The age of Shakespeare was a great time in English history. The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) saw England emerge as the leading naval and commercial power of the Western world. England consolidated its position with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and Elizabeth firmly established the Church of England begun by her father, King Henry VIII (following Henry's dispute with the Pope over having his first marriage annulled).
Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world and became the most celebrated English sea captain of his generation. Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh sent colonists eastward in search of profit. European wars brought an influx of continental refugees into England, exposing the Englishman to new cultures. In trade, might, and art, England established an envious preeminence.
At this time, London was the heart of England, reflecting all the vibrant qualities of the Elizabethan Age. This atmosphere made London a leading center of culture as well as commerce. Its dramatists and poets were among the leading literary artists of the day. In this heady environment, Shakespeare lived and wrote.
London in the 16th century underwent a transformation. Its population grew 400% during the 1500s, swelling to nearly 200,000 people in the city proper and outlying region by the time an immigrant from Stratford came to town. A rising merchant middle class carved out a productive livelihood, and the economy boomed.
In the 1580s, the writings of the University Wits (Marlowe, Greene, Lyly, Kyd, and Peele) defined the London theatre. Though grounded in medieval and Jacobean roots, these men produced new dramas and comedies using Marlowe's styling of blank verse. Shakespeare outdid them all; he combined the best traits of Elizabethan drama with classical sources, enriching the admixture with his imagination and wit.
- Shakespeare's Peers: English Renaissance Playwrights
- Shakespeare was hardly the only working playwright in London back in the day. Here's a quick guide to his competition.
- British History Online
- Digital library containing some of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and modern history of the British Isles. Created by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust.
- Description Of Elizabethan England, 1577
- The Modern History Sourcebook presents William Harrison's contribution to Holinshed's Chronicles. Arguably one of the best contemporary accounts of life in Elizabethan England.
- Elizabeth I: An Overview
- The BBC presents a very good history of Elizabeth I as part of their online "Church and State" series.
- Elizabeth I: British Monarchs
- Britannia.com's encyclopedic entry of Elizabeth I and her reign. A good site to know, as you can also get information to other English monarchs about whom the Bard wrote.
- Elizabeth I and Elizabethan life in England
- An article on architecture, literature, and daily life in Elizabethan England. From the Britain Express site.
- The Elizabethan's Hornbook
- The Web version of Walter Nelson's fine handbook, this is a basic primer on the historical background that a participant in an Elizabethan Renaissance Faire should know or have at hand.
- Internet Shakespeare Editions
- Michael Best of the University of Victoria has assembled an impressive collection of Web resources on Shakespeare.
- Life in Elizabethan England: A Compendium of Common Knowledge:1558–1603
- This is just an incredible site by Maggie Secara and Paula Kate Marmor. More information than you could wish for about everyday life in Shakespeare's time.
- The Royal Encyclopædia: Elizabeth I
- From the official Web site of the British monarchy. This is an excellently presented resource on the kings and queens of Britain, Scotland, and the UK from the original Anglo-Saxon kings to present day.
- Sixteenth Century Renaissance English Literature: Background Information
- Links to background information sources for studies in Renaissance English literature. Includes a lot of historical sites.
- St. Ives Historical Society
- This nonprofit California association has a number of good essays on Elizabethan life.
- Tudor England
- A fine site by Lara E. Eakins that comprehensively covers every conceivable historical aspect of Tudor/Elizabethan England.
- United Kingdom National Archives
- The official archive of the UK government. The National Archive's vision is to lead and transform information management, guarantee the survival of today's information for tomorrow and bring history to life for everyone.