This is the context lecture for our unit on Romeo and Juliet. Today we’ll discuss daily life in Elizabethan England in 1594 when Shakespeare was believed to have written Romeo and Juliet .
If you were born in Elizabethan England: 5% of you would die within the first week of your life. 40% of you wouldn’t survive to your 15th birthday. Approximately one out of every 100 mothers died in childbirth. A midwife and her attendants would assist at the birth. Women gave birth in birthing chairs or stools, sitting up.
While boys were prized, the birth of a healthy child, regardless of the sex, was cause for celebration. When a baby was born, families might consult an astrologer to determine if the date and time of the baby’s birth was fortunate. People’s lives were thought to be determined by God and could be read in the alignment of the stars and planets. This is why the chorus refers to Romeo and Juliet as “a pair of star-crossed lovers.” Their love story and their fates were foretold by the heavens. After birth, the baby was bathed in warm, scented water, and wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes. Many babies were given a coin to help drive the devil away.
Swaddling was to help encourage proper physical development. Most babies born to middling and well to do families were breast fed by wet-nurses, women hired out to perform this service. It was generally believed that a woman’s breast milk contained elements of her character and so wet nurses known for their virtuous character were in demand. Poorer women nursed their own children and might try to hire themselves out as wet nurses to privileged families. The Nurse was Juliet’s wet nurse, and says to her charge, “Thou wast the prettiest babe that e’er I nursed.” The Nurse’s daughter, Susan, was nursed with Juliet. After Susan’s death, the Nurse and her husband stayed with Juliet’s family and continued to care for Juliet.
Because so many babies died in infancy, it was important for the baby to be baptized soon after birth. Mothers did not attend the baptism. They were to remain at home recuperating. When they were allowed out in public, the occasion was cause for celebration, and the mother attended service at her church to give thanks for her safe deliverance. This practice, in turn, was known as ‘churching.’
Like Juliet, babies were weaned at about 2 or age 3. Boys and girls both wore skirts until they were toilet trained. Boys who were old enough to wear pants were considered ‘breeched’.
Babies were named after godparents or relatives. The most common names for girls were: Elizabeth, Ann, Mary, Margaret and Katherine. The most common boys’ names were Henry, Thomas, Edward, John, William and Robert. If a child died, his or her parents might give the next child born the same name.
Children were considered miniature versions of adults with no consideration for a child’s particular emotional, physical or spiritual needs out of infancy. Adolescence was not considered a special period in a child’s life. Parental authority tended to continue into early adulthood.
Young boys in middling and upper classes might go to grammar school, through their parents’ guilds or a local parish church. Instruction was largely through rote memorization, and discipline was notoriously strict. Schoolmasters were permitted to beat unruly students. Romeo says to Juliet, “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, But love from love, toward school with heavy looks”
Girls as a rule were not formally educated. Some girls born to wealthy parents might be taught to read and write English, Latin or French as Queen Elizabeth herself was.
Most girls, however, were taught the skills most necessary to be housewives and mothers. They learned to sew, collect and cultivate herbs for medicinal purposes, cook, clean and keep house, manage servants if necessary, and run a household.
Children from noble families were frequently sent to other noble households to be trained in etiquette, social graces and protocol. Young girls in service might learn to sing, play an instrument or dance. Queen Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting came from the most powerful and wealthy families in England.
After schooling, boys were typically apprenticed in a trade.
After seven years of apprenticeship, they could become a journeyman and work for wages. A few of the middling classes might attend University, like Edmund Spenser who wrote The Faerie Queene .
In England, inheritance followed the rule of primogeniture. Estate, lands, property, money, etc all went to the oldest male relative. If the oldest child was a girl, her younger brother would be the legal heir. Even Queen Elizabeth had to survive a younger brother Edward VI, AND an older sister before she could inherit the throne. Juliet’s father says of Juliet, “Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she; She’s the hopeful lady of my earth” – Lord Capulet means that all his other children, male and female, have died, and Juliet will inherit his estate.
