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Shakespeare's World: The Tragedies: A Historical Exploration of Literature
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Introduction: The Renaissance in England xix Jamestown (named for King James) and Virginia (named for Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen”), as explorers claimed the territories that would eventually become the United States and Canada. Economically, the English Renais- sance saw explosions of new businesses, increased social mobility, and the creation of what would come to be called “the middle class.” As a result of economic, political, and cultural opportunities, the London population is estimated to have grown from about 50,000 in 1530 to 225,000 by 1605, a staggering growth and change. The arts also fl ourished during the Renaissance. Whereas in Italy (the crown of the Continental Renaissance), the period was defi ned by art and architecture—featuring the masterworks of Botticelli, Leonardo, Michel- angelo, and many others—in England, music and literature took prece- dence. We can loosely think of Shakespeare’s literary career as spanning the 20 years between 1590 and 1610, and during that time playwriting evolved from being a little pursued, nonlucrative, and disreputable avocation to a valid and at least potentially remunerative occupation, with Shakespeare showing the way. At the beginning of the English Renaissance, being a respectable writer meant being a poet. Any writer who wished to be taken seriously wrote a “sonnet sequence” (batch) and, however talented, could not expect to make a living from writing—except through the patronage of an aristocrat who subsidized him. After a long medieval period during which essentially no secular drama was created, the 1550s in England saw the beginning of full-length, fi ve- act plays, which were infl uenced both by medieval drama (e.g., “moral- ity plays”) and by Roman plays, which were increasingly being translated into English and widely published. But although plays and playhouses grew in popularity as the 16th century progressed, and though Queen Elizabeth herself enjoyed these entertainments, playwriting and play-going were still largely seen as disreputable playhouses were relegated to outside London city limits, mostly to the south banks of the Thames River—in a district also featuring many taverns and brothels. However, largely due to the suc- cess of Shakespeare and his company (fi rst called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later, the King’s Men), through the beginning of the new century, the theater gained greatly in respectability—though not so much as to be seen as a suitable realm for women, as they would not be seen on English stages until the Restoration (post-1660). Even Shakespeare’s great success and growing prosperity came less from his writing or acting than from his shared ownership of the theater company. Shakespeare thus embraced and embodied both the artistic and entrepreneurial spirits of the English Renaissance.