Topics so far –
The Renaissance in England: Part - I
The Great Age of Translations
The Great Age of Chronicles
The Glorious Age of Theatre
The University Wits and their Significance
Age of Patriotic Exaltation
The High Conception of Poetry
The Pioneers in Poetry
Pious and Reflective Poets
The Age of the Harshest Satire
The Age of the Prettiest ‘Euphuistic’ Prose
The Age of Literary Criticism
Philosophical Prose: Bacon &Burton
The Fertility of the Drama
Shakespeare – the crowning glory of the Age
The Beginnings of Literary Criticism
The Age of the Pamphleteers
Age of Translations
The Translations: Their Influence
The rich soil of the Elizabethan literature was fertilized by a deep layer of translations. By 1579 many of the great works of ancient and modern times had been translated into English. Practically, all the great books of the past and the present were brought under translation. Philemon Holland, the good humanist was called the ‘translator-general of his age’. He gave his country Livy (1600), Pliny the Elder (1601) and Plutarch’s Moral Writings (1603).
But the masterpiece of verse translation was incontestably Chapman’s Homer. Thanks to Chapman, the Iliad (1598-1609) became a great Elizabethan poem. Its energy and brilliancy were so powerful that it enthralled and inspired the young Keats two centuries later, who had no access to the original sources of Hellenism. Du Barthas was called the treasure of humanism and jewel of theology. His Semaines was translated vigorously between 1592 and 1606.
These translations from du Barthas and Homer became part of the treasure of Elizabethan verse, as the versions of Plutarch and Montaigne belong to the great prose. English style and prosody were formed by these countless translations, as the sonneteers were the most considerable of the borrowers.
Translation of The Bible
It was the question of translating the Bible which brought Sir Thomas More into direct conflict with William Tindale. Tindale, inspired greatly by Martin Luther, began translating the New Testament into English in 1522. As he was prevented from pursuing his work in England, where the king was still a defender of Catholic orthodoxy, he took refuge on the Continent, and had his translation printed in 1525. In spite of the measures taken by Henry VIII, it was introduced into England, where the ground had already been prepared by Wyclif. Tindale’s version of the New Testament was founded both on Luther’s translation, and on the Greek and Latin commentaries of Erasmus, which was the basis for the famous Authorised Version of 1611.
The Influence of the Bible: The English Bible has been a potent influence in our literature, Owing largely to their poetical or proverbial nature(multitudes of Biblical expressions have become woven into the very tissue of the tongue: "a broken reed," "the eleventh hour," "a thorn in the flesh," "a good Samaritan," "sweat of the brow," and so on'. More important, probably, is the way in which the style affects that of many of our greatest writers. Bunyan shows the style almost undiluted; but in the works of such widely diverse writers as Ruskin, Macaulay, Milton, and Tennyson the effects, though slighter, are quite apparent.
The Age of Chronicles
The patriotic impulse in England was responsible for the many chronicles, Protestant in spirit, which appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Edward Hall’s Chronicle (1548),
Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles published in 1578 and continued to 1586 were for long the reservoirs of national history, used by Spenser and Shakespeare among others.
John Stow’s Summarie of the English Chronicles,
John Speed’s History of Great Britain (1611), and
William Camden’s History of the Reign of Elizabeth were the other chronicles of the age.
THEATRE: The Reformation on the Stage
The reformation took possession of the morality play and used it for its own ends, and so protestant England saw protestant morality plays being performed every other day. The first of these was by the Scot Sir David Lindsay. His Satire of the Three Estates (1540) is both a political and a religious play. The three estates mentioned are the nobles, the clergy and the merchants, and all three are attacked for giving too much ear to sensuality, wantonness and deceit.
Bishop John Bale and John Heywood
The Protestants of England were also equally ferocious. Their most famous dramatic champion was Bishop JOHN BALE who even attempted to turn the fixed and traditional miracle plays to protestant uses. His famous dramatic essay is the allegory King JEHAN where he makes of the deplorable JOHN a great King, which was to leave its mark on Shakespeare’s King JOHN.
