- William Shakespeare is the most influential of England's writers. He was a very successful and original playwright of the 16th century, but also a result of his time's background: The Renaissance, The Reformation, and the constant power struggles in England. And he marks the beginning of a new literary age.
- The Renaissance and Reformation were principally about individuality, about breaking from the uniformity and oppression of the old, reaching towards individual development and diversity.
Their sources lie in the revitalizing of old secular civil ideals, which resulted in this new individuality and criticality against established, and in the growing opposition against many of the excessive authorities.
The result was, of course, great struggles between religious values, secular values, and the new, humanistic and liberal values; and the outcomes of these struggles was determined by the relation between religious powers and secular powers, and to what degree these secular powers were humanistic and liberal.
But what is important is that all these struggles and value clashes opened up for new thinking and new conduct. Conflict, when not to great, is generally good for development.
- The time of the Renaissance did not differ much from The Middle Ages. The Reformation did most the changes, and the Renaissance slowly made a difference too, but as a whole, the spirit and development of the Renaissance was mostly confined to a minority. But it grew and had dialectical relations with the rest of its time. And its legacy for posterity, what we remember and appreciate today of that time's achievements, stemmed from just that growing and influencing minority.
The Renaissance was a rediscovery of, and a return to, the long neglected antique teachings, especially Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca.
In opposition to the actualities of the time, Renaissance thinking put Man in the centre. Leaving the dogmatism of religion and theology, intellectuals started to think independently, and Philosophy blossomed again.
- All intellectual activity was affected by this new movement beyond dogma toward truth by argument, through independent searching.
The Reformation was a conflict between the new Biblical Christianity and the conservative Catholic Church. It started as a doctrinal disagreement, as an intellectual opposition against the practice of the Catholic Church.
Protestantism was very popular among ambitious secular leaders and the oppressed proletarians. Cities and countries soon took sides in this doctrinal schism, which resulted in actual wars.
England - The Rose Wars
- In 1066 William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy, proclaimed himself king of England.
England then ended up with a frenschspeaking Norman aristocracy obsessed on continental conquering for 400 years.
The wars went well for England, but at the end and at the height of their power, the French beat them and wiped away many conquerings, which brought the English ruling class to realize their concerns should really be for their own country.
- England was a decentralized, disunited state trapped in a feudal system. Power was unevenly distributed between many powerhungry rivalizing nobles, forming a pyramid of power with the King seemingly on top with the Pope and God above him. The people still had little power.
In the 15th century, the balance of power collapsed, when the Plantagenet dynasty was split between two branches of the family, the Lancasters and the Yorks, fighting each other over the throne. This very bloody conflict is called The Rose Wars, and it was well remembered in Shakespeare's England. Shakespeare played on this remembrance and interest by dramatizing nearly the whole conflict through his historical plays.
- The conflict ended in the beginning of the 16th century, when Henry VII of the Lancaster family married Elizabeth of York, and then murdered all potential heirs to the throne. He thereby reunited the Lancaster family and put an end to the wars. Henry further consolidated his position by taking power from the strong nobility and centralizing it with the throne. England was becoming united under one sovereign.
- Henry VIII followed Henry VII. He was obsessed with having a son. That is why he married six times.
When in 1529 the Pope would not allow him to divorce his first wife, Henry decided to support the Reformation.
This break from The Catholic Church affected England's relations to other, catholic countries, and many catholic resistance groups long threatened the throne, but it satisfied the people, who were becoming tired of the subjection to Rome. It created an inner conflict in England that would last through the century, but at the same time accentuated England's individuality, unity and independence.
The struggle for power
- Henry VIII was succeeded by his young son Edward in 1547. His protestant advisors ruled through him.
- He soon died, and was succeeded by his sister Mary in 1553. She led a terror regime trying to restore Catholicism and subjection to Rome, reversing all the English state had worked for the last 24 years.
- When Mary died of illness in 1558, the protestant Elizabeth, daughter of Henry, became queen.
She inherited an unstable state that was tearing itself apart within and threatened from outside. She went through extreme difficulties, but managed to stabilize the country, and ruled for 45 years.
Elizabeth used her excellent diplomatic-, political-, economical-, and organizing abilities to eliminate her English enemies, and survive her outer enemies. She finished her father's work by supporting the protestant church.
The subjection of the church to the state created a different emphasis of society. The individuals' lives were no longer dominated by religion and tradition, but rather by the nonreligious affairs everyone is responsible to. Society became more tolerant, and ideas and innovations were given more room to develop.
- The theatre of Shakespeare's age derived its popularity from being a replacement for the religious entertainment that went with the catholic church.
It was a development out of the new tolerance and secular, humanistic focus, partly the result of The Renaissance, partly of the Reformation.
And it was inspired by the rediscovery of the antique writers.
- The players were organized in travelling troupes performing in different places for different kinds of people. These troupes shared the expenses and profits. They were always looking for new plays to buy, and many actors also wrote plays. There was a great influence and cooperation between actor and writer.
- In the beginning they performed either in open places or in the houses of aristocrats. Eventually, troupes began buying their own indoor theatres and building great outdoor theatres. Shakespeare's troupe owned one indoor and one outdoor theatre, but performed frequently for aristocrats and royals.
- The theatre of Shakespeare's age was a new theatre, employing new ideas and developments in attempts to surpass the old antique masters. This was a great contrast to the monotonous religiously inspired plays of The Middle Ages.