The England of Shakespeare, like the Spain of Cervantes, was in the throes of a great social and economic revolution. This was a very turbulent and painful change, which thrust a large number of people into poverty and created in the towns a large class of dispossessed lumpenproletarian elements: beggars, thieves, whores, deserters and the like, who rubbed shoulders with the sons of impoverished aristocrats and defrocked priests to create an endless reserve of characters for Shakespeare's plays.
The Protestant Revolution that began with the revolt of Martin Luther plunged the whole of Europe into a bloody conflict in which, under the banner of the new religion, the rising bourgeoisie assembled its forces. A central point in the Protestant creed was that the Bible, the Word of God, should be in the possession of every man and woman without the need for any mediation by priests. The translation of the Bible into the vernacular therefore became the spearhead of the new movement.
Even before Luther openly challenged the domination of the Vatican, the English reformer John Wycliffe had translated the Bible into English. His followers, the Lollards, had participated in revolutionary movements that culminated in the Peasants Revolt of 1381. That revolt ended in defeat, but in the 16th century the Protestant Revolution in England produced a new and brilliant translation of the Bible by William Tyndale. For the crime of translating the Bible into English, Tyndale was convicted of heresy and treason and put to death by being strangled and burned at the stake by Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father.
England remained a Catholic country until the reign of Henry VIII. The role of religion then was very different from what it is today. People were very religious and the Church held colossal power in its hands. Men and women were prepared to die for their beliefs. And under the Tudors they had plenty of opportunities to do so.
Henry was originally a staunch defender of Catholicism and an enemy of the new religious tendency. For his services to the old religion, the Pope allowed him to use the title Fidei Defensor (defender of the Faith) which appeared on the coinage of the realm for centuries after it had lost its original meaning: defender of the Catholic faith.
When Henry VIII, for dynastic reasons, broke with Rome and declared himself supreme head of the Church of England, (The Act of Supremacy), it marked the start of centuries of religious upheavals in Britain. Henry needed to break the Church's power in England - he soon discovered that this was an excellent way to make money.
In 1535 Henry ordered the closing down of Roman Catholic Abbeys, monasteries and convents in England, Wales and Ireland. The dissolution of the monasteries instantly made him the owner of vast riches in the shape of all the buildings, land, money and everything else that had belonged to the Church. By selling off the proceeds to the wealthy nobles and rising bourgeoisie, he raised the money he needed to fund his pointless and expensive wars against France and Scotland and simultaneously gave a powerful impulse to the process of the primitive accumulation of capital.
The break with Rome was a major historical turning-point. But from a doctrinal point of view, it did not represent the kind of radical change represented by the Protestant Revolution on the European Continent. Henry, like his daughter Elizabeth, was no friend of Puritanism, which he saw as a threat to the established order. He therefore left much of the old Church rituals unchanged.
That changed radically under the brief rule of his son Edward VI (1547-1553), a devout Protestant. For the first time England became a genuinely Protestant nation. Edward introduced a new prayer book and all church services were held in English. Catholics were repressed and bishops who refused to conform were locked up. But Edward died young and was replaced by his older sister Mary, a fanatical Catholic.
England found itself once again a Catholic nation. The pope became the head of the church and Church services changed back to Latin. Now repression was directed against the Protestants. About 300 leading Protestants who would not accept Catholic beliefs were burned at the stake. Among them were Bishops Latimer and Ridley. It is said that as the flames rose, Latimer encouraged Ridley, "Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out."
To make matters worse Mary had married King Philip II of Spain. All this earned the Queen the nickname of "Bloody Mary", although to tell the truth she killed far fewer per year than her murderous father. Nevertheless, these actions produced a violent reaction against her.
Following her death, England swung sharply in the direction of Protestantism, underlined by a hatred of Spain, which became the main national enemy. The accession of Elizabeth on November 17, 1558, following the Catholic reaction under Mary, was greeted by general rejoicing. Bells rang and bonfires lit up the sky. Now it was the turn of Catholic priests to go to prison or to go underground. Many churches were closed.
Elizabeth attempted to balance between the opposing forces, compromising between the Protestants and Catholics. In Elizabethan England it was illegal for Catholics to hold or to attend a Mass. However, the rich and powerful could usually escape punishment for their religious practices. Wealthy Catholic families kept private chaplains in their homes, a practice to which the law usually turned a blind eye as long as they did this in the privacy of their own homes and did not engage in subversive activities against the Crown.
