2 - Historical context
2 – 历史背景
William Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616 in England, during the reigns of the Tudor monarch Queen Elizabeth I and the Stuart monarch King James I. To get a sense of what Shakespeare’s historical period was like, we spoke to Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford.
Emma Smith: That's a period of extraordinary change in English history. Perhaps one important thing is the ongoing religious controversies in the wake of what's called the Reformation, the Reformation began as a movement to reform the Catholic Church and via some royal divorces and so on. If it in fact became the establishment of the Church of England, the Anglican or Person Church in England, and the break with the religion of much of Europe and ongoing controversies about the assault schism between Protestantism and Catholicism on the one hand, but also different brands of Protestantism.
At the start of the sixteenth century, England was a Catholic country, part of the Christian Church that accepted the pope in Rome as its head and spiritual leader. In 1517, a monk named Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. He claimed that its leaders and priests had corrupted the purity of the original Christian faith and were using the Church as a means to gain wealth and power. He also rejected the idea, which he saw the Catholic Church as supporting, that it was possible to “earn” salvation through good works or sacraments. Salvation, Luther emphasized, came only through God’s grace.
Luther set out to merely reform the Catholic Church. But he ultimately helped start a movement that established separate, Protestant Christian Churches across Europe--a process known as the Reformation. The Protestant Church of England came to have fewer sacraments than the Catholic Church, a Bible and a liturgy in English rather than Latin, and a new emphasis on one’s personal spiritual life. Protestant spirituality aimed to help believers recognize their need for God’s grace and draw personally closer to God, coming to know him directly through Scripture rather than through the mediation of priests. And the shift to Protestantism had political as well as spiritual implications. England’s church no longer recognized the authority of any spiritual leader higher than the English monarch. Religion now became a key factor in the alliances England made and the wars it fought with other Catholic and Protestant countries in Europe.
England’s King Henry VIII initially fought against the Reformation. But then he asked the pope to annul, or cancel, his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. The pope refused. This conflict over his marriage eventually led King Henry to reject the pope’s spiritual authority and to pressure English clergy into proclaiming him the “supreme head of the Church in England.” When Henry’s son Edward VI took the throne, his advisors continued to strengthen the new Protestant Church. When Edward died in 1553, his half-sister Mary took the throne. She was a devout Catholic, as was her husband, King Philip II of Spain, and so she sought to restore Catholicism in England. Queen Mary brought back the Catholic Mass, asserted the pope’s authority, and violently suppressed Protestantism, burning Protestants as heretics. Only five years later, however, in 1558, Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth took the throne to become Queen Elizabeth I. As queen, Elizabeth once again established Protestantism as the national religion, so that Catholics now faced fines, imprisonments, and possible death.
Religion in Shakespeare’s time was so controversial that it was eventually banned from being mentioned onstage. But Christian language and ideas still permeate Shakespeare’s plays. Protestantism provided a framework for thinking about right and wrong and for examining your own conscience to see on which side you fell. These frameworks influenced the way that Shakespeare explores moral questions in his work. He also frequently alludes to the Bible and Protestant prayer services, suggesting new layers of spiritual meaning to audiences who would have immediately recognized those allusions.
Queen Elizabeth I never married. At first, her status as the “virgin queen” was a source of strength. She wouldn’t compromise England’s independence by marrying a foreign prince.
Emma Smith: but by the end of her reign. What starts to impact more is the fact that there's no obvious heir and the struggle for an heir is the great crisis of the Tudors, because that's why Henry the 8th has all those wives. So it feels like a sort of awful flashback to the dynastic problems and interruptions of that period.
Elizabeth, like her father King Henry VIII, faced a problem of succession--she had no children, male or female, to whom she could pass the throne. But, this problem was resolved when Elizabeth’s cousin, King James VI of Scotland, took the throne after her death in 1603 and became King James I of England.
