Shakespeare and the Tudors

Rhys Paul

William Shakespeare would come to embody the renaissance of art and drama in Elizabethan England

Bridging the Tudor and Stuart periods, William Shakespeare would come to embody the renaissance of art and drama in Elizabethan England and, in doing so, he would immortalise himself. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, the opening act of Shakespeare’s life featured relatively modest beginnings and an education that lasted for several years until he was fifteen. His marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582 as an eighteen-year-old is well known, but outside of the births of their three children, very little is actually known about their relationship. Indeed, after the birth of Judith and Hamnet in 1585, there is a whole period in Shakespeare’s life that we know nothing about. These have become known as the ‘lost years’ and the mystery has created much speculation among scholars. One of the most common (and romanticised) explanations for Shakespeare’s absence from the records between 1585 and 1592 is that he joined a company of actors as they travelled through Stratford-upon-Avon; thus beginning the trajectory of the Shakespeare we are most familiar. This would also go some way in explaining his rise to prominence in London as a poet and playwright by 1592. It is here where we can once again pick up the paper trail in the form of Shakespeare’s printed works and plays. Although subject to debate, The Taming of the Shrew is regarded as one of his earliest plays and likely created at some point before performances began in 1592. By 1594, Shakespeare co- founded the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) and soon after the company’s popularity excelled. Whereas Stratford bookended Shakespeare’s life, it was London where his reputation was born. Spending the best part of four decades in the city, Shakespeare’s time in London coincided with a period of sustained demographic and cultural growth for the city. It was also defined by periods of plague outbreaks that thrived on London’s unsanitary conditions and concentrated population. These outbreaks often led to the temporary closure of the many playhouses that had been constructed towards the end of the sixteenth century. The most famous of which was undoubtedly the Globe: an open-air playhouse that was both partly owned by Shakespeare and the site of some of his greatest work between 1599 and 1613. Of the twenty-nine plays written for the Globe, sixteen were produced by Shakespeare himself. It was quintessentially Shakespeare, yet its destruction by fire in 1613 was a tragedy that not even Shakespeare could have predicted. Despite being rebuilt, the destruction of the original Globe symbolised both the end of Shakespeare’s time in London and as a writer. A return to Stratford as a celebrity followed and it was here where he would ultimately spend the final years of his life.
Shakespeare and the Tudors
William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare and the Tudors

What stands Shakespeare apart from many of his contemporaries is the remarkable preservation of his works

What stands Shakespeare apart from many of his contemporaries is the remarkable preservation of his works. It is believed that only 230 plays survive from the period. Of this number, sixteen per cent of the work can be attributed to Shakespeare. For that credit is owed to the First Folio – a collection of his plays compiled by John Heminges and Henry Condell and published in 1623. As two original members of the Chamberlain’s Men, Heminges and Condell had worked closely with Shakespeare and seem to have taken a personal investment in the project following the playwright’s death in 1616. Its content included thirty-six plays and included the maiden print of classics such as Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest. Yet, the publication of a folio of plays was unusual, time-consuming and expensive. It is a testament, therefore, to Shakespeare’s reputation and the work of Heminges and Condell that the decision was a resounding success with three further editions following. Without their efforts, William Shakespeare could well have been lost to history. Fortunately, Shakespeare’s shadow looms as large today as it ever did. His output of work was prolific and, owing much to the folio produced by Heminges and Condell, we are left with thirty-eight known plays, 154 sonnets and numerous poems that are widely accessible. These numbers merely touch the surface, however, and the impact of Shakespeare’s legacy extends to everything from our language to the popular culture he continues to influence. His work is regularly incorporated into the education syllabus as well as being constantly reworked for twenty-first century audiences to reflect contemporary issues and values. It is unlikely that Shakespeare would have envisaged himself as the cultural phenomenon he continues to be four centuries after his death, especially if Ophelia’s line - ‘we know what we are but know not what we may be’ (Hamlet Act IV, Scene V) – provides any indication.
Ancestry UK
Shakespeare and the Tudors

Rhys Paul

Rhys Paul wrote for Edition 7 'All Things Tudor'
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