Some Notes on the Elisabethan Economic Crisis

I’ve been doing some reading on stuff by James Sharpe (University of York), regarding the economic crisis and hardship experiences during Elizabethan times. I found it quite interested me, and this is usually not my bag, so I thought I would do a little update regarding the subject.

I think what attracted me to this topic was that, this is really not the sort of thing we think of when we picture Elizabethan period, right? Well, according to Dr Sharpe, there are many accounts that report severe issues during this time, particularly in the provinces. Edward Hext and William Lambarde seem to be key for this discussion. The former was associated with the Somerset Justice of peace, whilst the former was a veteran for the same in Kent. They reported people stealing more than they were at work, and the paint a picture where living in vagrancy in the urban areas was not uncommon. Moreover, the do suggest that people living in the countryside were seriously struggling to survive. It is acknowledge that the harvests of 1594 and 1595 were particularly bad, but it is the one from 1596 that has disastrous consequences for the population. As a result, Elizabethan society sees the price of grain increase to its highest level in all of the 16th century. This struggle is also reflected in the population levels. In 1500 there was a reported figure of 2.5 million whilst by 1650 the number was doubled, and we find a 5 million magic figure. It does appear that the country was unable to cope with such a population growth, and this was mostly due to the lack of resources and infrastructure. The real wages people were earning were not able to cover the costs and prices of good at the time. At the same time, England also experiences a higher unemployment rate as the chances to find work are diminished. These are the reports of the south though, so what about the rest of the country?

Perhaps unsurprisingly we see that by 16000 the Midlands saw a massive divide between people. The rich and locally powerful were sitting at the top, then we see a modest class of yeomen farmers just about managing, and then a mass of poor people unable to survive. Funny enough, London reports also suggest things were not all so peachy even in the capital. The harvest did have a real big impact which is seen in the population toll. An average year would see the number of burials just above that of birth, however in 1597 twice as many Londoners were buried than baptised…The pattern does confirm a time of seasonal death that indicates the reason behind these extravagant number of passings was the famine. But a place that shows these evidence as well is perhaps something many of us did not suspect: prisons. And it is amongst the inmate waiting trial that the numbers get spooky. There was a livelihood of death whilst waiting in jail due to the inhumane and appalling health and sanitary conditions of such facilities were the treatment was rough at best. But we see an increase in the number of dead prisoners throughout Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Sharpe advises that the average number for these deaths normally would have been around 33. Yet between 1596 and 1597 the staggering 117 can only suggest many of these were the cause of starvation due to bad harvest which is enhances by the contraction of maladies and disease.

Moreover, remember this is the Elizabethan period and war was certainly present at home. With the country at conflict with the Netherlands and Spain we find a major social disruption as those who return from war have nowhere to go. Unsurprisingly these men go into a stage of homelessness, vagrancy, and eventually crime. Theft and grain riots in all of south of England is more than evident, although often forgotten due to their relative lack of success. Such an example is the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. The situation was by then somewhat contained but the pressure still existed on the government to get things right, which is for sure one of the things that promotes the enactment of the Poor Law Act (1601).

I think the reason why it interest me, had something to do with my own teaching of the period from the perspective of the Golden Age of Spain. My students are probably sick and tired of hearing about war, famine and death in the Spanish Empire, where the British Isles always look so much better off…Yet, it was not so golden times over the shores on the other side of the Channel I suspect. I think this really help us understand the biases of national histories and the things we assume to be Golden Ages.

Hand in Hand: Theatre and Politics

In recent weeks the link between politics and theatre has come to the forefront of discussion, with arguments about politics role in the theatre. Whatever peoples’ thoughts are on politics’ place or appropriateness in theatre, it is simply undeniable that the two are inextricably linked and have been since theatre existed.  This is not a simple link either; theatre and politics throughout history have been linked in a variety of ways, whether it be in the play itself, its patrons, its performers and writers or even the physical theatres themselves.

