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William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born into an age of experiment, invention, discovery, and revolution. It was an age in which scientists overthrew long-held axioms, philosophers promoted universal education, and seafarers expanded the boundaries of the known world.
A major catalyst of advancements was the invention of movable type (individual letters that could be arranged by hand to form words) by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468) in the mid-fifteenth century. The relative simplicity of European alphabets, generally consisting of fewer than thirty letters based on ancient Greek, made Gutenberg’s invention feasible. China had developed printing by the second century AD, but the tens of thousands of symbols required by Chinese dialects hampered the development of movable type.
Thanks to Gutenberg’s invention, the common folk of England had access for the first time to books and the power of the printed word. They could learn scripture from the printed word instead of the painted picture or the sculpted statue. Or they could study history, peruse classic literature, explore the sciences, or read controversial foreign-language books such as Il Principe (The Prince), by Italian political theorist and statesman Nicolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), published in 1532. The book tells how a leader—a prince, for example—has the right to win and keep political power through intrigue, intimidation, and trickery.
During this time, Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), a Dutch Roman Catholic priest, popularized humanism in Europe—and taught it in England—promoting education for everyone, not just the elite, to open narrow minds. Erasmus favored a secular education built on ideals of classical Greek and Latin writers (writers Shakespeare later studied in Stratford) and emphasized respect for students and a tolerance of competing ideas. Such an education, Erasmus believed, would counteract superstition and help remedy social and religious abuses. Ironically, the ideas of Erasmus, a Roman Catholic throughout his life, helped inspire the Protestant Revolt of Martin Luther (1483-1546), a dissident Augustinian priest. .
In the new atmosphere fostered by Erasmus and other Renaissance thinkers, controversial ideas and propositions received due attention on the printed page. Europeans could even read accounts of one of the most astounding developments of the day: that the sun did not orbit earth—as astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (AD 127-145), known today as Ptolemy—had declared in his famous treatise Almagest. Rather, earth and its sister planets orbited the sun. It was Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) who promulgated this theory and Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), inventor of the astronomical telescope, who confirmed it. The Copernican theory was revolutionary—affecting not only science but also theology and philosophy—for it impeached the egocentric view that the earth and its people were the center of the universe. Earth, in fact, was just another planet orbiting the sun. In 1609, German mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) published another revolutionary finding: that the path of the orbiting planets was elliptical, not circular.
The unsettling findings of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler appeared within little more than a century after Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) accidentally discovered the Americas (1492), an event that expanded the known world, encouraged further exploration, and increased the importation to England of ideas, peoples, and cultures. Africa, that far-off Dark Continent, was opening up after Portuguese sailors established trading posts in its coastal regions.
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By 1569, when Shakespeare was five, seafaring became less of a guessing game, thanks to a map published by Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), of Flanders. Mercator's map was the first to project the curvature of the earth onto a flat printing surface, enabling sailors to better plan voyages using the longitude and latitude lines printed on the map.
By 1600, science had its first microscope, a crude device invented by Hans and Zaccharias Jansen, Dutch lensmakers, and by 1609, its first astronomical telescope, invented by Galileo. The world could now view for the first time the cross section of a hair or the summit of a lunar mountain. These inventions prepared the way for the discovery centuries later of germs and packets of energy called quanta.
No microscope or telescope was needed, of course, to view wonders of another kind produced in Renaissance Europe: the masterly paintings of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), Titian (1490-1576), and El Greco (1541-1614). Music flourished, too, with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) composing magnificent church music and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) composing the first great operas. His opera Orfeo (1607-1609) introduced the concept of an overture.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the Protestant Revolt in Europe, Shakespeare's England smoldered with Protestant-Catholic conflict. Adherents of both religions resorted to spying, torture, political upheaval, and violence to gain sway. The unrest continued through the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), a Protestant queen who ruled from 1558 to 1603. Elizabeth was preceded on the throne by Protestant Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554), who ruled for nine days in 1553, and Mary I (1516-1558), who ruled from 1553 to 1558. These three were the first women to rule England. Their ascendancy allowed wives and daughters to dream of someday escaping domestic servitude. For support, they could look to Shakespeare, who populated his plays with strong women. Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, King John, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and Titus Andronicus all present women who rule, challenge, or stand up to men in one way or another.
Partly because Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII (1491-1547), had prodded Parliament to declare her the illegitimate daughter of Ann Boleyn (1507-1536) and, therefore, unqualified to become queen, Catholics viewed her as a usurper. Nevertheless, England prospered under the economic policies of Elizabeth, enabling Shakespeare and other playwrights to jingle their pockets.
Elizabethan England also became a leading sea power after explorer and adventurer Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) defeated arch rival Spain and its armada of ships in 1588. This triumph boosted the British ego and British prosperity to new heights at the threshold of a new century. The time was right for Shakespeare, a writer of unparalleled genius, to celebrate England’s glory in his history plays and, in his great tragedies and comedies, to expose the soul and the mind of his age—and all ages to come. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Shakespeare aptly sums up England’s reaction to—indeed, the world’s reaction to—the achievements of his age and to the mysteries that still awaited solutions: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (1.5.188-189).