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The Age of Shakespeare

The Age of Shakespeare

by Frank Kermode

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In The Age of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode uses the history and culture of the Elizabethan era to enlighten us about William Shakespeare and his poetry and plays. Opening with the big picture of the religious and dynastic events that defined England in the age of the Tudors, Kermode takes the reader on a tour of Shakespeare's England, vividly portraying London's


In The Age of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode uses the history and culture of the Elizabethan era to enlighten us about William Shakespeare and his poetry and plays. Opening with the big picture of the religious and dynastic events that defined England in the age of the Tudors, Kermode takes the reader on a tour of Shakespeare's England, vividly portraying London's society, its early capitalism, its court, its bursting population, and its epidemics, as well as its arts--including, of course, its theater. Then Kermode focuses on Shakespeare himself and his career, all in the context of the time in which he lived. Kermode reads each play against the backdrop of its probable year of composition, providing new historical insights into Shakspeare's characters, themes, and sources. The result is an important, lasting, and concise companion guide to the works of Shakespeare by one of our most eminent literary scholars.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Kermode clears the way with an overview of Tudor politics and the growth of English Protestantism, a rich background for his discussion of what is known about Shakespeare's early life, including the recent debate over his possible Catholicism. The heart of the book is its account of the swift evolution of English drama from its late-medieval forms to its professional heights not long after Elizabeth's death in 1603, and the many threads, political, financial and social, that connected the theater to the worlds of court and city. Kermode's portrayal of the crush of the London playhouse and its place in a bustling world of commerce and competition is vibrant and full of learning. Shakespeare's rivalry with poets like Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson develops in the context of other contests, in which adult actors vie with boys' troupes and court factions plot for power. — Joy Connolly
Publishers Weekly
While the age of Shakespeare overlapped with the both the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, Kermode's compact, erudite appreciation of the Bard is less about Shakespeare's private life and turbulent times than his theatrical milieu and the worlds he created for the stage. Quick summaries of the pressing political issues of the Protestant Reformation and the successor Queen Elizabeth are followed by up-to-date surveys of the debates over Shakespeare's possible crypto-Catholicism and his "missing" years. But Kermode hits his stride with the plays. His breakdown of Shakespeare's artistic development and mature achievement by the various acting companies and theaters he was associated with from the Lord Chamberlain's Company to the renamed King's Men, from the Theatre and the Rose to the Globe and Blackfriars proves a satisfying structure to match the swift pace. Inevitably, the brevity of the Chronicles format can't provide equal time to all of Shakespeare's million-plus words of dramatic poetry, and Kermode prefers the tragedies and romances over the histories and comedies (to say nothing of the sonnets). Occasionally shifting to lectern manner, he also revisits some of his favorite tropes, which he explored in Shakespeare's Language, such as rhetorical doubling and pairing in Hamlet and the theme of equivocation in Macbeth. While Ben Jonson declared, "[Shakespeare] was not for an age, but for all time!" Kermode pleasurably shows how he and his works were of their age and also transcended it. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
