Shakespeare’s hardy audience

To understand a person, or a peopleFamily
it helps to know what childhood was like for them and how family relationships were formed.  According to Lawrence Stone, author of The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977), 16th-century English family relationships tended to be weak, that is, weak in real relationships, bound by genuine love and affection.  The social group of most importance was the extended family, the community.  Personal relationships were submerged in this wider group to an extent we see today only in a few isolated communities like the Amish or the Hasidim.  That these communities were often spread over a wide area, particularly on the higher levels, and considering the difficulties of travel then, that relatives might go years without seeing each other in person adds to the picture of a collection of emotionally cool relationships, connected by blood and self interest but little else.

If the Elizabethans were a hardy lot, withstanding the plague, malaria, wars, duels, the little Ice Age, and a diet that, except in summer, consisted of beef, bread and beer, it may be because the harsh treatment they recieved in infancy and childhood eliminated the weakest at the outset.  The death rate among infants and children was so high that it was not unusual for a woman to have anywhere from eight to twelve children in hopes that two or three might live to maturity.  If now and then this meant that so many lived that the parents went bankrupt raising, educating, and marrying them properly, it may have seemed less of a risk to dynastic-minded 16th-century parents than the disaster of leaving no progeny at all.

Birth was a dangerous passage for both mother and baby, due to the ever present threat of childbed fever, hemmorage, or both weakened by her poor diet and restrictive clothing.  Once past that hurdle the infant had another series of trials to overcome before there could be any assurance of its survival.  Immediately after birth it was placed with a wet nurse, often a poor woman who took in more than one baby.  It would be she who would see to its care for the first year or two (81).  Standard procedure was to keep the infant “swaddled,” that is, tightly wrapped in strips of fabric and bound to a board so it could not move its arms or legs (161).  The board could be laid flat or hung up on a peg, where the poor creature remained until its nurse had time to feed or wash it.

Once weaned  and potty-trained, it was returned to its parental home where it was consigned to a nursery along with its siblings or perhaps a cousin or two in the care of a nanny, most likely an unpaid member from a lower rung of the extended family rather than, as would be true in later centuries, a hired nurse or governess.  Here the child had little more than a passing acquaintance with its parents, whose busy lives prevented them from anything more than an occasional visit during which the children were expected to perform as before a panel of judges.

At seven or eight they were considered too old for the nursery, and so would be placed outside the home, the boys with a tutor, or a family that provided a tutor, the girls with a family who used her like a little servant (167).  While boys received some education, education for girls depended on the nature of the surrogate family.  Both boys and girls so placed were expected to serve the household in some capacity, whatever their rank.  The purpose of this placement was to enlarge the all important network of relationships with families higher on the social scale.  This was meant to guarantee both children and parents some degree of social advancement.

This is not to say that these surrogate families were necessarily cruel, in fact, they might have been kinder than the child’s own parents, who, according to Stone, apparently thought it proper to present the sternest possible surface towards their offspring.  Children were trained to give their parents almost idolatrous respect, addressing them with a ritual greeting, kneeling before them to ask their blessing (171).  Nor was this something that parents were in any way ashamed of, since displays of affection were thought to give children the dangerous idea that they could do as they pleased.  To this end they were flogged, sometimes brutally, on a regular basis, by governesses, parents, and schoolmasters, that the sins they were born with be driven out of them before they got too old for correction (163).  The famous book, The Scholemaster, by Roger Ascham, was written following a discussion over a goup of boys who had recently run away from an over-zealous schoolmaster.

In families of property, the oldest boy, the one who would inherit the family titles and estates, got the most attention, with some going to the second oldest, in case the oldest should die.  This hierarchy was impressed on the others, who were taught to give their oldest brother the same kind of respect they gave their parents, resulting in relationships fraught with jealousy and envy (156).  If, as often happened, the father died before the heir reached maturity, he (or where there were no sons, she) became the property of the Court of Wards, to be sold to the highest bidder, who had full use of his estates until he came of age, by which time he or she often found themselves married, will they nill they, to their guardian’s son or daughter (182).

