Government and the Merchant Class

Shakespeare's life (1564 - 1616) occurred over two eras of rule.


The first was under Queen Elizabeth, who ruled from 1558 - 1603. The Elizabethan period was later called "The Golden Age", because it was a period of unsurpassed peace and prosperity for England. England had never had a similar period. Due to the rule of Queen Elizabeth, one of the major problems in Europe during this era (the Protestant Reformation, in which Protestantism became prevalent at the expense of Catholicism) was eased. For the most part, Queen Elizabeth was able to guide England past a particularly difficult period.

During this time, the merchant class began to play a greater role. Due to needs of imperialism (empire-building) and mercantilism (the gaining of gold and silver at the colonies' expense), merchants started to profit and thrive as a class. Furthermore, due to the rise of Protestantism, merchants were more widely accepted in England.

The rise of the new merchant class also became important to the nobility, who began to increasingly depend on them for the nobles' exorbitant livelihood. This would, in effect, create a stronger middle-class, which began to share some of the same privileges of nobility due to their wealth, including the education of women. This would have a major role in many of the plays that Shakespeare wrote, as women were just beginning to emerge from their former sorts of oppression.

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The second era occurred after the death of Elizabeth I. Queen Elizabeth had no heirs (she was popularly termed the Virgin Queen), and as such, James I was able to take the throne as her sister's son. Although James I's rule had many problems, especially as he was a monarch who had to deal with the increasing power of Parliament, he provided patronage for many thinkers and writers, including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Sir Francis Bacon. Many themes, such as the "divine right of kings" are found in James I's writing, and because of this, it is a fairly logical conclusion that Shakespeare, in his plays, would help reinforce such beliefs, due to James I's influential patronage.

His ideas of the "divine right of kings" and its inspiration of his successor, Charles I, would ultimately lead to the end of effective monarchical power in England due to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Shakespeare did not live during either of these two events.

Technically, Shakespeare and the writers of his time are members of the Elizabethan era, but much of the progression in literature and drama during this era occurred during James I's rule, in large part due to his favor of writers and scholars.