English 345.01, Shakespeare Fall 1997

Instructor: Stephan Flores


The following entries are (unless otherwise noted) summaries (by various hands in English 345.01 Shakespeare Fall 1997) of sections in Stephen Greenblatt's "General Introduction" (1-76) to The Norton Shakespeare (Norton, 1997).


During Shakespeare's time, people's lives were often short. As many as one-half of the children born never lived beyond fifteen years and, thus, never reached adulthood. Also, the average lifespan of an adult was only thirty years. These short lifespans were due to the limited medical knowledge. In a time when antiseptics and antibiotics weren't known, doctors used somewhat primitive forms of medication. One thing that really tested the medical knowledge was the bubonic plague. The disease that often plagued England always appeared suddenly and spread quickly. Ignorant of the disease, doctors typically prescribed anything from amulets to sweet-smelling things. In an attempt to slow the disease's spread, regulations were passed. One was to temporarily close all London theaters when the death rate was high. People believed this would help to prevent human contact. Another policy was to kill cats and dogs. Since there were few cats around to hunt rats, which carried the fleas that carried the plague, the bubonic plague was not hindered. At this time, England's food supply was uncertain, even when the plague was dormant. The poor could've easily starved if there was a series of bad harvests. Plus, their and the aristocrats' diets weren't very nutritious. This caused the whole population to acquire illnesses caused by vitamin deficiencies.


Despite diseases that plagued England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, populations still increased. Every year approximately 10,000 citizens migrated to London mainly because wages were about 50 percent higher than in other parts of the country.

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries England was at peace. This brought enterprise and prosperity. Landowners built homes and planted orchards. Even lower class laborers and yeomen worked hard and were able to accumulate wealth. Much of this wealth was spent on leisure activities: one theater historian calculated that London playhouses saw close to 50 million visitors.

The main source of the country's income was wool, which made up three-fourths of England's exports. As wool continued to grow in demand, sheep took priority over people. Farms that produced food for the country's citizens soon turned into grazing land for sheep. In reference to the problematic land "trade-offs," a character in Thomas More's Utopia complained, "the sheep are eating the people."

London became a booming trade station handling 85 percent of all exports. Wool textiles gained popularity as their quality and craftsmanship became known. Many people realized this, and as a result ranchers, laborers, merchants, and clerks throughout England profited, receiving healthy wages and incomes.


"London was a violent place in the first half of Shakespeare's career" (7). The urban rioters were mostly poor apprentices who picked on "foreigners, prostitutes, and gentlemen's servingmen" (8). City authorities didn't let disturbances get out of control, but also did not take them too seriously. The more serious rioting occurred in rural areas against enclosure of property by landlords and the crown. Lands included commons, waste lands, and forests. This type of protest was very popular during Shakespeare's career, especially from 1590-1610. Anti-enclosure riots were usually directed at property rather than individuals. Riots often had a carnival atmosphere, including drinking and song. Women and children participated in destruction of enclosures as well, which generally consisted of tearing up hedges and filling in ditches. Smaller riots occurred frequently because small village riots were considered a misdemeanor, whereas larger riots were considered treason. Large riots did occur though. The largest, known as Kett's Rebellion after its organizer, had 16,000 participants. Rioters were often jailed. Heads of uprisings, like Kett who died in jail, were tortured and sometimes executed.


During the time of William Shakespeare, the majority of women had very limited rights in England. Despite the fact that England was ruled by a female monarch for over four decades, most women had little power over the direction of their lives. Most writings about the life of the family during this time in history centered around the traditional partriarchal paradigm--that of "domination and submission." Just as the kingdom was ruled by a monarch, the father and head of the household ruled over his wife and children. Women were denied formal educations, the opportunity to hold office, and also guarded against speaking out too freely in fear of being labeled as a "scold." Such women were considered a threat to the public, and were corrected with such punishments as public humiliation and abuse.

Although women did endure such limits on their political and social rights, they did have extended to them greater econimic freedom. Single women were able to "inherit land, make a will, sign a contract, possess property . . . without a male guardian . . ."(10). Unfortuantely, such rights dissolved with marriage. History shows as well that many daughters were heirs to a father's property, if there were no male heir, despite the tradition of promigeniture. Wives as well could find themselves in charge of a large estate after the death of a husband, until an eldest son was old enough to do so.


