provide greater understanding of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. For example, most Elizabethans believed in ghosts, witches, and magicians. No biographical evidence exists that Shakespeare held such beliefs, but he used them effectively in his works. Ghosts play an important part in Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Richard III. Witches are major characters in Macbeth. Prospero, the hero of The Tempest, is a magician” (Lander).
Commentary: When Shakespeare was alive, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth I (her reign is called the Elizabethan Age/Era). Queen Elizabeth influenced many of his plays and poems. For example, she, and many Elizabethans, believed in ghosts, witches, magicians, etc and he put those characters in some of his works even though there is no evidence to support that he believed in them himself.
Quote #3: “Shakespeare's London had grown from 120,000 inhabitants in 1550 to 200,000 by 1600. By 1650, London contained 375,000 people. This exceptional population growth is remarkable considering London’s high mortality rate. The crowded and unsanitary city often experienced outbreaks of plague that regularly reduced the population. Sewage flowed in open ditches that drained into the Thames, and overbuilding led to slum conditions in many parts of the city. However, London continued to grow as the result of a massive flow of migrants, like Shakespeare himself, from the English countryside” (Lander).
Commentary: Because London was an unsanitary city due to the fact that sewage flowed through the streets, the mortality rate was high; many people contracted the plague. However, London had a good population growth from 1550 (120,000 people) to 1650 (375,000 people).
Quote #4: “The royal family did not, of course, attend plays in the common theaters of the time, but to satisfy Elizabeth's interest, plays and masques were performed at court. Shakespeare and the Chamberlain's Men would, on occasion, be requested to perform for the queen. During Christmas 1594, Shakespeare acted before Elizabeth in her palace at Greenwich in two separate comedies, and during Christmas 1597, the Chamberlain's Men performed Love's Labour's Lost for the queen in her palace at Whitehall. In 1603, Shakespeare also performed on several occasions before King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth I on her death, as well as at the houses of high-ranking noblemen” (Medici).
Commentary: Because Queen Elizabeth didn't go to public theaters, Shakespeare was often asked to perform at court. Not only did Queen Elizabeth enjoy his plays, but King James I and other upper class citizens also liked to see his works.
Quote #5: “Elizabeth was one of the best-educated women of her time, one who could read and write in English, Latin, and Italian and who devoted some of her leisure time to translating Latin classics. In a sense, she exemplified the very best traits of the Elizabethan era: humanistic learning, an appreciation for culture, vigorous enjoyment of the popular pastimes, politically moderate, and filled with a strong nationalism. Elizabeth and the members of the royal court played an instrumental role in encouraging, supporting, and protecting the development of the arts and humanities during this period” (Medici).
Commentary: Queen Elizabeth was very educated compared to the other women of that time period. She could read and write in English and Latin and even Italian! She and her court supported art and encouraged many to become interested to learn more about it.
Shakespeare’s Personal Life:
Quote #6: “William attended grammar school, where he studied Latin grammar, Latin literature, and rhetoric (the uses of language). As far as we know, he had no further formal education. At the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than he was. Sometime after the birth of their second and third children (twins), Shakespeare moved to London, apparently leaving his family in Stratford” (Anderson).
Commentary: William Shakespeare attended grammar school, but really had not further formal education. He got married to a woman named Anne Hathaway and had 3 kids with her but then moved to London, leaving them behind.
Quote #7: “Shakespeare's plays are still produced all over the world. During a Broadway season in the 1980s, one critic estimated that if Shakespeare were alive, he would make $25,000 a week in royalties for a production of Othello alone. The play was attracting larger audiences than any other nonmusical production in town” (Anderson).
Commentary: In the 1980s somebody said that if Shakespeare were still alive he would make about $25,000 a week for just one of his plays to be shown. Othello was appealing to more people than any other show in the town.
Quote #8: “In his play Henry V, Shakespeare called his theater a "wooden O". It was a large, round (or polygonal) building, three stories high, with a platform stage that projected from one end into a yard open to the sky. In the back wall of this stage was a curtained-off inner stage. Flanking the inner stage were two doors for entrances and exits. Above this inner stage was a small balcony or upper stage, which could be used to suggest Juliet's balcony or the high walls of a castle or the bridge of a ship. Trapdoors were placed in the floor of the main stage for the entrances and exits of ghosts and for the descents into hell” (Anderson).
