Thursday, 17 April 2014

What was Going on in 1564? | The World Shakespeare was Born Into

What was going on in the world in 1564?
So, you probably know that Shakespeare was born in 1564, but what other momentous events took place in that year? What kind of world was Shakespeare being born into?

Often, when we're getting to grips with Shakespeare's plays, it's useful to look at them in the context in which they were written.

For that, it's handy to know what the world was like over four hundred years ago. It can also be helpful to look at what was 'modern' or contemporary in Shakespeare's eyes.

What was happening while he was growing up? What could he have seen, or done, or read about, or heard? All of those things could have shaped his work as a poet and playwright.

The finishing touches are being put on the facade of the San Francesco della Vigna in Venice. The church was designed by Andrea Palladio (who was greatly inspired by Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, and was responsible for the Villa Capra 'La Rotonda'), and took two years to build. If Shakespeare ever visited Venice, perhaps he took in this impressive site.

The facade of the San Francesco della Vigna in Venice (built 1562-1564)

Michelangelo dies. In February of 1564, at the ripe old age of 88 (he did very well for a man of his era), Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni died in Rome. He left the world with some of the most beautiful pieces of artwork, including David, Pieta and, of course, that graffiti he scrawled all over the Sistine Chapel.

The Creation of The Sun and Moon (definitely a
moon in there!), from the Sistine Chapel  
Although there is no evidence that allows us to state categorically that Shakespeare visited Italy, given that 13 of his plays are set (partially if not wholly), in Italy, there is understandable speculation that he may have travelled there.

If he did, it's reasonable to assume that he may have seen some of Michelangelo's work 'in the flesh'.

Chained library is opened in Zutphen. A chained library is, exactly as it sounds, a library in which books are chained to their case, enabling people to read the tomes, but not make off with them.

In 1564, a chained library was established at the church in St. Walburgis, in Zutphen, Netherlands.

It offered the general public, or at least those who were literate, access to books. And it's one of only five 'chained libraries' still intact today.

Shakespeare probably never went to the Low Countries, but chained libraries would, no doubt, have been familiar to him.

The Catholic book of banned books
was updated in 1564
An updated version of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was printed. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which translates as 'List of Prohibited Books' does exactly what it says on the tin: it's a list of heretical, anti-Roman Catholic or just downright dirty books that are banned by The Catholic Church.

In England, at this time, Catholicism is having a problematic time, to say the least. Henry VIII shook himself free from the Pope between 1533 and 1536. His daughter, Mary, reinforced Catholic rule (brutally), in 1553.

And then, Elizabeth I tossed it out again, with equal brutality, in 1558.

Shakespeare was born into a country where Catholicism was outlawed - although, there are rumblings that he may have been a Catholic.

Monas Hieroglyphica is written. John Dee, was astrologer and magus of Elizabeth I's court. In his book, Monas Hieroglyphica, he explains the meaning of his symbol (of the same name), which unites the moon, the sun, the elements and fire.

John Dee's
Monas Hieroglyphica

Maximilian II takes over as Holy Roman Emperor. Obviously a believer that you can never be too rich, too thin or have too much power, Maximilian was King of Bohemia, as well as the head of state in Germany, Hungary and Croatia. He also took over as Roman Emperor after the death of Ferdinand I, and remained in the gig until his death in 1576.

Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Penrith, Cumbria
Queen Elizabeth Grammar School established in Penrith. Celebrating its 450th year, The Queen Elizabeth Grammar in Penrith, Cumbria, is still going strong, although the premises have moved.

Now a coeducational, it has around 830 students and takes in just 120 new pupils (based on a exam system), each year.

French settlers abandon Charlesfort. French colonists, led by Jean Ribault, landed on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina, in 1562.  Ribault travelled back to France, leaving 28 men to establish and build 'Charlesfort', but things didn't exactly go to plan.

Jean Ribault, French naval officer
and coloniser
While Ribault was being arrested in England, due to the French Wars of Religion, mutiny and fires removed leadership and suppliers from the settlers, and, in 1563/1564 all but one set sail (without maps or compasses), for home.

The New World was a preoccupation for much of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Voyages of discovery, new lands and new peoples were very much in vogue. It's likely that tales of colonisation, even failed ones, may have inspired Shakespeare in plays like The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

First report of a 'rat king'. Although the exact date is unknown, its believed that 1564 was the first documented report of a rat king; when a large group of rats (usually black rats) become entangled by their tails. In folklore, the rats grow together while entangled and are, traditionally, a bad omen - this might have a lot to do with the plague.

The first recorded rat king was found in 1564
While Shakespeare may never have seen a rat king, after all they're thought to be fairly rare and are mostly associated with Germany.

But the plague was something that most certainly did affect him; possibly claiming the life of his son Hamnet, and causing a hiatus in his career as a playwright when public venues, including theatres, were closed to quell the spread of the disease in 1593, 1603 and again in 1608.

So, there you have it: just a few of the things that were going on in 1564, the year of Shakespeare's birth.

These things might not tell us a whole lot about the man, or his work, but they do give us a little peek into the world he was brought into.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare, check out What's it All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon

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