J.P.SOMMERVILLE

 

367 Introduction

Globe theater

 

 
"If we wish to know the force of human genius we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning we may study his commentators."\
(William Hazlitt, 1778-1830)

 

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William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. This course deals with English society and culture of this period and soon afterwards.

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The social and political ideas of Elizabethan and Stuart England - embodied in the writings of authors such as Richard Hooker, John Locke and James Harrington - have greatly influenced later generations in England, Europe and America.

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England changed dramatically during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both socially and intellectually. Renaissance and Reformation, skepticism and science all profoundly changed the beliefs of Englishmen and women.

 

Life (and death) in Shakespeare’s England

 

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Lack of hygiene.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England had no public waste disposal and no sewage system. The flush toilet was devised in 1596, but rarely adopted. All kinds of waste (including human) were thrown out into the streets. Towns and cities could be smelt before they were seen by approaching travelers.

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No privacy.
Early-modern housing was generally cramped. The poor often lived, cooked, ate and slept in the same room. Even the wealthy were continually intruded upon by servants. Strangers at hostels and inns shared the same bed. Fleas and lice were commonplace, as were the rats and mice that carried them. They were a part of ordinary life and found their way into literature, just like the plague they carried.

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Primitive medicine.
The standard remedies for disease were purging and blood-letting. The latter was performed by attaching leeches to the patient. A typically ineffective precaution against infectious diseases such as plague was to clutch a posy of strong-smelling herbs to the nose and mouth. Only in the late seventeenth century was the link between fleas and typhus fever recognized by Thomas Sydenham (1624-89).
 

 

Disease

Smallpox victim
"What is amiss plague and infection mend.
Graves only be men's works and death their gain."


(Timon, 5.1.)

 

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Tuberculosis, typhoid, typhus fever, smallpox and syphilis ("the Great Pox") were all endemic in early-modern England. Elizabeth I nearly died of smallpox in 1562. Edward VI actually died (aged sixteen) from tuberculosis in 1553.

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Another disease that often proved fatal was "sweating sickness" (what this disease was is still unknown but a virus may have been responsible. The symptoms included headaches, muscular pain, fever and labored breathing).

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Influenza killed up to 10% of the population during the years 1556-58.

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The most feared and the most lethal disease was Bubonic Plague. The first stage of the infection produced swollen glands (the swelling was called called a "bubo"), The infection sometimes spread into the blood stream (septicemic plague), and invaded the lungs, producing "pneumonic" plague, characterized by severe respiratory problems. Plague killed a high proportion of its victims within a week.
 

"Certain approved medicines for the plague, both to prevent that contagion, and to expel it after it be taken, as have been approved in Anno. 1625. as also in this present visitation 1636.

A cheap Medicine to keep from infection:
Take a pint of new milk, and cut two cloves of garlic very small, put it in the milk, and drink it mornings fasting, and it preserveth from infection.
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From Londons Lord have mercy upon us (1637)


The most devastating epidemic of the "Black Death" occurred in 1348-49 when it killed roughly one third of England's population and half of Europe's. From 1563, England suffered repeated outbreaks of plague.
 


London (c.1650)

The worst outbreaks were in 1603, 1625 and 1665, and towns (especially London) suffered most.
Despite plague and a high mortality rate from many other diseases, London grew (largely because of migration from other parts of the country) from about fifty to about five hundred thousand inhabitants between 1500 and 1700.

 

Population, economy & prices

Shilling (1560-66) of Elizabeth I

 

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England and Wales were (and are) about the same in area as the present State of Wisconsin. At Shakespeare's death the population of England was about 4.5 million, having expanded greatly over the previous century.
Most people lived in villages or small towns - Stratford upon Avon was in many ways typical of such small towns.

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Increasing population was not matched by increased agricultural production, so food prices rose and real wages fell (see the Phelps-Brown/ Hopkins Real Wage Index - in the right hand column). Many experienced hunger and hardship, especially in years of bad harvests.

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A series of bad harvests could precipitate a crisis, and the harvest failures of 1554-56 and 1594-97 produced famine and unrest. For poor marginal farmers, disaster also resulted from a good harvest after years of poor ones, since the surplus grain would not fetch enough to pay off debt.
 

"Here's a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty:"
(Macbeth 2.3)

 

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The economic disruption of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries produced an increase in vagrancy - "sturdy beggars" or vagabonds, who wandered the countryside in search of work, but sometimes resorting to crime.

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Rising population also created opportunities and many English merchants and landowners prospered during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
 

The gentry and nobility spent their profits on fine country houses. The picture is of Aston Hall near Birmingham, built by Sir Thomas Holte in the 1620s and 1630s.

The wealthy Hickes or Hicks family, who made their money in silk - and in government service - built much of the town of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire. An impressive row of Alms Houses survives, but Campden House was burnt during the English Civil War.

 

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Cloth production was the most important manufacturing export industry in early-modern England. Coal mining was especially important to Newcastle's economy, while lead was mined in Derbyshire and tin in Cornwall.

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Disruption of the cloth industry during the 1620's caused widespread unemployment and poverty.

 

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