Life in Renaissance England

Remarks by David Judkins

What we normally refer to as the Renaissance in Western European history marks a break or transition from the Medieval period and leads toward our modern era. The Renaissance embraces a series of religious, economic, and political changes which ripple into areas of science, literature, and philosophy. Naturally one does not see these changes along clearly demarcated lines, but looking at the period as a whole, we are aware of a climate or culture which has, if not promoted change, at least tolerated it.

In Shakespeare's time some of the changes had already taken place and he was feeling their effects; others were actually taking place during his lifetime and still others were yet to come. For instance, the great religious upheaval, the Protestant Reformation, had occurred well before Shakespeare was born when first in 1517 Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany declared his independence from the Catholic Church, and later in 1536 when Henry VIII declared England's independence from Rome. In his plays, Shakespeare has little to say about religion, but this in itself is notable. Had he been writing 100 years earlier, it is barely conceivable that his work would not have strong traditional Christian overtones. Perhaps because there was so much religious ferment in Europe that had resulted in extraordinary persecution and bloodshed on all sides, Shakespeare opted, like his contemporary, Montaigne, in France, to stay out of the controversy not taking dogmatic positions on religious issues. Shakespeare does in Twelfth Night, poke fun at the growing puritan movement in England. Likewise in Loves's Labour's Lost and Measure for Measure, he finds newly reformed individuals who have "seen the light" a source of great humor. However, Shakespeare's themes and indeed the existence of his plays may have more to do with economic change than religious upheaval.

The Renaissance marks the beginning of capitalism through the formation of capital holding companies that engaged in expensive and risky trade with Russia, the Far East, and other remote trading sites. The Muscovy Company, the East India Company and the West India Company all, from time to time, provided handsome profits for their investors. Shakespeare was a direct and indirect beneficiary of this activity. Directly, he himself invested in the newly built Globe Theater and realized income from the profits of the theater. Although the Globe was more of a partnership than a stock holding company, it nevertheless represented profit generated not from land, as would have been the case in the medieval period, but from joint investment in a business enterprise. Indirectly, he benefited from the general prosperity of London, a center for trade with its direct but protected access to the English Channel via the Thames River, on whose south bank the Globe stood providing entertainment to city traders and to not a few sailors, I would imagine. Let me add a cautionary remark, I am not suggesting that Shakespeare is the product of early capitalist enterprise; however, I am suggesting that a more open climate allowed people like Shakespeare to prosper and succeed.

Shakespeare himself came from common origins. His father was not of the aristocracy or even the landed gentry, but a successful glover who had a shop in Stratford. In an earlier time Shakespeare would have followed his father's trade, and no doubt there was strong pressure for him to do so in the late part of the sixteenth century; however, other opportunities presented themselves during this time of growth and expansion. In the late 1580's or early 90's Shakespeare found himself in London, a city that was expanding in size and was developing new businesses. During the sixteenth century London approximately doubled its size to 200,000 inhabitants, which by today's standards seems small. During the Renaissance most of the English population resided in rural areas. Cities were crowded, considered dirty, and often dangerous. The greatest problem was public hygiene. There were, of course, no sanitary sewers or a purified source of fresh water. Dung carts, which passed through the streets daily, attempted to remove the bulk of human and other animal waste. Wells were dug at convenient places through the city, but there was no means to monitor the quality of the water. (The discovery of chlorine, a central chemical in water purification was still nearly 200 years away.) Thus typhoid fever, dysentery, cholera, and a variety of other water born diseases were always a threat to residents. There was also no organized police force as we would conceive it today. Shakespeare has numerous funny scenes that involve Renaissance law enforcement officers, sometimes called constables or members of the watch. They are nearly always the dumbest characters in the play. Most often they would not recognize a criminal if he had the word tattooed on his forehead; yet, in his gentle way, Shakespeare usually arranges for these officers, despite themselves, to triumph in the end. One of the best examples of these figures is Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.

The plague, which visited cities throughout Europe on a more or less regular basis, was also the result of uncleanliness and the absence of an effective central authority to monitor the infestation of vermin and rodents. In 1592 there was a particularly persistent outbreak of plague in London which resulted in the theaters and other places of public gathering being closed, and the population dispersing to the country. In our time the Aids has come closest to resembling "the plague" in that, in its earlier years, physicians were really helpless to arrest the course of the disease once it was contracted by a victim. However, in the case of Aids, the means of transmitting the disease was quickly determined, whereas the spread of the plague in Shakespeare's time was a complete mystery and the subject of wide speculation among physicians and scientists in the sixteenth century. The closing of theaters is important to students of Shakespeare because it marked a period of time when Shakespeare wrote most of his non-dramatic poetry including Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and probably most of his sonnets.

The Renaissance is also marked by numerous advancements in what we would call technology. The most important, the invention of printing, took place in 1455, over one hundred years before Shakespeare was born, and first came to England in 1475, when William Caxton set up a printing press in Westminster near Westminster Abbey. The effects of printing were widespread but not as rapid as we might suppose. The percentage of people who could read and write slowly grew as books became less expensive and more available. The English language which had been in flux for centuries stabilized near the end of the fifteenth century and evolved into modern English in the sixteenth century. Although you may at first find Shakespeare difficult to read, his language is modern English and except for immature readers, need not be "translated." The stability of our language is largely owing to standardized printing practices, and not to English teachers as one might have thought. It was the printers who gradually regularized spelling, capitalization, and punctuation so that books and later pamphlets would have the same look about them. Many of Shakespeare's plays were printed during his lifetime in individual editions called quartos, and some came out in as many as five separate quarto editions. The most notable printing of Shakespeare's plays, however, came seven years after he died when two of his friends and colleagues collected the thirty-six plays attributed to him along with his poetry and printed this complete works in a folio now referred to as Shakespeare's First Folio(1624).

