The Influence of the Renaissance in Shakespeare's Time

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It’s very easy to think of Shakespeare as a one-off genius with a unique perspective on the world around him. However, Shakespeare was very much a product of the huge cultural shifts that were occurring in Elizabethan England during his lifetime.

He was working in the theater at the height of the Renaissance movement, something that is reflected in Shakespeare’s plays.

The Renaissance in Shakespeare's Time

Broadly speaking, the Renaissance movement is used to describe how Europeans moved away from the restrictive ideas of the Middle Ages. The ideology that dominated the Middle Ages was heavily focused on the absolute power of God and was enforced by the formidable Roman Catholic Church.

From the 14th century onward, people started to break away from this idea. The Renaissance movement did not necessarily reject the idea of God but rather questioned humankind’s relationship to God—an idea that caused an unprecedented upheaval in the accepted social hierarchy. In fact, Shakespeare himself may have been Catholic.

This focus on humanity created a new-found freedom for artists, writers, and philosophers to be inquisitive about the world around them.

Shakespeare, the Renaissance Man

Shakespeare was born toward the end of the Renaissance period and was one of the first to bring the Renaissance’s core values to the theater.

Shakespeare embraced the Renaissance in the following ways:

  • Shakespeare updated the simplistic, two-dimensional writing style of pre-Renaissance drama. He focused on creating human characters with psychological complexity. Hamlet is perhaps the most famous example of this.
  • The upheaval in the accepted social hierarchy allowed Shakespeare to explore the humanity of every character regardless of their social position. Even monarchs were given human emotions and were capable of making mistakes.
  • Shakespeare utilized his knowledge of Greek and Roman classics when writing his plays. Before the Renaissance, these texts had been suppressed by the Catholic Church.

Religion in Shakespeare's Time

When she took the throne, Queen Elizabeth I forced conversions and driving practicing Catholics underground thanks to the Recusancy Acts, which required citizens to attend worship in Anglican churches. If discovered, Catholics faced stiff penalties or even death. Still, Shakespeare did not appear to be afraid to write about Catholicism and present Catholic characters in a favorable light, leading historians to suggest that the Bard was secretly Catholic.

Catholic characters included Friar Francis ( "Much Ado About Nothing"), Friar Laurence ("Romeo and Juliet"), and even Hamlet. At the very least, Shakespeare’s writing indicates a thorough knowledge of Catholic rituals. Regardless, he was baptized in and buried at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, a Protestant church.

End of Shakespeare's Career and Life

Shakespeare, who was born April 23, 1564, retired about 1610 to Stratford-upon-Avon and a house he had purchased 13 years earlier. He died in 1616—some say on his 52nd birthday, but only his burial date is not known for sure. He dictated his will on March 25 of that year, about a month before he died, suggesting an illness.

Exactly why Shakespeare died is not known, but some historians think he was ill for more than a month before he died.