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The Author And His Times Essay Research

The Author And His Times Essay, Research Paper


William Shakespeare lived in a time of great change and excitement

in England- a time of geographical discovery, international trade,

learning, and creativity. It was also a time of international

tension and internal uprisings that came close to civil war.

Under Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) and James I (reigned

1603-1625), London was a center of government, learning, and trade,

and Shakespeare’s audience came from all three worlds. His plays had

to please royalty and powerful nobles, educated lawyers and

scholars, as well as merchants, workers, and apprentices, many of whom

couldn’t read or write. To keep so many different kinds of people

entertained, he had to write into his plays such elements as clowns

who made terrible puns and wisecracks; ghosts and witches; places

for the actors to dance and to sing the hit songs of the time; fencing

matches and other kinds of fight scenes; and emotional speeches for

his star actor, Richard Burbage. There is very little indication

that he was troubled in any way by having to do this. The stories he

told were familiar ones, from popular storybooks or from English and

Roman history. Sometimes they were adapted, as Hamlet was, from

earlier plays that had begun to seem old-fashioned. Part of

Shakespeare’s success came from the fact that he had a knack for

making these old tales come to life.

When you read Hamlet, or any other Shakespearean play, the first

thing to remember is that the words are poetry. Shakespeare’s audience

had no movies, television, radio, or recorded music. What brought

entertainment into their lives was live music, and they liked to

hear words treated as a kind of music. They enjoyed plays with

quick, lively dialogue and jingling wordplay, with strongly rhythmic

lines and neatly rhymed couplets, which made it easier for them to

remember favorite scenes. These musical effects also made learning

lines easier for the actors, who had to keep a large number of roles

straight in their minds. The actors might be called on at very short

notice to play some old favorite for a special occasion at court, or

at a nobleman’s house, just as the troupe of actors in Hamlet is asked

to play The Murder of Gonzago.

The next thing to remember is that Shakespeare wrote for a theater

that did not pretend to give its audience an illusion of reality, like

the theater we are used to today. When a housewife in a modern play

turns on the tap of a sink, we expect to see real water come out of

a real faucet in something that looks like a real kitchen sink. But in

Shakespeare’s time no one bothered to build onstage anything as

elaborate as a realistic kitchen sink. The scene of the action had

to keep changing to hold the audience’s interest, and to avoid

moving large amounts of scenery, a few objects would be used to help

the audience visualize the scene. For a scene set in a kitchen,

Shakespeare’s company might simply have the cook come out mixing

something in a bowl. A housewife in an Elizabethan play would not even

have been a woman, since it was considered immoral for women to appear

onstage. An older woman, like Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, would be

played by a male character actor who specialized in matronly roles,

and a young woman like Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia would be played

by a teenage boy who was an apprentice with the company. When his

voice changed, he would be given adult male roles. Of course, the

apprentices played not only women, but also pages, servants,

messengers, and the like. It was usual for everyone in the company,

except the three or four leading actors, to “double,” or play more

than one role in a play. Shakespeare’s audience accepted these

conventions of the theater as parts of a game. They expected the words

of the play to supply all the missing details. Part of the fun of

Shakespeare is the way his plays guide us to imagine for ourselves the

time and place of each scene, the way the characters behave, the parts

of the story we hear about but don’t see. The limitations of the

Elizabethan stage were significant, and a striking aspect of

Shakespeare’s genius is the way he rose above them.

Theaters during the Elizabethan time were open-air structures,

with semicircular “pits,” or “yards,” to accommodate most of the

audience. The pit could also serve as the setting for cock fights

and bear baiting, two popular arena sports of the time.

The audience in the pit stood on three sides of the stage. Nobles,

well-to-do commoners, and other more “respectable” theatergoers sat in

the three tiers of galleries that rimmed the pit. During breaks in the

stage action- and sometimes while the performance was underway-

peddlers sold fruit or other snacks, wandering through the audience

and calling out advertisements for their wares.

The stage itself differed considerably from the modern stage. The

main part, sometimes called the “apron” stage, was a raised platform

that jutted into the audience. There was no curtain, and the

audience would assume when one group of actors exited and another

group entered there had been a change of scene. Because there was no

curtain someone always carried a dead character off. It would, after

all, have spoiled the effect if a character who had just died in the

play got up in full view of the audience and walked off stage to

make way for the next scene. The stage often had one or more

trapdoors, which could be used for entry from below or in graveyard


Behind the main stage was a small inner stage with a curtain in

front of it. During productions of Hamlet, the curtain served as the

tapestry (or arras) that Claudius and Polonius hide behind when they

spy on Hamlet, and later it was opened to disclose Gertrude’s


Above the apron stage, on the second story, was a small stage with a

balcony. In Hamlet this small stage served as a battlement and in

Romeo and Juliet as the balcony in the famous love scene.

Still higher was the musicians’ balcony and a turret for sound

effects- drum rolls, trumpet calls, or thunder (made by rolling a

cannon ball across the floor).


Now that you know something about the theater he wrote for, who

was Shakespeare, the man?

Unfortunately, we know very little about him. A writer in

Shakespeare’s time was not considered special, and no one took pains

to document Shakespeare’s career the way a writer’s life would be

recorded and studied in our century. Here are the few facts we have.

