Context and Background #
Shakespeare’s life spanned both Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a dynamic period of change, expansion, exploration and enlightenment, yet his view of the world (Weltanshaung) was quite different from ours.
Though Copernicus had died 21 years before Shakespeare’s birth and he was born in the same year as Galileo, his world view was still geocentric rather than heliocentric; that is most people still believed that the earth was the centre of the world with the sun and planets revolving around it.
His was a uniform, unanimous or monolithic world with one ruler – a monarch, one church – Anglo-Catholic/, one economic system – feudalism, and a conformist outlook in life.
His was a profoundly Christian society, believing in sin, an afterlife of heaven or hell, yet also easily influenced by pagan ideas of fortune, the stars and supernatural spirits, ghosts and goblins. Fortuna, the pagan goddess with her wheel of fortune is prominently referred to in his plays. Many of his plays are set in pagan eras, though some like Hamlet clearly show the conflicting ideologies such as revenge.
He believed in order; a place for everything and everything in its place, especially in matters of governance. The monarch is supreme and his plays are strongly critical of improper succession of monarchs which could give rise to chaos or anarchy. Shakespeare’s many history plays subtly mirror his society. Hamlet and Richard II warn about proper succession, while Lear could be a subtle warning to the new King about flatterers and sycophants in his court.
Society believed in hierarchy – the order of degrees in society, though already there is evidence of an emergent middle trading class striving for political power.
Finally he believed in the Great Chain of Being with God, the Angels, Man, Animals, Vegetable and last; the inanimate. Man exists in a state between the Angels and was capable of transcending to the level of Angels but also prone to descend to the level of animals.
Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. When Shylock denounces the Christians for their slave trading, he is giving back as good as he got for their abuse of his usury. Despite some leaning towards monarchy, the plays contain more than enough regicide and Bad Kings to satisfy the staunchest Republican.
We live in a Post-Modern world of subjective values, no absolute truths and a pluralistic world of varied cultures, beliefs and values. The Western world has accepted empirical knowledge, egalitarianism, feminism and tolerates a wide, diverse form of life styles. To someone from Shakespeare’s time this would appear chaotic, confusing and distressing.
The Tempest was written circa 1511 and many believe the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own. It reveals the fascination of the English with sea exploration, shipwrecks, and the possibility of escape to idyllic remote islands.