Although fifteenth-century England had been a time of grave civil unrest and violence, by the time Shakespeare achieved prominence during Elizabeth and James’ reigns it was enjoying a period of socio-political security and respect for the arts. Queen Elizabeth’s reign extended from 1558 until 1603, when she was succeeded by the Scottish King James. Shakespeare received the patronage of both monarchs during his career as a playwright.
Elizabeth’s reign was not without its tensions. There was an intense religious climate in which the Queen had to act decisively. The religious tensions that existed during Elizabeth’s reign continued during James’ reign, when he was pitted against the Puritans. England had gone to war with Spain. In other foreign affairs, the Queen was moderate, practicing a prudent diplomatic neutrality. There were, however, several plots on her life.
There was also evidence of progress. The nation experienced a commercial revolution. Elizabeth’s government instituted two important social measures: “the Statute of Artificers” and the “Poor Laws,” both of which were aimed at helping the people displaced and hurt by changing conditions. Laws were passed to regulate the economy. Explorers started to venture into the unknown for riches and land. The machinery of government was transformed. The administrative style of government replaced the household form of leadership.
The Elizabethan Age was an age that made a great writer like Shakespeare and his contemporaries possible. It produced excellent drama; Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour are two examples. Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser produced masterpieces during Elizabeth’s reign. Shakespeare was in good company.
Shakespeare was well suited to the English Renaissance, with its new-found faith in the dignity and worth of the individual. Shakespeare profoundly understood human nature and provided us with some of the most imaginative character studies in drama. Shakespeare wrote for his company of players, known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He achieved considerable prosperity as a playwright. In addition to his artistic brilliance, Shakespeare wrote under the influence of the philosophy and effervescent spirit of the Elizabethan Age. Notably, we find the presence of the “Great Chain of Being,” a view of life that started with Plato and Aristotle, in some of his plays. Furthermore, other ideas and social structures established in the Middle Ages still held sway during the early seventeenth century.
Shakespeare could display his universality and penetration in the public theater for his audience. His work, largely free of didactic and political motives, proved very entertaining.
The date of the composition of Twelfth Night is fixed around 1600. In using his creative powers on original sources, such as the Plautine Gl’Ingannati and Barnabe Rich’s “Of Apolonius and Silla,” Shakespeare was following a Renaissance tradition of working creatively with original situations. Shakespeare thus enjoyed artistic freedom and encouragement to produce a play like Twelfth Night for his audience, knowing that it would entertain viewers of all ages and status.
*Illyria. Region on the east shore of the Adriatic Sea, between Italy and Greece. Its history is marked by waves of conquering invaders, from early Slavs to Ottoman Turks. In William Shakespeare’s time, Illyria—still part of the Ottoman Empire—was a group of city-states controlled by Venice. In the play, Illyria is distinctly Italianate, making for an atmosphere that is congenial to romance, with the seacoast providing an apt setting for plot conveniences of shipwreck, separated twins (Viola and Sebastian), and exotic adventures. At Illyria, fantasies and dreams are realized, and lessons are learned. There Viola is transformed from a woman to a man to “Orsino’s mistress,” and there she is finally able to live in an earthly Elysium.
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