The Elizabethan Age
The Elizabethan Age is remembered as the time of a great wave of English nationalism, as well as a period in which the arts flourished. The time of Shaksepeare was also the time of Elizabeth I, who is one of the more memorable monarchs.
The word ‘renaissance' literally means ‘rebirth' and it began in Italy in the 14th century and subsequently spread throughout Europe during 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. The feudal economies of the medieval period gave way to centralised political structures and the dominance of the Church in aspects of cultural life such as music and the arts began to wane as secular interests rose. The Italian Renaissance was a product of urban centres that were becoming richer through commerce. This includes Milan, Florence, and Venice.
The Renaissance in England coincided with the reign of Elizabeth I who was Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until 1603, so it is often referred to as the Elizabethan period. Elizabeth I's reign saw a rise in the concept of ‘nationalism' in England and this can be seen in the increased interest that writers had in writing literary and dramatic works in the English language. As a result, Elizabethan England saw a significant growth in cultural developments.
A number of important historical events contributed to making England a powerful nation during this period. England made significant advances in the realm of navigation and exploration. Its most important accomplishment was the circumnavigation of the world by Sir Francis Drake between 1577 and 1580. England's reputation as a strong naval power was enshrined in history by its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and by the turn of the century England was at the forefront of international trade and the race for colonisation.
England's renaissance in the realm of thought and art is epitomised by the official recognition that Elizabeth I gave to Oxford and Cambridge. These universities were acknowledged as the focal point for the nation's learning and scholarly activities. Other historical developments which shaped the direction of Elizabeth Literature include the invention of the printing press to England in 1476 which helped to make literature more widely available, the growth of a wealthy middle class of people who had the time to write and read, and the opening up of education to the laity rather than being the exclusive domain of the clergy.
The arts flourished under Elizabeth I. Her personal love of poetry, music, and drama helped to establish a climate in which it was fashionable for the wealthy members of the court to support the arts. Theatres such as the Globe (1599) and the Rose (1587) were built and writers such as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare wrote comic and tragic plays.
Latin was still used for much of the literature early in the period. However, as the new nationalism began to influence literary production, works began to appear in English. Edmund Spenser's “The Faerie Queene” was written in English and it broke new ground with respect to what could be achieved with this language. It was created to flatter Elizabeth I. Another innovative writer of the period was Sir Philip Sidney. The new directions that the philosophy of Humanism was creating at the time influenced both Spenser and Sidney. The new literary style borrowed heavily from classical Greek writing. A form of sonnet called either the Shakespearean Sonnet or the Elizabethan Sonnet became fashionable.
Theatrical Conditions in Elizabethan England
Shakespeare is the best known of all of the Elizabethan Playwrights. Other writers of the period include Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, and John Webster. Plays were usually performed in outdoor theatres in the afternoon. Poorer audience members were required to stand for the duration of the performance while wealthier people could sit in elevated seats. Often writers worked under the patronage of significant courtiers or wealthy noblemen. Experimentation with the English language led to the rise in favour of Blank verse (which is unrhymed iambic pentameter).
The theatrical conditions of the period were such that companies flourished. During the period 1585-1642 there were typically two companies performing in London (and sometimes up to four companies). The population of London was only about 200,000 people so theatre companies often struggled to maintain audiences.
Performances took place six days a week and plays commenced at 2pm. Typically a different play was staged each day. A new play would be introduced into the repertoire every seventeen days. Individual plays normally only had about ten performances before they were dropped from the repertoire. This meant that playwrights were in high demand. Most plays were not published during the writers' lifetimes. Indeed, there was little consideration of reading the plays. Plays were for performance.