William Shakespeare is the greatest English-speaking writer in the world’s history and England’s national poet. Shakespeare has had the highest number of theatrical works performed than any playwright. His work continues to attract a lot of admiration and honour in many of theatre festivals in the world over. Students of all ages memorise his eloquent poems and distinguished scholars continue to reinterpret the many texts he composed. Much of the information about this man remains shrouded in mystery. His achievements include having written more than 37 plays and a large collection of sonnets. He established the legendary globe theatre and caused great transformation in the English language. This paper explores the poetry of Shakespeare and asserts that his close association with the ruling political class catapulted his success in poetry.
Historic Context in which Shakespeare Wrote his Poetry
Shakespeare wrote his works during the time between the middle ages and the Industrial Revolution. The time was characterised by religious transformations. When Henry III was in power, the church of England seceded from Rome and Henry declared himself the supreme head of the church. The reign of Tudor Dynasty and religious identity caused a new English identity. Henceforth, the poetry of Shakespeare was greatly influenced by the English national identity.
The city of London was advancing to the position of a metropolis. The population in the city increased spontaneously. Theatres were increasing and the city grew to become a big centre for public entertainment. Playhouses were also built outside the city boundaries.
Shakespeare’s career began during the reign of Elizabeth I. England flourished during her reign and earned the name Golden Age or Elizabethan era. Elizabeth had a great passion for theatre. His poetry was honed during the Elizabethan era, earning him the name the Elizabethan Poet. Shakespeare also produced poetry for the succeeding King Jams I. This was the time when Shakespeare produced his major works such as The Tempest, Othello and Macbeth. The poetry features issues such as lust, betrayal and murder.
Social/ Political Situation the Poet was Responding
Declining Theatrical Marketplace. Shakespeare was writing during bad economic times for artists in England. Theatres in London were closed and actors could struggle to make a living in London and most of them toured outside the capital to make a living. These conditions compelled Shakespeare to turn from scriptwriting to pursue art and patronage. To this effect, Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis as a dedication to the 18-year-old Henry Wriothesley (Shakespeare & Ovid 25). In the sonnet, Shakespeare appeals for patronage using appropriate words of the request. After receiving the Earl’s patronage, Shakespeare also dedicated his next poem, Lucrece, to the young lord. Shakespeare’s desire to seek direct aristocratic patronage using the poem Venus and Adonis was successful. He also achieved the success of entering the marketplace as a professional author.
Moment of Disease and Death. Disease and death are some of the social issues that influence the writing of Shakespeare. In Sonnet 153 and 154, Shakespeare makes a joke about contracting a venereal disease (Terry 120). He talks about love’s fire which implies passion and disease. He intimates that the power of bathing cannot cure the disease. He further says the source of the disease is his mistress’ eyes.
Shakespeare also explores the dangers of lust as a social problem. In Sonnet 127-152, Shakespeare expresses the painful physical and emotional consequences of love. Most sonnets warn that sexual desires should not be misconstrued for true love. Sonnet 129 says that lust turns humans to be cruel, rude and savage (Shakespeare 34). The horrible consequences include venereal diseases. Love causes physical discomfort, fear, alienation and despair. Shakespeare also captures well the social issue of death. In specific reference is the murder of Hamlet’s father, a murder most foul. Hamlet also contemplates suicide.
Shakespeare’s Work and the Expectations of the Society
Shakespeare’s work challenges the expectations of the society of his time. In the English society of the 1590s, leadership was a preserve of men. Shakespeare portrays women performing well in roles traditionally perceived masculine. During the reign of the queen, Elizabeth led England to defeat the Spanish Armada. In a similar way, Shakespeare presented powerful female characters in his poetry such as intelligent, rich and Portia. The society of the Shakespearean time relegated women to only house chores. They could not even get opportunities for education like their male counterparts. However, they come out strong in most of the works of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s work also reinforces the expectations of the society of his time. His plays reflect the outcomes of usurping and taking power irregularly. The consequences are civil wars that disintegrate families and cause suffering to all members of the society. He explores man’s passions and the consequences of failing to control them. He touches on most common human conflicts using the circumstances familiar to his readers.
Historical and Political Issues Important to Shakespeare
The Elizabethan Age. Elizabeth I ascended to be a queen about five years before the birth of Shakespeare. During her remarkable 45 years of reign, England enjoyed a moment of political stability different from the previous eras of instability (Bruster 56). The enabling environment made London a commercial and cultural centre that supported learning and literature.
Queen Elizabeth recognised art as an important aspect of the nation’s legacy. She enjoyed the theatre and encouraged many play writers to be active. It is during this time that the star of William Shakespeare began shining. She permitted professional theatres to be built in England. During this time, London could host more than 15,000 theatregoers every week (Bruster 56). This is the time that the Shakespearean sonnet, dramatic blank verse and Spenserian stanza came into practice.
Education during Elizabethan Rule. During this period, the society expected boys to be literate. Latin was the language of literacy. Lower grades entailed studying vocabulary and Latin grammar. The upper grade involved studying poetry and works of literature writers. This strong foundation of literature created an audience for the works of Shakespeare and other writers. Though the Elizabethan age did not present great opportunities for universal education, there was a significant increase in literacy. At least 30% of the population could read (Woods 23).
The Kingship of King James 1. King Jams I, a writer, came to power after the death of Elizabeth. He had a great passion for learning, especially theatre. Shakespeare’s theatre company could receive frequent invitations from the king. The theatre company known as Lord Chamberlain was branded the King’s men. The motivation made them produce new works with the king’s support.
The fall of King James brought a shock in the arts industry. James led an extravagant lifestyle which exhausted the royal finances. The Puritan-controlled government became unsatisfied with James’s rule. The tensions continued even after the death of King James and the ascent of his son Charles to power. The Puritans pulled a bloody civil war and executed Charles I. The Puritans formulated reforms such as closing theatres, which dealt a blow to the arts. When Charles II assumed power, he reopened theatres, but unfortunately, the theatrical high point was over.
William Shakespeare is portrayed as a successful poet renowned the world over. He had a positive and fruitful relationship with the political class of his time. This relationship made his work gain support and wide acceptance. He also contributed to the spread of art and theatre since the rulers who supported him created an enabling environment for art. He believed in the authorities that generated positive outcomes and in turn, he gained support for his poetry.