Historical Context

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The Reign of Elizabeth
This poem was written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. It was an exciting time of growth and prosperity for the country. Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII (1491- 1547) and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry had six wives over the course of his lifetime, forcing him to separate England from the Roman Catholic church in order to follow his desire to divorce freely. After Henry’s death in 1547, he was followed by Elizabeth’s half-brother Edward, who was then only ten years old. Edward was king briefly until he died of tuberculosis in 1553. Because of a bill that one of his dukes, John Dudley, had him sign when he was dying, succession to the crown fell to Lady Jane Gray, who was Dudley’s daughter-in-law. She reigned for four days until Mary I, another of Henry’s children, was able to restore control of the crown to the Tudor dynasty. Elizabeth supported Mary, who was her half-sister, but Mary did not trust her because Elizabeth was a Protestant (Mary was a devout Catholic). Mary had Elizabeth locked up in the Tower of London in 1554. Elizabeth became queen in 1558 when Mary I died. There were plots against Elizabeth, but none were powerful enough to remove her from the crown. The Catholics wanted her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots to be queen, so she had Mary imprisoned; when she had Mary executed in 1587, Spain, which was a predominantly Catholic country, attacked England, hoping to defeat Protestantism and to take control from Elizabeth. Unexpectedly, with some luck and well-planned maneuvers, the British navy was able to defeat the Spanish Armada, and so Britain began to rise to the status of a world power. After years of struggle for the crown of England, the court settled down with one monarch who went on to rule for 45 years. Shakespeare, who was born in 1564, had spent his whole life under the reign of Queen Elizabeth at the time that his sonnets were written.

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The Plague
During Elizabeth’s reign England experienced a population explosion. By 1558 the population was four times what it had been a hundred and fifty years earlier. Between Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 and his death in 1616, the number of people in Britain grew by another fifty percent. One reason was England’s ascension to world power status, bringing immigrants from other countries. Another reason was the relative stability brought by Elizabeth’s reign after hundreds of years of fighting between Catholics and Protestants for control of the country. One result of this huge sudden growth was overcrowding in the cities, especially London. The crowded conditions created poor sanitary conditions that provided a breeding ground for disease. Between 1538 and 1640, numerous epidemics swept across the country, especially the highly communicable bubonic plague. One key factor was the inability to keep the afflicted isolated from the healthy population under such conditions. Another contributing factor was the fact that rodents and the fleas that infest them are both capable of carrying the bubonic plague bacterium Yersinia pestis. Rats and mice thrive in crowded areas, where food and waste are not properly disposed of, and it was poor areas that were generally the most crowded. More poor areas were created by the rampant inflation that resulted from the population boom, opening up conditions for even quicker spread of the disease. In 1592 and 1593, the health authorities of London ordered the theaters to remain closed in an effort to slow the spread of the plague at public gatherings. It is believed that Shakespeare, whose career as an actor and dramatist was stalled by the theater closings, wrote his sonnets during this time of unemployment.

Literary Style

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The sonnet (from the Italian “sonnetto”, or “little song”) owes much of its long-standing popularity to the...

(The entire section contains 1923 words.)

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Critical Essays