Shakespeare – Module 2: Elizabethan and Jacobean Theatre – 1 of 3

Hello Year 7 and Year 8! We have spent the last few sessions learning about William Shakespeare. We now know lots about who he was and what he wrote. Before we start to look at his plays more closely, it is really important that we understand a bit more about the time period he was writing in. We call this the historical context of his writing.

WHAT: developing our understanding of what life was like when Shakespeare was writing

By the end of this session, you will be able to:

✔Describe what it was like in Elizabethan/ Jacobean society
✔Summarise attitudes towards women in Elizabethan/ Jacobean society

You will need:

✎ A pen
☰ A notebook/ paper or word document to record your ideas

What was society like when Shakespeare was writing?

During Shakespeare’s life, two monarchs (kings or queens) reigned in England: Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558- 1603) and King James I (1603-1625). If we talk about the time when Elizabeth was on the throne, we call this the Elizabethan period. When we talk about when James was on the throne, we call this the Jacobean period. Simple!

Elizabeth I is considered one of the country’s most successful and popular monarchs
James was king of Scotland until 1603, when he became the first Stuart king of England as well, creating the kingdom of Great Britain

YOU DO: Read the information below. As you read, make a bullet point list of at least 5 important words or phrases.

How was Elizabethan society different to society today?

Elizabethan and Jacobean society was very different to how society is today. There was a strict order of importance, with the Church right at the very top.  People believed in the divine right of kings – they thought that God had chosen the monarch, and that he (or she) was acting out the will of God.

There was no parliament, and people did not get to vote on what they wanted for society – everything was decided by the King and Queen.

Under the King or Queen came the nobles or aristocracy (Dukes, Earls and Barons), who owned lots of land. These noblemen would attend court and provide a place to stay for the King or Queen if they were travelling around the country.

Beneath the aristocracy were the more ‘ordinary’ people. These were farmers, merchants and craftsmen, and were relatively well off. It was into this section of society that William Shakespeare was born in 1564.

Then came labourers or servants, who provided help in households and on farms. They were much poorer, but were protected by law in some ways – they had a set wage and were entitled to a day off every week.

Finally, at the very bottom of the pile were those who could not work, for various reasons. Very often, they had to beg or depend on the church for help, although Elizabeth I brought in Poor Laws to give them some protection towards the end of her reign.

YOU DO: Draw a triangle with the point at the top. Fill in the order of importance in society, drawing symbols to represent the different people in society.

Your triangle might look like this…make sure you add pictures to help you remember the order of importance.

The Importance of Religion

It is important to understand that religion played an important part in people’s lives: people had to go to church and marriages, baptisms and funerals all took place in church. The church was rooted in people’s lives and a meeting point for communities.

As well as their Christian beliefs, people also held superstitions and alternative beliefs. Magic was believed in by many people. Witches were considered to be real – indeed, in 1563, witchcraft was   made   a   criminal    offence punishable by death. Witches and evil magic were blamed for a variety of misfortunes, and people were often wary of old or ugly women who they believed could be witches.

Now we will think about what life was like for women in Elizabethan and Jacobean society.

YOU DO: Read the information below.

In Elizabethan times women belonged to their fathers (or their brothers if their father died), and then to their husbands. Women could not own property of their own. This is one of the reasons Queen Elizabeth never married – she did not want to give up her power to a man.
The only exceptions were widows – women whose husbands had died. A widow was in charge of her own life and property, but would be likely to marry again to find someone to protect her and to be the legal guardian to her children.
Women were allowed to marry from the age of 12 in Shakespeare’s time, but often only women from wealthy families would marry so young. In the play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is 13, but her mother says by that age she was already married with a child. Many marriages were arranged for the good of the family and small children might be ‘betrothed’ to each other in order to join the families together before they were old enough to get married. Many women did not marry until their mid-20s. Men had to be able to support a household when they married.

Now watch the video below. It is about what life was like for women when Shakespeare was writing. It is about five minutes long. As you watch write down key words which will remind you about what you have watched.

So, today we have focused on three things: order of importance in society; religion and women.

You DO: Answer the questions below to show your understanding. Write down your answers and then check them at the end.

Which two monarchs were on the throne during Shakespeare’s lifetime?

Answer: Elizabeth I and James I

After God, who was most important in society?

Answer: The Monarch

True or False:
1. Unmarried women could own property
2. A widow was in charge of her own property
3. Women could marry from the age of 10
4. Shakespeare did not include female characters in his plays

1. False 2. True 3. False 4. False

CHALLENGE: If you want to develop your knowledge even further, use the following website to do some more research about Elizabethan and Jacobean society. You could make a powerpoint or poster and send it to your English teacher.

Well done! That’s all for today. Hopefully you now have a bit more of an understanding of how different society was when Shakespeare was writing. Next time, we will look a bit more closely at the theatre.