Elizabethan, Jacobean, Renaissance, early modern—what huh when who?

I hope you all had a chance to indulge in some celebratory birthday cake for dear Shakespeare last Thursday—I certainly went for it, and had three servings of cake (I figured it was my duty as a professional Shakespeare fangirl to om nom nom on his behalf). While we’re at it, here’s one of the cakes I had, with some theme-appropriate roses:

Happy birthday, Shakespeare--I'll eat all the cake on your behalf!

Happy birthday, Shakespeare–I’ll eat all the cake on your behalf!

Okay, so those of you non-Shakespeareans who haven’t seen Shakespeare in Love might be thinking, “What’s so special about roses?” Well, first and foremost, I highly recommend you go see the film—the music is sublime, as is Joseph Fiennes in a perpetually half-open shirt.

Will and his quill.

Will and his quill.

Uh, yes, back to the significance of roses—or, rather, of the Rose. The Rose was an Elizabethan theatre built in 1587 where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed, and is thought to be the first public playhouse to stage his work. However, the Rose began to suffer when The Globe Theatre was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s own “playing company” (the term for a Renaissance theatre group), which was then called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (and was later renamed the King’s Men during the Jacobean period). And so, the Rose had to close soon after, but with the recently renewed interest and development of other early modern theatres, parts of the theatre site have been reopened to the public.

I’m not sure if you noticed, but I used several terms in that previous paragraph that might’ve had you scratching your head. If you weren’t able to distinguish amongst “Elizabethan”, “Renaissance”, “Jacobean”, and “early modern”, then you’re in good company—I was very confused and clueless when I first started working on Shakespeare! Many people use these terms interchangeably (and sometimes incorrectly), so now’s a good time to define and clarify.

  • Elizabethan: Used to denote the era of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558–1603). These are the only years that fall under the term “Elizabethan”—any earlier or later, and it’ll be something else! A lot of people default to the “Elizabethan era” when they talk about Shakespeare because many of his plays were written during her reign—but some of them aren’t, so be careful with this one!
  • Jacobean: Used to denote the era of King James I’s reign in England (1603–1625). Talking about King James can cause a bit of confusion because he was King James VI of Scotland (1567–1625) before he succeeded the English crown on 24 March 1603. Many of Shakespeare’s famous, later plays were written during this period, and it’ll be definitely incorrect to refer to those as “Elizabethan”. I’m certainly guilty of this misnomer: I’m pretty sure when I was in Year 10, my essays on Macbeth (estimated to be written in 1606) were all about how Lady Macbeth didn’t behave like an Elizabethan woman. (I should probably write a letter of apology to that teacher…)
  • Renaissance: This one’s a little trickier. The “Renaissance” is a term used for the period of cultural “revival” and “rebirth” in Europe, which started in Italy in the 14th This revival basically consisted of renewed interest in art, literature, philosophy, and other awesome things from the “classical” period dating back to ancient Greece and Rome. Typically, the English Renaissance is thought to span the late 15th to early 17th century. Because the term “Renaissance” (with a capital “R”) carries connotations of elitism, some scholars tend to stay away from it, preferring “early modern” instead.
  • Early modern: Unlike the past-focused Renaissance, the ideas associated with the “early modern” have a primarily forward movement and anticipate the modern era. Like the Renaissance, there are no clear-cut dates, and only suggestions: the beginning might be marked by the invention of European moveable type printing at around 1450, or the start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517; the end is often marked by the storming of the Bastille in 1789, which itself marked the beginning of the French Revolution. In any case, when talking about Shakespeare, it’s possible to use “Renaissance” and “early modern” interchangeably, depending on the context and what you want to emphasise. (Unless the occasion really calls for it, I prefer “Renaissance” because I’m an old-fashioned swot who gushes over Aristotle and Cicero in her spare time.)

And so now we’ve demystified these four key terms! I believe some more Joseph Fiennes is in order. ;)

Whatever you say, Master Shakespeare.

Whatever you say, Master Shakespeare.

I’m going to see a Globe on Screen production of Julius Caesar tonight, and depending on how strongly I feel afterwards, my next post might be a mini review of that. In my next (next?) post, however, I’ll talk a little about Renaissance theatre practices and the massive changes in perceptions of “high” and “low” culture in relation to Shakespeare—and I’ll be throwing in some current popular culture references, too, so watch out for those! :D


Have you used some of these terms incorrectly before? Do you have any questions/challenges about these definitions I’ve provided? Please let me know—I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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