Commentary: Shakespeare's theater was referred to as a "wooden O" because it was round and there was no ceiling so it was open to the sky and the elements. One of the main features on the "wooden O" were the trapdoors on the floor of the stage which were used to make it look like someone was descending into hell or to show that a ghost was entering/exiting the scene.
Quote #9: “The plays were performed in the afternoon. Since the stage was open to the sky, there was no need for stage lighting. There were very few sets (scenery, furniture, and so on). The stage was "set" by the language. A whole forest scene was created in one play when a character announced, "Well, this is the Forest of Arden." But costumes were often elaborate, and the stage might have been hung with colorful banners and trappings. (The groundlings, those eight hundred or more people who stood shoulder to shoulder around the stage for the price of a penny, loved a good show. Most people still do.)” (Anderson).
Commentary: Because the theater was open to the sky, plays were performed in the afternoon because of the good lighting and therefore they didn't need to light the stage. Also, there was very minimal scenery so the stage was set by the characters who would announce where they are in any given scene. Even though the set was plain, the costumes that actors performed in were very detailed and vibrant. Groundlings, as they were called, stood very close to each other because plays were very affordable with admission being equivalent to the price of a penny.
Quote #10: “Many of Shakespeare's greatest plays were written in the first ten years of the company's residence at the Globe, and they were first performed there. Examples include the tragedies Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear; and the comedies Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. These later comedies, noted for their darker tone, are sometimes called the "problem plays." Less reliant on elements of traditional comedy, they explore serious themes and are far less cheerful than the earlier comedies” (Shakespeare, William).
Commentary: Some of Shakespeare's tragedies were Julius Ceasar, Macbeth, and Othello. Some people called William Shakespeare's comedies "problem plays" because of how serious they are. Most comedies were light-hearted and made you feel good. These comedies include Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure.
Quote #11: “Needing income, Shakespeare wrote two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, for his patron, or financial supporter, the earl of Southampton. These works are considered masterpieces of Elizabethan narrative poetry. (A narrative poem is a poem that tells a story.) Shakespeare's best-known poems, however, are his sonnet sequence, probably also composed around this time but not published until 1609. Sonnets are fourteen-line poems written in iambic pentameter—ten syllables in each line, with the emphasis on the second syllable in each word or phrase. The sonnet sequence, in which individual poems are arranged to develop a particular theme or argument, had been made popular by Philip Sidney (1554–1586; see entry). Shakespeare's contribution to the genre established him as one of the finest poets in the English language” (Shakespeare, William).
Commentary: Shakespeare wrote a couple of poems because he needed money. They were thought to be "masterpieces" in Elizabethan narrative poetry, which are poems that tell a story. Shakespeare's more popular poems were called sonnets. Sonnets are longer poems with 10 syllables per line. Because of his sonnets, Shakespeare is considered to be one of the best English poets.
Anderson, Robert. “Shakespeare and His Theater: A Perfect Match.” Holt Literature & Language Arts: Mastering the California Standards: Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking, by G. Kylene Beers et al., Austin, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2003, pp. 778-80.
---. “William Shakespeare’s Life: A Genius from Stratford.” Holt Literature & Language Arts: Mastering the California Standards: Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking, by G. Kylene Beers et al., Austin, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2003, pp. 776-77.
Lander, Jesse M. “Shakespeare, William.” World Book Advanced. World Book, 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Medici, Anthony G. “Society and Culture in Shakespeare’s Day.” In Baker, William, and Kenneth Womack, eds. The Facts On File Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2012. Bloom’s Literature, Facts On File, Inc. www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&WID=103800&SID=5&iPin=CS0002&SingleRecord=True.
“Shakespeare, William.” Elizabethan World Reference Library, edited by Sonia G. Benson and Jennifer York Stock, vol. 2: Biographies, UXL, 2007, pp. 197-207. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=tmulvusd&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX2587000052&it=r&asid=f84b848efcbdec6df492f23db4e7b735. Accessed 8 Dec. 2016.