Although literacy rates soared much earlier in the male population with the invention of the printing press, literacy among women did not begin to spread until the late sixteenth century, primarily in response to the Protestant push for the direct experience of the scriptures. Greenblatt notes that, "It is striking how many of Shakespeare's women are shown reading" (11). The appearance of this new audience spawned a rash of devotional and instructional works on everything from needlework to midwifery. Fiction for female audiences appeared later, around 1570. Despite the increase in literacy among women and in works created with them in mind, the overwhelming majority of these works-for-women were written by men. The central contention in these works was not what women should be, "chaste dutiful, shamefast and silent" (11), but rather, whether or not they succeeded in fulfilling this requirement. Joseph Swetnam's "Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Forward, and Unconstant Women" was published in 1615 and inspired a handful of responses attributed to women including an anonymous play "Swetnam the Woman-hater Arraigned by Women" (1618). The majority of women who did write were the sisters, wives, or daughters of men who wrote and limited themselves primarily to devotional texts and translation. However, there were a few exceptions including Jane Anger's "Jane Anger Her Protection for Women" (1589) and Elizabeth Cary's play "Tragedy of Miriam, the Fairy Queen of Jewry" (1613).


Due to the stir caused by the Reformation in Europe, Queen Elizabeth of England sought to stabilize her country by compromising between the Protestants and Catholics. Tensions continued to mount and massacres were occurring on both sides. In 1572, on St. Bartholomew's Day, Catholics massacred French Calvinists (Huguenots). This was soon after some other Protestant purging and the assassination of the Protestant leader, William of Orange. In 1580, the pope stated that it would not be a mortal sin to assassinate the Queen of England. Hereafter, all Catholics, loyal or not, were under suspicion. Soon, it was discovered that Queen Mary was involved in an assassination plot and "Elizabeth signed the death warrant in February 1587, and her cousin was beheaded."

Soon, it became known that Catholic Spain, under direction of Philip II, was going to invade England. However, the Spanish fleet was routed by the English, then destroyed by storms at sea. In a "victory" speech the Queen stated, "We Princes [England] are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world."


James I took the throne in 1603. His reign was lavish and extravagant. He hoped to unite Scotland and England under one title. James I longed to be crowned "King of Great Britain." His ultimate aim was to preserve peace. During James I's early years, his court was known for its "diplomacy, amibition, intrigue, and an intense jockeying for social position." The most highly regarded offices in the Jacobean Court were those serving the king during moments of vulnerability. The courtier's lifestyle was refined into an art form.

The Jacobean Court was ideal because the king was generous with money and affection. He had favorite courtiers who received exquisite gifts. King James' romantic attachments to his male courtiers spawned "rumors of widespread homosexual activities at court." James I might have been merely expressing affection for them based upon more classical models. James I and his courtiers were more likely expressing "passionate physical and spritual love." What is certain under James I's reign, male friendships and bonding played an important role in court and literature.

James I hosted celebrations, and masques were performed for court nobility. The lifestyle witnessed during the masques led to finanical strife for James I. James I's debts rose drastically. Unpopular duties were placed upon the king's subjects. Parliamentary disputes over the king's debts dampened King James I's court life.


James's religious policy began quite radically, yet when he advanced to the throne in England in 1603 he became decidedly more conservative. While he ruled in Scotland in the 1500's he saw himself as sacred and felt he had insight into the agents of Satan. In 1597 he published his Demonology, a testament of the evil that threatened his divine rule. In the 1590's, in Scotland, thousands of women and some men were tortured and killed for alleged witchcraft. Yet, when he claimed the throne in England, he adopted the current laws. Although England had laws against witchcraft, they were far more just and objective than the Scottish laws at that time. James also moderated other religious views.

In 1599 James wrote Basilikon Doron which undeniably was against Puritan reform. However, when presented with a petition signed by a thousand ministers, he called a conference to deal with the ceremonies of the Church of England; this led to the publication of the King James Bible. In addition, the results persuaded James to publish the 1604 Canons, which required ministers to adhere to principles that eventually led to religious divisions and ultimately the murder of James's son Charles.


