The Elizabethan era

How people saw the world in Shakespeare’s day

The historical context of William Shakespeare was the Elizabethan era. For most of Shakespeare’s life, the English ruler was Queen Elizabeth I, or the “Virgin Queen”. Her long reign (1558-1603) became a golden age of peace and prosperity for England, with great developments in science, art, and literature.

The Elizabethan era in England was part of a larger era called the Renaissance (ca. 1500-1650), which influenced most of Europe.

Understanding how people saw the world in Shakespeare’s day will help you analyze his plays. We outline the Elizabethan world view below.

The Chain of Being

The Elizabethan world picture was strongly influenced by Christianity and very hierarchical. According to medieval belief, the world was ruled by God and everything had its place in a fixed hierarchy called “the Chain of Being”. 

The chain started with God and then progressed downward through angels, man, animals, and various elements of nature. The higher links of the chain had more authority than the lower links. Males were generally above females. The purpose of the chain was to ensure order – the Elizabethans were terrified of chaos. If this delicate balance was upset, it would influence the entire chain (= world).

As an individual, you ought to know your place in the chain. You should also use your reason to avoid giving in to temptation, which would create chaos. Many of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes fall because they fail to use their reason and...

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