William Shakespeare Questions and Answers

William Shakespeare book cover
Start Your Free Trial

How were Shakespeare's tragedies influenced by the society of his time? Are there specific themes, events, or characters in Shakespeare's tragedies that reflect cultural, social, or political events of the time?

Expert Answers info

farrahsayyed eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2018

write6 answers

starTop subjects are Literature and History

Though his plays were full of universal themes of love, betrayal, and power, Shakespeare was certainly influenced specifically by the society that existed at the time. Contemporary events influenced the stories themselves. For example, Shakespeare wrote during the Age of Exploration, when Europeans were increasingly faced with new lands and their inhabitants—in short, with "Otherness." This interest in (and perhaps fear of) Otherness manifests in the character of Caliban in The Tempest. Caliban is a native of the island that Prospero and Miranda are stranded on. Caliban is the epitome of the "Other"; he is a native of a different land, characterized by both magic and physical deformity. While this is certainly not an accurate image of the Other, Caliban seems to have been inspired by the interactions that were taking place due to the Age of Exploration, interactions that Shakespeare was certainly aware of.

Another example of Shakespeare's society's influence appears in Macbeth. At the time the play was written, King James was in power. James had been the king of Scotland. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth of England, who had no children, he was declared the next in line and became king of both Scotland and England. Macbeth focuses on a historical dispute over Scottish kingship, and the play alludes to the line of Scottish kings whom James claimed as ancestors, tacitly reinforcing the legitimacy of James's rule. If we think about Macbeth in context of who the king was at the time that the play was written, it isn't difficult to see how contemporary events influenced the creation of the play. These examples help illustrate that while Shakespeare has a universal appeal, he was also a product of the time in which he wrote.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial