Shakespeare lived in tumultuous and creative times - rapidly changing times when science, religion and culture were undergoing dramatic shifts. He also lived in a theatrical era without historical par - when the popular theater first became a major source of entertainment for the masses, even if scholars of the time deemed it vulgar and puritan preachers condemned such visceral entertainment as devilishly corrupt.

He lived under the reign of Elizabeth I, the unmarried, Virgin Queen who presided over England's Golden Age. Elizabeth ushered in a time of unprecedented confidence and growth for Great Britain, establishing England as the leading naval and commercial power of the Western world; defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588 and firmly establishing the Church of England as an institution of the state.

Rainbow Portrait 1600

Elsewhere during this time, Copernicus was putting his life at risk by asserting his cosmological theory that the earth was not the center of the Universe, Galileo was setting forth his Golden Rule, and Sir Walter Raleigh was exploring the Americas.

London was also undergoing a massive transformation during the era. From 1500 to 1600 the city's population grew 400%. The economy was booming but contrasts abounded - on the one hand the city suffered from plagues and poverty and on the other it experienced a cultural and intellectual explosion like no other.

At the center of this artistic explosion was the London theater, rife with the world's leading dramatists who were changing not only the language but the very notion of popular entertainment. In the 1580's a group of playwrights known as the University Wits - including Marlowe, Greene, Kyd and Peele - redefined the modern theater with highly entertaining dramas and comedies using blank verse and often featuring a moral hero. Their productions emphasized realism with special effects and gory, authentic death scenes a specialty.

These Elizabethan dramas drew audiences the likes of which the theater had never seen - people of all walks of life who paid the equivalent of one penny to sit in the front of the theater. The audiences were not only large but expressive, often cheering, hissing and calling out in the middle of the drama. Due to the newly lucrative nature of plays, London's theater district blossomed with theaters springing up all over the Bankside district, and competing for the talents of the leading playwrights. Plays typically ran for three days - it was said that the first day, the expenses were paid; the second day, the actors were paid; and on the third and final day, the playwright was paid.

It seemed that nothing could slow the growth of the theater district - not even those who denounced it as evil - until the Black Death, or bubonic plague, made a resurgence. Some 80 percent of those who caught the plague perished painfully with several days, so panic was well founded. Because the disease was most prevalent in winter, public spaces were often closed, including the theaters, resulting in great loss of money for the owners, actors and writers.

It was into this heady and exciting atmosphere that young William Shakespeare arrived from Stratford-upon-Avon. Talented to the point of genius, the writer combined the most effective elements of Elizabethan drama and classical drama with his own highly original imagination, wit and most decidedly, passion. Shakespeare's chief rival of day was clearly Christopher Marlowe, whose plays were most highly celebrated during his lifetime. In fact, it is said that if Shakespeare had died in 1593, rather than Marlowe, Marlowe would be known as the world's greatest dramatist. Instead, Shakespeare flourished, entered he most prolific period in the late 1590's and early 1600s, becoming the paragon of the Elizabethan artist.


from the Miramax press release of Shakespeare in Love


Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I