The Age of Shakespeare in English Literature

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      When considered chronologically, Shakespeare's dramatic work seems to fall naturally into four periods, which have been described by Professor Dowden. First, from about 1500 to 1595-96, year of dramatic apprenticeship and experiment; secondly; from about 1595-96 to about 1600-1601, the period of the English historical plays and the mirthful and joyous comedies; thirdly; from 1601 to about 1608, the period of grave or bitter comedies and of the great tragedies; last, from about 1608 to 1611 or 1613, the period of the romantic plays which are at once grave and glad, serene and beautiful.

      Professor Dowden names these periods respectively: "In the workshop", "Out of the depths", and "On the heights". A man's work is usually best in his middle years, when he has acquired the experience that youth lacks, yet retains the freshness, daring, and resilience which would soon be lost with age. So it was with Shakespeare, whose genius is seen at its height in the production of hi? middle years—in the romantic comedies: As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Much Ado About Nothing, and in the great tragedies, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth.

      Shakespeare was fortunate in the moment of his advent on the stage. The English people have successfully passed through a period of probation. The Elizabethan age was permeated by a new sense of national unity. Loyalty to the crown and the country was the prime virtue of a citizen. Under Queen Elizabeth I, the nation longed for unity and peace. The political question was how unity, and power might be achieved and consolidated against the force of anarchy, against domestic treason and foreign aggression. The consciousness of England’s maritime power, the defeat of the Spanish Annada, the Queen’s love for her subjects had their short in fostering the national feeling. An intense patriotism became an outstanding feature of the age. This sense of nationality is best monitored in the chronicles and in the historical plays of Shakespeare.

      London in Shakespeare’s day presented the spectacle of a medieval city bursting its physical and spiritual bonds under the stimulus of the Renaissance. It was the one city in England that came fully under the influence of this movement. The old religion had lost its hold upon the people and Puritanism had not yet become predominant. If London had any religion it was that of patriotism. The great city was devoutly loyal to the country and the Queen. The sovereign in Elizabethan England was regarded almost as a divinity,

      Queen Elizabeth believed in a common form of worship as that would help to strengthen the state. Her personal religious convictions were tolerant. The Romanists were persecuted because they refused to regard the Queen as the head of the English Church. She disliked the Puritans because they opposed individual opinions to the authority of the Church of which she was the head. Old beliefs and old traditions were giving way to newer ideals of life.

      The Elizabethan age, like the Periclean Age of Athens, was an age of increased prosperity. Manufacture, Commerce and wealth increased immensely and contacts with foreign countries, particularly France and Italy, brought many changes in the social life of the people and affected their manners and customs, as in Portia’s description of a suitor: “How oddly he is suited. I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his roundhouse in France, his bonnet in Germany and his behavior everywhere.”

      It was an age of intense curiosity and exuberant joy of life. Life ran glittering in the open sunshine. Stately villas were built with long gable roofs. Their food, as their furniture, savored of excellence and refinement. New and strange herbs and fruits were brought over from the Indies and other parts of the world. Their tastes in wine and meat were fastidious. Traveling was a great passion with the Elizabethans. A visit to Italy was regarded as an essential part of education. Jacques in As You Like It is a caricature of the much traveled and Italianate youth of the age. Land travel was risky and highway robberies were common. The “knaves in buckram” and the “Gadshill robbery”, in Henry IV are a sufficiently representative picture. The police of the age of Shakespeare was notoriously inefficient as has been shown k Dogberry add Verges in Much Ado about Nothing. The age love sports but the sports and pastimes were somewhat brutal. Cock fighting and bear-baiting attracted huge crowds. In As You Like It the character Touchstone says: “Thus men may grow wiser every day; it is the first time that ever I heard breaking of ribs was sport for ladies.”

      The great majority of people of the age believed in witchcraft and superstition and Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to these. Hamlet asks the Ghost, “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned”. Macbeth is set an a background of witchcraft. Kent in King Lear says, “It is the stars, the stars above us govern our conditions”. Belief in witchcraft and the efficacy of charms was also very strong and Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to these beliefs. Shakespeare’s public, therefore, loved romantic representations of ghosts, witches and the like and this was probably instrumental in making Shakespeare select such themes as the tale of Hamlet or Macbeth.

      The age of Shakespeare is an age of glory in the life and literature of the English people. It is an epoch which came in the wake of and was largely influenced by the Renaissance movement. Sir Walter Raleigh says: “The imagination of the age was intoxicated by a new sense of power and freedom because of two new surprising vistas, revealed at the same time; the first of these was the civilization of the ancient world, rediscovered by the enthusiasm of scholars and the second was the discovery of the j new world and its illimitable possibilities of which many interesting accounts appeared holding in thrill the imagination of people.” It j was a time of great curiosity and self-consciousness. The spirit of following knowledge “like a sinking star to the utmost bounds of I human thought” is found in Marlowe’s Faustus and Tamburlaine and in Bacon’s saying, “I have taken all knowledge to be my, province.” The spirit of the age is aptly reflected in Shakespeare’s I rhapsody on the godlike nature of man in Hamlet:

“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason; how finite in faculties, in form and moving; how expressive and admirable in action: how like an angel. In apprehension how like a god. The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.”

      The desire after illimitable knowledge found concrete expression in adventure and exploration. People loved to go on risky voyages to unknown parts of that world and also to read of such risky adventures in books like Haklyut’s Voyages and Eden’s History of Travail. Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to those “moving accidents by flood and field” that fell to these adventures. In Othello, we learn of

“antres vast and deserts idle
Rough quarries, rocks and hills
whose heads touch heaven
And of the cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

      Their daily life was crammed within the city walls with narrow streets, open gutters and low roots. Outside the city stood the theatres and the Paris Garden, taverns and houses.