The distinguished critic Frank Kermode presents Shakespeare as an actor, a playwright, a poet, a minor courtier, and a highly successful businessman. He blends his discussion of Shakespeare's life and works into an analysis of the political, religious, and economic realities of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. The result is an astute assessment of the greatest dramatist in a period of explosive interest in drama. An astounding 3000 plays were written in this time period, of which approximately 650 survive. Kermode demonstrates that as the world of the theatre changed and developed, so too did Shakespeare. Some plays receive more commentary than others. Of the comedies, he refers to The Two Gentlemen of Verona as "a slight work" and to Love's Labour's Lost as "the finest." He agrees with W. H. Auden that The Merry Wives of Windsor is "'a very dull play indeed.'" As one might expect, he concludes that Hamlet is "the most remarkable" in its "complexity and scope," and explains that in Hamlet Shakespeare uses a "new dramatic language to explore the minds of the characters." This led to a new type of acting he refers to as "personation." Another example of Kermode's gifted analysis is in his discussion of King Lear. He questions, "Why must Cordelia be murdered?" noting "no existing version of the story except Shakespeare's records this loss." He concludes that the play is one "conscious of apocalypse," reflecting "a darkness in the national mood" at the time. Although focused primarily on the plays and the times in which they were written, Kermode does not avoid some of the controversies surrounding Shakespeare's personal life. He offers somelevelheaded responses to questions relating to Shakespeare's religion, the "lost years," and the identity of the Dark Lady of the sonnets. Perhaps his most provocative comment is the suggestion that Shakespeare may not have intended to retire to Stratford, noting that only three years before his death, he purchased the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London. Readers of this volume will be pleased in every respect except one—it is too brief. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Random House, Modern Library, 214p. illus. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Anthony Pucci
Library Journal
A teacher and scholar of English literature, Kermode has written and edited numerous works on Shakespeare and other literary giants. With this work, he delves into the cultural and political scenery of Elizabethan England as Shakespeare would have known it in his lifetime. He begins with an assessment of the frailty of royal succession, the problems in establishing the Church of England, and the impact of the Reformation on everyday lives. Next we learn that Shakespeare married young, became a father, and moved from Stratford to London, keeping his private life separate from the stage. Having no luck in the poetry market, Shakespeare began writing plays; in 1598, the Globe was constructed. Kermode tells quite a bit about Shakespeare's fellow playwrights and actors, giving a concise history lesson in outdoor theater. Briefly reviewing each play, even drawing on comments from audience members who attended performances, Kermode reveals how Shakespeare became a master of the soliloquy, mixing tragedy with humor and delicately balancing political realities into his plays to please royalty and common folk alike. This short but concise work will appeal to history and theater buffs as well as Anglophiles. Because of the occasional linguistic analysis, however, it may be too in-depth for general readers.-Jaime Anderson, Cty. of Henrico P.L., VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A learned, if brief, journey through the world of William Shakespeare. Written in elegant, concise prose accessible to laypersons, the book moves quickly through the latest critical debates about the Bard's origins, and deftly summarizes the historical background of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in which he lived and worked. The great political and religious issues of the times are explicated clearly and linked to the development of live theater as a mainstay of English popular culture. Most outstanding are the entertaining discussions of Shakespeare's literary successes in relation to his professional associations with a succession of professional acting companies and theaters. The analyses of the magnificent language in the context of contemporary cultural assumptions, evolving styles of acting, and the physical demands of the playhouses bring readers both a broader understanding and a deeper appreciation of the playwright's artistic triumphs. Along with Kermode's equally fine Shakespeare's Language (Farrar, 2001), this is an excellent choice for students curious (or struggling) to understand what all the fuss is about the Bard of Avon.-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Frank Kermode is one of the great critics of our time. All his books should be required reading. The Age of Shakespeare is everything one could hope for: scholarly, fascinating, accessible, and, above all, a complete education in itself.”
—Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