John Heywood’s Interludes / Farces: Heywood was a good Catholic and a friend of Thomas More. The four interludes that he wrote are controversies. In Witty and Witless, James and John discuss whether it is better to be a fool or a wise man.
In The Four P’s four characters, a Palmer, a Pardoner, a Potycary and a Pedlar, discuss which of them shall tell the biggest lie.
Elizabethan Drama: The opening of the Elizabethan period saw the drama struggling into maturity. The early type of the time was scholarly in tone and aristocratic in authorship. An example of the earliest type of playwright is Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628), who distinguished himself both as a dramatic and lyrical poet. Next came the work of the University Wits, Peele, Greene, Lodge, Kyd, and, greatest of all, Marlowe. In their hands drama first began to realize its latent potentialities, and the exuberance and vitality which typify Elizabethan drama first made themselves felt. To this stage succeeded that of Shakespeare, which covered approximately the years 1595 to 1615. Of this drama all we can say here is that it is the crown and flower of the Elizabethan literary achievement, and embodies almost the entire spirit both of drama and poetry.
The decline begins with Jonson, and continues with Beaumont and Fletcher, Dekker, Heywood, and the other dramatists mentioned in this chapter.
Comedy & Tragedy
The Classical Influence: Comedy
The first English comedy of the classical school was Ralph Roister Doister (1533) by Nicholas Udall, which followed the laws of the classical drama, a comedy in five acts, inspired by Latin comic plays.
Gammer Gurton’s Needle (1575) was written by William Stevenson. Gammer Gurton loses the needle with which she sews. The good for – nothing diccon persuades her that it has been stolen by her neighbour. The whole village is turned upside down. The parson intervenes, and Diccon takes advantage of the confusion to steal a ham.
The Classical Influence: Tragedy
Like the Italians and the French, the English were far more inspired by Seneca than by the Greek theatre. Seneca was a somewhat dangerous model, for he wrote oratorical tragedies. There is no action in his tragedies. His character’s speeches abound with maxims. Long monologues alternate within a single line.
In 1562, Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton produced the tragedy of Gorboduc, Or Ferrex And Porrex which was imitated from Seneca, which led to Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.
In 1575, George Gascoigne produced his Glass of Government. Each of these classical, neo-classical and Italian influences had its part in blazing the trail to the English national drama.
THE UNIVERSITY WITS
These young men, nearly all of whom were associated with Oxford and Cambridge, did much to found the Elizabethan school of drama. They were all more or less acquainted with each other, and most of them led irregular and stormy lives. Their plays had several features in common.
(a) There was a fondness for heroic themes
(b) Heroic themes needed heroic treatment: great fullness and variety; splendid descriptions, long swelling speeches, the handling of violent incidents and emotions.
(c) The style also was 'heroic'.
(d) The themes were usually tragic in nature, for the dramatists were as a rule too much in earnest to give heed to what was considered to be the lower species of comedy. The general lack of real humour in the early drama is one of its most prominent features. Humour, when it is brought in at all, is coarse and immature. Almost the only representative of the writers of real comedies is Lyly, who in such plays as Campaspe (1584), Endymion (1592), and The Woman in the Moone gives us the first examples of romantic comedy.
George Peele: His plays include The Araygnement of Paris (1584), a kind of romantic comedy; The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First (1593), a rambling chronicle-play; The Old Wives' Tale, a clever satire on the popular drama of the day; and The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe.
Robert Greene: His plays number four: Alphonsus, King of Aragon (1587), an imitation of Marlowe's Tamburlaine; Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay (1589), easily his best, and containing some fine representations of Elizabethan life; Orlando Furioso (1591), adapted from an English translation of Ariosto; and The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth, not a 'historical' play, but founded on an imaginary incident in the life of the King.
