Late 16th-century England had no very great portrait painters, but at least one of its dramatists created a gallery of images – principally through his characters – at once brilliant and hard to forget. Hamlet and Lear can haunt the mind in a way that eclipses even the magnificent faces of Dürer and Titian. Shakespeare in fact embodies in his work a great change in 16th-century culture. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, major European artists came to work in England. In these decades, King’s College chapel was completed, Holbein achieved his great portraits of the king, courtiers and gentry, and Torregiano was sculpting Henry VII for Westminster Abbey. But, though there were notable writers (Skelton, Wyatt, More, the great translators of the Bible like Tyndale), the country’s literary culture was relatively thin: it lacked character and cohesion. By the end of the 16th century, the picture had reversed. The great architectural and sculptural achievements were over – few churches were built in Elizabeth’s reign, though grand country houses were certainly rising. But a great literature had emerged, with Shakespeare at the peak of it.
No such cultural change can ever be fully explained. ‘We prove, we do not explain our birth,’ Marianne Moore said. There is always an element of the random in the historical which demands respect. If Shakespeare himself was a romancing artist, old-fashioned beside sophisticated and newly classicising contemporaries, it was perhaps because freer methods allowed him to encompass a wider sphere. Ben Jonson mocked Shakespeare’s ascribing a sea-coast to Bohemia, but such locations recurred throughout his world: it was a place where the random felt at home and the uncontrollable was ordered into art. Hence the startling but true forms of Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline.
But if it can’t be said exactly how Shakespeare happened, there are contexts that help to throw light. I want to glance at two of them here. Sixteenth-century Europe was changed by two movements: Shakespeare was the product of both Renaissance and Reformation. If his extraordinary generation of writers was not mute and inglorious, some of the credit has to go to the heroic humanist educators, headed by Erasmus and More. The New Learning, reaching back to classical literary and linguistic resources, and taught in grammar schools and universities, brought into Tudor life a formal principle of reasoning intelligence, mediated through language. In the course of the century, literacy in England rose sharply and hugely. In its immense effectiveness, this educational change could even be said to have exceeded its ends: first in the rhetorical and stylistic games of patterning that took over the writing of the time, and second in the fact that many graduates could find no employment. The 1590s, plague-struck and famine-ridden, saw university-trained men moving faute de mieux into the new London theatres, underpaid but not (most of them) actually starving.
The 16th-century Rise of the Word has a second and intellectually rather different aspect. When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 as a moderate Protestant, she made sure at her accession to hold in her right hand a Bible, the Word of God. In her study of the 16th-century image-breakers, England’s Iconoclasts (1988), Margaret Aston showed lucidly how the iconoclasm took its violence from the conceptual depth of the ancient belief in the supremacy of Word over Image. The Word was God. The power of Reformation in England was in part a result of Henry’s obsession with a male heir, as well as his prudent sense of how much might be gained by a takeover dissolution of the Roman Church’s more corrupt interests. But the movement as a whole still operated in terms of beliefs well beyond material greed, or even political hierarchies, and it would change European life decisively. If Shakespeare was a Renaissance artist, he was also a product of the Reformation. The emphasis placed by Protestantism on the Word, on private Bible-reading and public sermonising, created a new ethos of conscience and consciousness, of self-scrutiny and inwardness. Such an ideological climate breeds tragedy. It is not for nothing that both Faustus and Hamlet studied at the University of Wittenberg, a Lutheran town.
But there is a further historical sense in which Shakespeare was the child of the Reformation. It is sometimes said that our characters are made by the ten years immediately preceding our birth. The poet was born in 1564; five years earlier, in 1559, the Act of Uniformity was passed (though only barely, by three votes). The previous half-century was not strong in uniformity. Major historical studies of the Reformation period, like Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, may be written from different ideological positions, yet will imply a similar historical picture. The world they describe is one of political confusion, religious bewilderment and personal danger. Shakespeare’s parents and grandparents lived through three major religious transformations within a dozen years. Henry VIII was first Catholic and papist, then the anti-papist but Catholic supreme head of the Church in England. His son Edward VI’s violently Catholic-burning Protestantism was replaced after his death while still a child by the violently Protestant-burning Catholicism of his half-sister Mary Tudor, who died childless (though married to the Spanish Catholic Philip II, some 30 years before the Armada). And Mary was succeeded by her half-sister, the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor (held by Rome to be a bastard well deserving execution and displacement by her cousin, the Catholic Mary Stuart of Scotland).