But this uneasy balancing act was doomed to failure. Tensions continued to increase and were driven to fever point by the news of massacres on the European mainland. In 1572, on St. Bartholomew's Day, there was a mass murder of French Calvinists (Huguenots) in Paris. News of this caused outrage in England and a further backlash against Catholics. The assassination of the Dutch Protestant leader, William of Orange, added fuel to the flames. In 1580, the Pope stated that it would not be a mortal sin to assassinate the Queen of England. This announcement automatically meant that all Catholics were under suspicion for treason.
An army of Jesuit agents was dispatched to England to work underground, organising plots with the collaboration of Catholic noblemen, and preparing the ground for a Catholic uprising. For 18 years, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots had been held prisoner by her cousin Elizabeth, who regarded her as a useful bargaining chip for her dealings with France and Spain. There was a well-founded suspicion that Mary was a focal point for Catholic subversion. Elizabeth's advisers, members of the Protestant party, decided to get rid of this potential threat.
The Queen's network of spies was controlled by Francis Walsingham. Its network extended everywhere. Walsingham accused Mary of being involved in an assassination plot aimed at the overthrow of Elizabeth, who would be replaced by Mary herself. He claimed to have discovered compromising letters that proved her guilt. Whether these letters were genuine or invented by him we will never know. In any case, they had the desired effect. In February 1587, Elizabeth signed the death warrant and Mary was beheaded.
Religion in Shakespeare's plays
The religious revolution that swept through Europe like wildfire at that time affected literature in a very direct manner. When Elizabeth's Protestant government banned mystery plays, the door was open for the rise of a new secular theatre. Until then, the only theatre was closely linked to the Church. It was this that made the success of Shakespeare possible.
The religious element surfaces in his plays. In the Prologue and Act I, scene i of Shakespeare's Henry V, the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely, two powerful English (Catholic) churchmen, confer with one another. They are made to look ridiculous for the amusement of the audience. They are depicted as covetous, greedy intriguers.
The bishops are worried about a bill that has been brought up for the consideration of the king, Henry V. The reason for their concern is that if it became law it would authorize the government to lay its hands on the Church's land and money, which would be used to maintain the army, support the poor, and augment the king's treasury. The clergymen, who have been made wealthy and powerful by this land and money, are determined to keep it for themselves.
To this end, the Archbishop of Canterbury persuades the young King Henry into believing he has a claim to the throne of France. A nice little war in France would distract the king from the bill to confiscate Church property. To encourage Henry, Canterbury promises the king: he will raise a generous donation from the Church to fund the war effort.
This scene is clearly directed against Roman Catholicism, which was was very unpopular with the people of England, especially as it was associated with a hostile and malign foreign power. In this play that country is France, England's traditional enemy. But to an Elizabethan audience the main enemy was Catholic Spain.
The hostility to Spain was in part religious. The rise of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by social, economic and political convulsions, revolution and war. The first decisive battles between the nascent bourgeoisie and the decaying feudal order were fought out on the grounds of religion. The Catholic Church had dominated society for generations, exercising an absolute dictatorship over the minds and souls of men and women. In Shakespeares plays we find numerous hostile references to Spain and the methods of the Spanish Inquisition.
The rise of England represented a direct threat to the hegemony of Spain. This at that time was the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Elizabeth was an unprincipled and cynical opportunist in religion, as in all other matters. She flirted now with King Philip of Spain, now with his enemy the King of France, dangling the prospect of marriage, which at that time was another name for a political alliance, while keeping them all at arm's length and systematically building up England's power.
When Philip II realised the impossibility of getting control of England through holy matrimony, he decided to use other, less subtle means. In 1588, Catholic Spain prepared to invade England. However, things did not turn out as expected. Harassed by the English warships, the Spanish Armada was finally destroyed by storms at sea. "Jehovah blew with His winds, and they were scattered," a common saying went.
The wind was now blowing strongly in the sails of the Protestant party in England. The Queen, however, was unhappy about its rapidly growing power and influence. Privately, she preferred the high ceremony and pomp of the old service and the hierarchical structures of the old religion. But she was obliged to support the Protestants because the main threats to her power and her life came from the Catholics and Rome.
She was obliged to tilt in the direction of the Protestant Party at court represented by Burleigh, Walsingham and the Earl of Leicester. However, the Queen regarded the extreme Protestant party (the Puritans) with suspicion and loathing. Society was gripped by religious fever that was taking on a dangerously political colouring. One horrified observer complained: "Many there are that hear not a sermon in seven years, I might say in seventeen." Sir Francis Drake protested that the Reformation "went so far as almost to put an end to religion."