Western theatre is largely based on the theatre of the ancient Greeks. This is also where politics and theatre became intertwined. The venue for theatre and politic discussion during this period were the same; the amphitheatre. This, along with the emphasis placed on rhetoric as civic duty, meant the two often overlapped during this period. While there is no term in ancient Greek for satire, several of the earliest satirists wrote for Greek theatre, such as Aristophanes who was fiercely critical of Cleon, a general and politician, and Menander whose earliest surviving fragment of work was an attack on a politician.

English theatre until the Reformation was mostly restricted to religious plays such as mystery cycles and miracle plays. These plays became unacceptable after the Reformation and secular theatre began to flourish. Theatre companies, to play in public, were required to have a noble patron and many of the companies took their name from their patrons, such as the Lord Chamberlin’s men.

Theatre companies during this period had two audiences: the monarch and court; and the general public. Therefore plays had to straddle a line of appealing to the general public while not offending the court. Sometimes this failed, such as in A Game of Chess which was stopped after several performances for its thinly veiled allegory of the current monarchy.

Even plays that were not about the monarch or court could be dangerous. Shakespeare’s Richard II was paid to be performed shortly before the Essex Rebellion in 1601 by Essex’s supporters in hope that the play, which was deeply critical of Richard II, would encourage people to join the rebellion.  Luckily for Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlin’s men they were not punished for their accidental involvement. However such incidents show that theatre was considered to be deeply political.

After the closure of theatres under the Puritan Interregnum rule of Oliver Cromwell, the ascension of Charles II led to a new flourishing age of theatre. Political plays found new popularity in theatres across the country, such as The Country Wife and The Roundheads. This was despite theatres requiring a royal patent and despite the fact that Charles II was known to frequent theatres unlike his predecessors.

The introduction of allowing women on stage was one of the most politically charged acts of the 17th century, directly challenging gender roles. Female actors attracted controversy on and off-stage: on stage the women portrayed characters far from what was considered ‘acceptable’; and off-stage many actresses who had come from lowly means found themselves thrust into the political spheres of court, and able to wield political power via their affairs with nobility or even the king himself.

The Licensing Act of 1737 had a huge impact on English theatre and was introduced because of the political fears of Prime Minster, Robert Walpole. Walpole feared that the popularity and presence of political satire and dissent on stage undermined him and his government. As a result the act allowed government censorship of the stage, which continued until 1968. The act was strengthened in 1848, making it compulsory for all plays to receive government approval before staging. This meant whole plays could be refused, although in most cases plays simply had certain passages censored. This included all plays, even performances of classical plays. This created a two tier theatre system with legitimate theatres who were licensed and those that were not.

With the power of the censor, plays especially in the 19th century began to focus more on social than political issues, which aligned more with the attitude of the government. When politics did enter the theatre, it was not uncommon for it to come after the scripts had been submitted to the censors. Pantomime became one of the most political genres of theatre. Writers such as George Bernard Shaw and J B Priestly courted controversy by inserting their own politics into plays.

At the dawn of the 20th century political groups began to form theatre groups, such as the Workers Theatre Movement and the Pioneer Players. In 1936, the Unity Theatre was formed with distinctly left wing productions, many of which directly challenged censorship.

After the Second World War, political theatre came into its own. Politically charged theatre first found its footing on the fringe theatres as until 1968, theatres were still censored. Plays such as The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (who would go on to write a number of highly politically charged plays throughout the last half of the 20th century) and Oh, What a Lovely War!, pushed their political messages indirectly.

The lifting of censorship, along with the political atmosphere of the 1960s, allowed an explosion of direct political theatre. Plays such as Saved by Edward Bond, which had previously been severely censored, were allowed in their full political anger. Play writers were no longer restricted to political satire to criticise their government, their monologues could now directly call out those who did not live up to their expectations.

This has continued and expanded through into the 21st century, with even ‘family-friendly’ productions such as the musical Billy Elliot being adamantly anti-Thatcher. Today it seems unimaginable that in living memory that there was not a time where playwrights could not write clear criticism of the current political climate.