In Shakespeare’s time, wealthy families arranged their children’s marriages. Poorer and middling class families had more freedom of choice for marriage partners. While a generation earlier it was uncommon to marry a partner for love, this was changing in 1594. Many parents might arrange a marriage, but children increasingly had the right to refuse a potential partner, and their opinion was solicited in the matter.
Both Lord and Lady Capulet want Juliet to be happy in her marriage. Lord Capulet says, “Woo her gentle Paris; get her heart. My will to her consent is but a part. And she agreed, within her scope of choice, lies my consent and fair according voice.” Lady Capulet suggests Paris to Juliet and asks her, “Can you love the gentleman?” Our young characters were not typical of their Elizabethan contemporaries. The average age of marriage for most English men and women was around 25. Marriage at Juliet’s age of 13 or 14 was almost unheard of in England. Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she was 26 and already more than 3 months pregnant.
When they got married, the bride promised to obey her husband. She did not wear white. Instead she wore her best dress, and exchanged rings with her groom. Sometimes brides were decorated with ears of wheat to encourage fertility in the marriage.
Wives and children belonged to their husbands and fathers.
The father was the head of the household and responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of his family.
Members of the nobility, royal court and gentry made up about 5% of the English population. The poorest of the poor such as beggars and vagrants, made up another 10%.
Thus, about 85% of the population worked as common farmers, craftsmen and laborers. If you were among this 80% of the population these were the probable facts of your life:
You rarely bathed, and if you did, it was no more than once a year. Bathing was thought to spread disease, not prevent it. You lost many of your teeth, if not most of them, by the time you were in your 40’s and 50’s. If a tooth bothered you, you could visit a barber and have it pulled, without painkillers or anesthesia.
You probably owned one or two outfits which you wore most everyday. Underneath your clothes, you would wear a linen garment called a shift. For boys it reached to their knees. For girls it was a little longer. You might wash this shift if you had another one to wear in its place.
Without baths or indoor plumbing, 1594 England was pretty stinky.
If you were fortunate enough to live in a house, you would have a chamber pot to urinate and defecate in. If you were luckier still, you would have a servant to empty it in the street outside your house for you. Otherwise, you might have to use a communal pit, called a public privy.
There was no legal drinking age in Elizabethan England. Taverns, pubs and alehouses were popular places for people to congregate, share a pint of ale and gossip or transact business. You might even be able to carry credit if the barmaid or tavern keeper knew and trusted you.
If you lived in London and had a rare afternoon free, you could attend a bear baiting in Southwarke,
visit a brothel,
or attend the theater. As we’ll discuss at length later, the theater was a particularly popular pastime for many Londoners from all walks of life. Since admission was as low as a penny for groundlings, the lowest level of the audience, going to the theater was something most people could do on occasion.
For entertainment you might play lawn bowls, a kind of bowling on grass, shuttlecock, even lawn tennis, backgammon or dice.
You would buy your food from vendors everyday if you lived in London. You would buy fresh bread, meat pies, eels, and other foods.
Before the Protestant Reformation, you could look forward to Saints Days, and holidays with some regularity. After the Reformation a day off was harder to come by, and limited to only a few times of year.
Market and Fair days were often the best and only form of entertainment for those of you living in rural towns and villages. At Fairs, you could wander the stalls looking for buttons, ribbons, elixirs and baubles, or watch traveling players and minstrels.
Fleas and lice were an unpleasant fact for everyone. Many people shaved their heads and wore wigs to fend off lice. Fleas were so common, that the famous poet John Donne wrote a love poem for a woman that involved sharing a flea between them.
Primarily because of the fleas and rats, people became sick of the plague most every year.
Even royalty was not immune. Ann Boleyn got sick with ‘sweating sickness’ or ‘The Sweat.’ Elizabeth herself contracted a mild case of smallpox.
Illness and disease were a constant presence and medicine was at best a crude and rudimentary field. Mortality rates were appalling for adults and children alike. The average lifespan was close to 40 years.
While Romeo and Juliet died in their teens, William Shakespeare lived to be a prosperous 52.
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, at age 70.
This last slide is an illustration of part of her funeral procession. Thank you. Are there any questions?