Shakespeare was born in 1564, in the little English country town

of Stratford, on the Avon River. He was the grandson of a tenant

farmer and the son of a shopkeeper who made and sold gloves and

other leather goods. We know that Shakespeare’s family was well off

during the boy’s childhood- his father was at one point elected

bailiff of Stratford, an office something like mayor- and that he

was the eldest of six children. As the son of one of the wealthier

citizens, he probably had a good basic education in the town’s grammar

school, but we have no facts to prove this. We also have no

information on how he spent his early years or on when and how he

got involved with the London theater.

At 18 he married a local girl, Anne Hathaway, who gave birth to

their first child- a daughter, Susanna- six months later. This does

not mean, as some scholars believe, that Shakespeare was forced into

marriage: Elizabethan morals were in some ways as relaxed as our

own, and it was legally acceptable for an engaged couple to sleep

together. Two years later, Anne gave birth to twins, Hamnet (notice

the similarity to “Hamlet”) and Judith, but by this time Shakespeare’s

parents were no longer so well off. The prosperity of country towns

like Stratford was declining as the city of London and its

international markets grew, and so Shakespeare left home to find a way

of earning a living. One unverified story says Shakespeare was

driven out of Stratford for poaching (hunting without a license) on

the estate of a local aristocrat; another says he worked in his

early twenties as a country schoolmaster or as a private tutor in

the home of a wealthy family.

Shakespeare must somehow have learned about the theater, because the

next time we hear of him, at age 28, he is being ridiculed in a

pamphlet by Robert Greene, a playwright and writer of comic prose.

Greene called Shakespeare an uneducated actor who had the gall to

think he could write better plays than a university graduate. One

indication of Shakespeare’s early popularity is that Greene’s

remarks drew complaints, and his editor publicly apologized to

Shakespeare in Greene’s next pamphlet. Clearly, by 1592 the young

man from Stratford was well thought of in London as an actor and a new

playwright of dignity and promise.

Though England at the time was enjoying a period of domestic

peace, the danger of renewed civil strife was never far away. From

abroad came threats from hostile Roman Catholic countries like Spain

and France. At home, both Elizabeth’s court and Shakespeare’s

theater company were targets of abuse from the growing English

fundamentalist movement we call Puritanism. In this period, England

was enjoying a great expansion of international trade, and London’s

growing merchant class was largely made up of Puritans, who regarded

the theater as sinful and were forever pressing either the Queen or

the Lord Mayor to close it down. Then there were members of

Elizabeth’s own court who believed she was not aggressive enough in

her defiance of Puritans at home or Catholics abroad. One such man was

the Earl of Essex, one of Elizabeth’s court favorites (and possibly

her lover), who in 1600 attempted to storm the palace and overthrow

her. This incident must have left a great impression on Shakespeare

and his company, for they came very close to being executed with Essex

and his conspirators, one of whom had paid them a large sum to

revive Shakespeare’s Richard II, in which a weak king is forced to

abdicate, as part of a propaganda campaign to justify Essex’s

attempted coup d’etat.

The performance, like the coup, apparently attracted little support.

Elizabeth knew the publicity value of mercy, however, and

Shakespeare’s company performed for her at the palace the night before

the conspirators were hanged. It can hardly be a coincidence that

within the next two years Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, in which a play is

performed in an unsuccessful attempt to depose a reigning king. The

Essex incident must have taught him by direct experience the risks

inherent in trifling with the power of the established political


Elizabeth’s gift for keeping the conflicting elements around her

in balance continued until her death in 1603, and her successor, James

I, a Scotsman, managed to oversee two further decades of peace.

James enjoyed theatrical entertainment, and under his reign,

Shakespeare and his colleagues rose to unprecedented prosperity. In

1604 they were officially declared the King’s Men, which gave them the

status of servants to the royal household.

Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died in 1596, about four years before the

first performance of Hamlet. Whether he inspired the character of

Hamlet in any way, we probably will never know. Some scholars have

suggested that the approaching death of Shakespeare’s father (he

died in 1601) was another emotional shock that contributed to the

writing of Hamlet, the hero of which is driven by the thought of his

father’s sufferings after death. This is only speculation, of

course. What we do know is that Shakespeare retired from the theater

in 1611 and went to live in Stratford, where he had bought the

second biggest house in town, called New Place. He died there in 1616;

his wife Anne died in 1623. Both Shakespeare’s daughters had married

by the time of his death. Because Judith’s two sons both died young

and Susanna’s daughter Elizabeth- though she married twice and even

became a baroness- had no children, there are no descendants of

Shakespeare among us today.

On Shakespeare’s tombstone in Stratford is inscribed a famous rhyme,

putting a curse on anyone who dares to disturb his grave:


Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blest be the man that spares these stones,

And curst be he that moves my bones.


The inscription had led to speculation that manuscripts of

unpublished works were buried with Shakespeare or that the grave may

in fact be empty because the writing attributed to him was produced by

other hands. (A few scholars have argued that contemporaries like

Francis Bacon wrote plays attributed to Shakespeare, but this notion

is generally discredited.) The rhyme is a final mystery, reminding

us that Shakespeare is lost to us. Only by his work may we know him.

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