“Drawing on his prevenient critical masterpiece (Shakespeare’s Language) for everything to do with poetry, Kermode efficiently articulates the intricacies of Life, the Age, and the Stage, distributing the plays according to the sequence of theaters the bard so successfully exploited, and disclosing how the poems had to rely on changing patronal conventions. All the essential elements—even a bibliography!—are here, organized with a rare and rewarding elegance.”
—Richard Howard, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

“During a lifetime of study, Frank Kermode has virtually internalized the body of Shakespeare’s work, and lucky for us, he seems fond of externalizing the results in writing whose clarity rivals the depth and breadth of his scholarship. The perfect companion to Shakespeare’s Language, in which the poetry itself came under his sensitive scrutiny, The Age of Shakespeare not only provides a wide-angle view of the social, political, and cultural conditions of the Elizabethan world but also pegs each play to its exact date of composition. Academics and common readers alike have much to learn from Kermode’s illuminating and delectable study.”
—Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate and author of Nine Horses and Sailing Alone Around the Room

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Chronicles Ser.
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.48(h) x 0.53(d)
1330L (what's this?)

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Chapter 1

The first task of one who sets out to write briefly on Shakespeare and his age must be to move the focus back from the life of the playhouse and say something about the greater world of national politics. One dominant concern in that world throughout the Tudor period was the precariousness of the royal succession. If this now seems a relatively remote and unimportant matter, it is worth recalling that Shakespeare's history plays, a good quarter of his entire output, dealt with anxieties, indeed with civil wars, about succession, and even portrayed the events leading up to the dubiously valid accession of Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth's grandfather. The succession was a matter of concern to everybody, not only because the monarchy then had more personal power than it has been able to keep, but because in Tudor times the whole issue was bound up inseparably with religious differences, and religion could mean war. The expansion of the empire under the Protestant Elizabeth inevitably caused conflict with Catholic Spain and allowed her the triumph over the Spanish Armada; but there were still English Catholics who had been instructed by the Pope that Elizabeth was an illegitimate usurper and that one could be forgiven for eliminating her. The plots against Elizabeth of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary's Catholic followers were a serious recurrent anxiety.

By the date of Shakespeare's birth (1564) Elizabeth had been on the throne for almost six years, and the "Elizabethan Settlement" had established the Church of England as Protestant. Though "Anglo-Catholic" (to apply a later description), the English church was now entirely severed from Rome. Theevents that brought about great changes in English social and economic life had occurred in the reigns of Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, and of his son Edward VI. It is traditional to say that the "English Reformation" took place from 1529 to 1559-the latter is the date of the Elizabethan Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy, and the former the date when Henry, failing to obtain the Pope's consent to his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, made himself supreme head of the Church in the Pope's place. This neat formulation overlooks the history of dissent from Wyclif and the Lollards in the late fourteenth century, a reform movement not forgotten in the years before Henry's catastrophic break with Rome. But that break, and the proclamation of the English as the true Catholic yet vernacular church, was, despite opposition, decisive in the long run.

Henry very much wanted a male heir, but the surviving child of his first, supposedly invalid, marriage was a daughter, Mary. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, produced another daughter, Elizabeth, and it was Jane Seymour, the third of his wives, who gave birth to a son, Edward. He succeeded his father in 1547, and his brief rule was dominated by a harsh Protestant regency. His successor, his elder half-sister Mary, was, like her mother, a devout Catholic and did all she could to restore relations with the Papacy. Her too-late marriage to Philip of Spain was barren. At the end of her short reign she was succeeded by Elizabeth, who resumed her father's title as supreme head of the Church, and was able to withstand both the Catholic and the growing Puritan oppositions.

The Reformation affected not only theology and liturgy; the distribution of national wealth and political power was greatly altered by the dissolution of monasteries and other rich ecclesiastical establishments. The upheaval affected not only the clergy; ordinary people had to accommodate themselves to radical change. Historians argue about the exact nature of that change. We used to be taught about the "waning" or the "autumn" of the Middle Ages-a story of loss, or at least of a late flowering that preceded loss. An age had ended when most people derived their religious knowledge not from printed books but from the imagery and symbolism of the wall paintings and stained glass of the churches, a huge non-literary context for the Catholic sacraments (immemorially seven, but now reduced by the theologians of Reformation to two). It used to be taken for granted that those old-fashioned ways of worship and instruction had become self-evidently obsolescent. The Roman church had permitted all manner of abuses as well as forbidding translation of the Bible, the Word of God, so that by the time Reformation arrived it was badly needed. Now there are historians who dispute this account of the matter, and lament the rapid extinction of the old faith and its attributes-its arts and rituals, its control over the pattern of life over so many generations.

This is in part the thesis of Eamon Duffy's remarkable book The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-1580 (1992). Duffy emphasizes the degree to which almost every aspect of daily life had been consonant with the liturgy, and the ways in which religious doctrine was taught-not only by pictures but by many liturgical acts not properly part of the Mass-instances of traditional piety, as when the episodes of the Passion were annually reenacted by the clergy but also, in dramas of their own devising, by the laity. For example, since St. John spoke of the parting of Christ's garments, two linen cloths were removed from the altar at the appropriate moment. A sepulchre was prepared in which the Host was reverently laid-for of course the Host was literally corpus Christi, the body of Christ. And such enactments should be borne in mind when one reflects on the extraordinary persistence of quasi-dramatic traditions throughout the entire period before the professionals began, in the new world of the later sixteenth century, to absorb and secularize play-acting and translate it from these quiet devotional origins to the inns and theaters of London.

