Elizabeth I ruled England for 45 years from 1558 to 1603 in a time of relative prosperity and peace. “Few monarchs,”” says Shakespearean scholar David Bevington, “have ever influenced an age so pervasively and left their stamp on it so permanently.” The daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was regarded by many Catholics as an illegitimate child—and an illegitimate monarch. The politics of religion constantly threatened Elizabeth’s reign, even though it was one of the most secure that England had known for hundreds of years. Religious conflict during the Tudors’ reign pervaded every aspect of English life—particularly its politics.
Elizabeth had no heir, and throughout her reign the politics of succession posed a real threat to the nation’s peace—and provided a recurrent subject of Shakespeare’s plays. While Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar, the Earl of Essex, one of the Queen’s favorite courtiers, rebelled against her government. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the forced abdication of a king in Richard II was censored in performance throughout Elizabeth’s reign.
Elizabethan England was a smaller, more isolated country than it had been previously or would be subsequently. It had withdrawn from its extensive empire on the Continent, and its explorations of the New World had barely begun. There was a period of internal economic development as Elizabeth ignored the counsel of her advisors and kept out of war until the attempted invasion by Spain and the Great Armada in 1588. England’s economy was still based in agriculture, and its farmers were poor and embittered by strife with rich landowners who “enclosed” what was once the farmers’ cropland for pastures. Uprisings and food riots were commonplace in the rural area surrounding Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare grew up.
London, then the largest city of Europe, was a city of contrasts: the richest and the poorest of England lived there, side by side. While many bettered themselves in a developing urban economy, unemployment was a serious problem. It was a time of change and social mobility. A rising middle class for the first time in English history aspired to the wealth and status of the aristocracy.
Under Elizabeth, England returned to Protestantism. But in her masterful style of accommodation and compromise, she incorporated an essentially traditional and Catholic doctrine into an Episcopal form of church government that was ruled by the Crown and England’s clergy rather than by Rome’s Pope. Extremists on the religious right and left hated her rule and wanted to see Elizabeth overthrown. She was declared a heretic by Rome in 1569, and her life was endangered.
“Her combination of imperious will and femininity and her brilliant handling of her many contending male admirers have become legendary,” says David Bevington, and resulted in a monarchy that remained secure in the face of religious and political threats from many sides. In choosing not to marry, Elizabeth avoided allying herself and her throne with a foreign country or an English faction which might threaten her broad base of power and influence.
Throughout Early Modern Europe, governments were centralized, assuming the power that once belonged to city-states and feudal lords. The rule of monarchs, like Queen Elizabeth I was absolute. She and her subjects viewed the monarch as God’s deputy, and the divine right of kings was a cherished doctrine (and became the subject of Shakespeare’s history plays). It was this doctrine that condemned rebellion as an act of disobedience against God, but could not protect Elizabeth from rebellion at home, even from her closest advisors, or from challenges from abroad.
Childless, Elizabeth I died in 1603. The crown passed to her cousin James VI, King of Scotland, who became England’s King James I. James, ruling from 1603 to 1625 (Shakespeare died in 1616), lacked Elizabeth’s political acumen and skill, and his reign was troubled with political and religious controversy. He antagonized the religious left, and his court became more aligned with the Catholic right. It would be James’ son, Charles I, who would be beheaded in the English civil wars of the 1640s.