Although Stone ignores the possible connection between these behaviors and the policies and beliefs of the Reformation, we can’t help but wonder if the notion of original sin didn’t have a great deal to do with their harsh treatment of their children.  Born in sin, it seems as though it was up to the little sinner whether or not he or she had the chutzpah to survive to adulthood.  The beatings and constant lectures sound like one more outcome of the soul-deadening regime imported from Geneva.  As much evidence shows, these processes left the nation’s children vulnerable to mistreatment of the worse sort, suggesting a society plagued by the kind of asocial griefs and horrors later dramatized by John Webster and John Ford.

When we contrast this with the childhood we envision for the Earl of Oxford, surrounded at birth and for the following four years by a community of adoring females, followed by eight years with a man who, if perhaps no more demonstrative than anyone else in his time, was clearly humane in his dealings with students and his own family, we have some ground for understanding the source of the joie de vivre, the sheer joy of living, that shines through his lighter works, and can better understand how gratefully audiences turned to his early comedies after the depressingly grim efforts of his immediate predecessors.

14 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s hardy audience

  1. On the positive side yes the author’s joie de vivre but on the negative family dynamics of the time maybe we have a societal source for the rivalry between Edgar and Edmund and among Lear’s 3 daughters.

    Thank you for your rich contributions to the discussion.

    Francis Murphy

    1. Regarding his first four years, about which we have no information whatsoever, given the loneliness of his childhood with Smith and the likely envious dislike of Smith’s childless wife, the political stresses at Cecil House, the wickedness of Court, the miseries of a marriage that bound him to the Cecils, etc., there had to be some period of time where he experienced unconditional love, otherwise there wouldn’t be the intense focus on it in his writing. You can’t yearn for and seek to recreate in verse and song something you never had.

  2. Just thinking of the warm familiarity of the nurse and friar toward Juliet and Romeo and Hamlet’s memory of the jester Yorick carrying him on his back a thousand times. The care givers may have been very loving and supportive of their small charges. I had read that the 16th earl’s troupe of actors would have wintered at Hadingham castle. Certainly would have made that cold castle a lot warmer for an imaginative kid. Also it’s been said that the practice of swaddling can actually be beneficial to infants. American Indians used it extensively. When you think about a wet nurse, the oxytocin that is produced would have promoted bonding. This is the same chemical that spikes when you fall in love. So the servants and nursemaids of adorable child nobles may have been very loving.

    1. Actually, Oxford wasn’t raised at Hedingham, but with his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, at Anckerwyke. If he saw any entertainment until he was twelve it would have been at Christmas at Windsor Castle.

  3. Not saying it wasn’t a lousy system just that the experience would vary for individuals. It’s natural for adults to respond to children, all the more so if that kid might someday be one of the most powerful earls in the realm.

  4. There’s a lot of material on how dreadful it was to hand over a newborn to a wet nurse. Some poor women earned their livings taking care of babies up to the age or two or more, so it’s unlikely the infants got enough attention. But this would not be the fate of the heir to a great earldom.

    Before the dissolution of the monasteries, Oxford heirs would be born and cared for by nuns in a nearby priory. Since anything nearby was shut down in 1536, Edward’s family had to find another solution. There are two possibilities: that he lived with his mother’s relatives at Bloomsters, not far from Hedingham, or that another living situation had been set up for the nuns, who otherwise would have been displaced, as many were. Given a building somewhere, paid for by the earl, with a stipend to live on, they would have continued to perform the services that were the province of nuns going back to the dark ages, assisting with births, healing the sick and wounded, etc. Of course they could not breast feed a baby, that would not be possible, but they would know of women nearby who were lactating.

    As for the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and Peter, they, like Friar Laurence, were probably based on persons he recalled from his years with Sir Thomas Smith at Ankerwycke. As Carolyn Spurgeon points out, most of Shakespeare’s imagery comes from a time when the author lived in a setting exactly like the one we see existed at Ankerwycke. I believe that when he was exiled from Court in 1581, and turned to writing for the West End audience, Romeo and Juliet was one of the first plays he wrote. At that point he turned from themes directed towards the Court to more personal stories.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Nice point about the monasteries and abbeys. I never thought about the fact that the process of dissolving the monasteries was completed only 9 years before his birth, not long before at all. I find your site a wonderful resource. You have a great ability to see the broad picture and to bring that time alive. I hope at some point you’ll write a book that brings it altogether in one narrative.