Thomas Nash: his only surviving play is Summer's Last Will and Testament (1592), a satirical masque. His The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jacke Wilton (1594), a prose tale, is important in the development of the novel
Thomas Lodge: He probably collaborated with Shakespeare in Henry VI, and with other dramatists, including Greene. The only surviving play entirely his own is The Woundes of Civile War, a kind of chronicle-play). His pamphleteering was voluminous and energetic. His prose romances constitute his greatest claim to fame. Though his prose is elaborate in the euphuistic style of Lyly, and the tales often tedious, they contain exquisite lyrics. The most famous of his romances is Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacie (1590), which Shakespeare followed very closely in the plot of As You Like It.
Thomas Kyd: He became acquainted with Marlowe, and that brilliant but sinister spirit enticed him into composing "lewd libels" and "blasphemies." Of the surviving plays The Spanish Tragedie (about 1585) is the most important. Its horrific plot, involving murder, frenzy, and sudden death, gave the play a great and lasting popularity. There is a largeness of tragical conception about the play that resembles the work of Marlowe, and there are touches of style that dimly foreshadow the great tragical lines of Shakespeare.
The only other surviving play known to be Kyd's is Cornelia (1593), a translation from the French Senecan, Garnier, but his hand has been sought in many plays including Soliman and Perseda (1588), the First Part of Jeronimo (1592), an attempt, after the success of The Spanish Tragedie, to write an introductory play to it, and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.
Christopher Marlowe: was the greatest of the pre-Shakespearian dramatists. Marlowe's plays, all tragedies, were written within five years (1587-92). He had no bent for comedy, and the comic parts found in some of his plays are always inferior and may be by other writers. Only in Edward II does he show any sense of plot construction, while his characterization is of the simplest, and lacks the warm humanity of Shakespeare's. All the plays, except Edward II, revolve around one figure drawn in bold outlines. In Tamburlaine the Great the shepherd seeks the "sweet fruition of an earthly crown," in The Jew of Malta Barabbas seeks "infinite riches in a little room," while the quest of Doctor Faustus is for more than human knowledge. Each of the plays has behind it the driving force of this vision, which gives it an artistic and poetic unity. It is, indeed, as a poet that Marlowe excels. Though not the first to use blank verse in English drama, he was the first to exploit its possibilities and make it supreme. His verse is notable for its burning energy, its splendour of diction, its sensuous richness, its variety of pace, and its responsivenes to the demands of varying emotions. Full of bold primary colours, his poetry is crammed with imagery from the classics, from astronomy and from geography, an imagery barbaric in its wealth and splendour. Its resonance and power led Ben Jonson to coin the phrase "Marlowe's mighty line," but its might has often obscured its technical precision and its admirable lucidity and finish. His blank verse is unequalled by any of his contemporaries except Shakespeare.
Tamburlaine the Great (1587), centred on one inhuman figure, is on a theme essentially undramatic, in that the plot allows no possibility. The Jew of Malta (1589) has two fine, economically handled opening acts, but deteriorates later when the second villain, Ithamore, enters. The play is also of interest as showing Marlowe's attention turning towards the conventional Machiavellian villain. Edward II (1591) shows the truest sense of the theatre of all his plays. Its plot is skilfully woven, and the material, neatly compressed from Holinshed's Chronicles, shows a sense of dramatic requirements new in his plays, and, indeed, in English historical drama. Doctor Faustus has a good beginning, and an ending which is Marlowe's supreme achievement. The play contains some interesting survivals of the miracle plays in the conversations of the Good and Evil Angels. The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage, in which Nash shared, and The Massacre at Paris (1593) was left unfinished.
Influence of Italianism
Elizabethan literature which came to be the expression of the national genius had its Birth in Italianism. The meeting between the English and the Italian spirit which had already enriched Chaucer’s poetry brought a wealth of splendor to sixteenth-century England.
