Perhaps the most famous Early Modern plays we all know of are by William Shakespeare. The bane of many a high schooler, and meticulously studied by English majors worldwide, Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into numerous world languages and touch on many timeless themes of human nature. Many pop culture references reference Shakespeare’s plays and Shakespeare himself invented many words and phrases that many would never guess came from him! However, what is more interesting is not his plays studied in a modern context, in the classroom or in popular culture, but in Shakespeare’s world and his own context. In previous posts, I stressed the importance of cultural context in understanding and appreciating many great works made by people in cultures long gone, yet well known today. We must strive to understand the meaning of the work through the eyes of its contemporary audience to really understand its meaning, not projecting our own cultural bias on it. A lack of that is most likely the reason so many cannot grasp Shakespeare, the culture as well as the language, was different. References to their own pop-culture is abundant in his plays, much like popular shows today reference the latest gossip and trends. The most insightful thing for me was learning that Shakespeare’s plays were intended for common people of the day, not highbrow intellectuals. It seems that only scholars can decipher what he meant today, but back then, the plays were easily understandable in plain language! Many have the misconception that his plays were in Middle English, but it was actually a form of Early Modern English! While much of the language is very wordy and archaic today, one can still understand most of it, unlike Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Beowulf, which is in an entirely different language if you ask me!
To understand more of where Shakespeare is coming from in his themes and ideas for his plays, one must also get an idea of the genres of plays written before him. In the Middle Ages, a lot of plays were of a religious nature, preaching how to be a good and pious Christian. Mystery plays were big, and touched on stories in the Bible. Plays started to become a little more secularized in the Renaissance, or Early Modern Times, but still had a heavy moral and religious tone to them. These morality plays touched on how to be a moral person and gain salvation to go to heaven. They were largely allegorical, with characters personifying desirable traits such as Good, and Justice, and Faith, and also bad traits like Greed and various vices. The central character was often a personification of all people called things like “every man”. The Pilgrim’s Progress story is an allegorical story like that. A play called “Everyman”was written in the 1500’s and was similar in genre. Later, mostly secular plays were written too, about every day topics, and could be satirical. However, the topics in plays could be limited if they were too controversial, like politics and religion. In England, an authority called the Office of The Revels controlled the content of plays and censored out controversial and inflammatory parts and could even add parts that weren’t there! This stifled a lot of creative minds! Honestly, it kind of reminds me of the Hays Code in Hollywood that put all of those restrictions on film when it was a new thing. The puritans banned theater once they came into power ending the period of plays like Shakespeare’s. They thought plays were sinful and distracted people from being productive, much like some think of the internet :)
Shakespeare borrowed a lot of basic plot lines from plays written by others before him. I still have a hard time really appreciating and understanding his work but I am fascinated by the culture it was written in. When I do understand some of it, I realize how clever he can be with wordplay and puns a lot! Some scholars also concluded that when reading Shakespeare in the original dialect and pronunciation,puns that were hidden before also are revealed through play on words. Apparently, he snuck in a lot of dirty jokes that go over modern reader’s heads, but I can imagine an Elizabethan crowd roaring in laughter! To add to that, the audience back then was allowed to be very boisterous and noisy, unlike today’s theater. I guess it was like watching a sporting event and how people don’t sit in reverent silence, but shout at and cheer on the players! It is interesting to imagine watching the play back then, and hearing the crowd rather than sitting in a classroom and reading it and falling asleep! Overall, researching about Early Modern plays is quite fascinating!