Shakespeare's Historical Background and the World Picture of the Elizabethan Age

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Tudor Dynasty before Elizabeth I or “Let us sit down and tell sad stories of dead kings”
2.1 Henry VII
2.2 Henry VIII
2.3 Edward VI
2.4 Mary I

3 The Elizabethan Age

4 James I

5 Merry England

6 Golden Age in a Nutshell

7 The Elizabethan World Picture
7.1 The Meaning of Order
7. 2 The Macrocosm
7. 3 The Hierarchical Order – illustrated by Metaphors
7. 3. 1 The Chain of Being
7. 3. 2 The Stairs
7. 4 Analogy and Correspondences

8 The Human Being

9 The Body Politic

10 The Meaning of Sin

11 World Picture: Conclusion

12 And the rest is silence

13 List of Works Cited

1 Introduction

William Shakespeare may never have existed – or at least that is the point some scholars are trying to make. This paper is going to follow the opinion of the vast majority of literary experts and assume that Shakespeare did, in fact, exist. But mere existence is never enough. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” as John Donne liked to put it. The environment you live in and the surroundings that influence and inspire you are utterly significant. Future historians ourselves, we were taught that the present is a time span that doesn’t even last three seconds. After that, it’s the past. But the past is not the same as “history” itself. History is what historiographers have managed to reconstruct of the past, using archaeological, philological, literary, and other sources. As we are happy enough to know a lot about Shakespeare’s times, it would be foolhardy and arrogant to ignore this knowledge and focus on the plays themselves, letting the circumstances that they were written in slip out of our range of view.

It may be taken for granted that Shakespeare was indeed influenced by his historical environment, but nobody can say for sure to what extent. What if Shakespeare had lived in ancient Roman times or in the Cold War period? Would he have written different plays? To decide to what extent he was influenced is the task of those scholars who actually do research on the plays.

This paper, however, will focus on the actual socio-political, economic, and religious background of Sir William Shakespeare, particularly on the rule of Elizabeth I and James I and on the Elizabethan World Picture with its various manifestations in the English state during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

2 The Tudor Dynasty before Elizabeth I or “Let us sit down and tell sad stories of dead kings”

The Tudor era began with a significant event: on August 8, 1485, the troops of King Richard III of the House of York were defeated by the army of Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, who had returned from his exile in France, in the vicinity of the small town of Bosworth, Leicestershire County. For nearly all of the 15th century, the two clans of England’s higher nobility had been struggling for power. Violence, counter-violence, conspiracy and maneuvering had encompassed the kingdom after Henry Bolingbroke (who would later become Henry IV) had driven Richard II off the throne in 1399. During the last years of the struggle that became known as “The Wars of the Roses,” the York family started to fight among themselves.

Since the royal court had always been involved in these wars, the conflict consumed a huge part of the national resources, created general instability and, as changing partisanship and political maneuvering became the order of the day, prompted a decline in moral standards.[1]

Not only do the five Tudor monarchs who reigned from 1485 till 1603 form a single genealogical line, they’re also a real family with Elizabeth’s life span covering about two thirds of that era.[2]

2.1 Henry VII

Henry VII marks the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Having ended the Wars of the Roses and defeated the York family and Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he immediately and single-mindedly set about to consolidate power in the crown.[3]

2.2 Henry VIII

Henry VIII separated the English church from Roman jurisdiction and founded a national church.[4] As religion and politics were virtually inseparable in the 16th century, the ecclesiastical reforms initiated by Henry VIII had a huge impact on the political landscape.[5] When he assumed the leadership of the English church, he had powers that no other king of England had ever possessed. Henry VIII also closed the monasteries and gave their land to the aristocracy. This course of action naturally ensured that the nobility would support his cause.[6]

2.3 Edward VI

Not much needs to be said about Edward VI, since he died at the tender age of sixteen. He founded some Grammar Schools[7] and shifted from Henry VIII’s Anglicanism to radical Protestantism.[8]

2.4 Mary I

Mary Tudor swiftly reversed the ecclesiastical reforms brought about by Henry VIII and Edward VI and reinstituted Catholicism as the state religion, thus bringing the nation to the brink of civil war. Mary had hundreds of Protestant activists and alleged heretics executed, thus gaining the charming nickname “Bloody Mary.”[9]

3 The Elizabethan Age

On November 17, 1558, a messenger informed Elizabeth that she had been made queen after the death of her unpopular half-sister. Obviously, the aristocracy was desperate to find a new monarch since Parliament had declared her to be an illegitimate child of Henry VIII when she was three years old. This status was never lifted, but Parliament decided that she was third in the line of succession after Edward and Mary. In 1554, Elizabeth was accused of participating in Wyatt’s Rebellion and was thrown into the Tower of London until she was subsequently pardoned by Mary. Shortly before her death, Mary is said to have recognized Elizabeth as her successor.