This same antipathy is reflected in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, where we read the following:
The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing
constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass,
that cons state without book and utters it by great
swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so
crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is
his grounds of faith that all that look on him love
him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find
notable cause to work. (Twelfth Night, Act 2; scene iii)
The demand for the democratisation of the Church alarmed even those in the establishment who were favourably inclined to the new doctrines. Elizabeth regarded the Puritans as dangerous extremists and a potential challenge to monarchical power. The Presbyterians demanded an end to bishops. But a reformed church would not be so easy for the monarch to control and she saw this as a threat.
Edmund Grindal, the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the Presbyterians' most significant supporters, found himself suspended from the exercise of his office, remaining in limbo for the rest of his life. Presbyterianism in effect was the party of the wealthy upper stratum of the bourgeoisie and its allies in the nobility. The further down the social ladder, the more radical the new religious ideas became.
On the extreme left wing of Protestantism far more radical trends were beginning to crystallise. Tendencies such as the Anabaptists were moving in a revolutionary direction. Could all this not lead directly to the demand for the democratisation of the political system? That question received its answer in the following century, when it led to civil war and the bourgeois Revolution.
Development of national consciousness
This was the period of the formation of the nation states of Europe, and the English national spirit is alive in every line of Shakespeare's plays. The English national consciousness was developed in the course of the Hundred Years War against France, and this is reflected in Shakespeare's history plays, especially Henry V. The French are here depicted as the national enemies of England and English patriotism is more or less defined as opposition to France. However, by the reign of Elizabeth the rise of Spanish power created a new national enemy.
England's situation as an island played an immense role in her destiny. The sea provided a natural frontier and a line of defence that other European nations lacked. It also provided a stimulus to trade and therefore to the accumulation of capital. While much of continental Europe was plunged in wars and civil wars, with Protestants and Catholics slaughtering each other in bloody wars of religion, this island kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity after the end of the period of civil war known as the Wars of the Roses.
The partial reformation carried out by Henry VII provided a further impetus to development of capitalism in England, the commencement of which may already be discerned from the 14th century onwards. The English wool trade benefited from the textiles industry in the Low Countries and the fighting on the Continent, which created possibilities for lucrative trade with the belligerents of all sides.
The Tudor period was therefore a decisive turning point in the emergence of England as a nation. The popularity of history plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe bear witness to a growing sense of national consciousness. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 marked a qualitative change in England's national destiny. From now on English power depended upon her success in displacing Spain from its predominant position as the leading power in Europe and the world. A new spirit was abroad in the land -a spirit of confidence and optimism in the future. The English began to feel themselves as a distinct people with a special destiny.
The Englishman's pride in his nation was famously reflected in the speech that Shakespeare puts in the mouth of John of Gaunt in Richard II:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land...
The rise of the theatre
In the Elizabethan period, drama experienced a complete transformation. It was at this time that organised theatre first appeared in England and enjoyed tremendous success. Up till this time the only similar form of entertainment was provided by bands of travelling players staging plays at fairs, in the courtyards of inns and on market days. The only plays that were held in the towns of England were the "mystery plays" with religious subjects. But the Protestant Reformation dealt this kind of entertainment a mortal blow.
The theatre was thus set free from the influence of the Church and the way was open for a new, secular theatre. Companies of players formed to perform works to entertain the public under the patronage of noblemen. This new art form soon became very popular. The new professional theatres being built in England attracted 15,000 theatregoers per week in London, a city of 150,000 to 250,000.
During Shakespeare's lifetime, for the first time, permanent theatres were springing up, particularly in London. The Red Lion and James Burbage's playhouse, The Theatre, were the first public theatres in England. London's South Bank was the natural location for theatres such as the Rose and the Globe.
Theatregoing in those days was not regarded as entirely respectable. The unruly mobs of groundlings did not smell of roses. Sanitary conditions in Tudor England were primitive in any case and the unsavoury riff-raff who frequented the spectacles rarely washed. The atmosphere was thick with sweat, beer and swearing. It also represented a potential threat to the public order.
Ever since mediaeval times the part of London known as Southwark had been an area of taverns, bear pits and brothels. The Bishop of Winchester was the owner of some very profitable brothels here and the local prostitutes were known popularly as "Winchester geese". It is here that Falstaff and his cronies spent their time drinking and carousing.
In Elizabethan times the South Bank began to attract a new and somewhat more reputable public. Nevertheless, god-fearing people lambasted theatres as ungodly places - "Satan's domain." Some Puritans like William Prynne would have liked to see the theatres closed altogether. However, the theatres enjoyed the backing of powerful patrons and not only survived but thrived, particularly with the advent of a new and more respectable bourgeois public.
