It's very easy to think of Shakespeare as a unique genius with a singular perspective on the world around him. However, Shakespeare was very much a product of the radical cultural shifts that were occurring in Elizabethan England during his lifetime.
When Shakespeare was working in the theater, the Renaissance movement in the arts was peaking in England. The new openness and humanism are reflected in Shakespeare's plays.
The Renaissance in Shakespeare's Time
Broadly speaking, the Renaissance period is used to describe the era when Europeans moved away from the restrictive ideas of the Middle Ages. The ideology that dominated the Middle Ages was heavily focused on the absolute power of God and was enforced by the formidable Roman Catholic Church.
From the 14th century onward, people started to break away from this idea. The artists and thinkers of the Renaissance did not necessarily reject the idea of God. In fact, Shakespeare himself may have been Catholic. The Renaissance cultural creators did, however, question humankind's relationship to God.
This questioning produced enormous upheaval in the accepted social hierarchy. And the new focus on humanity created new-found freedom for artists, writers, and philosophers to be inquisitive about the world around them. They often drew on the more human-centered classical writing and art of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration.
Shakespeare, the Renaissance Man
The Renaissance arrived in England rather late. Shakespeare was born toward the end of the broader Europe-wide Renaissance period, just as it was peaking in England. He was one of the first playwrights to bring the Renaissance's core values to the theater.
Shakespeare embraced the Renaissance in the following ways:
- Shakespeare updated the simplistic, two-dimensional writing style of pre-Renaissance drama. He focused on creating human characters with psychological complexity. Hamlet is perhaps the most famous example of this.
- The upheaval in social hierarchy allowed Shakespeare to explore the complexity and humanity of every character, regardless of their social position. Even monarchs were portrayed as having human emotions and were capable of making terrible mistakes. Consider King Lear or Macbeth.
- Shakespeare utilized his knowledge of Greek and Roman classics when writing his plays. Before the Renaissance, these texts had been suppressed by the Catholic Church.
Religion in Shakespeare's Time
Elizabethan England endured a different form of religious oppression than that which had dominated the Middle Ages. When she took the throne, Queen Elizabeth I forced conversions and drove practicing Catholics underground with her imposition of the Recusancy Acts. These laws required citizens to attend worship in Anglican churches. If discovered, Catholics faced stiff penalties or even death.
Despite these laws, Shakespeare did not appear to be afraid to write about Catholicism nor to present Catholic characters in a favorable light. His inclusion of Catholicism in his works has led historians to hypothesize that the Bard was secretly Catholic.
Catholic characters included Friar Francis ( "Much Ado About Nothing"), Friar Laurence ("Romeo and Juliet"), and even Hamlet. At the very least, Shakespeare's writing indicates a thorough knowledge of Catholic rituals. Regardless of what he may have been doing secretly, he maintained a public persona as an Anglican. He was baptized in and buried at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, a Protestant church.