Extensively educated, Elizabeth was fluent in French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. Upon her enthronement she is said to have personified all the magic of flourishing femininity. She selected men of lower birth to be her advisors, as the old nobility used to be Catholic. The most prominent figure among her staff was William Cecil, a brilliant man of political shrewdness as well as diligence and carefulness. As she was a devout believer in absolutism, Elizabeth did not tolerate criticism. But the people preferred her wise autocracy to the raging madness of the struggling parties of the Wars of the Roses. Her motto became video et taceo (observe and remain silent) . Her policy was indeed characterized by hesitation, as she used her virginity as a means of playing with different foreign rulers to gain advantages for her country. Elizabeth was very vain and had alarming manners: She used to hug her courtiers and foreign ambassadors, and there exists today even a rumor that, after he had spent seven years in exile as a punishment for farting in the presence of the queen, when Edward de Vere returned to court, she said to him something to the effect that she had already forgotten about the fart.

Elizabeth had the habits of cursing, of laughing loudly, of dancing, gambling, and hunting, and she loved masques and drama. Her power did not consist in logic, but rather in feminine intuition and in being a good observer. She was a role model of vitality, but not of virtue. Elizabeth reintroduced religious reformation to England, but she also represented the Renaissance. Sharing the Machiavellian belief in a more or less unscrupulous leader, she recognized the need for some religion in order to ensure social stability although she personally despised theological dogmas. The queen demanded outer conformity in order to protect the national unity: everybody was allowed to believe what he or she wanted to believe, as long as he or she obeyed the law.[10]

By skillfully taking advantage of the conflicts between Spain and France, Elizabeth managed to ward off these outer menaces and gain a period of ten years for England to consolidate politically and economically. The victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 secured England’s position as a leading Protestant power and the first naval power of the world.[11]

A certain dark atmosphere obscured England during the last years of her rule. The people ceased loving her. They felt that she had outlived herself. Her health was deteriorating and Parliament vehemently resisted her attempts to violate parliamentary freedom. Since she hesitated to settle the problem of her succession, Robert Cecil and others secretly entered into clandestine negotiations with James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603.[12]

Elizabeth was a symbolic figure. One school of thought has come near to canonizing Elizabeth. According to their view, she was bright, independent, cautious, and able to distinguish the essential from the temporary. She was also circumspect by nature and experience, her prudence deriving from an enormous sense of royal responsibility. She used apparent indecision strategically, to purchase time and to gain advantage from delay. Her negotiation of a via media (a middle way) between Catholics and Protestant reformers was a brilliant act of diplomacy. The disappointments and crises of her reign – the execution of the Scottish queen, the military conflicts in France and the Netherlands, the fierce monetary inflation at the end of the century – all these were probably inevitable, not her fault.

The negative complement of this hagiographic approach is the approach that claims the queen was capricious, bull-headed, vacillating, and out of touch with reality. Her uncertainty was a function of monstrous personal vanity, which exaggerated her fear of making a mistake. Her unwillingness to make decisions disabled any attempt at consistent policy; the disappointments and crises of her reign – diplomatic, military, and economic – were all her fault.[13]


[1] Ulrich Suerbaum, Das elisabethanische Zeitalter, Stuttgart: Reclam (1989), 38-40.

[2] Suerbaum, 29.

[3] Russ McDonald, The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents, Boston: Bedford (2001), 303.

[4] Ina Schabert, Shakespeare-Handbuch: die Zeit, der Mensch, das Werk, die Nachwelt, Stuttgart: Kröner (1978), 4.

[5] Bedford Companion, 315.

[6] Kenneth Muir, A new companion to Shakespeare studies, Cambridge: CUP (1980), 169.

[7] Suerbaum, 32.

[8] New Companion, 170.

[9] Bedford Companion, 315.

[10] Durant, 311-354.

[11] Shakespeare-Handbuch, 6-7.

[12] Durant, 311-354.

[13] Bedford Companion, 308-309.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Shakespeare's Historical Background and the World Picture of the Elizabethan Age
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
HS Shakespeare's Major Tragedies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Shakespeare, Historical, Background, World, Picture, Elizabethan, Shakespeare’s, Major, Tragedies
Quote paper
Christian R. Schwab (Author), 2005, Shakespeare's Historical Background and the World Picture of the Elizabethan Age, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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