A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History At The Time The Plays Were Written
Society in Shakespeare's time consisted of a strict social order, developing religious and political systems, and quirky antecedent reminders of period perceptions. Social hierarchy dictated ones position in life throughout England. Individuals fell into one of four castes: gentlemen, citizens/burgesses, yeomen, and artificers/labourers.  While structured, the population also experienced great expansion. Between 1550 and 1600, London alone grew from a population of 12,000 to 200,000 and, ‘All are as busy as country attorneys at assizes.’  To sustain such a population, one account states that food has to be more abundant upon English tables on account of the cold northern climate that necessitated more nourishment to maintain 'warmer stomachs'. 
Renaissance Europe promoted education but with a grain of salt. Francis Bacon wrote that too much study might be taken as sloth and studies were a delight to be tasted and tested but not indulged upon.  William Harrison, in 1587, published The Description of England wherein he detailed the entire history and composition of historical and contemporary England, but only after examining the question of whether giants had once lived there! Harrison concluded that the giants met their fate ‘because they had no wisdome, and perished through their owne foolishnesse.’ 
Politically, the seriousness of several events far eclipsed the study of England’s ancient giants. The Reformation had only just subsided. Elizabeth reigned unmarried and without an heir for 45 years. Without a male heir the same secession crisis that brought her to the throne hung over her entire reign. In 1588 the Spanish, powerful and rich from their New World exploits, attempted to invade England and were repulsed in the English Channel. English privateers sanctioned by Elizabeth preyed upon the Spanish treasure galleys returning from the Americas laden with New World riches. 1603, the year of Elizabeth’s death, also marked a plague epidemic in London which killed tens of thousands.
Upon Elizabeth’s death, James VI of Scotland became James I of a united England and Scotland. James was not without his critics and some reactions to his policies were extreme, such as the Catholic led Gunpowder Plot (1605). At the same time Britain was expanding its New World interests by establishing colonies such as Jamestown (1607) and slowly challenging the powerful Spanish trading dynasty in America. The British East India Company (established 1600) became the largest and one of the most successful British overseas venture for the next two and a half centuries.
Plays and open air entertainments were hugely popular with people fom all walks of life, from commoners to monarchs, both Queen Elizabeth and King James being supporters of the artform. Plays were performed along with music, dance and exotic animal fights in an increasing number of purpose built open theatres. 
Thus into a world of rigid class distinctions, religious conflict, high seas adventures, deadly diseases, belief in giants and more, Shakespeare introduced his plays. His works were history, information, political statements and popular media combining all facets of the surrounding world and society to present an entertaining and profitable theatrical experience.
1. William Harrison, Description of England (1587), p. 156. Return to text
6. Described by Paul Hentzner, Travels in England (1598, pub. 1757). reprinted in: Pritchard, p. 199. Return to text
Harrison, William. The Firfst and fscond volumes of Chronicles, comprifing 1 The defcription and hiftorie of England, 2 The defcription and hiftorie of Ireland, 3 The defscription and hifstorie of Scotland. (London: 1587)
Kermode, Frank. The Age of Shakespeare. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004)
Pritchard, R.E., ed. Shakespeare’s England: Life in Elizabethan & Jacobean Times. (Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1999, 2003)