Renaissance culture and education
In the sixteenth century, England went through another significant cultural change known as the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a movement that started in fifteenth-century Italy and aimed to recover the great languages, literatures, arts, and values of classical Greece and Rome. Renaissance scholars developed an educational program centered on these subjects that came to be called humanism.
Emma Smith: When we talk about Shakespeare as a Renaissance writer, or a subject, I think we are thinking about him as the heir to a European educational movement which emphasizes vernacular languages. So in his case, the English language, it emphasizes learning from and reforming and recasting classical texts and classical knowledge. And it emphasizes forms of education, which are highly constructed by rhetoric and debate.
In the late fifteenth century, Italian humanist scholars started coming to England to teach, and English schools reshaped their curriculum around humanist principles. Humanism emphasized rigorous training in classical languages, especially Latin, as well as training in rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Students focused especially on the ways that writers adapted their language and style to persuade a particular audience of their point.
Emma Smith: I think the kind of education checks because of grammar school, probably unintentionally, was a really brilliant training for a dramatist. One of the ways that school boys. They were all boys were encouraged to look at classical texts. Was to sort of turn them inside out and see them from a different point of view. So to either to ask questions about what happened was a famous grammar school exercise, which was where the conspirators. Right. To assassinate Julius Caesar. And you had as a schoolboy to be able to argue both sides of that. It didn't really matter what you thought or what you believed to be true. What mattered was the rhetorical energy and persuasiveness with which you could argue each case. And that's really revealing to me about Shakespeare. Obviously, Shakespeare writes his own play about which we could ask where the conspirators write to Caesar. And I feel as if sometimes we're looking for what Shakespeare himself might have believed. And I partly think that the education he had, the school education he had, may have knocked that out of him in favor of this different kind of ethical point, which was not so much about belief, but about the ability to see both sides. So the argument about understanding both sides of the situation. The Latin for that is in Trump, quite part on both sides. That seems really crucial to the way Shakespeare works.
Shakespeare often shows characters in debates with each other, and even with themselves. The first line of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” is framed like a question that students at school would debate. Students were also assigned creative exercises, like picking a character from literature or history and writing a speech from that character’s point of view. This gave students the habit of inhabiting someone else’s perspective--another useful exercise for a future dramatist.
Shakespeare lived at a time uniquely equipped to appreciate his artistic talents. He was working during the very beginning of the entertainment industry. In 1567, three years after Shakespeare was born, a theatre was opened in England--something that hadn’t happened for over a thousand years. In medieval England, plays would have been staged for special holidays or Church festivals by members of the parish, but there were no permanent theatres or professional actors. But in the 1570s, multiple theatres were built around London. These theatres were public, they were popular, they were commercial, and they were capitalized. People invested in the theatres as shareholders, as people might invest in a big movie today, anticipating a large future profit. For the first time, there was a market that allowed people to make a living as popular mass entertainers. So when Shakespeare arrived in London in the 1580s, his innate dramatic talent found an artistic and economic environment fully ready to draw those talents out.
Emma Smith: So Shakespeare's working in the London playhouses at a time when they have a huge appetite for new plays. That's what the theaters thrive on, relatively short runs of new plays so that the same. Still quite small city audience will keep coming back to the theater and perhaps every week or certainly regularly. So this is a real heyday for playwrights. It must have been an absolutely exciting and hectic kind of place and time to work.
Between 1567 and 1642, a new class of professional playwrights wrote over 2,500 plays. These were plays of all kinds--witty academic plays for lawyers, ceremonial masques for the royal court, and plays based on rural folktales, English history, Italian novels, Roman tragedies, and Greek comedies. Some material was off-limits. The court required new plays to be passed by a censor; playwrights couldn’t address controversial topics of politics or religion. But even so, there was tremendous variety in the subjects and ideas that the new theatres could explore.
And all this variety of story drew a variety of people. Like big-hit television shows today, theatre in Shakespeare’s time was both popular and elite. People from every social class attended plays. The same play might be performed for monarchs and for servants, for aristocrats, educated professionals, middle-class citizen workers--and for their wives. Shakespeare did not write for female actors--all actors in his time were male--but he did write for a partly female audience.