During Shakespeare's lifetime, the Red Lion and James Burbage's playhouse, The Theatre, were the first public theaters in England. Prior to these theaters, the only plays that were being held in the towns of England were the "mystery plays." These plays were religious plays that chronicled the beginning of time to the death of Christ. However, with the Protestant Reformation in full swing, these plays soon became produced less frequently because there was a push to get rid of Catholic influence in England.

Early English theater took on a role that parodied some of the mystery plays and it became more popular as plays that addressed secular concerns became more predominant. With the addition of minstrels, common actors, and morality topics, the Early English theater became a rival to the church. Church leaders found themselves denouncing these secular plays because they found some of the themes blasphemous. However, in reality it was the competition between the church and the success of the professional players that was the real problem. The Church would never admit to this rivalry.


Playacting was a form of art that was often accompanied by music and dance. Whether comedy or tragedy, the music and dances incorporated into the plays were important additions to the theatrical world during Shakespeare's time--very frequently during this period a dance would signify the closing of a play.

The importance of dancing on stage was a reflection of dance's widespread popularity throughout the Renaissance period. However, even more central to the stage was music, which obviously is very closely related to dancing. The early part of the sixteenth century showed a loss of interest or even resentment towards music and as a result many organs of the church were destroyed and school choirs were shut down. But later in the century music made a comeback and began to spread until it was again incorporated into many aspects of everyday life. "Styles of secular music were developed that emphasized music's link to humanist eloquence..." This period shows music as not only important to life in the royal court, but rather widespread throughout the culture's domain and musical literacy was regarded as an important tool.

"The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils" Lorenzo states in the Merchant of Venice. This quote acts as a good example of the importance of music to Shakespeare's world, but sadly much of the music incorporated into Shakespeare's plays has been forgotten because their popularity may have been cause for nobody to write them down.


Despite the popular sway wielded by touring players-and maybe even because of it, the stage evoked an enormous amount of hostility from the ecclesiastic and civic officials of Shakespeare's day. Social critics, for one, cited numerous concerns for the safety of the audiences, targeting among other things the unruly mobs of theater-goers, the unsanitary viewing conditions, and the unsavory rabble of prostitutes and riff-raff who frequented the spectacles. The atmosphere was, in their opinion, "inherently disorderly," and therefore represented a serious threat to the public well-being. Not to be outdone, though, the primary brunt of opposition seems to have been initiated by church officials who questioned the unwholesome moral content of the plays. Occasions of subversive blasphemy and theatrical transvestism eventually earned the stage a reputation as "Satan's domain," a place where decent, God-fearing people were led astray from the path of duty and piety. Summarizing the puritanical stance of William Prynne--a typical fanatic--and his select group of antitheatricalists, Greenblatt writes, "stage plays were part of a demonic tangle of obscene practices proliferating like a cancer in the body of society" (36). In light of such adversity it is amazing that the theater was not abolished altogether. However, with the financial backing of powerful patrons, the stage was able to weather such attacks and persevere until more receptive times.


The players and playwrights of the 1500's found an unexpected ally in those appointed by the monarchy to censor and regulate the stage. More precisely, the actors and authors depended on the censor's approval to give their works at least some legitimacy.

Queen Elizabeth issued a proposal in the late 1500's calling for the review of all pieces that were to be performed. In this proposal, she explicitly denies the privilage of viewing plays to audiences who are not, "grave and discreet," while acceptible authors must be people, "of authority, learning and wisdom." The plays were never to contain religious or political subject matter in connection with the leaders of the day. Interestingly, playwrights were not censored or banned for simply having contradictory beliefs--it was those plays which ridiculed the hierarchy (including influential foreign leaders), or threatened to unleash civil unrest that were most likely to meet with disapproval from the censor.

Later, the Master of Revels was appointed to provide a framework for the regulation of the stage. In her edict, the queen insisted that the Master of Revels personally review each play destined for the stage. This system of regulation, while ensuring that all legally licensed playhouses would be within London's city limits, also guaranteed the players protection from local authorities who may, and often did, disapprove of a play's subject matter.


Greenblatt's main focus in this section is the major developments of the sixteenth century that made Shakespeare's phenomenal career possible. The theater experienced paramount growth and change in this time, largely due to the rapidly changing society by which it was surrounded.

