How were the times reflected in the works of Cervantes and Shakespeare?
In Miguel de Cervantes' time, the rest of the world was changing, but Spain was not—it insisted upon holding on to the old ways.
While the rest of Europe is undergoing a period known as the Renaissance, Spain clings to its medieval values. The Roman Catholic Church is second only to the monarchy in terms of power. Spain is virtually ruled by Catholic laws and philosophies.
Cervantes had hoped to be an impressive name in the world of Spanish drama, but others far surpassed him. In Don Quixote, he uses one of his characters to criticize the theater of the time.
In chapter 48, the canon and the priest exchange thoughts about the Spanish stage and the plays that were most popular. Using these characters as spokespeople for his own views, Cervantes particularly criticizes the violations of the classical unities, the alterations in historical facts, the neglect of moral lessons, and even the character of some of the playwrights.
It seems that while other playwrights were experimenting with drama, Cervantes, like much of Spain, wanted to hold onto the old ways. His comments prompted a response and defense by playwright Lope de Vega. He took an introspective look at how and why he wrote his plays. If nothing else, Cervantes is given credit for encouraging (through his "commentary) one of Spain's greatest writers to take a critical look at his writing, which may well have affected future Spanish dramas.
If Spain was a country that rejected the Renaissance, and chose to follow the old ways of medieval times, England was just the opposite. The Renaissance began in Italy about 100 years before arriving in England. Queen Elizabeth I was, like her father (Henry VIII) before her, a great lover of the arts. England was finally recovering after many years of internal strife, and she encouraged the Renaissance. Shakespeare's plays and poetry reflected a "rebirth" in the arts. He wrote historical, tragic and comic dramas, and was well received. Even when Elizabeth died and James I (James VI of Scotland) came to the throne, Shakespeare continued to flourish. The monarchy was always at the forefront of any wise writer's mind, as is seen with Shakespeare's Macbeth. The hero, Banquo, is one of James I's ancestors, a nod from the bard to the King.
It is often said, and very true, that art imitates life. In Cervantes' work and that of Shakespeare, the effects of what was happening in the culture, politics, etc., of the time had its impact on both writers.