The commercial development of drama was one more sign that the world as regulated by liturgy was being supplanted by a world more concerned with capital and labor-a world in which time itself had a different quality. "The rhythms of the liturgy," writes Duffy, "were the rhythms of life itself." The rhythms of work and of pleasure reflected the routines of liturgy and prayer. The doctrine of Purgatory, which the Reformers especially detested, had for centuries exerted a powerful influence on conduct, whether in the ordinary course of life or on the deathbed, and its hold over people's minds remained strong long after it was condemned, in ways well illustrated by Stephen Greenblatt in his Hamlet in Purgatory (2001).

Duffy's account of the stripping of the churches-the altars were now considered idolatrous and were replaced by "communion tables"-emphasizes the tragic aspect of these losses. Dissident commentators dispute his contention that in the period just before the Reformation the Catholic religion, far from being in decay, was indeed in a perfectly healthy state. Of course a case can also be made for the beneficial effects of the new Protestantism, and indeed some say that the notion of undisturbed Catholic contentment suddenly and barbarously interrupted by Reform is mere propaganda. The intellectual and educational achievements of Protestantism, it is argued, are in the Catholic version of events much undervalued. So is the fact that throughout Elizabeth's reign Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer, containing not only his celebrated prose but also the Articles of the reformed Church of England-various in number but eventually settled as thirty-nine. These Articles defined the differences between Roman and English doctrine and could be consulted in every parish church. Also to be found in the churches were the Great Bible and Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563), better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, powerful propaganda for the true (English) Protestant-Catholic faith, and for the royal and imperial claims of Elizabeth. The book remains notorious for its polemic against Rome and the Marian persecutions.

These books in part replaced the old images-wall paintings, stained glass, rood screens, decorated altars-of the old régime, and, to judge from the growing strength of Protestant feeling, their effect was, in its different way, as powerful. One estimate holds that in 1585 the population of England was five percent Catholic and fifteen percent Puritan, the rest accepting the middle way prescribed by Elizabeth. Such estimates are of course just more or less well informed guesses. There was certainly a rump of faithful Catholics, but England in the time of Elizabeth should probably be thought of as primarily a Protestant nation, at war ideologically as well as militarily with Rome.

Both sides were equipped for international conflict, not least as to the war of ideas. England had theologians like Cranmer and Jewel (defender of the antiquity of the English Church), while Rome used such propagandists as Cardinal Borromeo, whose apologetics became well known in England when distributed by Jesuit missionaries. Shakespeare's father seems to have owned a copy of Borromeo's Spiritual Testament, a guide for perplexed and oppressed Catholics. In the active as opposed to the contemplative life, the age is famous for its seamen pirates and for the secret services that employed such gifted spies as Christopher Marlowe. There were some, among them the poet John Donne, who hoped for a theological compromise, believing some move toward reunification might be possible, but the differences, for instance those concerning the doctrine of the Real Presence and the celibacy of the clergy, were too stubborn to be reasoned away.

Orders relating to the nature of divine service and attendance at church were now issued by the State, replacing the older priestly sanctions that were backed by the authority of Rome. Above all, the vernacular Bible, long denied to the Catholic laity, was now made the foundation of faith. The reformed church believed it had gone back beyond a millennium of papistical distortions and rediscovered the true Christian message of the New Testament. It is not surprising that some lay people, especially those born under the old régime, might cling almost unconsciously to the religious practices of their youth. Moreover, there were bitter factions within the reform movement, and the extremists tended to gain ground, zealous in the detection and destruction of anything that could be labeled idolatrous.

