The Reformation in England and Shakespeare’s Early Years:

 (notes from Will in the World (2005) by Stephen Greenblatt)



To understand Shakespeare’s plays within the context of his times, you must first acquaint yourself with the political tensions that surrounded Queen Elizabeth’s rise to the throne and her consolidation of power. Her political finesse and occasional ruthlessness enabled her to survive the violent confrontation between Catholic and Protestant factions in England and abroad. She maintained domestic peace and safeguarded the growth of the economy throughout her long forty-five year reign. During the Elizabethan Age, England first emerged as a world power.


The Reformation in England:



In 1533 Henry VIII (1491-1547) declared himself the Head of the Church of England, divorced his wife, Catherine of Aragon, married Anne Boleyn and seized the wealth and property of Catholic monasteries and pilgrimage sites.



In 1547 Edward VI (1537-1553), son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour (his third wife), assumed the throne at the age of nine. During his short reign the ruling elite (his uncle, the Duke of Somerset and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cramner) moved decisively to embrace Protestant doctrine and practice. Salvation could be achieved by faith alone, not through the intercession of a priest, not through the Mass or the other rituals of the Catholic Church, nor through good works, and Churches throughout England were ordered whitewashed: altarpieces, statuary, and sacred frescos were destroyed. The rituals, pageants and plays associated with holidays were forbidden. The Elevation of the Host (the bread and wine) was outlawed. Instead, the clergy were instructed to use the new English Bible (translated by William Tyndale) and the prayers and services described in the new Book of Common Prayer (also by Tyndale). 





In 1553 Mary Tudor (1516-1558) became Queen and ruled England for the next five years. She was a Catholic, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, the granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. During her reign, Mary sought to reinstitute Catholicism as the official religion throughout the realm. She executed Tyndale, Cramner and hundreds of others, hence her nickname “Bloody Mary”. (See John Foxe’s Protestant Book of Martyrs.) During her reign the conflict between Catholics and Protestants threatened to plunge England into civil war, but Mary was a sickly person and soon died without a child as heir.





In 1558 Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603) became Queen. She was regarded by Catholics as the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and she was a Protestant. Elizabeth demanded obedience and conformity to the Church of England, but to calm religious passions, she acknowledged that she could not compel purity of conviction. She said that she had neither the desire nor the intention “to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts.” So English Catholics could continue to practice their faith in private as long as they publicly declared their loyalty to the nation and to the Queen.


In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth, ordering her English subjects to rebel and, if possible, kill her. Fearful of conspiracies to overthrow her government, Elizabeth ordered the violent repression of Catholics. Not only were Catholic priests hunted, particularly Jesuits, but it became treason (a capital crime) to harbor a Catholic priest in your home.





Elizabeth’s chief rival to the throne of England was her Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (1542-1588), the daughter of King James V of Scotland and the French princess Marie de Guise. Mary’s claim to the English throne was as strong as her cousin’s. Mary wed the French dauphin Francois who became king in 1558 (and then promptly died in 1560). Catholics in England and on the continent looked to Mary as their best hope for regaining power in England. When Mary wed with Lord Danley, a descendant of Henry VII, her claim to the English throne became even stronger.  Their child was named James, and he would eventually become King of England when Elizabeth died in 1603. No such luck for Mary. By 1568 Elizabeth had made the decision to move against her. Elizabeth’s officers captured and imprisoned Mary in Sheffield Castle where she would remain for the next eighteen years. Elizabeth was reluctant to do away with her cousin, but finally evidence was found that from prison Mary had participated in a Catholic plot to overthrow the government, and Elizabeth had had enough. Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded on February 8th 1588.


