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Session 1: Elizabethan Literature, Art and Thought

(Summary extracted from The Reign of Elizabeth, J.B. Black, The Oxford
History of England).

The sixteenth century in England seems to be a time and place specially

rewarding for the men of action. However, the countless adventures on land and
sea that made England respected and feared, and opened up the world to English
enterprise, produced an exaltation of the soul which the poet and the philosopher,
through their genius, transmuted into the field of writing, producing some of the
most beautiful and enduring works of literature. Like Drake and Cavendish,
Shakespeare and Bacon also circumnavigated the earth and grew rich with their
findings, even if they were purely virtual, intellectual…
One feels that the literature produced during this period is more universal
in its appeal than at any other period, which makes us wonder whether the great
literature of an age is necessarily a mirror of its history. Because if it is too
localistic and parochial, it will diminish its universal appeal. We will see that
even if the literature of the later sixteenth century has much to say of
contemporary life in its social aspect, politics is introduced in a more indirect
manner. Politics and literature do not seem to come together as much as, at least
in the same way it interconnects in modern writing. Some critics consider that the
Elizabethans were non-political in their writing, that writers as well as the
multitude in the streets were not really interested in the struggle for power in the
political arena. This is not completely true, as we will see in Shakespeare’s
historical plays, but it is quite descriptive since it is often difficult to find political
allusions in Elizabethan texts.
If Elizabethans in general were not too interested in the political
manouverings of their men of power, they cannot be called evasive or romantic
in their tastes either. The age of Elizabeth was an age of optimism, of experiment,
of constructive achievement. So the present was really full of interest for men of
This period, then, which we call “Elizabethan” as applied to literature does
not coincide in scope with the beginning and ending of Elizabeth’s reign. It refers
to a period of time stretching from about the end of the second decade of that
reign to almost the closing years of her successor’s. When Elizabeth died the
greatest of Shakespeare’s plays were still unwritten, and the dramatists who stand
nearest him in the quality of their work – Middleton, Webster, Beaumont and
Fletcher, Ford and Rowley- were still in their teens. Of the better known authors
only five, among them Sidney, Marlowe and Spenser, ended their lives within the
confines of her reign, so we claim a poetic licence when we speak of Elizabethan
literature, since we will continue our study well into Jacobean times.

