Socio-Political Background of Shakespeare’s Times

Every man in a sense is the product of his age and since Shakespeare was a man, he must have represented his age. This is not to say that he did not exceed his age for that would be to strip him of his native genius, the indelible mark of which is impressed forever in the history of world literature. It is just to point out that such a remarkable man represented in his person and works a very remarkable age, Elizabethan England.

Queen Elizabeth after whom the age in England is known as Elizabethan Age was another remarkable personality and so too was Sir Walter Raleigh, the soldier-scholar-statesman, a symbol of Elizabethan Renaissance and resembling in his own way Leonardo Da Vinci, the symbol and spirit of Italian Renaissance. We may ere refer, perhaps profitably, to Shakespeare’s ideal of a Renaissance man in the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet and all these personalities, physical or fictive, who may offer us important clues to the social and political ferment of the age in which Shakespeare lived and wrote.

While a reference to uncommon men and women of the age will live us important insight into the socio-political background of the times and particularly the political side of the story which was mostly enacted at the royal Court encircled by the rising aristocracy, it would be unjust to forget the role of the common people of England, those men at the pits in an Elizabethan theatre, moulding the attitudes and tastes of the times. At least they were ken good care of by Shakespeare himself in his plays and in his working life.

With Elizabeth I firmly established on the English throne, the Church of England grew into a national, Protestant institution wing allegiance to the monarch. The religious break with Rome was complete although it was not a clean severance from the English past. However, this single development by itself meant an alteration in the balance of socio-political forces in England, which could not but affect decisively the different arts and ways of thought and habits.

In fact, it was a thrilling age pulsating with life and adventure in every walk of English life. The Queen had brought the church under her sway, vanquished the rival power of feudalism while the challenge of Parliament lay in future to disturb James I. People in general wanted a strong government that could secure peace from external aggression of Spain and prosperity at home after the bloody civil wars. In Southern Europe there was a general reawakening that made Europeans conscious of their glorious past that was Greece and Rome. The Greek and Roman classics began to be studied. A new interest was felt as a result of the new bearing consequent to Renaissance for mathematics and astronomy, which naturally led to much navigational adventures. It took some time for this spirit of Renaissance which originated in Italy to travel north and then turn west into the shores of Britain. But when it came into Elizabethan England, the ground was ready to receive it with open arms and the sowing was good and the harvesting still better.

While the Renaissance awakened the interests in Greek and Roman classics, which first influenced the University men and then the artists of the various performing arts, particularly the drama, the native English tradition was never given a go-bye. Rather there was a curious blending between the two modes of culture and literature to produce a new literature of which Shakespeare vas the greatest representative. It was Shakespeare who mirrored his age most perfectly and his plays truly reflect the political, social and cultural upheavals of the times.

We have observed already that Elizabethan England created a new culture that arose out of the interactions between Renaissance influence and native tradition. We have also noted the politico- economic changes as a result of the submission of feudal lords and the English church to the authority of the English crown. The latter factor changed the colour of the royal Court and it had its main ramifications on the ruling aristocracy whose effect was rather distant on the English masses. It is this ruling class that imbibed most readily the influences of the Renaissance that came to England from Italy via the continent. However, as the influence of the Court was bound to be decisive on performing arts and particularly the drama staged in the Capital, London, we find a definite change in the texture of the English plays of the period following the influence of Italian, Roman and Greek drama and literature. This, however, did not obliterate the mass tradition in English literature and the masses in England lived rather uninfluenced by the political currents and cross-currents of the English Court, although the economic consequence of the changes from a feudal to a capitalist order was to affect them adversely at the end of the Elizabethan age. The masses during Shakespeare’s life-time remained rooted in their rural culture and devoted to the hearty love of dance and music and buffoonery. They also liked scenes of physical violence to which particularly the Londoners in common were accustomed enjoying the sight of bear-baiting or open execution of criminals. Masses did also retain their medieval outlook in general and their beliefs and superstitions in ghosts and other supernatural things, such as the efficacy of magic and wizardry.

Shakespeare born in rural England and come to the capital for the sake of a living, understood in his own inimitable way the various forces at work and he alone could and did combine all these apparently contradictory elements into his form of Romantic plays. The range of interests of Elizabethan literature was certainly a function of Renaissance but the vitality of the language arose out of the oral tradition of speech and thought rooted in the communal life of medieval English masses, urban and rural. As was perhaps inevitable, the old communitarian tradition and the new individualistic Renaissance influence first clashed and then combined to produce a rich and invigorated idiom of literature. It will be seen that this rich and new idiom was handled by professional writers like Shakespeare in addressing a mixed public accustomed more to listening than to reading and living a group life. It was still the triumph of the oral communal native tradition over the privacy of individual living. As a result we find that Elizabethan literature in general lacks the conversational and psychological intimacy of a modern novel but surpasses everything in expressing sensation and the demonstrative aspects of feeling. Its tendency to an excess of eloquence is a testimony to the synthesizing efforts of the age for such eloquence has its source both in popular tradition and the educational methods of the Renaissance humanists.

To sum up, we may better quote from L. G. Salingar: “These factors together largely explain why the drama was the chief form of Elizabethan art. Like music, the second national medium, drama was a communal art, admitting personal virtuosity.” The drama with all its scenes of pageantry or pomp or festivals celebrates communal events communally and in the process unravels many prominent features of the Elizabethan age. “And the central theme of Elizabethanliterature is the clash between individuals and the claims of social order”.

Ardhendu De

Ref:Time and Art in Shakespeare's Romances by L. G. Salingar