      Shakespeare lived in an age of glitter and pageantry, of squalor and wickedness. The crowded and dirty city was often swept with epidemics. Two plagues occurred in Shakespeare’s own lifetime. We have evidence that the sanitary condition of the country was very bad. The floors of royal dining rooms and I reception chambers were strewn with rushes and grasses and were “not changed till they had become too filthy to be tolerated. Disagreeable smells were disguised by the practice of burning fumes. We find references to the custom in Much Ado about Nothing where Shakespeare refers to “smoking a musty room”.

      The rule of the council (the Municipal Governing Body) was of a very paternal character. If a man lived immorally he was summoned to the Guildhall and rigorously examined as to the truth of the rumor. If his guilt was proved and he refused to reform he was ordered to leave the town. No journeyman, apprentice or servant might by out of doors after nine o'clock at night. Alehouse keepers were not allowed to brew their own ale, or to serve poor workmen except at stated times of the day, under a penalty of fine and imprisonment. Dogs were not allowed to go on the streets unmuzzled. Every inhabitant had to go to church at least once a month. Medical science was in an elementary stage. The age showed a considerable measure of “man’s inhumanity to man as well as to animals. The amount of ignorance and superstition which prevailed with regard to medicine and surgery was appalling. Blood letting and purging were the usual remedies. The treatment of mental disorders was even more revolting. The cure for madness was to confine the wretched lunatic in a dark cell, as in the case of Malvolio, in Twelfth Night and to flog him. People believed in the efficacy of magic spells and charms.

      Shakespeare lived in an age when the drawback existed in the proper representation of stage plays. His plays were written primarily to be acted, not to be printed. They are for the stage and not for the book-seller. He wrote for the Elizabethan theatres, the Theatre the Curtain, the Globe, and the Black Friars. The buildings used for dramatic entertainment were of two classes, public theatres and private theatres. There was no essential difference. The private theatres were wholly roped in, whereas the public theatres except over the stage and boxes were open to the sky. In private theatres, the performances took place by the light of candles and in the public theatres by daylight. In the absence of anything like scenery and setting, the attention of the audience was directed primarily to the action and to the actors. In Shakespeare’s day, the play was the thing and not the trappings of the play. The stage was surrounded on all sides by the audience and the players were seen from many points of view. It abounds in life-like characters. This is largely due to the fact that the actors were not puppets seen at a assistance, but live men moving among their fellows and in close with them. The intimacy also explains certain tricks like the soliloquy and the aside.

      Shakespeare’s audience was a representation in miniature of Shakespeare’s nation, the English people of Elizabeth’s day. In serious action, it wanted plenty of fighting, armies on the stage or duels to death. There were frequent street fights such as Shakespeare showed in Romeo and Juliet. Royalty itself delighted, the bloody sports of bear and bull-baiting. Executions were public spectacles and crowds gathered to see the savage punishment inflicted on traitors. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s audience was intensely patriotic. The average Englishman believed that an Englishman was the noblest work of God and that England was the best and the noblest of all countries. There is no such exalted expression of love of country, in English, perhaps in any literature, as that which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of the dying John of Gaunt. Like most audiences in most ages, the Elizabethan came to the theatre to escape from the sordid realities of daily life. They loved tales of chivalry, of magic, of enchanted islands, of witches and fairies. But even in these, they liked a touch of the familiar daily life. They loved romance and liked reality and so when Shakespeare sent his lovers wandering in the fairy haunted wood near Athens, he brought in Bottom and his crew, typical English homespuns, who give a note of realism to his fantastic play.

      The age of Shakespeare loved the humours of simple country folk. Shakespeare was never tired of introducing them into I his plays whether in comedy, as Dogberry and Verges in Much Ado I about Nothing, or in tragedy, as the grave-diggers in Hamlet; or the clown who brings the asp to Cleopatra. Shakespeare belonged to a free-spoken age and it is absurd to think of him as lowering himself to get a laugh from the yard when he and his noble friends probably enjoyed the joke as much as the groundings. In Shakespeare’s time, blank verse had come to be the recognized medium for dramatic expression. The Elizabethan age has been called “a nest of singing birds”. The English people before the Puritan revolution were famous singers. The music, of course, was instrumental as well as vocal. Shakespeare’s plays are full references to the various instruments of the day. Music is used wake a sleeper, or lament the dead, to minister as in Lear, to mind deceased. The proper way to court a lady was by writing sonnets to her beauty. Orlando was merely following the fashion, the day when he festooned the trees of Arden with poems in praise of Rosalind. In short, Shakespeare provided all the elements of his age in his plays with a view to cater to the needs and tastes of the audience.

      Critics tell us that in the age of Shakespeare the female parts were played by men and boys in women’s dress. Portia in the play. The Merchant of Venice, makes an oblique comment. She says:

“I’ll hold thee any wager,
When we are both accoutered like young men,
I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two
And wear my dagger with the braver grace
And speak between the change of man and boy
With a ready voice; and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride”.

      It is unbelievable that boys with cracked voice did justice to such parts as those of Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra.

      The age of Shakespeare was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of unbelief; it was the season of Light; it was the season of Darkness; it was the Spring of hope; it was the winter of despair All the opinions are to be found In its literature. This diversity is perhaps the most significant characteristic of the age.

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