  6. The monasteries were dissolved c.1536, Oxford was born in 1550, so it was more like 15 years, still not long for an institution that had been relied upon for hundreds of years. I am working on a book, which is why the blogs and pages have slowed recently. And I appreciate your encouragement. It’s slow going.

  7. I vaguely remembered from past reading that there was a window in which the work of dismantling the monasteries and enforcing the edict took place so I looked to see when the process was completed and per the wiki it was 1541. I like your idea that de Vere lived on for a while after his death in Waltham forest writing, similar to how previous generations might retire to a monastic life. I thought it was suggestive that on midsummer night eve when he was supposed to have died they rounded up Wriothesley and company while mummings and plays were taking place at the forest celebration and soon after on the eve of Susan and Montgomery’s wedding there was the play where everyone but James and some of his people were masked. I like to imagine he was there on both occasions in masked anonymity.

  8. The process of dissolution began in 1535. The priory nearest Hedingham was dissolved in 1536. The one the Oxford family relied on most was the one at Earl’s Colne, which fell into disrepair during Edward’s time, much to his disrepute in his home base, but this was not a nunnery.

    It’s a matter of record that the play Measure for Measure was performed for the Court the night before (after?) the marriage of Oxford’s daughter Susan to the youngest son of Mary Sidney, the Earl of Montgomery. I believe that Oxford, as “the fantastical duke of dark corners,” is explaining to his Court audience, the reasons for his disappearance. The last version of As You Like It was probably written shortly before his farewell, produced for King James at Wilton, in an outdoor setting much like the forest in that play.

  9. Hi Hughes 😀

    I am no one special but an oxfordian with his doubts. Doubts that Hank Whittemore and Ricardo Mena had taken from me but you’re a “revolution” in the oxfordian matter, in my point of view, and I think you can help me too 🙂

    Ricardo Mena and I have talked through comments in his blog about his idea of Edmund Spenser and Thomas Nashe as pen-names to John Donne. Your vision it that Francis Bacon was the one behind of such names.

    I’m focusing in Amoretti in the question: Donne or Bacon? That’s the question. My main point of view is that Oxford helped Donne in his adventure through the poetry world before he published under his own name. But one think I am almost certain till I read your theory of Bacon as Spenser (I read before in a baconian site but it didn’t get my attention): Oxford must have write Amoretti, Spenser’s sonnets, for many reasons that I (the sames I gave to Mena):

    – Amorreti Author was very conversant with Shakespeare’s Sonnets (look for similarities: Amoretti 10 “Unrighteous Lord of Love” – Shakespeare’s Sonnet 26 “Lord of my Love”; etc);
    – Amoretti 80 tells us that the Author’s beloved was a Maid of Honour of the Queen; and Oxford married in 1591 a Maid of Honour, Elizabeth Trentham;
    – 1589-1591 is the most probably date to Oxford’s courtship to Trentham, coiencides with Shakespeare’s first 17 sonnets. Around this time, Oxford was 40 years old, like Shakespeare in Sonnet 2 and Spenser in Amoretti 60;

    Among many others evidence. I’ve been looking for Francis Bacon’s biography and I find that he was courting a woman in 1597, but this date past the publication of Amoretii (in 1595). Do you believe Bacon wrote Amoretti, and if yes, who could have been the Beloved one?

    Sorry for my bad english but I’m Portuguese 😛

    1. Point by point: Why would John Donne think it necessary to hide his identity? Spenser’s first publication was The Shepherd’s Calender in 1579 when Donne was seven years old (he was born in 1572). I haven’t spent much time on the Amoretti, so my opinion on that isn’t worth much, but my guess is that it was written by Sir Walter Raleigh while he was wooing Elizabeth Throckmorten, a Queen’s Maid of Honor whom he later married, causing him to be banished from Court for five years; it’s beautiful, but not at all in Oxford’s style. Bacon was gay; he never experienced a feeling of passion towards a woman. Admiration and friendship, yes; passion, no. Later in life he married a much younger woman, purely for status, who came to hate him.

      As someone from a different culture and language, I would suggest you concentrate on the English history of the period before attempting to assign authorships. Literature grows out of the history of a period plus the writers’ biographies. We come together because we love the poetry, but scholarship requires history and biography.

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