They say that one of the best tips for authors is to write what you know, and William Shakespeare, a world-renowned poet-playwright, was no stranger to this. He lived in a vivid, bustling world with a rich culture; traditional, yet ever-changing. During his lifetime in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, he experienced a multitude of events, beliefs, and unique people that inspired him to write. Some of the beliefs people had during the time were the idea that obeying authority would have the best outcome and that supernatural beings were responsible for distressing things that happened. These became the themes of some of Shakespeare’s most prominent plays.
The belief that disobeying authority would have a terrible aftermath was prevalent in both society and consequently Shakespeare’s works. Elizabethan people were always concerned with making sure they were responsible, lawful citizens. It was extremely important to respect government, parents, or those of any other superior role. According to Elizabeth Kirkland and Joseph Papp in their book Shakespeare: Alive!, ‘Elizabethans were reminded over and over that any violation of duty, any rebelliousness, any tendency to disrespect the laws and government of the land would have horrific consequences not only for the individual but for the state.’ The English during that time were set in their belief that those at the top of the hierarchy were the ones to make the rules, and that any objection or offense to those rules would be catastrophic. This idea is shown in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Hermia disobeys her father’s wish for her to marry a man named Demetrius and disregards the duke’s alternative options. Instead, she runs away with her lover Lysander.
Chaos ensues as Hermia and Lysander enter the woods, where Lysander and Demetrius are put under a spell that makes them love Hermia’s friend Helena instead. Because Hermia decided to rebel against authority, she ended up in a situation that hurt her, her father, and three other people. Audiences at the time would definitely understand the implications of what could happen if they went against those in superior positions. The theme of disobedience having major consequences is also displayed in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In the prologue, Shakespeare writes, ‘The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love/And the continuance of their parents’ rage/Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove/Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage’ (Romeo and Juliet 1.1.9-12.) Despite their families’ loathing for each other, Romeo and Juliet fall in love, and though it resolves the senseless feud, the two lovers die, along with several other characters close to them.
After all the suffering and death, the prince says to Juliet and Romeo’s respective parents, Capulet and Montague, ‘See what a scourge is laid upon your hate/That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!/And I, for winking at your discords,too/Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished’ (Romeo and Juliet 5.3.308-311.) Because of Romeo and Juliet’s rebellion against their parents, not only are they dead, but people from all parties involved have lost their lives, causing much pain and suffering for their loved ones. Again, the audience would be able to connect the events of the play to their own fear of the results of rebellious actions. It is clear that Shakespeare took from the society he lived in the idea that disobeying authority would have a grave aftermath and used it multiple times throughout his plays.
Another Elizabethan belief Shakespeare utilised was that unexplainable events were linked to the supernatural. At the time Shakespeare lived, people were incredibly superstitious. Odd or upsetting events with no clear explanation were blamed on nonhuman entities. In Shakespeare: Alive!, Kirkland and Papp write that ‘Magical beliefs provided the Elizabethans with the comfort of explanations and the satisfaction of redress when random and inexplicable misfortunes occured.’ When something went wrong, people insisted that it was the work of mythical creatures. Shakespeare employed this idea in his plays.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the character of Puck, also called Robin Goodfellow, is a fairy who loves to cause mischief, a being that would be recognized by the English of that period. Upon meeting him, another fairy asks, ‘...Are not you he/ That frights the maidens of the villagery/Skim milk, and sometimes labor in the quern/And bootless make the breathless housewife churn/And sometimes make the drink to bear no barm/Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.20-25.) Puck delights in giving humans minor inconveniences that lead to chaos. His antics are the types of things fairies were thought to do during the era. Another mystical being feared during the period were witches.
They were also believed to cause tragedy, but on a much more extensive scale. In Macbeth, three witches cause epic misfortune throughout the play by using their abilities to create catastrophes. For example, when the first witch is agitated by a rude woman, she decides to take it out on the woman’s husband. She tells her sisters, the other witches, that she’s going to torture the woman’s husband by controlling the winds to make it so that he has trouble sleeping for eighty-one nights. She later decides that she’s going to kill him for a more brutal effect. These are the sorts of horrid things that witches were suspected of doing in Shakespeare’s time. Because the images of witches and fairies were so widely known and feared, the playwright frequently used them and other nefarious creatures to cause disaster in his work.
Shakespeare lived an intriguing world with interesting beliefs, including the ideas that going against the wishes of authority would have terrible effects and that magical beings caused bad luck and suffering. Inspired by these notions, he used elements of them to enrich his plays, thus making his works more real and entertaining to his duty-oriented, superstitious audience.
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