The Elizabethan middle class had money to spend and it became very fashionable to go to the theatre to rub shoulders with the nobility who were also frequent visitors. Indeed, the Lord Chamberlain of England himself was the patron of Shakespeare's company of players. Theatregoing was not, however, restricted to the wealthier citizens of the capital. The poor could pay one penny to stand in the stalls in front of the stage. Wealthier patrons would pay up to half a crown to sit under cover, safe from the inclemency of the London weather.
This was an exciting new phenomenon. It was also a highly profitable business for those who knew how to exploit it. And the young Shakespeare certainly knew how to do that. The next known record of Shakespeare emerges when he was already a playwright in London, belonging to a company known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. His early successes aroused bitter resentfulness on the part of other less successful writers.
Between 1590 and 1592, Shakespeare erupted onto the London stage with his Henry VI plays, Richard III, and The Comedy of Errors. They were an instant success. This success and popularity gave rise to growing confidence. This is shown by the fact that he revived his father's lapsed application for a family coat of arms in 1596. In 1602, he had to defend his title against accusations that "Shakespeare ye player" was not entitled to the honour of a coat of arms.
Fellow playwright and rival Robert Greene wrote an unflattering note describing Shakespeare an "upstart crow." This insulting language reflects the hostility of the literary establishment educated in university towards the new kid on the block whose success they saw as a threat. Evidently their fears were well founded.
Shakespeare became a famous and wealthy man and a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The group had its own theatre called the Globe, and Shakespeare, clearly a shrewd businessman, held a 12.5% stake in it. He had sufficient capital to invest in property both in Stratford and London. He purchased the second-largest home in Stratford in 1597, though he continued to live in London.
When the theatres were closed in 1593 because of the plague, the playwright wrote two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and probably began writing his richly textured sonnets. One hundred and fifty-four of his sonnets have survived, ensuring his reputation as a gifted poet. By 1594, he had also written The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labour's Lost.
In 1598, the author Francis Meres singled him out as "the most excellent" of English writers in both comedy and tragedy. His work attracted the attention of the Court and he acted in several performances before Queen Elizabeth I. But he later got into serious difficulties when, shortly before her death, the Earl of Essex organised and ill-prepared plot in which Shakespeare was indirectly implicated.
A period of transition
Marx pointed out that it is precisely such periods of social transition that produce in abundance the kind of colourful characters that appear in Shakespeare's plays. But quite apart from the knockabout humour that so captivated the Elizabethan audiences, Sir John Falstaff is a striking personification of one aspect of the age - its plebeian underbelly - the lower depths of Elizabethan society that lay beneath the glamorous pageant of courtly life, chivalry and honour. In fact, he represents its polar opposite.
In one of his most famous speeches Falstaff accurately conveys the transitional nature of a society that is casting off the trappings of feudalism, and the old feudal morality based on ideas such as loyalty to one's superiors, honour etc., in favour of more practical considerations, especially of the monetary kind. Sir John's philosophical diatribe on honour provides him with a convenient excuse for running away from the battle:
[...] What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
And Sir John abandons the field of battle as fast as his fat legs will carry him.
This speech represents a scathing critique of an outmoded morality that is very much in line with that of Cervantes' Don Quixote. This period in Spain was a seething cauldron of social change in which old classes were melted down faster than new ones could replace them. The decay of feudalism, together with the discovery of America had a devastating effect on Spanish agriculture. In place of a productive peasantry earning its bread by the sweat of their brow, we are confronted with an army of beggars and parasites, ruined aristocrats and robbers, royal servants and drunkards, all striving to make a living without working.
Spanish society at this time presents us with the same rich mosaic of scoundrels, thieves and tricksters that we find reflected in the pages of Shakespeare's plays. The philosophy of this layer can be summed up in one word - survival. Life is a mad scramble to secure the means of existence by any possible methods. Their motto is: "Every man for himself and let the devil take the hindermost." This philosophy of bourgeois egotism is summed up in the words of Sancho Panza who, like Falstaff personifies the values and morality of the new world, whereas Don Quixote clings to those of a world that has long ceased to exist. The resulting contradiction between what ought to be and what is can be summed up in one word - madness. It is precisely in this contradiction and its manifest absurdity that the humour of Cervantes' masterpiece resides.
The bawdy scenes of tavern low-life in Don Quixote give the novel life and colour while highlighting the central contradiction of the historical period. The common Spanish people are as alive and vivacious as the nobility is dead and absurd. The central theme of Quixote contains a fundamental historical truth about Spain in the period of feudal decadence. The ideals of chivalry now appear as ridiculous and antiquated eccentricities in the context of the nascent capitalist economy, in which all social relations, ethics and morality are dictated by cold, hard cash.