The other technological innovations which I would like to refer to were in sailing. These changes were largely incremental and not attributable to a single inventor. Improvements in navigation led to improved maps and charts. Improvements in sailing ships led to faster and safer travel. In particular the improvement of keels and moveable sails allowed ships to sail more closely to the wind making the ships more maneuverable and providing a wider variety of directions the ship could take. As a result of these combined improvements, captains began pushing their ships to more distant lands. New trading routes were secured which led to increased competition in trade and wider availability of exotic products. However, these gains were made with considerable risk. Shipwrecks were numerous, individual sailors were marooned in distant locations, many who left London, Greenwich, or Plymouth with great hopes, never returned. I believe we see the influence of this travel and adventure in several Shakespearean plays. The most notable is The Tempest, where the hero, Prospero and his daughter Miranda have been marooned on an island for over ten years. But other plays such as The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night feature ship wrecks. In Hamlet we recall Hamlet's brush with pirates on his way from the continent to England. And there are many other plays which allude to the dangers of travel.

England had come late to the exploration and exploitation party following Portugal, Spain, and France. However, when Sir Francis Drake, sailing out of Plymouth in 1582 circumnavigated the world, following roughly the same route Magellan had taken sixty years earlier, he was the first captain to complete the journey and live to tell about it. Moreover, because he raided Spanish ports on the western coast of South and Central America, and captured unsuspecting Spanish ships stealing their valuable cargoes regardless of the fact that England and Spain were not at war, he returned to England with The Golden Hind full of gold, spices, and precious fabrics much of which he gave to Queen Elizabeth, who in return made him a peer of the realm. Drake's famous expedition took place at a time when Shakespeare's whereabouts are unrecorded and unknown. Not surprisingly, some students of Shakespeare have speculated that the future playwright may have actually been on Drake's famous voyage. But such conjecture is just that as there is no record of what Shakespeare was doing at the time.

In part because of Drake and other overt acts of piracy by the English against the Spanish, Spain mounted a major assault against the English in an attempt to seriously damage their shipping and stop the piracy. In 1588 the Spanish Armada sailed up the English Channel to attack Holland and England, but they were badly defeated losing numerous ships, sailors, and soldiers. Part of the loss came from a bad turn in the weather, but the English victory should not be minimized. English ships were smaller and more easily maneuverable. At the same time they were more lightly armed, but this disadvantage seems to have been more than compensated for by more agile ships. The result of the defeat of the Spanish Armada was a period of relative peace for the next twenty years; a period of peace that almost directly coincides with Shakespeare's dramatic career.

I would like to conclude this brief and very basic essay on life in Renaissance England, with some remarks on political issues. England was, of course, a monarchy. Elizabeth I came to the throne at the age of 25 on the death of her half-sister, Mary, in 1558. Elizabeth reigned until 1603, when upon her death her cousin, James I, who was also king of Scotland, was coronated. James ruled until 1625 and was succeeded by his son Charles I. Both Elizabeth and James were relatively good monarchs. Elizabeth is often regarded as rather brilliant. She had a quick mind, was not extravagant, and recognized that her throne was not as secure as her counselors might lead her to believe. She was strong and certainly capable of making hard and difficult decisions; however, perhaps because she was a woman, she was less functionally arrogant than most of her contemporary monarchs. It is in fact Elizabeth's wariness that I believe sets her apart and allowed her to have such a successful reign. Although she was Queen of England, she shared some of her rule with Parliament, a body made of men chosen to represent the various areas of England. There was voting for these members; however, suffrage was dramatically limited. Women, of course, could not vote, but neither could most men. Property was the main consideration and individual home ownership, small farms, etc were very rare, for nearly all of the property was in the hands of the aristocracy and the landed gentry. The Queen herself was, and still is, the largest land owner in England. The point I am making is that Parliament was not an early example of democracy at work. The illiterate "folk" were not consulted for direction of the state. Moreover, even the members of Parliament were not free to take up any issues they thought important. For instance, as Puritanism became popular, some MPs wanted to debate religious issues. in 1586 Elizabeth had Peter Wentworth thrown into the Tower (prison) for insisting on debate regarding the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Nor can we point to Shakespeare as an early proponent of free speech and democracy. Rather, Shakespeare seems to be fairly supple with his politics and does not use the stage as a campaign soapbox or a pulpit. In his Roman plays, particularly Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, he has his characters say quite cruel words about the proletariat, the common people: "You blocks, you stones, you less than senseless things!" But these are the words of characters who are among the losers by the end of the play. In his English history plays, Shakespeare is well aware of the relationship of the present monarch to those of the past whom he writes about. Thus, Richard III is an arch villain who well deserved being slain on the field of battle by Elizabeth's grandfather. Would the reader or the audience at the time expect anything different? Henry V, on the other hand, is a great hero who triumphed over the French at Agincourt and whose early and untimely death unfortunately led to the War of the Roses. Richard II is more problematic. Being forced to abdicate by Henry IV, Shakespeare presents us with a man who seems not to have been made to rule. As dramatized, Richard is clearly the wrong man for the wrong job. Moody and depressed, Richard's fate was sealed by his personality not his ideology. Which leads me back to my earlier remarks in the essay. Shakespeare is an imaginative writer not a philosopher or an ideologue. He is much more interested in people than abstract ideas. Perhaps because of censorship restrictions he expressed himself through interesting and complex people whom he visualized, indeed whom he created to provide us with lively and thoughtful entertainment.

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