Elizabeth, who was to name the great a period, had been 20 years on the throne before a definitive step had been taken, by two successive advances; one in 1578 while Drake was sailing round the world, the other in 1589, on the morrow of the Armada, by which England caught up with her continental rivals.
In the year 1578 appeared John Lyly’s Euphues and Spenser’s Shepheard’s Calendar, and all Sidney’s work, in verse and prose, was written at about the same time, although it was not published until after his death. The impulse for this production was derived from patriotism. It sprang from England’s growing consciousness of strength, her pride of prosperity, the spirit of adventure which animated her son’s and caused them always to aspire to the first place, and her faith in her own destiny.
The High Conception of Poetry
The love of letters had its beginning in the patriotic pride. England, which was nearly a whole century behindhand in maritime discovery, caught up with her rivals Spain, Portugal and France in one bound, striving to out distance and oust them. For the first time she was actuated by the spirit of imperialism.
In 1589, Richard Hakluyt published had his great work The Principal Navigations. In 1579 the puritan Stephen Gosson in his School of Abuse who had stigmatized poetry as a school of immorality, provoked Sidney’s eloquent response through his Apologie For Poetrie. Sidney recalls that to the Romans the poet was the Vates, the Diviner or prophet, and establishes his superiority over the historian and the philosopher. Spenser proclaims that heroes and famous poets are born together. He shows that civilization and poetry advance side by side.
Lyly, Sidney and Spenser were the three pioneers, who, about 1578, simultaneously, were initiators of the literature dedicated to beauty. John Lyly – the father of euphuism, is the first in date of the writers whose chief aspiration was to say a thing well. For a good dozen years the ‘euphuistic’ manner which he inaugurated resigned at court and spread through almost all literature. In 1578, at the age of 24, he published his famous Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit, a book filled with wise lessons and bristling with attacks on irreligion and immorality. His first prose work Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit (1578), made him one of the foremost figures of the day. He repeated the success with a second part, Euphues and his England (1580), in which he is prodigal of flattery to his country, its queen, its universities, and above all, its ladies. The work is a kind of travel romance, recounting the adventures of Euphues, a young Athenian.
Lyly has been justifiably called the first English novelist that is the first story teller who made it his business to paint society unromantically.
Sir Philip Sidney: Nothing he wrote was printed in his lifetime. But he was the first to constitute the complete type of a gentleman of culture. He was not only the perfect knight but also the lettered courtier. In his Apologie for Poetrie he revealed his ideal of noble and classical beauty in writing.
His Arcadia (1580) was written to please his sister the countess of Pembroke, from the time it was published, in 1590, it inculcated in a whole generation a taste for literary jewellery.
It is a pastoral, since it’s action take place almost entirely in the ideal Arcadia, whither king Basileus has retired and where he brings ups his daughters as shepherdesses. The country is the most delightful in the world, and its people the earth’s happiest inhabitants.
Astrophel and Stella: To express feelings which had some analogy with Petrarch’s, Sidney had recourse to the sonnet, which had been neglected in England since Surrey’s day. Within the narrow bounds of its fourteen lines he enshrined each movement of his heart, each incident of his love. She is Stella, his star, and he, the Astrophel enamoured of the star.
Edmund Spenser: Sidney patronized Spenser, introducing him to the Queen and encouraging him in hisimitation of the classical metres. The Shepheard’s Calendar (1579): In his Shepheard’s Calendar his humanist’s tastes combine with his love for the soil. The title, adopted from a popular compilation of the day, suggests the contents: a series of twelve eclogues, one for each month of the year . Each eclogue, as is common with the species, is in dialogue form, in which the stock pastoral characters, such as Cuddie, Colin Clout, and Perigot, take part. His Astrophel, an allegory of the life and death of Sir Philip Sidney, takes the pastoral form in order to transform and decorate reality.