It is difficult to describe everything that was written or thought at such a

prolific time, so let us just review some of the themes that were most in fashion.
In the first place there was a colossal amount of printed matter connected to
patriotism: such as biographical, historical and geographical works. The best
historians of this time were Bacon, Candem and Daniel (thanks to their works:
History of Henry VII, Annales…Regnante Elizabetha, History of England,
respectively).Very famous as well was Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations,
Voyages, Traffics, and Discoveries of the English Nation. These massive works
were not simply a reflection of the growing patriotism but they were also inspired
by the conviction that history repeats itself, and therefore one can extract from
history a lot of useful information to apply in the present and future. History was
written in verse as well as prose; for the popularity of verse at this period was
greater (can you imagine reading a history book of today in verse?). The Mirror
for Magistrates, a composite work by many hands and based upon Lydgate’s
Fall of Princes, became the reservoir of England’s tragic history. The great
importance of these works lies not so much in their literary value (which is rather
scarce), but in their immense popularity at the time.
An underlying function of these historical accounts is the development of
the “Tudor Myth”. The Tudor monarchs wanted to stabilize the dynasty and to
prevent a revolution they began to foster the fanciful tale that the Tudor
monarchy rested in lineal descent all the way to Cadwallader, the last of the old
British kings; and they added to this tale the myth that king Arthur would one day
return, thereby creating the idea that the first Tudor was king Arthur resurrected.
This cult of Arthur seems to run like a refrain through the whole period, applying
also to Queen Elizabeth, who seemed to be the embodiment of Merlin’s
Side by side this new interest in the history and geography of the nation
came a movement for the study of the English language and literature.
Manifestoes, treaties, on orthography and pronunciation, the superiority of the
English over all languages, of the need for purity in the use of English, were
printed one after the other. Crazy theories were defended, such as Gascoigne’s,
who defended that “The most English words are of one syllable: so that the more
monosyllables that you use, the truer Englishman you shall seem.”
Their national pride did not hinder the Elizabethans from becoming
interested in the history and literature of other nations. Actually during this time
of the Renaissance, translators looted the classics, translating into English the
works of Ancient Greece and Italy. Modern French and Spanish literature was
also translated. But the foreign literature that was most popular among the
English was the Italian: Boccaccio, Tasso, Machiavelli, the tales of contemporary
Italian writers provided the dramatist with content for their comedies.
When we proceed to present the core of Elizabethan literature, selection
becomes more difficult. The genre of poetry was omnipresent, the sonnet and the
ballad being the most popular forms. The aristocratic form of the sonnet was
specially used for love poetry (but except for the sonnets of Shakespeare, Sidney
and Spenser, they seemed to communicate not true emotion but a purely artificial
one dedicated to a goddess, so many sonnets where full of Dianas, Delias,
Corinnas, Auroras, etc.), whereas the popular ballad was used to move the hearts
of the multitude telling the exploits and sufferings of famous heroes like Robin
Hood or the Earl of Essex.
The development of prose as an instrument of literary expression must be
regarded as one of the minor triumphs of the age, even though the writers that
took part in it where often overshadowed by the genius of those who indulged in
the more popular form of poetry. However, little improvements were made to
advance the use of prose. Their didactic tales where often used by dramatists as
the bases for their plays. But the separation between themes and topics found fit
for each genre was still not very clear. Writers began to see the descriptive
powers of prose and its potential for satirical and realist writing (books were
written describing the underworld of London urban life with its thieves,
swindlers, and loose women. Greene was a precursor of this type of prose and his
work Pandosto supplied Shakespeare with his plot for A Winter’s Tale.
Of all the genres, drama is the crowning achievement of Elizabeth
England in the field of literature. More than any other creation, drama gathered
up and expressed the emotional and intellectual life of the age in every
dimension. So we make open a parenthesis here, since this will be the topic for
our whole course, and we continue with other fields of knowledge.
With respect to the fine arts (painting, sculpture, architecture…) we have
to admit that Elizabethan England did not manage to develop a truly national
tradition. In painting, except for the miniature work of Nicholas Hilliard and
Isaac Oliver, there was no native school of painting. In regard to sculpture and
architecture the same general criticism applies. There are no English creative
minds to match the great masters of the Continent. However, when we turn from
public buildings to private, a different picture presents itself. The glory of
Elizabethan England lies depicted for us in the magnificent dwelling houses. The
palaces and manor houses which were raising all over the country were a blend
between classical models and traditional designs, and the outcome was very
In the field of music, England was highly developed, with many great
masters of both sacred and secular music. In the realm of physical science the age
of Elizabeth coincides with the beginnings of a great revolution in human
thought, traceable, in the first place, to the Polish astronomer Copernicus, who
introduced the scientific world to a new cosmic system based upon observation,
calculation, and deduction. Copernicus was, in fact, the Columbus of the
heavens. His investigations into the movements of celestial bodies exercised an
influence on astronomical thought comparable to that which the unveiling of the
Atlantic and the discovery of America exercised on geography. For over 1400
years Ptolemy, with his conception of a geocentric universe had been the
canonical book for astronomers. It is important to note, however, that knowledge
of the scientific progress of the period was confined to a very small group of
enthusiasts. The lay mind was slow to accept the changes. “Come,
Mephistopheles, let us dispute again, and argue of divine Astrology”, says Dr.
Faustus in Marlowe’s play, and Mephistopheles replies with a disquisition based
on Ptolemaic astrology.
Side by side with this persistent belief in the old cosmic order there
existed a conviction that the heavenly bodies exercised a profound influence on
human affairs. Moreover, Elizabethan England was full of superstitious beliefs
regarding all sorts of supernatural entities; fairies, witches, elves. Even though,
little by little, the authorities became less willing to exercise their power against
those accused of witchcraft.