The rapid expansion of the market society, or the making of an urban "public," was the first important cultural formation aiding the success of sixteenth century theater. The unexplained urban population boom lent itself to the expansion and popularization of the theater. The sheer number of those able to frequent performances grew immensely. In addition, markets evolved from periodic to continuous affairs, prompting theater goers to regard theatric performances as more common, everyday occurrences, rather than mindfully reserve them for festivals and other special occasions.

The English nation existed in the sixteenth century largely as a "Theater State." In other words, regal power and prestige were closely aligned with theatric performance. Manifestations of power in courtly life were heavily dramatic, larger-than-life, much like the performances themselves. It was almost as if these powerful figures were players in their own extravagant performance. In addition to this real-life power play, regal figures often attended the theater, lending an air of prestige to theater goers and players alike.

Religious ritual proved a valuable aid to the state of sixteenth century theater. The Catholic practices banned by Protestant authorities could be theatricized and motivated theater goers. Greenblatt asserts, however, that despite the obvious influence on theater of the market society, Theater State, and the church, it could not fully identify with any of them. It was attacked as an enemy of economic activity and a competitor of religious gathering, making it out to be the adversary, not the result, of sixteenth century society.


In Shakespeare's time, and as a thread running through his plays, his characters are "known" by their clothing; their identify is tied up with their costume. In this section, Greenblatt suggests Shakespeare draws on "his culture's investment in costume, symbols of authority, visible signs of status--the fetishism of dress he must have witnessed from early childhood" (57). Greenblatt points out, "this culture seems deeply dependent on the clothes one wears. . . [or] one is permitted or compelled to wear, since there is little freedom in dress" (57).

The identity of Shakespeare's characters are clothed in disguise; in Twelfth Night, for example, although Viola's identity has been disclosed at the end, Orsino "continues to call her Cesario; he will do so . . . until she assumes her maid's garments, for only then will she be transformed into a woman: 'Cesario, come--/For so you shall be while you are a man;/But when in other habits you are seen,/Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen'" (5.1.372-75) (57). The characters here keep up the pretense of the disguise even though Viola's true role has been uncovered.

The royal crown, whose power men are willing to die for, is the zenith of the fetishism of costume. Not necessarily the 'actual' crown itself, but the power it confers upon the wearer. Anything that is a personal mark or trademark of a person, for instance, the "filthy blanket that transforms Edgar into Poor Tom to the coxcomb that is the badge of the licensed fool" (57), becomes the outward identify-conferring icon of the particular character. Another example of the identity of the wearer being tied to his clothing is Richard II. He was "divested of his crown and scepter" and experienced this as the "eradication of his name, the symbolic melting away of his identity," and he says, ". . . And know not now what name to call myself!" (58). Lear has this same problem when he passes off his clothes "in order to reduce himself to the nakedness of the Bedlam beggar" (58), and finds that he has not only lost his social identity, but experiences "the breakdown of his psychic order . . . expressing his reduction to the condition of the 'poor bare forked animal'" (58).

All of these scenes represent the Renaissance English culture as being a "characteristically deep and knowing commitment to illusion" (58). With the donning of male attire Viola, Rosalind, Portia, Jessica, and other of Shakespeare's female characters, "alter[s] what they can say and do, reveal[s] important aspects of their character, and change[s] their destiny" (59). In the end, though, Viola exclaims, "A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man" (59). Knowing how much the character depends upon her clothing to depict the role Shakespeare created, these women have really not become much more effectual than the articles of clothing they wear--not more important, not more relevant, nor more influential. They, in the end, must remove their new identities, along with their usurped clothing and become "themselves" again.


Within Shakespeare's world there are few characters who escape from difficulties with identity. "There is a peculiar, recurrent lack of fit between costume and character in fools as in princes, that is not simply a matter of disguise and disclosure" (59). In other words, there constantly exists a separation between outward appearance, and the character's actual selfhood.

The character of the individual ends up being of great importance to Shakespeare, who manipulates how the audience will respond to each one. Examples of this kind of manipulation vary from Hamlet feigning madness, to Rosalind dressing as Ganymede, but with each consecutive character some intense kind of difference between their outward character and their true personality is evident.