The most notable woman in Shakespeare’s audience would have been Queen Elizabeth. Under Queen Elizabeth and King James, actors were summoned to the royal court at holidays to provide entertainment. Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was one of the two companies “on call” for performances at court after 1594. When King James took the throne in 1603, he made himself the patron of their company, which was renamed the King’s Men.
When not at court, the King’s Men performed in a theatre called the Globe. Today, many theatres feature a stage that’s set back and separated from the audience, with curtains that close between acts and house lights that dim when the show begins. The Globe was different. It was what is known as a thrust theatre, with a stage that actually extended out into the audience. It was outdoors, so there was no darkening the stage. Both actors and audiences were brightly lit the whole time. This meant that Shakespeare’s actors could see the audience and likely engaged with them directly as they performed. In the later part of his career, however, Shakespeare did begin writing for a setting much closer to a modern theatre: the Blackfriars, a small indoor theatre lit by candlelight.
At these theatres, audiences would not have seen elaborate scenery or props. But they would have seen elaborate, expensive costumes. Costumes worked to convey setting, rank, and gender. Roman soldiers wore breastplates and helmets, kings wore cloaks embroidered with gold, and male actors wore gowns to represent themselves as female characters. All of the actors on the London stage in Shakespeare’s day were male. Women were played by teenage boys. Scholars speculate that Shakespeare’s company must have acquired a particularly talented young male actor in the early 1600s because that’s when Shakespeare started writing some of his most challenging female roles--roles like Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth.
Emma Smith: There's a different kind of actor. It's available in order for Shakespeare to write those roles. And it's a small insight, I think, into how one of Shakespeare's most important collaboration's was with the actors who were going to embody his plays
艾玛·史密斯：这个演员很不一样，他让莎士比亚写出了那些女性角色。我觉得，从这小小的一点，我们可以窥见 莎士比亚和那些扮演他笔下人物的演员 的一种重要合作方式。
Shakespeare had to work closely with his actors because their work was highly demanding. In his day, actors would perform as many as six different plays in a single week. So they had very little rehearsal time. And because plays often had more speaking parts than there were actors in the company, one actor would play multiple characters. The practice is called “doubling”--and when modern companies double roles today, it can lead to interesting thematic connections between the two roles being played by the same actor.
But Shakespeare didn’t just collaborate with his actors. What may surprise some people is that Shakespeare also collaborated extensively with other writers.
Emma Smith: We used to think that Shakespeare really didn't collaborate with other writers. Why would he? Because he's such a genius.
But we're now starting to build up a picture in which he's probably writing collaboratively with other writers at points throughout his career, know early, mid and late career for different reasons, at different times and in different ways.
But whether Shakespeare, however much Shakespeare collaborated as a writer, the important thing I think is that he's in a deeply collaborative environment. He's not a poet writing alone in a garret. He's a creative, collaborative artist. Anybody who's worked in the theatre knows, I think, that script change under the pressure of rehearsals and that the people who are going to speak the lines and that that's a creative and reciprocal process. And I think there's every reason to think it was the same for Shakespeare.
We hope this short introduction gives you some orientation in Shakespeare’s historical time. As we go through the plays, we’ll fill you in on the most important pieces of historical context for reading each individual play. Understanding some of this history can illuminate new meanings in the play that you might not have seen before. But the play’s possible meanings are also not limited to their historical ones.
Emma Smith: So I think the plays are part of a historical world, obviously, and they participate in some of the debates about that world. But I don't think history gives us the answer to what they meant, because in a way, I think they're probably always meant different things
New performances in new contexts continue to reinterpret and transform Shakespeare’s work. And those new interpretations also become part of the meaning, and the history, of the plays. We'll think about some of those many different interpretations when we look at the plays in later episodes. But in the next episode, we’ll turn to exploring Shakespeare’s personal history--a biography so unexpected, in some ways, that it has even led some people to question how he could have written his plays at all.
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