Professor James Shapiro, Columbia University – Elizabethan Life in Stratford

James Shapiro: No one listening to this would want to exchange their lives with the lives of people living in Stratford in 1564 or 1600.

Stratford was a market town of just under fifteen hundred people when Shakespeare was born in 1564, there. To give you some sense of how tenuous life was, three months after Shakespeare was born his – his town was hit by plague. There was a big outbreak of plague in 1563, 1564 in England. The Greens, who lived a few doors down, lost four of their kids. Shakespeare’s parents had lost their first two daughters early on in their lives.

The odds of that baby – three-month baby, William – surviving the plague, when maybe as many as one out of four would have been infected in the village, or the town, at that time, was slim. So it is almost an historical accident that Shakespeare survived and might have developed immunity to plague at that time.

Stratford is typical of England, which is ninety percent rural. Four million people lived in Shakespeare’s England at that time. A hundred fifty to two hundred thousand in London, but mostly – you know, the next largest town – city – is thirty thousand. So it’s an agrarian society and life is simply different then.

We read Romeo and Juliet so we assume that people married when they were fourteen or fifteen; they did not. They didn’t marry until they were twenty-four or twenty-five.

So when people ask me what difference does it make, you know, between now and then – I go into high school or college classrooms and I ask them, “What would happen if you couldn’t have sex between fifteen and twenty-five? What would your lives be like?” And after you get over the nervous laughter I then ask, “Well, where does all that energy go? There is no professional football or soccer. Where does it go?”

And kids usually say, “Well, probably fighting.” And then you talk about Romeo and Juliet and the ways these guys are always fighting. And you try to understand, in other words, how the social pressures of early Modern English society affected their lives. People only lived on the average until their mid-forties, or if they were lucky, longer than that. Like Shakespeare’s parents. So you inherited your parents’ house, if you were lucky and were the first-born son. At the very same time you were ready to get married, your parents were dying, or near dying.

So it was a society that was very structured in certain ways and fitted certain social needs.

London was a great draw. People moved to London. London kept losing people because of disease and plague, which was rampant in crowded areas in the city. And Shakespeare moved to London sometime in the mid-to-late-1580s. These are the lost years; we don’t know what he was doing. And we really don’t catch sight of him again until the early-1590s.

What was life like in London? Really different than it was in the provinces. There were theaters that had been there since the 1570s and inns where there were performances before then, so there was entertainment. There were bull-baiting rings and bear-baiting rings where you could go to be entertained watching dogs tear a bear to shreds, or a bear claw dogs to shreds. So when you read in King Lear, “I am tied to the stake and must stand the course,” that makes sense in a society where a bear is chained by the neck to a stake and must stand the onslaught of wild dogs attacking. So this was the world Shakespeare is writing in.

You can imagine a young guy in his twenties, leaving the wife and kids behind in Stratford, coming to this huge metropolis, two- or three-days walk from – or ride from I should say – Stratford. And overwhelmed by the crowding, the stench, and the excitement. And court is there as well. You got sight of Queen Elizabeth, the courtiers, extraordinary wealth. Shipping because the English empire is just at its birth right then.

So Shakespeare’s timing is really, really fortuitous for him and lucky for him because he is registering all these extraordinary changes that are going on, in a society that a hundred years before was far more stable and less exciting in every respect.

Professor James Shapiro, Columbia University – Elizabethan Life in Statford from CultureWorks on Vimeo.

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