Elizabethan Drama

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What were some of the social and political aspects of the Elizabethan age that affected drama?

One of the political aspects of the Elizabethan age that affected drama was the stability of the English crown. Under Queen Elizabeth, England had enjoyed a long period of relative peace and prosperity. This led playwrights such as Shakespeare to warn against the dangers of violent change in the existing order. One can see this in Julius Caesar, where the murder of a ruler leads to chaos, bloodshed, and tyranny.

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Elizabethan drama was strongly influenced by the reign of "Good Queen Bess" and the relative peace, prosperity, and stability that it brought to a country previously fractured by political and religious divisions. All drama, to some extent, reflects the time in which it is written, and Elizabethan drama is no...

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exception. It is inevitable, therefore, that the powerful support that Queen Elizabeth enjoyed among the vast majority of her subjects was reflected in the works of the foremost English playwrights.

The most important English playwright was, of course, Shakespeare, who in a number of his plays showed his audiences the potentially dangerous consequences of violent change. The prime example of this would be Macbeth, though that was written under Elizabeth's successor, King James I. However, Macbeth developed themes that had already been explored elsewhere by Shakespeare, most notably in Julius Caesar.

This play was written and first performed toward the end of Elizabeth's reign, when it was clear that the queen was not in the best of health. Thoughts among many of her subjects naturally turned toward the succession. As the last thing anyone wanted was a return to the bitter divisions of the past, it was imperative that the forthcoming handover of power should be as smooth and as peaceful as possible.

That's not what happens in Julius Caesar, of course, where a ruler is brutally assassinated by his political rivals. The ensuing civil war, which set Roman against Roman, is intended by Shakespeare as a salutary reminder of what can happen if the lawful ruler is unceremoniously deposed by an act of violence. One detects a sense of anxiety that the imminent end of Elizabeth's reign would usher in a period of disorder in the kingdom she had worked so hard to unite.

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With the defeat of the Spanish in 1588, England's position as a world power was secured. This occurred as a kind of crowning achievement for Queen Elizabeth and her administration after a period during which other disorders and problems that had plagued the country had been mostly resolved. There was no question now about the fact that England had severed itself from Roman Catholicism. Mary Stuart, Elizabeth's Catholic rival, had been executed for treason, though with the very reluctant approval of the Queen. The now stable situation in England was a far cry from what it had been a century earlier in the immediate aftermath of the Wars of the Roses and the seizing of power by Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII and began the Tudor dynasty.

These triumphant events were an encouragement for artistic achievement and splendor. In the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the other writers of the period, one feels a confidence, a sense that these men were self-consciously creating the art of a people who had achieved greatness and, though it's only in hindsight that we know this, whose language would one day become the lingua franca of the world, as Latin had become for Europe.

The historical plays often deal with violent past conflicts which have been resolved. Shakespeare's Henry V is about victory over France; Richard III is about the defeat of the Yorkists to end the Wars of the Roses. In plays dealing with ancient history, there are parallels implicitly drawn with Elizabethan England. In Julius Caesar, for example, when Cassius says, "Some to the common pulpits, and cry out, / 'Liberty, freedom and enfranchisement!'," and follows this later with, "How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?", my opinion is that this is, by extension, a reference to English liberty. However, the overall message of the play is an ambivalent one, where we cannot ultimately decide whether Caesar was, in fact, "the noblest man that ever lived in the tide of times," or whether the conspirators were champions of freedom. The fact that these political and philosophical questions were openly aired in drama is evidence of a spirit of freedom and of an enthusiasm in the public consciousness for ideas, made possible, at least in part, by the stability and achievements of the Queen's reign.

Though it is partly true that the suppression of Roman Catholicism represented the denial of freedom of thought, at the same time, issues affecting religion and philosophy were openly dealt with in both Shakespeare's and Marlowe's plays. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is concerned with a man who strives for more than a devout, religious life. Shakespeare, especially in Hamlet and King Lear, presents characters in situations where they speculate on the hereafter and on existential issues in a way that would not have been possible in an earlier time. In conclusion, we can say that the Elizabethan age was one in which triumph and stability in the political and social realm contributed to, and were reflected by, the achievements in English drama.

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Because Elizabeth’s reign was long and relatively peaceful, society was able to pursue some entertainments more fully than during other reigns. London society, especially, flourished from economic windfalls from peace and from exploration, and since the Queen herself (and therefore all English royalty) enjoyed and supported stage plays, these public presentations, in town and later on the South Bank of the Thames, became the largest public gatherings in this time (challenged only by certain religious gatherings). Travelers from all parts of the world saw London and England in general as a safe and profitable destination for goods and services. Theatre was a place where classes could mix with some ease (although there was a price difference in seating and “groundling” accommodations). Finally, progress in printing and selling play scripts after their performance life meant that non-Londoners could also enjoy the work as literature.

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