Spenser’s ‘Amoretti’ and ‘Epithalamion’: Soon after his return to Ireland, in 1591, Spenser began his suit to Elizabeth Boyle, to whom are addressed the Amoretti sonnets and the superb Epithalamion concludes them. He also brought out a series of miscellaneous poems, including The Ruins of Time, The Tears of the Muses, Mother Hubberd's Tale, and The Ruins of Rome, which appeared in 1591; in 1595 he published his Amoretti, eighty-eight Petrarchan sonnets celebrating the progress of his love; Epithalamion, a magnificent ode, rapturously jubilant, written in honour of his marriage; and Colin Clout's come home Again, somewhat wordy, but containing some interesting personal details. In 1596 appeared his Four Hymns and Prothalamion, the latter not so fine as the great ode of the previous year.
In addition to his letters, which are often interesting and informative, Spenser left one longish prose work, a kind of State paper done in the form of a dialogue. Called A View of the Present State of Ireland (1594), it gives Spenser's views on the settlement of the Irish question.
The Faerie Queene: Even without The Faerie Queene, the beauty and the bulk of Spenser’s work would have assured him the first place among Elizabethans. Yet it was The Faerie Queene which was his masterpiece. He worked at it for 20 years, and left it unfinished at his death. It was his own supreme ambition and the supreme pride of England which confidently pitted this poem against the most famous epics of ancient and modern times.
The construction of the plot is so obscure (‘clowdily enwrapped in Allegorical devises,’ as Spenser himself says) that he was compelled to write a preface, in the form of a letter to his friend Sir Walter Raleigh, explaining the scheme underlying the whole. There were to be twelve books, each book to deal with the adventures of a particular knight, who was to represent some virtue. As we have the poem, the first book deals with the Knight of the Red Cross, representing Holiness; the second with Temperance; the third with Chastity; the fourth with Friendship; and so on. The chief of all the twelve is Prince Arthur, who is to appear at critical moments in the poem, and who in the end is to marry Gloriana, the Queen of ‘Faerie-lande’. The plot is exceedingly leisurely and elaborate; it is crammed with incident and digression; and by the fifth book it is palpably weakening. It is therefore no misfortune (as far as the plot is concerned) that only half of the story is finished.
Lastly, there is the strongly Elizabethan political-historical-religious element, also strongly allegorized. For example, Gloriana is Elizabeth, Duessa may be Mary, Queen of Scots.
Other Elizabethan Poetry From 1590-1603
Outside the theatre, almost all the literature of the Elizabethan period down to 1603 derived from Lyly, Sidney and Spenser. Romances bore the imprint of Euphues and Arcadia, while pastorals imitated from Spenser or Sidney.
Daniel & Drayton
Patriotism was Daniel’s dominant feeling and it led him to devote his capital effort to the history of his country. His chief work is The Civil Wars.
Drayton’s career runs parallel to that of Daniel but it is the antithesis of Daniel’s poetry. He is famous for The Baron’s War, a collection of historical poetry. He made his real beginning with Idea, The Shepherd’s Garland (1593) which was inspired by Spenser.
Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and “The Rape of Lurece.’’ Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis which he calls the ‘first heir of my invention’ was written at the same time as Hero and Leander. It was lovingly chiseled and was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, his young and noble patron.
Pious and Reflective Poets
Southwell and Sylvester
Robert Southwell, the Catholic poet gave an antidote to the erotic stanzas of Venus and Adonis. He was martyrd but left behind him verses which are the most religious of his generation. His other poems written in prison are: St. Peter’s Complaint, The Burning Babe etc. Joshua Sylvester also published copious renderings of the verses of the French poet, du Bartas.
Sir John and Davis of Hereford: Southwell stands alone in his piety. Only a generation after him did the example of du Bartas give rise to a truly Christian poetry. John Davies wrote many poems on theological and philosophical subjects. His Orchestra, or a Poeme on Dancing (1596) is famous for its unique Elizabethan inventiveness.
Next: Renaissance in England - Part - II
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae
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