illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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How did Elizabethan England's events influence William Shakespeare's works?

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Shakespeare lived in a fraught period, with events such as the Protestant Reformation, bloody religious wars on the continent, global exploration and expansion, and the rise of the Stuart dynasty occurring during his life. We can see these events reflected throughout his works.

For example, we see the emerging sense of English nationalism—a hallmark of the Elizabethan era—directly referenced in his so-called "history plays," which examine England's sense of past. Many scholars believe that Macbeth is full of references to modern politics, particularly the positive portrayal of Banquo, a mythical figure from whom James I—Elizabeth's successor—claimed descent. The Tempest was heavily influenced by stories stemming from England's early efforts at colonization.

Other developments in Elizabethan (and early Jacobean) England provide context for Shakespeare's works. The rapid spread of printing technology popularized his works, and those of many other playwrights. London increased dramatically in size due to the influx of thousands of people, including the middle-class merchants and artisans who went to the theater. Shakespeare's plays are heavily shaped by Elizabethan gender conventions. Some of his strongest characters—Juliet and Lady Macbeth, for example—are female. While they violated gender norms, so too did Queen Elizabeth herself in many ways.

These events and aspects of Elizabethan society profoundly shaped Shakespeare's works and his career. While his plays are often described as "timeless," it is important to remember that they were in fact products of a specific place and time.

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One sixteenth-century event that definitely influenced the works of William Shakespeare, and Hamlet in particular, was the Protestant Reformation. This was the effort, led by Martin Luther, to reform the Catholic Church—an effort that eventually led to a major break with Catholicism and the establishment of many separate Protestant churches. Lutheranism was one form of Protestantism; Calvinism was another form; and, in England, Anglicanism was yet another form. No other event of the sixteenth-century, perhaps, had a more important impact on Elizabethan culture as a whole and on Shakespeare’s writings in particular.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet presents a particularly interesting case when viewed in terms of the Protestant Reformation. Many critics have argued that the play takes a strongly Protestant view of religious matters, especially of the ghost. Many Protestants (especially Puritans) of the time would have seen the ghost as a spirit of evil, sent from the devil to tempt and corrupt Hamlet’s soul. Many Catholics, however, might have been more willing to see the ghost as a figure momentarily freed from Purgatory in order to help Hamlet serve as a “scourge of God”—a figure used by God to punish earthly evil.

To make matters even more complicated, while it has been traditional to imagine Shakespeare himself as a loyal Anglican (that is, a follower of the established Church of England, with Queen Elizabeth as its head), some recent scholars have provocatively argued that Shakespeare’s own religious sympathies were strongly (if secretly) Catholic. These scholars believe that Shakespeare could not openly express his Catholic religious opinions because Catholicism was technically illegal during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James. Yet they think he managed to imply his opinions in his works.

Hamlet himself is fully aware of the conflicting religious opinions of the time concerning ghosts, and he makes his awareness explicit, for instance, in the following words addressed to the ghost:

Hamlet.Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com'st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.

If the religious situation in Renaissance England had not been so complicated, Hamlet might have had a much more certain opinion about the nature and intentions of the ghost.

For an especially interesting discussion of these matters, see the excerpt from Eleanor Prosser's book, cited below.

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