Elizabethan Literature

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Elizabethan Literature

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Elizabethan Literature

The Elizabethan Age, also known as the English Renaissance, encompassed the reign of Queen Elizabeth I from 1558 to 1603. During the latter part of the sixteenth century and the early part of the seventeenth century, literature was plentiful in the forms of poetry, dramas, plays, and prose. Some individuals cite Queen Elizabeth's love for the arts as the reason literature became so popular during this time. Another factor was likely the invention of the printing press in 1476, making literature more accessible to the growing, affluent middle class.

This historic period introduced the world to such great writers as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Sonnets, Spenserian stanzas, and blank verse began during these years—styles that would influence writers throughout the world. Although early Elizabethan literature was written in Latin, English soon became the preferred language of expression. The arts were thriving, but there were other historic events that helped to define England during these years, too.

Historical Events

With Queen Elizabeth's ascension to the throne came a number of important milestones, the first being the circumnavigation of the globe by Sir Francis Drake from 1577 to 1580. Not long after, in 1588, England defeated the Spanish Armada and proved itself to be a leading naval power, a reputation that would last for quite some time. As England began a new century, it led the world in international trade and was at the forefront of the colonization race. It was during this time that the queen helped to secure and establish the Church of England.

London was the center of it all. From culture to finance, people flocked to the city to enjoy the booming economy. Nationalism was on the rise and there was growth in cultural development. At the heart of it all was Elizabethan literature.

Literary Themes

Many themes are found throughout Elizabethan literature. Everything from religion to politics to interpersonal interactions inspired and fueled authors' works during this golden age of literature. The success of the British Empire at this time also helped to infuse the art of the era with a sense of vitality. This spirit can also be seen in the incorporation of the theme of romance throughout much of Elizabethan literature. Romantic love is a topic that is dealt with in a number of plays, poems, and prose works. The passionate feelings that often accompany this subject were dealt with in a number of ways by different authors. Some portrayals of romantic love were tragic and star crossed, as in Romeo and Juliet, while others were playful and filled with humor, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream. This sense of romance was felt even in works that were not explicitly romantic in nature.

Key Figures and Works

A plethora of artists expressed themselves during this era, but some, like Richard Hooker, left marks that would continue to influence the world hundreds of years later. Hooker, an Anglican theologian, wroteOf the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, an eight-volume work written in about 1594 that both explains and defends the concept of Anglican religion. This was and still is such an important piece that seminaries all over the world require students to read it.

The Faerie Queene is Edmund Spenser's major contribution to Elizabethan literature. This long symbolic work ties in to the legend of King Arthur; however, it goes beyond just the story of the King. Spenser's epic poem also ties in to the concept of Christian values.The Faerie Queene, written in what came to be known as the Spenserian stanza, is still the longest epic poem in the English language. This work of poetry, begun around 1580, defined the age and influenced some of the world's greatest writers.

Sir Philip Sidney brought the Italian sonnet form to the people of England. Among his other accomplishments, Sidney wrote The Defence of Poesie, a work of literary criticism published posthumously in 1595 that helped to explain the thinking of the era. Controversial in topic, The Defence of Poesie stresses the importance of art and even goes so far as to state that poetry is more effective than history or philosophy in inspiring virtue in its readers.

Another famous author, Christopher Marlowe, wrote Doctor Faustus, a work that many would question based on its intertwining of religion and morality. In Dr. Faustus, which was named and based on a German legend, the main character learns all he possibly can. He is a theologian, an orator, a master scientist, a politician, and a tactician; however, he still feels incomplete and searches for more knowledge. Faustus makes a deal with the devil and, in giving up his soul, gains infinite knowledge. Doctor Faustus,written about 1592, may be Marlowe's best-known work; however, he is also credited with the invention of blank verse, a type of poetry that is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter. His poems, like "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," help to explore the common theme of "invitation-to-love," seen in quite a few Elizabethan pieces, including Shakespeare's Othello. Marlowe died young, but many reports compare his writing to that of Shakespeare; some scholars even say that if Marlowe had lived longer, Shakespeare may not have become the face of Elizabethan literature.

Shakespeare and His Globe

William Shakespeare was not the only writer during the Elizabethan Age, but he is the most well known—the face that most people picture when they think of British literature. He influenced writers in his own time and his presence continues to be felt today.

Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. His education is unknown, but he may have attended a free school. On November 28, 1582, he married Anne Hathaway, an older woman who was rumored to be pregnant with Shakespeare's first child. In 1592 Shakespeare moved to London. Soon after, his writing and theater career began. By 1594 he was working for Lord Chamberlain's Men, a popular London theater troop. He wrote, sold, and saw many of his plays performed during his life, something few authors of the day had the privilege of doing. In 1611 Shakespeare retired to Stratford. Circumstances surrounding Shakespeare's death are unknown; however, rumors lead historians to believe that he may have died on his birthday, April 23, 1616. Shakespeare was buried on April 25 of that same year.

Shakespeare's works can be broken down into the following categories: comedies, histories, tragedies, romances, and poetry. Also known for his numbered sonnets, Shakespeare wrote about the common Elizabethan themes of beauty, mortality, politics, and love—themes also prevalent throughout his plays. His histories, for example, focus on the politics of the time and retell, in Shakespeare's words, the stories of Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III, just to name a few. Romances, like The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, deal with the topic of love. Shakespeare, however, is best known for his tragedies, his comedies, and his tragicomedies. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Taming of the Shrew are some of his most well-known and often-studied works.

If Shakespeare is known for his writing, then he is equally famous for his theatre—the Globe. After his theatre company was no longer able to perform at a certain location because of an expired lease, it constructed the Globe in London's Bankside District in 1598. The Globe was one of four major theatres in the area, but by far the best known. Few specifics about this structure are known except that it was open-air, octagonal, and three stories high. The stage was rectangular and may have had trap doors and overhead riggings. All of the plays were performed in the afternoon, so lighting was not an issue. The Globe could hold approximately three thousand spectators. Patrons bought seats according to their status. The best seats were in lord rooms near the stage, but most affluent individuals could pay three pennies to sit higher up in choice locations. For two pennies, theatergoers could sit or stand in the gallery. Those who could only afford to pay one penny stood in a courtyard. The Globe thrived until it burned down in 1613. Soon after, a new Globe was constructed and was in use until the Puritans closed it in 1642.

Still Relevant

In 1989 foundations for the Globe Theatre were rediscovered, and by 1993, construction on a new structure was under way. Another Globe Theatre opened near the original spot on June 12, 1997—almost four hundred years after its first incarnation—with a performance of Shakespeare's Henry V. Today, plays continue to be performed in this environment.

Centuries later, Elizabethan literature remains relevant. From seminary students trying to decipher the deeper meaning of Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to modern poets writing in free verse to visitors of the Globe Theatre watching Macbeth as it was originally performed, this historic era lives on.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning.

Source Citation

"Elizabethan Literature." Gale Student Resources in Context. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. 2 Sep. 2012.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2181500178

Literature produced during the reign of Elizabeth I of England (1558–1603). This period saw a remarkable growth of the arts in England, and the literature of the time is characterized by a new energy, originality, and confidence. Renaissance humanism, Protestant zeal, and geographical and scientific discovery all contributed to this upsurge of creative power. Drama was the dominant form of the age, and the plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were popular with all levels of society. Other writers of the period include Edmund Spenser, and Philip Sidney. See also English literature.

Elizabethan drama broke away from religious domination, which was the major focus of the medieval mystery play and morality play. Elizabethan drama often used poetical metre (rhythm) for its dialogue, especially the five-foot iambic pentameter (pairs of syllables: unstressed followed by stressed). Both Shakespeare and Marlowe often used controversial subjects for their drama, including the question of political power (in Marlowe's Tamberlaine the Great (two parts; 1587–88) and Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606), for example). Other, lesser playwrights wrote in a similar style to Shakespeare and Marlowe; The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1590) by Thomas Kyd is sometimes said to have been an influence upon Shakespeare's Hamlet (1601–02). As the Jacobean period commences, the content of the drama darkens appreciably, and the plays of dramatists such as John Webster are more overtly violent than those of the Elizabethan period, in which (although there are exceptions to this) violent action is often psychological and usually takes place offstage.

The attractions of the theatre should not obscure the quite different work being done by writers such as Edmund Spenser, who developed lengthy pastoral verse (treating rural life with nostalgia) in English (The Faerie Queene, 1590–96) and Sir Philip Sidney who incorporated pastoral verse and themes into his work of verse and prose fiction Acardia (1590) and who began a type of literary theory in his Apologie for Poetry (1595), in which he defined the role of the poet in society. John Lyly was another Elizabethan dramatist and author who contributed to the wide variety of literature available to an increasingly literate public (possibly half the population had minimal literacy by 1600).

© RM 2012. Helicon Publishing is division of RM.



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