We don't know for a fact who wrote the plays and poems commonly attributed to "Shakespeare". If we had incontrovertible proof as to who wrote them there would be no controversy as to who "Shakespeare" was. We don't even know if "Shakespeare" is a pseudonym or was a real person, or whether that "real person" was William Shakespeare of Stratford Upon Avon. All we have is a list of candidates who might have written the plays and poems.

Life was very different in those days from our present life. There were no vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, no cars, no buses, no trains, no trucks, no planes, no air conditioning, no freezers or refrigerators, no electricity, no oil, gas or electric furnaces, no steamships, no computers, not even high efficiency wood burning stoves, no pianoforte, no symphonies, no TV, no radio. When was this time of Shakespeare? It had to be between about 1500 and 1630, say, and mostly over 400 years ago. So what was there then?

Let's try to recreate in our minds something of the kind of human existence there was in that England. Henry 8th came to the throne of England in 1509. He died in 1547. He was clever, strong and popular in his youth. He was athletic, a good musician, a poet and well educated. He had married Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess. He was a catholic and so was she. But with only a daughter after 23 years of marriage he wanted a male heir and had a long intellectual contest with the catholic Pope over his marriage. Money flowed to the Pope in Rome from all European countries. But although Henry cut himself off from Rome and although Erasmus lectured at Oxford University and Protestantism was developing, Henry 8 only shifted the centre of catholic power for his country from Rome to England. So he got his divorce from Catharine and married Ann Boleyn, who had been educated in France. Their daughter was to be the future Queen Elizabeth. Meanwhile new colleges were being built at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, including St. Johns, Cambridge in 1509. We'll soon see that this is an important college in the literary history of the period.. Titian was painting in Venice, books were being printed, Michelangelo was painting the roof of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Durer was painting, Thomas More wrote his Utopia, Holbein was painting, Machiavelli was writing and in 1526 Martin Luther began publishing. Universities were being founded in Europe. The first systematic work on mineralogy was published, the first complete edition of Aristotle (1531), the first edition of Chaucer's complete works (1532) Rabelais was writing, the circulation of the blood was discovered by Servetus (1540) Copernicus was working on astronomical theory, there came the first book on modern surgery, and the first zoological book since classical times. In 1555 Gray's Inn Hall was built in London to become a famous School of Law. There was a French translation of Plutarch (1559). In 1560 Westminster School was founded.

In 1562 Sackville and Norton published Gorboduc, the first English tragedy in blank verse. In 1563 John Foxe published his Book of Martyrs. In 1562-72 the Hall of the Middle Temple was built in London for the legal profession. In 1567 Rugby School, a famous English Public School was founded. In 1569 John Heywood published the Four P.'s, an "interlude". In 1571 Harrow School was founded (later to educate Winston Churchill), and Benvenuto Cellini, the sculptor, died. In 1576 three theatres were built in London, and in 1579 North's translation of Plutarch's lives into English, and Edmund Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar were published. In 1580 the last of the old Miracle Plays was performed at Coventry and Lyly's Euphues And His England was published.

In about 1550 was built the house I was brought up in. It was a cross between a manor house and a farmhouse. It had 22 rooms. The ground floor windows had heavy wooden shutters that could be pulled up into place at night. I remember watching my maternal grandfather doing this in the evenings. The front door was of solid oak about 2" thick and a huge iron bar dropped across it on the inside. The lock was about 5" x 9" and the key was about 5" long. The back door was clad with iron. There were gun cupboards over the interior doors and some coffin-sized recesses under the floor boards. There was no basement except for a wine cellar. The roof was covered with heavy fixed clay "pan tiles" that curled and locked into one another. There was a long driveway with huge iron gates and the house could not be seen from the road. There were open fireplaces with mantel pieces in the downstairs rooms. One had Lord Nelson's crest on it. This is not surprising as the house was only about 8 miles inland from an eastern port, and he probably used it as a secluded spot for his love trysts with Lady Hamilton.

Religion was in a turmoil in the 1550s. When Henry 8 died in 1547 he was succeeded by his young son Edward 6, a very clever, precocious youngster in poor health. He was surrounded by Protestant ministers, but he died in 1553 after only about 6 years of spectacular social, religious and educational reform. In 1549 came the first Act of Uniformity and the first Prayer Book. Calvin and Swingli on the continent were discussing the nature of Holy Communion. When Mary -- Bloody Mary -- succeeded Edward 6, Protestant bishops were ousted and replaced by Catholic bishops. There was full restoration of catholicism in England during her short reign. Over 300 people were burnt at the stake or otherwise tortured to death for religious reasons. Mercifully she died in 1558. In the year she died the French took Calais, the last territory held by England on the continent.

Elizabeth came next as Queen. She reigned for 45 years until 1603. She was brilliant intellectually and gifted in many ways. On the virginal (an early predecessor of the harpsichord and pianoforte with a much shorter keyboard) she would perform for a small group of familiar courtiers, she addressed the convocations of both Oxford and Cambridge in Latin and classical Greek. She was fluent in French and Italian; no doubt she was also fluent in Spanish, and perhaps German because she said she could speak 6 languages besides her own. This was important because she was able both to read documents from and converse with ambassadors of the various European countries in their own languages, reducing the risk of mistake or treachery. And of course a woman of those abilities kept a court around her of brilliant and capable men and women. This is the age of Elizabeth. Her courtiers were sailing around the world (Drake) colonizing Virginia in North America (Raleigh), Frobisher and Davis were searching for the northwest passage, while Spain was robbing the Incas of gold and some English sea captains were robbing the Spanish galleons. Mercator produced his map of the world in 1569.

