In Tudor England, Latin was the language of all official functions. It was the language of the church, the colleges, and the government. It was the language of the distinguished, the educated and the important. English, on the other hand, was spoken only in the vernacular, and could be mastered by any uneducated commoner. Language, as much as land ownership, stratified English classes.
But during Elizabeth I’s reign something remarkable happened. The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press (over a century earlier) had made it possible to mass produce works of literature and scholarship. As often happens, market followed invention.
Until Gutenberg’s press, most Europeans were illiterate and had no need for books. But enlightenment slowly crept across the continent, and eventually landed on English shores. Successful trade developments during Henry VIII’s reign had created a prospering middle class in England –– a more educated class with the time and desire to read.
More importantly, the English language was becoming respectable. During the Reformation Henry VIII had ordered that all Bibles in his dominion be printed in English, and masses be recited in English. This official blessing of the King—and the church––gave the language a certain legitimacy. If it was good enough for the Bible, it was good enough for the British.
For the first time, people were being spoken to in their own language. If a certain mystery disappeared, a genuine intellectual curiosity followed. The English were beginning to understand God’s world, and they were determined to discover their own. Minds were awakening, and words—English words––were opening the frontiers. Literature, theology, scholarship…ideas and intellectual thought that had been inaccessible and impenetrable just a generation before were now open to anyone who could learn to read.
In his book, Shakespeare, The World as Stage, Bill Bryson makes note of this statement by Stanley Wells, “It is telling that William Shakespeare’s birth is recorded in Latin but that he dies in English, ‘William Shakespeare, Gentleman.’”
English, as we know it, was being invented. And it was in capable hands, not the least of which was William Shakespeare.