Plagues, Protestants, Patrons, Performers

The Bubonic Plague was very effective in Shakespeare’s time, as it was a major cause of the deaths in England. In Romeo and Juliet, it figures into the play as Mercutio curses the feud between the Capulets and Montagues and says “A plague on…” It affected the Elizabethan theatre as when a certain number of people died from it in cities, that city’s theatres were closed. The play actors often could contact this disease themselves, and it obviously would affect their work if caught. It could potentially affect the play’s audiences also, because if they suspected the theatre as being a breeding ground for disease (which it was!), they would avoid attending performances.

Catholics and Protestants

The Catholics in Elizabethan England were persecuted because Elizabeth was Protestant, so England was Protestant. The Protestants were very concerned with the possibility of a Catholic rebellion or uprising, which would be associated with an attempt to dethrone Elizabeth and so they carefully censored all publications, including plays. Shakespeare’s works all had to be censored and this is reflected in his plays by the absence of explicit Catholic materials. The Reformation had just finally been accepted in england with the divorce of Henry VIII, which was the major factor in England’s religious conversion. Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, was a Catholic who rigorously persecuted the Protestants of England when she ruled after Henry VIII. SO England experienced major shifts between Protestant and Catholic rulers and there was a general sense of confusion and uncertainty about one’s religious freedom – who knew when the ruler would be overthrown by someone of another religion?

Elizabeth I

She was Anne Boleyn’s daughter by Henry VIII, who came to the throne in 1559. She helped England defend against Spain, she was a Protestant, and she was a patron of Shakespeare. She was also very willing to do whatever it took to maintain her kingdom and she censored Shakespeare’s plays heavily for anything that would challenge her position. She had a network of spies that she used to enforce order and keep her informed as to people’s opinions about her. She had no qualms about killing or imprisoning her friends if they crossed her (look at what she did to Sir Walter Raleigh). Although she seemed kind and “feminine,” she was a tough queen and Shakespeare knew this. She questioned him after he wrote Richard II because she thought it was associated with a plot to dethrone her and lead an uprising. But overall, Shakespeare enjoyed her favor.

All-Male Acting Companies

Because all of Shakespeare’s actors were male, he needed men who could sound and act like women. He also was limited in how many women’s roles he could assign each play. Therefore, there are more men’s roles than women’s in his plays. This again reflects how the Elizabethan stage relied on the use of language to capture their audience’s attention. Special effects, scenery, and realistic portrayal of characters (especially women) became less important than the lines those characters spoke. For example, no one cares what Juliet looks like – her lines reveal her character, which is that of an attractive, strong, loving , firm woman. We eagerly await her responses to the events of the play, not caring about how beautiful the actor is. The acting companies frequently traveled around, which is perhaps one reason why they did not include women. Some critics viewed the cross-dressing of the male actors as female characters as being evil, but most people did not seem to mind.


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