By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and Maps.com
Summertime brings dozens of Shakespeare festivals to cities and towns around the United States. During the festivals, actors perform both Shakespeare’s most famous plays and some of his more obscure work. While festivals occur in states from Alabama to Utah, California alone has more than 50. The largest, like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, welcome more than 400,000 attendees each summer. These festivals are scattered throughout the year, but are more commonly scheduled for the summer months.
Nearly everyone has heard of William Shakespeare (1564‑1616), a playwright and poet who lived in England. He is considered the world’s greatest dramatist, most popular author and the finest poet of the English language. Shakespeare’s plays and poems have entertained audiences and readers for nearly 400 years.
To truly appreciate Shakespeare as a person, however, knowing his world in his time adds an important dimension. Just what was Shakespearean England like in the last half of the 1500s?
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford‑upon‑Avon, a small market town about 75 miles (120 km) northwest of London. The Avon was a small stream that drained a rolling countryside of mostly cleared farmland. Scattered over the land were woodlots, used to provide wood for heating, furniture, farm implements and housing.
Shakespeare was the third of eight children, a typical-sized family of the time. His father was a glove maker and became a prominent politician in the small town of Stratford. Shakespeare’s mother came from a socially prominent Roman Catholic farm family nearby, but the Shakespeare family attended the Church of England, which at that time was the state church.
The Shakespeare family house and birthplace of the playwright was a typical wood beam and plaster structure with architecture typical of 16th century England. There was no indoor running water or toilet. Water was fetched daily from a well near the center of town, while chamber pots were used indoors and dumped daily in latrines, often in the backyards.
Virtually the entire house, other than the kitchen and living room, was unheated. Wood was the main cooking and heating fuel, and it was expensive because it had to be cut by hand and hauled into town on oxcarts. England, generally, has a cool, damp marine climate. Even today, many English houses are poorly heated.
The Shakespeares’ dress would have included traditional linen undergarments and outerwear made from flax. Flax grows well in cool moist climates and was a major crop on English farms of the day. Heavy outer garments worn for warmth were woolen, spun from the wool of sheep grazed widely throughout England.
The education available to boys whose families could afford it began about the age of six or seven and included nine hours each day in the classroom all year long. Latin was widely taught and was considered the language of the literate.
As a market center, Stratford was the central place of a 165-square-mile (427 sq km) region that had about a five mile (8 km) radius. Farmers brought their goods for sale and purchased salt, harnesses, iron goods and pottery. Such towns also attracted traveling entertainers who performed with plays and shows. One of the popular plays of the day was about Robin Hood and his outlaw band.
While in his mid-30s, Shakespeare moved to London, where the theater provided opportunities unavailable in Stratford. London in the late 1500s contained a population of about 125,000 people. This was prior to the industrial revolution and a huge portion of the seaport city’s population lived in relative squalor.
People were packed tightly into tenements, sewage ran in the gutter, water had to be retrieved from common wells and disease was rampant. Saddle horses and carriages were the transportation of the wealthy, while most others traveled by oxcart or on foot. Large cities such as London were particularly odoriferous from human and animal wastes.
Nonetheless, London was the Hollywood of Shakespeare’s day. The wealthy yearned for entertainment and Shakespeare’s talent quickly made him a top entertainer. But from 1592‑94, many of London’s theaters closed because of reoccurring outbreaks of the bubonic plague.
Fleas from infected rats caused the plague outbreaks. Between 1603 and 1665, more than 150,000 Londoners died. Although the outbreaks ended quickly, urban dwellers were deathly afraid of the plague. Seaports, such as London, were particularly susceptible because infected rats from other plague-infected seaports could arrive as stowaways on ships.
When the theaters closed for two years, Shakespeare turned to poetry, and he was widely acclaimed for that work. The height of his fame, however, came between 1594 and 1608, when he returned to the theater.
Shakespeare’s professional life was influenced greatly by the physical and cultural settings of 16th century England. Toward the end of his life, he had homes in Stratford and London as he gradually withdrew from the London scene. He stayed involved in writing at least through 1613.
Today, Shakespeare’s plays are more popular than ever. The many festivals throughout the United States honoring his work are a testament to his continued influence on the fine arts.
And that is Geography in the News.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.
Sources: GITN 356, “Shakespearean England,” Feb. 14, 1996; and http://www.osfashland.org/
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