We all know why Elizabethan England fascinates us and Ian Mortimer is a wonderful guide. His sense of humor and level of detail bridges any gaps in understanding why Elizabethan England may not be a place we would want to live. Mortimer expects us to have pre-conceived notions and questions that develop as we read. We may, for instance, ascribe to the notion that Elizabethan England was a period of the flowering of art and language, and it was…to a point. By carefully going through all the contingencies of leadership, life, and labor, he shows us that it was difficult at best—the early, and not quite thought-out beginning of city living. Cleanliness and sanitation were two of the most off-putting descriptions Mortimer shares, but we also shrink at “medical care” and the somewhat arbitrary nature of punishment and death.
On the pro side, world-wide exploration was in its infancy, and it must have been thrilling to discover new products coming in from overseas, changing the way people thought about their own culture. People were reading—even women—and while much of what was available to them were religious tracts, there began to be something more as the period (1550-1600) wore on. Mortimer gives us statistics on how many books were being published and the results are startling.
My greatest interest in the period had been language: there are so many words no longer in use which seem to capture something unique in the lives of people at the time that I find them fascinating. Mortimer is likewise taken, for he spends some time explaining words, even words we use now for their meanings might well have changed since the sixteenth century. Just the list of tradesmen and merchants brings on a long period of daydreaming: tucker, tailor, baker, victualer, cutler, draper, cooper, currier, glover, hatter, hosier, cordwainer, costermonger, needlemaker, ostler, scrivener…the list goes on.
Mortimer tells us “you won’t find the answers to [how to behave at table or how to tell the time] in traditional history books” so he attempts to address those gaps in our knowledge about everyday life. One of things I liked most about this non-traditional history was Mortimer directly addressing his readers: in the section on religion, he explains how Queen Elizabeth established a Protestant state and outlawed Catholicism. There was a long period of debate and discussion in the parliament before each infringement on the rights of Catholics to practice is enacted. The punishments for those found violating the strictures is profound and ugly, and Mortimer does not allow us to turn away. At the end of the chapter he exclaims in a one-sentence paragraph, “For the love of God.”
Nearing the end of the book, Mortimer indulges us with a discussion of the theatre—who was writing, who was acting, who was watching. In other books (Imagine by Jonah Lehrer), it is suggested that Shakespeare reached the height of skill and brilliance that he did because he had competitors for the affections of theatre-goers. Mortimer tells of the other great playwrights of the time and their successes, pushing Shakespeare to craft the most daring and innovative scripts for the greatest stage actors. He suggests that part of the thrill of watching a Shakespearean drama was the mirror-like action that reflected the lives of watchers…something that was new. Passion plays, or morality plays common at the time had morphed into theatre that showed human endeavor and failings and did not just teach but explained.
No, perhaps I do not want to live there, but I am better prepared now for a visit. This is a great read for high school or college students because Mortimer does not neglect details and reminds us to think in a wholistic way about the life Shakespeare must have led. Mortimer anticipates questions we generate as we read and answers them thoroughly. It is a wonderful, absorbing history and if you don’t come out with a few new deliciously barbed and pointed swear words, I’ll be surprised.
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