Sunday, February 17, 2013

Shakespeare’s England

Our image of an era mutates over time.  There’s a meme about how teenagers dressed in the 80s (a screenshot from The Breakfast Club) and how sorority girls think teenagers dressed in the 80s (all neon, legwarmers, torn necklines/boatnecks and giant hair – as if the fashions of my junior high, high school, and college years were compressed into one horrendous image).  400 years on, we think of Shakespeare’s era as it’s portrayed in his plays, portrayals which in some cases have ossified into works more Serious than entertaining.  Shakespeare’s England uses contemporary documents – diaries, reports, guidebooks, plays, and poems – to give a more accurate view of what life was really like.  Elizabethan and Jacobean England was in transition.  The former backwater became a world power under Gloriana, and the Renaissance was soon to give birth to the Enlightenment and an explosion of scientific discovery.  The urban merchant  middle-class began to rise, although it had not yet eclipsed the agrarian feudal society and would not for a few hundred years.  Shakespeare’s England shows that transition.  It’s interesting and informative, but, like most surveys, doesn’t quite grab the reader.  It’s not exactly disjointed, but it doesn’t flow from chapter to chapter either.  Shakespeare’s England is best used as a reference.  Read it, file away a few facts, and then keep it on your shelf  to look up or confirm something  a few months down the road.

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