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Renaissance English Drama: The Sociopolitical
Climate in Elizabethan England.
By Dr. Wayne Narey, Arkansas State University

Agas Map of London, 1572In 1600, the city of London had a population of 245,000 people, twice the size of Paris or Amsterdam. Playwriting was the least personal form of writing, but clearly the most profitable for literary men since the demand was so great: 15,000 people attended the playhouses weekly. What is often exploited in the plays is the tension between a Court culture and a commercial culture, which in turn reflected the tension between the City government and the Crown. The period from 1576 (date of the first public theatre in London) to 1642 (date that the Puritans closed the theatres) is unparalleled in its output and quality of literature in English.

The monarchy rested on two claims: that it was of divine origin and that it governed by consent of the people. The period was one of great transition. This period of history is generally regarded as the English Renaissance, which took place approximately 100 years later than on the continent. The period also coincides with the Reformation, and the two eras are of course mutually related.
Henry VIII by Joos van Cleve, c.1531
Imposed upon the Elizabethans was a social hierarchy of order and degree—very much medieval concepts that existed more in form than in substance. The society of Shakespeare's time had in many ways broken free of these rigidities. It was not that people were rejecting the past; rather, a new more rigid order was replacing the old. This was set into motion during Henry VIII's reign in the 1530s when he assumed more power than had hitherto been known to the monarchy. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 gave to Henry the power of the Church as well as temporal power.

By Shakespeare's time the state had asserted its right in attempting to gain authority in secular and spiritual matters alike. The so-called "Tudor myth" had sought to justify actions by the crown, and selections for the monarchy, as God-sanctioned: to thwart those decisions was to sin, because these people were selected by God.

The population of the City quadrupled from Henry VIII's reign to the end of Shakespeare's life (1616), thus adding to the necessity for civil control and law. The dissolution of the monasteries had caused much civil unrest, and the dispossessed monks and nuns had been forced to enter the work force. Thus the employment, or unemployment, problem was severe.

Puritanism, which first emerged early in Elizabeth's reign, was a minority force of churchmen, Members of Parliament, and others who felt that the Anglican Reformation had stopped short of its goal. Puritans used the Bible as a guide to conduct, not simply to faith, but to political and social life, and since they could read it in their own language, it took on for them a greater importance than it had ever held. They stressed particularly the idea of remembering the Sabbath day. The conflict between the Puritans and the "players" of the theatre—who performed for the larger crowds that would turn out for productions on the Sabbath—was established early.

To cite this article:

Narey, Wayne. "The Sociopolitical Climate in
       Elizabethan England." Luminarium.
       2 Aug 2006. [Date you accessed this article].

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This page created by Anniina Jokinen on August 2, 2006. Last updated August 10, 2010.


Renaissance English Dramatists
John Heywood
Thomas Sackville
Nicholas Udall
John Skelton
John Bale George Gascoigne
John Lyly
Robert Greene
George Peele
Thomas Kyd
Christopher Marlowe
Anthony Munday
Thomas Campion
Samuel Daniel
William Shakespeare
Ben Jonson
Thomas Dekker
John Marston
Francis Beaumont
John Fletcher
John Webster
Thomas Middleton
William Rowley
Philip Massinger
John Ford
James Shirley
Thomas Heywood
Margaret Cavendish

Elizabethan Theatre
See section
English Renaissance Drama

Images of London:
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Visscher's Panoramic View of London, 1616. COLOR

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