History, Department of


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Published as “Chapter 10” in A Concise Companion to English Renaissance Literature, edited by Donna B. Hamilton (Malden, Mass. & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 200–216. Copyright © 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Used by permission.


When we think of the London and England of Shakespeare and Elizabeth I, traditionally we have assumed a fairly homogeneous society. But more recently scholars have recognized that England, and especially the London of early modern England, was instead a truly heterogeneous place, as was the Edinburgh of early modern Scotland. In early modern British cities, there was a wide range of peoples of different statuses and backgrounds. This chapter discusses the actual lives of those somehow perceived as different, attitudes about them, and how these attitudes were reflected in the drama of the time, especially in the works of Shakespeare. One issue I examine is representations of parents and children among those perceived as deeply different. I also look at one of the ways those who were “other” were viewed as less human by the English: in their ability to make and appreciate music.

Those on the margins of Elizabethan England, especially Jews and Africans, were often feared and despised. The characterizations of members of these groups on stage both reflected and reinforced these attitudes. While in plays such as The Battle of Alcazar and The Jew of Malta the African and the Jew were unmitigated villains, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice there are more glimpses of humanity in Aaron and Shylock. One way those in Elizabeth England demonstrated their sense of superiority over those others in a frightening and changing society was their belief they could appreciate music, that they had music in themselves. But clearly this internal music did little to make the dominant English treat those who were different, “other,” in more humane, and human, terms.

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