Shakespeare and his fellow writers were products of two great cultural movements, one as much as the other. Beginning in the 12th to 14th centuries, first one, then the other, swept through Europe, changing manners and morals, governments and cultures, as they went.
While Northern and Western Europe were experiencing what historians call the Dark Ages (dark only to them because so little information from that period has survived), the Middle East was having its great Renaissance of learning and of scientific and technological advance (based on the civilizations of China and India). For several centuries, from as early as the Crusades, learning and technological progress moved in waves from the eastern end of the Mediterranean to its westernmost outpost in Southern Spain, across the Pyrenees and along the coast into southern France, and, more directly, up the Adriatic to Venice.
By the fifteenth century, once heavily guarded secrets of astronomy, astrology, mathematics (al gebra), chemistry (al chemy), glassmaking, tempered steel, distilling of perfumes, sugar (al zukar), and alcohol (al kohl), the manufacture of silk and cotton (al godon), printing and papermaking, made their way to the West. These, along with the philosophy, artistry and wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans, that had been preserved in Arabic, were translated back into Latin by Spanish and Italian scholars of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.
But in England, farthest western outpost, only a little of this reached the higher levels of English society during the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV and V before the Wars of the Roses put cultural development on hold, and although some came through in the reigns of the early Tudors, it wasn’t until Elizabeth’s long and relatively peaceful reign that the European Renaissance finally burst the bonds of feudalism to establish a new language and new forms of art. The irony is that by the time the Renaissance reached England, the Reformation had already established a very different cultural climate, one the Renaissance had not had to deal with in sunny Italy and southern France.
The Italian Renaissance, or rebirth of the knowledge of the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Alexandria and Damascus, in Italian forms, had been fostered by the great banking families of Venice and Florence, the princes and princesses of the Medici, the Este, the Gonzaga, who patronized scholars, scientists, artists, architects, translators and poets, whose interpretations followed the beliefs and iconography of the Catholic Church.
But the wealth and prestige this flowering brought to the Church and to Italy also, inevitably, brought corruption and decadence in its wake. So by the early years of the 16th century, a movement had began to arise within the colder northern and western regions of European Catholicism to purify the Church and bring it more in line with its early beliefs and practices. The chief promoter of this process was the great pan-European scholar Desiderius Erasmus, whose 1516 translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin launched a movement towards much more rigorous scholarly investigations of religious and historical truths. With the caveat that generalizations are (intellectually) dangerous, the Renaissance can be seen as the warmly enthusiastic artistic aspect of this uprush of civilization, with the Reformation as its cooler, more intellectual side.
The Reformation (of the Church) is said to have began in 1517 (the year after publication of Erasmus’s NT) when Martin Luther nailed his 95 complaints to the door of his local church in the German university town of Wittenberg, thereby launching a wave of change that swept through Europe from the north, countering and modifying the Renaissance as it went. It ran into resistance in the southern nations, many still Catholic to this day, where it manifested as a similar campaign launched from within by the Jesuits. And whether for good or ill, it reached England, the westernmost outpost of European culture, before the Renaissance had had a chance to really take hold, so that, uniquely, the version of the Renaissance that England experienced in the mid-to-late 16th century was different in a number of ways from that experienced by the nations on the Continent.
For one thing, the Reformation may have started as a religious movement, but its success was largely due to the fact that it was adopted and perpetuated by a rising community of educated tradesmen of the sort that had brought the Renaissance to Italy two centuries earlier, and that now needed a similar movement to bring them to power in the north. By attacking the evils of the Church, this rising tide of essentially middle class entrepreneurs was empowered to take the great wealth of the Church for itself, breaking up the monasteries and friaries, using the stone to build themselves grand new houses, and the surrounding fields to provide them with sheep for wool and meat and the woods for timber to build ships. This was happening all over northern Europe, but nowhere at such speed and with such devastation to the Church as in England under Henry VIII.
The suffering arts
All movements have their radical proponents. When the Reformation first took hold under Henry’s son, Edward VI, the streets of London and some of the larger mercantile towns saw some terrible things, the imprisonment of bishops, hanging of priests, bonfires of altars and rood screens, theft of gold and silver candlesticks and challices, smashing of stained glass windows, desecration of the statues of the saints, old and poor nuns and monks turned out to beg in the streets. Then it was that the word “bloody” became the common epithet still used today.
Today most of us know the Italian Renaissance primarily for the art it produced. A small portion of this, meant for private use, was devoted to pagan themes and to portraiture while the great public works, the murals, paintings, and statues created for the great churches and cathedrals, were all aimed at reinforcing belief in the tenets of Catholicism. The luxury of the churches, the beauty of their statues of the saints, the sweetness of incense, the hypnotic appeal of the choirs chanting in Latin, all this the Reformation saw as a return to the pagan worship of images that Jehovah was so against, an evil it sought to replace with a plain ceremony intended to turn the worshippers inward and away from the distractions and luxuries of the world.
It frowned upon the paintings and statues of half-naked saints like Sebastian and Mary Magdalene, created more for their sexual beauty than any religious significance. It condemned the “ornamentation” of Renaissance French and Italian poetry, its concern with human love and passion. It often saw the great works of ancient Greek and Roman literature solely in the light of their pagan origins. All this culture was totally at odds with the reformers passionate urge to return to the purity of the early Church and the piety of its saintly creators.
So when the Renaissance finally reached the hearts and minds of the English, beginning with the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter Mary Tudor and building silently during the reigns of Edward VI and the early years of Elizabeth, finding no support for pictorial art, statuary or architecture, it found its path through music and drama. For the first and only time in European history (until the Beatles and the Stones), English composers led the Continent. And unlike in Italy and France, where the Renaissance bloomed in pictorial art and archtecture, all the rest of its artistic energies were channelled into literature, specifically into drama where poetry was harnessed (utilized, as per the Reformation demand for usefulness) into bringing historical figures to life and English sympathies into a nationalism that could withstand the dangerous charms of the ancient Faith.
Yet even the Stage was attacked by the Church and the conservative City fathers, as something dangerously pagan in nature, something that kept people from going to church. If it couldn’t be totally eradicated, then it had to be controlled, which meant that the first twenty-five years of its existence, from the opening of the first two successful commercial theaters in 1576, to the advent of King James, who took the struggling companies under his wing in 1603, the London Stage was little more than a battleground where playwrights, actors and patrons fought off the efforts of politicians, clergymen, and reformers to get rid of it.
It was in this climate that the great Shakespeare not only emerged, but flourished, something he simply could not have done had he and his patrons and actors allowed the truth about his identity to escape to a broader public awareness. Had he done so, his fate would have been more like that of Christopher Marlowe.