They had no time for such festivals as Corpus Christi, instituted in 1264-a feast of central theological importance as a celebration of the Real Presence in the sacrament, but also the occasion of great civic festivities, including the cycles of plays organized and financed by the craftsmen's guilds of the towns. Of these remarkable works the "mystery plays" of Coventry, York, and Wakefield are the most famous ("mystery" was a word for "trade" or "craft") and they continued into Elizabeth's reign. Shakespeare as a child could well have seen them at Coventry; but by his time they were frowned upon. The feast itself was no longer legal, and the expense of these elaborate displays had probably grown too great, and so they expired.

These productions had a didactic purpose, offering in the vernacular a long series of plays about sacred history. Events in the Old Testament were presented as prefiguring the truths of the New (much as church glass and paintings did, or had done), together with scenes from the lives of the Virgin and Christ. Performances were on "pageants" or carts, stages that could be moved from one site to the next. As far as possible, each guild chose a subject appropriate to its particular mystery. Costumes were elaborate, and there was some use of stage machinery. Solemnity was mixed with broad humor, and some stock characters became famous-when Hamlet tells the traveling actors not to out-Herod Herod, he is alluding to the traditional rant of that character in the Corpus Christi plays. Spectacle was provided; hell yawned and devils vomited smoke. Some of the plays are more subtle than this account suggests-the Wakefield (or Towneley) Second Shepherds' Play is renowned for the daring of its double-plotting, mixing the serious theme of the Nativity with farce-indeed, the kind of mixture to be found later in some of the plays of Shakespeare's contemporaries; for a celebrated example, see Middleton's tragedy The Changeling.

The mystery plays testify to the ingenuity of their authors and actors, and also to the strong desire of late-medieval Englishmen to perform their beliefs, to act out in their own persons the sacred truths as they had been taught them in sermons and paintings. These plays translate into their own popular style the patterns and narratives of medieval piety; and they were fun, occasions for holidays. They prove that the English had long been well attuned to dramatic display, whether as actors or audience. These tastes were inherited, in very different circumstances, by their descendants. A common purpose had brought together the variously gifted craftsmen of the town, and they made a solemn feast over into a universal holiday. But they could not survive the threat of Reform forever. That they lasted so long is a tribute to the staying power of the old style of popular religion even when powerful forces were at work to destroy it.

For a time it had seemed possible to retain much of the old way of life while acquiescing in the new. Henry VIII himself remained attached to much that was traditionally Catholic, and up to the date of his death in 1547, people could keep to their old ways. Mass was celebrated with impunity. Elizabeth, when her time came, had a fondness for some old habits and customs, and favored compromise and moderation. When she was excommunicated, threatened with assassination, and opposed by the great Catholic powers, she adopted a more severe, more warlike attitude. Nevertheless she wanted the English church to be a via media between Rome and Calvinist Geneva. The difficulties of the situation-between hostile Rome and burgeoning Calvinism-are well illustrated by John Donne's Satire 3, an excited, disturbed reflection on his own need to choose (he was brought up a Catholic) that must have been echoed by many intellectuals of the time.

Between the reign of Henry and that of his younger daughter came those of Edward and Mary. Edward's counsellors were hard-line opponents of Rome, and through them he condemned all "papistical superstitions" such as rosaries, holy water, prayers to the saints, ceremonial candles, fasting, indulgences, relics, and the existence of Purgatory. Edward was probably predisposed to the Protestant cause by the influence of his father's sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, a devout adherent of Reform, and as he grew toward maturity he became as fiercely Protestant as his advisers. So the confiscation of the treasures and the estates of religious foundations was continued so energetically that it is described by the historian John Guy as "the largest confiscation and redistribution of wealth since the Norman Conquest."

Copyright© 2004 by Frank Kermode

Meet the Author

FRANK KERMODE is Britain’s most distinguished scholar of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature. He has written and edited numerous works, including Shakespeare’s Language, Forms of Attention, Not Entitled, The Genesis of Secrecy, and The Sense of an Ending. He has taught at many universities, including University College, London, and Cambridge University, and has been a visiting professor at Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and several other American colleges. He lives in Cambridge, England.

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