Throughout her reign, Elizabeth overcame challenges to her throne that came not only from within England but also from powerful forces on the Continent. The most powerful state in Europe during the 16th century was Spain, the richest jewel of the Holy Roman Empire, a coalition of kingdoms ruled by Hapsburg princes which extended from Central Europe to the Netherlands to Italy, Spain and beyond to the New World provinces that had been settled and exploited by the conquistadores. (Hapsburg Map) Precious metals from Mexico and Peru flowed into the Hapsburg’s coffers enabling them to finance military expeditionary forces which in the latter part of the 16th century fought to control the Netherlands’ rich maritime cities of Brussels, Amsterdam, and Utrecht. Elizabeth feared the involvement of England in an expensive and potentially disastrous foreign war. At times during her reign she would send signals to the Spanish indicating her willingness to consider marriage to a suitable Spanish prince and perhaps even conversion to Catholicism. At other times she sent soldiers and ships to aid fellow Protestants on the continent, and she looked the other way when English raiders like Sir Francis Drake attacked and pillaged Spanish trading vessels in the New World. 




When word spread throughout Europe that Elizabeth had acquiesced in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the Spanish decided to act. In 1588 they mounted a huge ground and sea force to invade England, sail up the Thames and seize London. In the first of many famous maritime victories in their march to empire, the English fought off the Spanish Armada, which was then dispersed and destroyed by a North Sea tempest. The defeat of the Spanish Armada signaled the arrival of England on the stage of world power, but throughout the final years of Elizabeth’s reign, rumors of a new Armada’s approach, seeking vengeance, would keep the English anxious and vigilant.


 The Impact of Elizabethan Politics on Shakespeare’s Early Life


The repercussions of these national conflicts were felt throughout the kingdom, even in rural townships like Stratford-upon-Avon and in the life of John Shakespeare’s family. During the 1560’s, John Shakespeare, a farrier (or glovemaker) by trade, was also an illicit ‘wool brogger’ and moneylender. He had been elected the head alderman in town, a position equivalent to our town mayor today. In this position his responsibilities included collecting taxes, issuing business licenses, and the like. (He was also the town’s official beer taster.) Although a commoner, John had married ‘up’. His wife, Mary Arden, belonged to an old and storied family in the region. (The nearby Forest of Arden had been named for them.) 

When the Reformation came to Stratford in the 1560’s and 1570’s, it had fallen to John Shakespeare to oversee the ‘reparations’ or whitewashing of Stratford’s Guild Chapel.  All the statues, stained glass, and beautiful frescoes, one of the Virgin Mary and another of Prince George slaying the dragon, had to be destroyed. As a town official, John Shakespeare persecuted Catholics, yet he remained a ‘closet Catholic’, a ‘recusant’ at home. A written ‘spiritual testament’ to his true faith was found hidden beneath the floorboards in his house. And John Shakespeare made sure to give his eldest son the best education available. He sent young Will, who had been born on St. George’s Day in 1564, to the King’s New School in Stratford where each of the schoolmasters who instructed Will proved to have Catholic sympathies.


During the late 1570’s, when Shakespeare was just about your age, it has been suggested by several of his biographers that Will may have served as a tutor to a wealthy Lancashire family in Northern England, a section of the country that had successfully resisted the Protestants’ campaign to force religious conformity. In the will of Alexander Hoghton, a “William Shakeshaft” is mentioned as the recipient of several theatrical costumes. It is known that Hoghton sponsored a company of players which performed often at his home. After Hoghton’s death this company would go on to become Lord Strange’s Men and move to London. The company included Will Kempe, Thomas Pope, John Heminges, and Augustine Phillips-- the actors who would later form the core of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company in the mid-1590’s. (See  ANTHONY HOLDEN, Will Shakeshaft and the cache in the rafters The Independent 22 DECEMBER 1999)

Think about this historical coincidence: the market for theatre performances began to grow quickly in the 1570’s and it exploded in the late 1580’s. Could the growing popularity of theatre, with its pomp and ceremony, its sorcerers and faeries, be related to the suppression of Catholic ritual?

In any event, Shakespeare was back in Stratford by 1580 (age 16), and just two years later he was married and a father. His wife was named Anne Hathaway. Anne was twenty-six years old, and, unlike most Elizabethan women, she was an independent property owner because she had been orphaned in her early twenties. A curious document exists in the registry of the Bishop of Worcester dated November 28, 1582.  It  lists a bond of 40 pounds (twice a schoolmaster’s yearly salary) to facilitate the wedding of ‘William Shagspere’ and ‘Anne Hathaway’. The document is curious because on November 11th 1582 another marriage license was issued in the neighboring town of Temple Grafton to “William Shaxpere and Anne Whatley.” (Could Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne have been forced?) Six months later a daughter Susanna was born to Anne and Will, then two years later in 1585, Anne bore twins, a boy named Hamnet and a girl named Judith.