This was a time of intellectual, cultural and geographic explosion. We can compare it to our expansion with the media and the internet. And just as now it's said that the most typed in search command on the internet is "sex", so in Elizabeth's England the plays and poems were very "bawdy" with raunchy sex; 'Shakespeare' whoever he was, was no exception, if not one of the leaders. The Privy Council and the Lord Chamberlain and Master of the Revels led a ban on portraying or satirizing a living person; plays, etc., had to be registered at the Stationers Office and were scrutinized by the authorities who could and did excise or remove parts of plays, or ban a whole play if considered going too far.

Ben Johnson, the playwright, killed 2 men in duels. The Queen sometimes had to order her courtiers not to fight a duel. Justice was pretty severe. Elizabeth was not a constitutional monarch, though she was leaning that way. She once told the House of Commons "Your only duty is to say yea or nay, not to discuss as long as you please anything that comes into your brain"....

A Londoner who wrote that the Queen should not marry a French nobleman, brother of the King of France, had his hand cut off. In her reign she had a dangerous game to play politically. England was part protestant part still catholic, and a small nation. Catholic Spain was the major power, followed by catholic France. The Netherlands was mainly protestant but in the French capital many protestants died in the St. Bartholomew massacre of 1572.

The roads were atrocious. There was no proper sanitation. Coaches were only recently introduced for the very wealthy, where passengers could sit inside, otherwise the well-to-do and middle class rode on horseback; poor people walked, there were no bicycles. The great feudal lords had their own companies of play actors and musicians to perform for them and their guests in the great halls of their castles or 'palaces'. The Queen had the players and the courtiers producing and performing plays and 'interludes' and 'masques' at Court, wherever that might be as she moved from place to place, either residing in her own palaces or those of her various earls.

It's said that the total population of London was about 100,000 at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth's reign and perhaps 200,000 by the end of it. She managed to remain unmarried throughout her long reign. For 12 years she played back and forth with the French King's brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou, never actually marrying him but keeping on blowing hot and cold. Mary Queen of Scots fled her own country of Scotland, pursued by other irate Scottish lords after being involved in the death of her husband, Lord Darnley. She was a catholic, excommunicated by France and Spain, and a threat to Queen Elizabeth who despite this kept her alive in custody for 19 years before Mary became implicated in a catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. A trial was held with 28 peers of the realm present. She had no counsel or advisors. She was found guilty and executed. Queen Elizabeth did put in the 'bloody' Tower several of her courtiers who were lords, and her ladies in waiting, though they were generally released again, but some were executed: for example (and literally) Egmont, Hoorne, 1568, and Essex (1601).

Elizabeth's policy was to support the protestants under William of Orange in the Netherlands and she had war with France over this. There were many reforms in England, (1560) acts for relief of the poor, (1563) concerning labourers and apprentices, (valid until 1814). In 1565 pencils were first manufactured in England. In 1575 there was national bankruptcy in Spain, in 1582 came the first waterworks in London, and in 1584 potatoes were first introduced into Europe. In 1588 the Spanish Armada was defeated by England. There was an Irish revolt in 1594, and in 1597 Spain's next naval expedition against England failed. 10 years earlier in 1587 Drake had attacked the Spanish navy port of Cadiz. Spain became bankrupt again in 1596.


While all this was going on around them, playwrights were busy writing in London and there were theatres with companies of actors performing their plays. There were plays by Marlowe, Lyly, Kyd, Greene, Nash, Heywood, Beaumont, Fletcher, Jonson. And of course 'Shakespeare', whoever he was, writing plays at the time. Some plays were written anonymously. All this was very new, and in the small literary world of London just about anybody who was anybody knew everyone else in the business.

Language, written or spoken was very different from now. The first dictionary was just being developed. Words were spelled every which way -- printers often changed spelling just to get a better fit at the end of a line. As printed words were still new, 'conceits' multiplied, that is, acrostics, anagrams, different ways of presenting information, often in literary mazes or puzzles. It was sometimes a competition between audience and playwright as to whether the innuendo could be picked up. The new schools and university colleges were producing, among other things, playwrights. But we only know some facts about most of them. Much is lost to us, their plays, their lives, and so on. Life was nasty, brutish and short. People had to blossom early; many died in their 50s if they were not executed or hung or exiled. Marlowe was murdered under suspicious circumstances, Greene died age 31. Not only were words spelled every which way, certain letters of the alphabet were presented differently, for example, the long letter S was frequently used, shaped like an "f", and u and v were interchangeable. So language and grammar were evolving at the same time as the printed word. It is quite difficult for us to read some hand written Elizabethan literature, even if it has survived intact. This is the world we have to enter into if we are to try to understand the age of Elizabeth and 'Shakespeare' the poet and dramatist, whoever he was, who lived in it.

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