William Shakespeare was born into a world of words that took him from cold, stone castles in Scotland to the bustling cities of Italy and the high seas of colonial change. An emblem of the Renaissance, the Bard of Avon was not only the conqueror of his own mind and pen, but also of the language of his own social, political, and religious reality. His theatre, the epic Globe, mirrors the stories of the early, bustling London and ever-morphing England in the duration of its own life, from plank and dirt to flame and fame.
By 1598, Richard Burbage was the practicing don of the London theatre world, extending his fingertips for production all over the lively center of British commerce and governance. His players, a collection of all-male actors, were widely recognized throughout the theatre world, one of the only sources of popular entertainment.
Burbage produced the works of a variety of writers, including William Shakespeare, in his own space called "The Theatre." That year, however, Burbage ordered his company to pull down The Theatre and remove its timber to Bankside.
London was ripe with theaters, including the Hope, Theatre Royal at Whitehall, The Fortune, and The Blackfriars, among others.
Bankside was home to the most elite of all of these, The Rose and The Bear-Garden. There, on the southern shore of the Thames, Burbage ordered the popular carpenter Peter Street to erect a new playhouse. Burbage decorated the new theatre with an embellished sign depicting that classic Ayn Rand image of Atlas, bearing the globe on his shoulders, underlined by the legend: "Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem." A whole world of players did exist inside the wooden walls of the open-air theatre, where the Lord Chamberlain's Men mad their new home.
The Globe itself was an open-air, octagonal building the space of which is most largely occupied by its own stage. The building measured approximately 100 feet in diameter, of which the stage alone consumed 43 feet in width and 38 in depth.
The staging area itself was augmented by rudimentary trap doors in the flooring and overhead rigging to allow for production, and the scenery for each play was simple; unlike today, no garish painted trees cowered over the stage, instead, a mere sign would read "this is a forest."
It was from this unimposing medium, however, that the Bard's interminable works premiered. A small theatre with stadium seating and a thatched roof begot some of the greatest drama in history.
For all its material poverty, the Globe was still able to give esteem to the plays of Shakespeare, and even he noted the irony of such masterpieces premiering on "this unworthy scaffold," as he called it (Henry V, prologue to Act IV).
Such preeminent works on such a meager stage was not at all unusual at the time, though, as Europe as a whole was serving the same purpose on the larger social scale. Shakespeare made his debut as the historically undisputed king of Renaissance drama in England as the Renaissance took hold at a time when a marked dearth of literary excellence had engulfed not only the northern isle, but also much of Europe.
The Renaissance, French for "rebirth," was the dawn of early modern Europe as from Italy north, the ancient classical texts, learning, law, arts, and sciences grabbed hold of a continent in transition from the Middle Ages to a new era. The Renaissance began in earnest in Italy in the fourteenth century, but spread north to France under the auspice of Frances I, who had invaded Italy. While Frances I embraced artists like Da Vinci, the theories behind their movements in Italy took hold of writers and thinkers as well, like Rabelais. As universities rooted themselves in new thought processes, and the idea of thought recaptured the imagination of Europe as a whole, the status quo naturally came into question. The Protestant Reformation began with Luther, whose daring probe of the Catholic Church furthered the spread of knowledge, ideas, and the rekindled intellectual spirit marking the era.
The Low Countries of Germany were next in line as the rebirth of intellect swept Europe, and as the popularity of the Venetian school style swept northward, the winds of change, too, came to England. Writers like John Milton and Christopher Marlow wrote alongside Shakespeare, sometimes struggling in competition as the Elizabethan era ushered the Renaissance into England. The reign of Elizabeth, "Good Queen Bess," occurred during a brief period of calm in Tudor England in which the country's view was largely introverted and non-militaristic. The English Reformation was at an end, and the polarized, broiling turmoil between Protestants and Catholics and Parliament and monarchy had not yet engulfed the state.
Shakespeare, whose historical inclinations took him deep into the passions of the English monarchy, wrote about the monarchy in the Henries. The "History Plays" were among Shakespeare's most noted and widely received throughout time. The plays are separated into two distinct tetralogies, the first written in the early stages of his career.
1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, and Richard III narrate the fall of the Lancaster dynasty, which ended its reign in 1485; Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V make up the latter sequence. The stories narrate the battles amongst feuding noble houses, a topic familiar to all, and an absence of which everyone appreciated under the Elizabethan calm.
Elizabeth ruled the thrown of England from 1558 until 1603, when James I took control after her death. Both favored the Bard immensely, and James I even bestowed upon him the great compliment of renaming the Lord Chamberlain's Men as the King's Men.
Both were recorded in attendance at performances at the Globe, where "quality" audience were physically elevated above the peasantry in a material representation of the class system still widely at hold in England. The "plain people," or working classes, stood or squatted on the ground by the stage without any seating, while those of importance were either presented on the stage with the players or in the galleries, looking down.
The physical set up of the theatre was a conspicuous reminder of the strong class system of Europe, and particularly of England, where nobility was not just a representation of wealth but also a security for political power, and peasantry was not a parochial description for a bucolic lifestyle, but a true designation of "have-nots."
Society was divided with previously strong lines separating the upper class from the lower, yet more marred everyday by the burgeoning middle class. Regardless of the economic and financial changes that were beginning to be seen throughout Europe (and heard in social thought), the theoretical system of class boundaries was still critical to society in application.
The basics of the societal hierarchy climbed from servant to master to king. In the case of Elizabeth, the social system was turned slightly on its head with a woman at the helm of the state, but her good work redeemed her sex, and her insistence on a pacific status quo further engendered her to the public.
The master:servant relationship remained strong, and was outlined not only by rule but also by attitude. Sir Thomas Smith said, "a gentleman should go like a gentleman," meaning that there was a performance quality to position, and to properly secure one's role, its according characteristics had to be masterfully executed.
In ideology, the relationship between the master and the servant was mutually beneficial if socially inhibiting. A good master takes care of his servants, dressing and treating them well, and providing for them in his good name's sake. "The good master is proud but not despotic. He is patient, governing his household with fatherly care .... He maintains his superior station, as God gave it to him, by honorable behavior."
Likewise, a servant would treat his master with the appropriate dignity that such behavior would entitle and deserve. The servant, a groom, maid, or wait, was supposed to be attending to the master, in a very un-slave-like fashion, and could expect vails and douceurs as tips in response to their good work.
However, as standards of decorum are more guidelines than commands, these rules were more often disregarded than followed, leading not only to the role of servants in Shakespeare's plays, but also the class warfare looming near on the horizon.
Shakespeare's plays, as performed at the Globe and recorded in the indelible ink of classic literature, told the story of religion in Elizabethan England as well as history, stature, and daily life. Elizabeth I came to throne at a time of much religious division, as created by Henry VIII, denouncer of Catholicism for the sake of divorce, Edward VI, and Mary I, the great upholder of the Catholic Faith. In her constant search for calm inside England, Elizabeth supported parliament in two legislative acts to regulate the religious tribulation amongst her people.
In 1599, the Second Act of Supremacy was passed, restating the original Act…
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