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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ten Facts About Life in Shakespeare’s England

Shakespeare’s England, Life in Elizabethan and Jacobean Times is an excellent book edited by R. E. Pritchard that compiles and discusses primary documents from Shakespeare’s contemporaries in order to describe his world. This book offers us a unique insight into what exactly Shakespeare’s audience would have been thinking about while watching his plays, making connections between the turmoil on stage and that in London’s streets and England’s countryside.

1. The population was on the rise, going from 3 to 4.5 million during Shakespeare’s lifetime. To make matters worse, there was disease, rising prices without rising wages and increased social mobility that made life unstable. It was also the moment that England began to industrialize, expanding industries like cloth manufacture and mining.

2. Although marriages could be consummated at a very young age (12 for girls and 14 for boys), the average Elizabethan did not marry until his mid-twenties. Although women were “entirely under the power of their husbands,” companionship was sought in marriage before family or monetary gains (29). Courtship generally involved the exchange of rings, gloves or other tokens. Women tended to have six to seven children, and since contraception was primitive, premarital sex was not as common as we might think.

3. Under Elizabeth, England experienced an education boom due to the church reforms. By 1600, a third of the population was literate, although the rate was much higher in London, and reading had begun to become a part of daily life, explaining how pamphlets became useful political tools.

4. The Great Chain of Being dominated Elizabethan beliefs in the cosmos. Superstition was also widespread, despite its negative associations with Catholicism under Elizabeth, and astrology was a legitimate science. Witches were put on trial by being restrained and then thrown into water to see if they swam.

5. Elizabeth’s court was described by Sir Walter Raleigh as “[shining] like rotten wood” (129). There were around 1500 attendants overall, and sixty people who had access to the most private chambers. The Queen was never in one place for long, and inhabited different castles at different times of year, saving Whitehall for Parliament.

6. London had a population of 200,000 by 1600, since enclosure laws drove people into the city. Guilds held great power, but the city was run by the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and a Common Council.

7. The first theatres were established in “the Liberties,” or the southern suburbs, where brothels, bars, poorhouses, and asylums were found.

8. The poor were classified as “the impotent,” “the laboring” and “the idle” poor. Vagrants were everywhere as poverty increased, and riots frequently broke out, spreading fear among Elizabethans of crime and disorder.

9. Bastardry and infanticide peaked during Elizabeth’s time, which suggests that audiences of Richard III would have been sensitive to these issues in his plays.

10. There were over a thousand hangings in England and Wales every year, and beheading was reserved for those of higher rank.

Read more about Religion and Punishment in Elizabethan England.