The England of Shakespeare, like the Spain of Cervantes, was in the throes of a great social and economic revolution. This was a very turbulent and painful change, which thrust a large number of people into poverty and created in the towns a large class of dispossessed lumpenproletarian elements: beggars, thieves, whores, deserters and the like, who rubbed shoulders with the sons of impoverished aristocrats and defrocked priests to create an endless reserve of characters like Sir John Falstaff.
Sir John Falstaff
Sir John Falstaff is probably the most popular of all Shakespeare's characters. He is the archetypal "lovable rogue", a drunkard, liar, braggart and thief. His centre of operations is in Southwark, an area of London lying outside its walls to the south of the River Thames that was the haunt of criminals and prostitutes. This is where the people of London came to enjoy themselves in the taverns, brothels and theatres. It was also the site of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which is now been rebuilt and continues to show Shakespeare's plays.
Falstaff's companions are rogues, drunkards, thieves and cutthroats like himself, but also include the Prince of Wales, the future Henry V who participates with gusto in their immoral and illegal escapades in the plays Henry IV parts one and two. Among his cronies at the Boar's Head Tavern was Pistol, an old soldier, a boaster, coward and a "swaggerer", Poins, and Bardolph - a thief whose large red nose and flushed, carbuncle-covered face suggests an advanced stage of alcoholism.
These lumpenproletarians are fairly typical examples of London lowlife, with whom Shakespeare appears to have been fairly well acquainted. This social flotsam and jetsam is the product of the disintegration of the old feudal order at a time when capitalism had not yet firmly established itself. This is a faithful reflection of the social composition of a large part of the population of London in Shakespeare's time.
Sir John Falstaff himself personifies that layer of society, albeit superficially modified by the wit and manners of an Elizabethan gentleman fallen on hard times. Everything he says and does is on a big scale, from gluttony and drunkenness to lying, which he raises to an art form, disguising his villainy with a thick layer of hyperbole, mendacious retelling of events and the most imaginative and colourful inventions.
Like all good liars Falstaff shows considerable ingenuity in brazenly denying that he has told any lies at all: "Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me horse." In one of his most outrageous lies Falstaff claims to have killed the rebel leader Percy Hotspur on the battlefield from which he has run away. When Prince Henry confronts him, the following comic exchange follows:
Why, Percy I killed myself and saw thee dead.
Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to
lying! I grant you I was down and out of breath;
and so was he: but we rose both at an instant and
fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be
believed, so; if not, let them that should reward
valour bear the sin upon their own heads. I'll take
it upon my death, I gave him this wound in the
thigh: if the man were alive and would deny it,
'zounds, I would make him eat a piece of my sword.
(Henry IV part one, act 5, scene iv)
While Falstaff is not at his best on battlefields, he is in his element in the environment of the tavern. In fact, while others fight for honour, he eats and drinks his way through the entire play of Henry IV. The Prince discovers Falstaff in a drunken sleep at the Boar's Head Tavern where he has consumed a gargantuan quantity of sack (a sweet Spanish wine popular in England at that time). He examines the contents of Falstaff's bill, which runs as follows:
[Reads] Item, A capon,. . 2s. 2d.
Item, Sauce,. . . 4d.
Item, Sack, two gallons, 5s. 8d.
Item, Anchovies and sack after supper, 2s. 6d.
Item, Bread, ob.
O monstrous! but one half-penny-worth of bread to
this intolerable deal of sack!"
(Henry IV part one, act two, scene iv)
In case you didn't know, two gallons of sack is approximately nine litres! Falstaff is a big man in every sense of the word. His huge physical bulk is marvellously conveyed in the following passage:
Falstaff sweats to death,
And lards the lean earth as he walks along:
(Henry IV part one, act two, scene ii)
Falstaff and the Prince engaged in a mock duel of words, taking turns insulting each other. Their insults achieve a high degree of artistry, as when the Prince describes Falstaff as follows:
that trunk of humours, that
bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel
of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed
cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with
the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that
grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in
(Henry IV part one, act two, scene iv)
Although these insults may be well founded, they did not diminish in the slightest the popularity of this character with the public, especially the so-called groundlings. So popular was this genial rogue that when Shakespeare portrayed his death in the play Henry V, there was such an outcry from the public that he had to write another play, the comedy the Merry Wives of Windsor, in order to reinstate him.
The famous victories of Henry V may have appealed to the nobler patriotic feelings of Shakespeare's public, but they definitely felt more at home with the lowlife of the taverns and the loveable rogue Sir John Falstaff who, like them, laughed, drank, swore, chased after "loose women" and saluted the passing of the aristocratic Age of Chivalry by showing it his voluminous backside.