No documentary evidence has yet been uncovered which can tell us about the next few years of Shakespeare’s life. The next mention of Shakespeare is in a pamphlet published in London in 1592; a playwright named Robert Greene lambasted a new, up and coming writer/actor who had exploded on the London theatre scene:

"Yes, trust them not, for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie." (Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit)

How did Shakespeare, in six short years, move from humble Stratford to an elite position in the highly competitive London theatre market? He had become so popular that other playwrights were libeling him in print, and Shakespeare even had the muscle to call on noble friends to put pressure on Henry Chettle, the publisher of Greene’s scurrilous pamphlet, to issue a formal apology for the insult. What had happened to Shakespeare? How had this transformation taken place? How could the son of a Stratford farrier have achieved so much so quickly?

Well, the biographers have many theories, but the truth remains a mystery. All we do know is that sometime in the mid to late 1580’s Shakespeare left his wife and three children to embark upon a theatre career. The legend has it that Shakespeare got into trouble with a local nobleman, Sir Thomas Lucy, for poaching deer on his private land and was forced to flee Stratford. However, more recent scholarship suggests that the circumstances which surrounded Shakespeare’s hasty departure from Stratford may have had more to do with the politics of the time and the troubles into which his father John had fallen.

In 1576 when Will was twelve years old, John Shakespeare began to sell and mortgage property that he had slowly acquired over his lifetime, and his financial distress reached such an extreme that he stopped showing up at church (to avoid creditors).  In 1580 he was bound over to appear in court and account for a debt, but Shakespeare’s father did not show up and was fined 20 pounds, a considerable sum. Will’s formal education ended that year, and unlike other talented students from common families, he lost his chance to attend university at Oxford or Cambridge.

What had gone wrong? Shakespeare’s biographers have offered several theories. There had been a crackdown on wool ‘brogging’, and John Shakespeare surely lost an important source of income. Some writers suggest that John may have descended into alcoholism, providing Will with one of the models for the great drunken buffoon, Falstaff. Still others suggest that John Shakespeare ran into trouble because of his secret adherence to Catholicism, and the name of Sir Thomas Lucy enters the story. Lucy served in Parliament as a representative for the Stratford region and made a name for himself by promoting a bill condemning secret Jesuits and seminary students. In 1583, a distant cousin of the Shakespeare family named John Somerville had been overheard threatening the Queen, quickly apprehended and then put to death.  Lucy had singled out other members of the Arden family for persecution. Years later, Shakespeare still felt such antipathy for the man that he snuck a joke about defacing Lucy’s coat of arms into his 1595 comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. So, what could have provoked Shakespeare into leaving home in 1586 to take his chances on a life in the theatre? Perhaps he was forced to flee because his prospects for a future in Stratford had been spoiled. His family’s business had been ruined and their hopes of rising to noble status broken by religious scandal. (Greenblatt 59-69)

As we will discover, Shakespeare’s plays explore controversial political issues with shrewd insight, but we can never really get a bead on his own political perspective. In a police state such as the one that existed in Elizabethan England, avoiding overt political or religious commentary was an essential survival skill, but Shakespeare also recognized that his audience yearned to air and explore controversial issues, and even the most powerful monarch cannot silence public opinion through censorship. So, Shakespeare learned the essential art of ironic suggestion. He hardly ever set his plays in the present, preferring ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy, or England in past centuries, yet the action of these plays explore vital and current political controversies. In his plays both sides of every issue seem to receive equal emphasis. He may have learned from hard experience the vital importance of this suggestive opacity. The surfaces of his plays avoid controversy, but tantalizing insinuations lead sensitive audience members to consider pressing topical issues. Yet Shakespeare himself could always deny potentially dangerous interpretations of his plays and get them past the censors. Shakespeare’s experience in Stratford may have taught him the vital importance of keeping his own political opinions strictly to himself.