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Shakespeare's England

Warwickshire landscape
Warwickshire landscape
It is a land forced into major cultural upheaval for the second time in ten years. It is a society divided by intolerance, a population cowed beneath the iron fist of a brutal and paranoid Police State. It is an unequal society of great wealth and unimaginable poverty with a population bedeviled by parasites, regularly decimated by plague, often malnourished and rife with suspicion, superstition and bloodlust. It is a society that lives under imminent threat of war, day to day scrutiny by spies, and cruel and unusual State retribution.

It could be the setting for a post apocalyptic novel – Stephen King's "The Stand" or George Orwell's dystopian "1984" – or any number of straight to video sci-fi movies, but it isn't. This is England in 1564, the year of William Shakespeare's birth. This really happened.

Warwickshire landscape
Warwickshire landscape
England was for the main part a green and pleasant land, predominantly rural, virtually untouched by human hand. The population of the entire country was probably around 3 million, compared to nearly 60 million today. The majority of people lived in the south with York being the only city of any note in the north.

While England was still predominantly a rural economy, there were also thriving merchants dealing with the strange and exotic imports coming to England from overseas – potatos from Virginia, sugar and spices from the Caribbean, India or China. These might be landed in London by the growing fleets of sailing ships and then transported inland by wagon or on packhorses.

There was also a growth in what we now call service industries – roadside inns - offering the Elizabethan equivalent of a bed, Big Mac and fries to weary travelers - wholesome family entertainments like public executions and bear baiting, and the world's oldest profession, prostitution. Cities had entire quarters devoted to basic metal work, clothes making and the working of precious metals and jewels.

Warwickshire sheep
Warwickshire sheep
By far the most valuable commodity in Elizabethan England, however, was wool. Wool production in the 1500s was a state monopoly and, like any other restricted industry, attracted shadowy traders and illegal deals lucrative enough to tempt even a successful glover like William's father John Shakespeare into potentially dangerous criminal activity.

Not that it was particularly hard to fall foul of the law in the 1500s. This was a meticulously recorded Police State, comparable with Hitler's Germany, Pinochet's Chile, the former Soviet Bloc or Saddam Hussain's Iraq. Almost all the major players in Shakespeare's life - including the poet himself - would find themselves on the wrong side of the law at some point during their life.

The River Thames, London
The River Thames, London
The nation's center of power as it had been from late Roman times was London, which was home to an increasingly diverse population of around 200,000. Clearly anyone with a yearning for political power or the greatest possible audience for their art would find themselves on the road to London eventually, as would country-born William Shakespeare.

But England was not yet the world power it would be. At this time Spain dominated the waves and most of the known world from the Americas to the Far East. Its fleets of heavily armed galleons ruled the seas, and under Phillip II, Catholic ruler of most of the world, those ships raided far and wide on a mission to convert unbelievers and steal whatever precious metals they could.

Denied an alliance with England and its ruler Elizabeth I by marriage, Phillip began to nurture the intent to take England by force. Consequently England was frequently a crucible for paranoia and dissent.

And so England was a land of clear divisions: between the old faith and the new, between the cities and the rural communities, between the known and that which was unknown and therefore frightening.

This was Shakespeare's England - a point in history that he would make timeless. And this was the backdrop to his work, the seething mass of divisions and everyday banalities that inspired a critique of the human condition every bit as relevant today as it was revolutionary back then.

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The River Thames, LondonShakespeare's London

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