Front Page Titles (by Subject) 83.: The Age of Elizabeth - Judgments on History and Historians
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
83.: The Age of Elizabeth - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Age of Elizabeth
Between the allegory of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1596) and the pastoralism of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia Shakespeare stands quite alone and also at a great distance from the other dramatists.
His public consisted of only two poles of society: the young nobility and the lower classes. The theater was growing only moderately, considering the size of London at that time; it was already considered not respectable (while, actually, the “respectable” nation was too dull for it). The court gave it only the attention that befitted its position, so that this sort of entertainment might not be lacking. Elizabeth took scarcely any notice of Shakespeare, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he wrote at her command, is one of his weaker plays. In the provinces there seems to have been no theater whatever, at a time when there were theaters throughout Spain. Shakespeare is a veritable windfall for England. If he had never existed, his age would not have missed him. Soon he was completely forgotten and was not revived until much later.
Rümelin (in his Shakespearestudien) demonstrates that Shakespeare’s knowledge of life was more divinatory, inwardly intuitive than empirical.
In the key plays the outlook on life is profoundly melancholy. From this somber background there stand out jest, humor, and beautiful fantasy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream; especially The Tempest with its distribution of evil; King Richard III and Macbeth, too, are quite clearly shaded right into the darkest black; the comedies with melancholy background include As You Like It).
From this outlook on life, the characters are all “justified” as long as they stand in front of us and talk.
Shakespeare not merely disposes of the vanity of this world in contemplative verses (although he has these in profusion), like Saadi and Hafiz, but he sketches the great, detailed, multiform picture of this world. Would he also have done this as a mere published author? Fortunately he was a theater man and an actor.
There has been endless research on Hamlet and on what Shakespeare intended and meant by this work. Every reader sees a different picture in it, and a new one at each reading. And the main thing is that he desires to read it again and again.
Shakespeare had a different key to the nature of man from that of any poet before or after him.
The present-day squabble over whether he was a Protestant or a Catholic is delightful. At any rate, he was not a Puritan.
It was probably of decisive importance that here as well as in Spain the theater consisted essentially of competing private enterprises (in Italy a court theater usually set the fashion with operas, pastorals, comedies in the conventional sense, and in addition there was little more than popular farce in the form of masked comedy). The English theater fortunately was not tied to any pomp.
Englishmen in Germany trained German actors; Jakob Ayrer and his dramas were under their influence. Perhaps one reason why they were on the Continent was that at home they could hardly profit by their art any more.
History of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries