Shakespeare’s Context

Research the context of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ (including personal, social, historical, personal and workplace context) and write a 1500 word report. In your report you may use sub-headings. For each element of context, identify the similarities and differences between Shakespeare’s context and your context. E.g. During Shakespeare’s lifetime the stability of Queen Elizabeth’s rule was threatened, just like the stability of our prime ministers’ is threated.

William Shakespeare is one of the most successful and well-known playwrights in the world. His plays even though from a way back in the past have still survived today and are still held in very high esteem. The context of William Shakespeare’s King Lear proposes many differences from our world today.

Personal ContextWilliam Shakespeare is suspected to be born on approximately 23th April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Being brought up in a wealthy middle class family, Shakespeare attended stratified grammar school but didn’t continue with his schooling after that. Anne Hathaway aged 26 at the time became Shakespeare’s (aged 18) wife in 1582 and later went on to have 3 children together.

Their first child, born six months into their marriage was named Susanna. The pair went on to have twins two years later named Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet unfortunately died in 1596 after catching the bubonic plague at age 11. After 8 years of marriage, Shakespeare left his family and set off for London to try his luck in the entertainment industry as an actor and playwright. Shakespeare quickly became successful to the point where he was a favorite playwright of both Elizabeth James I. Ironically Shakespeare and passed away at age 52 on his birthday in 1616 due to unknown causes.

Social ContextThe attitudes and values of the people from Shakespeare’s time are extremely different to ours of the present. The attitudes towards woman were much more restrictive then what we have now. Men were more superior to women in every way.

They were given many more employment and education opportunities whilst women were expected to be housewives performing cleaning and hospitality jobs around the house. Women aimed to marry a man as there wasn’t very many alternative options and they needed a form of income as they did not work and all inheritance was always given to the first born son. Women married as young as 12 as their roles were to serve and obey men.

The main belief of Shakespeare’s time was in god and that he created the world and society in rankings. These rankings consisted of peasants, clergies and nobilities. Unfortunately one could not change their ranking in society as individuals are born into a family that share the same ranking for example if a peasant family had a son then he would be nothing more than a peasant for the rest of his life.

Cultural ContextDuring the Elizabethan times people dressed according to their statuses. Nobilities could obviously afford more luxurious fabrics and pieces of clothing so they were dressed the best and peasants dressed in rags and whatever else they could afford. Hair was very important in the Elizabethan times as both women and men took pride in grooming it. Both men and women died their hair blonde and red as they were the fashionable colors of the time. When people’s hair started to fall out they would wear wigs to keep to image of having nice hair. During Shakespeare’s time the reigning monarch declared the favored religion of England.

The religion of their choice would be taught in schools and failure to follow the religion could result in punishments such as torture, imprisonment and even execution. Queen Elizabeth I was a follower of the Catholic Church therefore everybody under her reign was also a follower and were forced by law to attend church. This is very different to religion now as we have the right to believe and follow whatever religion we please. Punishments also differ from then to now as we do not have such harsh punishments as human rights have evolved protecting people and enabling equality among everybody no matter what their beliefs, race or gender.

Historical ContextShakespeare was born at a time of significant depression. During his life the bubonic plague was spreading more and more through Europe due to rodents and their fleas. Regular hygiene was not considered important to people of the time and it was not irregular that Shakespeare only showered once a year as a child. This lack of hygiene only aided the spread of the plague as people were not aware of germs and how the sickness spread yet. Complete cities shut down due to the disease and in 1593 London theatres had to close down to attempt to stop the spread.

The sickness claimed the life of an estimated 25million people and had a huge influence on Shakespeare’s life and work. The Plague also affected his personal life with his only son dyeing on 11th August 1596 due to the plague at the age of 11. In the present it is very unlikely that such a disease would spread so much due to the knowledge and skills that our time has. The medical and hygiene equipment and knowledge that we take for granted now was defiantly not available to Shakespeare such as even simple things like showering daily and washing hands to keep germs.

Workplace ContextShakespeare wrote all of his works in a time of massive change. Beliefs, attitudes and values were being questioned by large amounts of people. Shakespeare’s works were very different to other writers of the time and that is what made him so special and memorable. He enjoyed challenging the set rules and boundaries of the literature of the time. For example in Shakespeare’s plays he veered away from the rules of Aristotelian tragedy and not only broke them but created a whole new range of rules.

Shakespeare’s tragedies were less logical than previous plays as he would have events happening for no apparent reason because that is what happens in reality anyways. Shakespeare wrote plays that included a wide range of settings where previous plays would only have one setting. Shakespeare was a risk taker and without him theatre would not have evolved to what it is today. In the present there are few rules and regulations that have to be abided by and it is harder for writers to make such a splash.

By Taylor Barnard