Something Rotten! transports today’s audiences from the seats of a Broadway house across the Atlantic and back through the history book pages to Renaissance England. But what is the Renaissance, and how did it change England in the 16th century? The word “renaissance” is French for “rebirth” and was a term used to describe the period roughly between the 14th and 17th centuries when society was marked by great advancements in art, science and culture. It is believed that the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy, in the 14th century after the Fall of Constantinople and the Roman Empire. During this period, artists, scholars and scientists moved to Italy to continue their work. Patrons, wealthy families of renown in Italy, like the Medicis, provided creative minds with great sums of money to create art and innovate to further advance the family’s popularity and power. The period saw advancements in art, literature, music, politics, religion, science, philosophy and a revived interest in the humanism of the Greeks and Romans. Some of the most notable inventions of the time were the telescope, microscope, printing press, advanced uses of gunpowder and artillery, and a flushing toilet. The most prominent artists and figures of the time include Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas More, Galileo, Martin Luther and several more. In the next few hundred years, the Renaissance moved outward from Italy to its neighboring countries, including England.
England in 1595
It is believed that the Renaissance first moved to England in the late 14th century, but the peak of the Renaissance in England occurred during the Elizabethan Age in the 16th century with Queen Elizabeth at the throne. During this time, England was marked by nationalism, expansion and a great devotion to classical ideas. The British had their sights across the Atlantic and beyond as exploration and colonization of new lands was well underway. In 1580, Sir Francis Drake became the first man to circumnavigate the globe, or sail around the world, and in 1584, Elizabeth sent Sir Walter Raleigh to stake land in the Americas and start a colony called Virginia. England was a dominant power on the global stage, and that position of status made way for advancements in culture – specifically literature and music.
In 1558, Elizabeth ascended the English throne, removing the former Roman Catholic Church as the religion of the state. The Religious Settlement of 1559 gave Elizabeth the title as the Supreme Head of the Church. Services at the Church of England were mandatory, and people were punished for being absent. With fears of the Catholic Church secretly uprising again, some Protestants and zealots became progressively strict about moral codes and behaviors. A group called the Puritans emerged and hoped to separate from the Anglicans and return to Calvinism. They desired for the Church of England to adopt a rigid structure similar to Roman Catholicism and a plain church model.
They forbade sinful practices in everyday life and loathed the theater for attracting such sinful behaviors. Theaters like The Globe became social centers where people gambled, including the practice of bearbaiting, where bears were pitted against dogs, and people took bets on which animals would survive. Theaters attracted an array of characters, including thieves, prostitutes, beggars and more. Despite the advancements in theater, the Puritans sought to abolish theater and its sinful practices.
Eventually in 1642, the English Parliament issued an ordinance to halt all plays, and later, in 1648, all theatres were ordered to close. But the work had been done – these plays of the English Renaissance would be performed and cherished centuries later.
The Writers of 1595
Art and Literature emerged as a way to honor the pride and legacy of England, with works like Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene and Thomas Wyatt’s first sonnets. Meanwhile, theater quickly became the premier art form and social event of the time. The style of theater moved away from the religious narratives of miracle and mystery plays of the Middle Ages, and plays became much more humanistic like those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The first English plays that followed this new style were Gorboduc by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton and The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. Queen Elizabeth cherished the theater, and with her permission, professional theaters like the Red Lion Theatre, The Rose, The Swan, The Globe and countless more were built with around 15,000 theatergoers per week in London alone.
Plays moved from serving a religious function and were written to be enjoyed leisurely. Notable playwrights of the time included Thomas Dekker, John Webster, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Moore and the most famous of them all, William Shakespeare. These plays would be written and rehearsed by various acting troupes that traveled across England and often stopped for longer periods in London for performance. Some of the most popular troupes of the time include Queen Elizabeth’s Men, the King’s Men and Lord Chamberlain’s Men. With the financial backing of wealthy English patrons, theater became the touchstone of art and culture of the Elizabethan era.