Queen Elizabeth I (top) and map of London
(above) with the Thames flowing up from
left and across to right.
The city of London in Shakespeare’s time was our New York,
Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles combined. It was the center of
British commerce, government and entertainment. It was a crowded,
Great vessels of trade and exploration lined the banks of the Thames,
offloading precious cargo from the East and the New World. The
river also served as the major source of water and as the city's
Queen Elizabeth’s government was headquartered in magnificent
palaces and civic structures on the north side of the river, though
actually, the court was wherever the queen happened to be. In
contrast, all the sinful and forbidden forms of entertainment, from the
new Theatre to the bear-baiting ring to prostitution, were relegated to
the less desirable real estate beyond the city’s jurisdiction, across the
river (the Elizabethan equivalent of the wrong side of the tracks).
The population was only 200,000, half within the walls of the city, and
half in the suburbs. Everybody who was anybody lived there, and
there was no better place for a young man from a small town like
Stratford to become somebody. By 1592, Shakespeare was already
established as an actor and playwright.
Shakespeare's work was sporadic because, between 1592 and
1594, the theaters were often closed due to that other gift of
commerce on the Thames, outbreaks of the plague. That was when
Shakespeare wrote his early poems, Venus and Adonis and The
Rape of Lucrece.
It was the great age of patronage, when wealthy and influential people
would support artists, who in return would dedicate their works to
them. Shakespeare dedicated his early poems to the 3rd Earl of
Shakespeare performed as a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s
Men, and eventually enjoyed the patronage of the queen herself.
Through Shakespeare's dramas we see the progression of his society
from optimism to pessimism. Though he began writing just after the
English victory over the Spanish Armada, when everything seemed
possible, he continued through the death of Elizabeth when the English
struggled with social and economic problems and a series of minor,
Shakespeare's plays indicate the ignorance, superstition, brutality,
flattery, gossip, cheating and desire for pageantry and spectacle of the
common people of his time. But he also mirrored the sensitivity to
beauty and grace, together with the appreciation of literature, drama,
poetry, music and dance, that characterized the Elizabethans.
Elizabethan music (left), art
(above) and dance (right).