Shakespeare is not your average 16th century pastoral poet. The arena of nature is not unequivocally celebrated. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Shakespeare undercuts general assumptions about the "natural." This is shown in the variety of romantic situations he creates that could fall under the definition of "perverse": cross-dressing women in the guise of men wooing other men, relationships between women and men that are too enthusiastic to escape notice, and events more bizarre: in A Midsummer Night's Dream a female character falls madly in love with a man whose head is that of an ass.

Shakespeare also subverts the "natural" hierarchy of his nation's political hierarchy. The Tudor dynasty propagated the idea that their reign was sanctioned by God and was brought about by His will after the country had been sufficiently steeped in blood. In essence the rulers of the Bard's time convinced the populous that they were chosen by God. Few of Shakespeare's characters are spared the rod of his chief tool, irony. The nobility and authority figures are not excepted. He doesn't allow his works to blindly follow any the popular ideology surrounding "the natural."


The Renaissance was a pinnacle era in the use of developed rhetoric. The popular texts instructing the use of rhetoric made use of a certain number of syntactic forms known as figures, or "schemes", such as irony or hyperbole. Use of these "schemes" could enhance the language, emphasizing and drawing attention to certain words or combinations of words. Gramarians claim that Shakespeare knew and used over 200 of these schemes in his plays, both to express powerful feelings of his characters and to hide them. However, Shakespeare did not rely on complex rhetoric other than when it was necassary and frequently used simple and self-apparent phrases, neither style being more important nor more relied upon by Shakespeare. Shakespeare's working vocabulary of 20,000 words and his complex rhetoric did not dissuade readers but instead ignited their curiosities and wonder of language. His puns and ambiguous phrases show what a master of rhetoric, and grammar Shakespeare was, but most important to Shakepsear's work was his love and perhaps addiction to language, of which he was "the towering master and the most obedient, worshipful servant." His love instilled the vibrant life into his plays.

LONDON PLAYGOING AND THE LAW (from "The Shakespearean Stage" by

Andrew Gurr, in The Norton Shakespeare, 1997)

Playgoing in the 16th century was very different from what it is today, and at first it was not widely accepted. The Lord Mayor of London and other towns tried to suppress it whenever possible due to the fear than any large crowd of people had the potential to turn into a riot.

Because of monarchs like Queen Elizabeth, leading companies were supported by the lord mayors so that they could perform for her at Christmas. However, tight control was kept, and theaters were often closed for reasons such as plague outbreaks.

The people in general also had a distrust of the theater, often for religious reasons. Playacting was seen as deceit and deception and contrary to the Bible's teachings. The Puritans simply disliked shows of any kind. Still, plays were attended by the entire spectrum of the London population, from lords and ladies, to students, artisans, market women and even whores. All saw plays as a chance to enjoy a period of idle occupation.

Standing room for the poor was available for one penny, covered seating for twopence, and a lord's room cost sixpence, equal to an artisan's daily wage. Nobility often attended to be seen as well as to watch plays.

By the time Shakespeare became an active member of his company, he had the full support of the law behind him.


Despite regulation by the crown, theatre continued after Shakespeare's death. It was temporarily stifled during the Puritan reign, but resurfaced with the restoration of Charles II to the throne. These new theatres implemented changes learned from foreign contacts and were operated by actor-managers. Finances were now handled by private investors rather than actors/shareholders of a company. Innovations in scenery came when William Davenant introduced moveable sets and the "picture-frame" stage.

The King's decree of 1662 included women as actors on the stage, marking a major shift in the way theatre had been performed for centuries in England. During Shakespeare's time, boys played the parts of females in plays. New actresses were paid less than men and were often treated as prostitutes by the male members of the company and audience.

In accordance with the common practice of the age, Davenant and others gave themselves liberal license to alter the Bard's works by cutting speeches, changing text, or adding their own words. Many modern scholars' perceptions of the plays come from these altered scripts.

Even the players themselves had a semi-permanent effect on the way Shakespeare's plays are seen or presented today. Thomas Betterton was the best-known actor in England during the late seventeenth century. He played the title role in Hamlet up to the age of 74. His portrayal became standardized and was imitated by later actors. Even the minute detail of Hamlet upsetting his chair when he first sees his father's ghost was religiously mimicked by his successors for some time.


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