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Outlines of English and American Literature
The Elizabethan Age (1550-1620)
by Long, William J.

  This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
  This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
  This other Eden, demi-paradise,
  This fortress built by Nature for herself
  Against infection and the hand of war,
  This happy breed of men, this little world,
  This precious stone set in the silver sea, ...
  This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England!

                        Shakespeare, King Richard II

Historical Background

In such triumphant lines, falling from the lips of that old imperialist John of Gaunt, did Shakespeare reflect, not the rebellious spirit of the age of Richard II, but the boundless enthusiasm of his own times, when the defeat of Spain's mighty Armada had left England "in splendid isolation," unchallenged mistress of her own realm and of the encircling sea. For it was in the latter part of Elizabeth's reign that England found herself as a nation, and became conscious of her destiny as a world empire.

There is another and darker side to the political shield, but the student of literature is not concerned with it. We are to remember the patriotic enthusiasm of the age, overlooking the frequent despotism of "good Queen Bess" and entering into the spirit of national pride and power that thrilled all classes of Englishmen during her reign, if we are to understand the outburst of Elizabethan literature. Nearly two centuries of trouble and danger had passed since Chaucer died, and no national poet had appeared in England. The Renaissance came, and the Reformation, but they brought no great writers with them. During the first thirty years of Elizabeth's reign not a single important literary work was produced; then suddenly appeared the poetry of Spenser and Chapman, the prose of Hooker, Sidney and Bacon, the dramas of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and a score of others,--all voicing the national feeling after the defeat of the Armada, and growing silent as soon as the enthusiasm began to wane.

Literary Characteristics

Next to the patriotic spirit of Elizabethan literature, its most notable qualities are its youthful freshness and vigor, its romantic spirit, its absorption in the theme of love, its extravagance of speech, its lively sense of the wonder of heaven and earth. The ideal beauty of Spenser's poetry, the bombast of Marlowe, the boundless zest of Shakespeare's historical plays, the romantic love celebrated in unnumbered lyrics,--all these speak of youth, of springtime, of the joy and the heroic adventure of human living.

This romantic enthusiasm of Elizabethan poetry and prose may be explained by the fact that, besides the national impulse, three other inspiring influences were at work. The first in point of time was the rediscovery of the classics of Greece and Rome,--beautiful old poems, which were as new to the Elizabethans as to Keats when he wrote his immortal sonnet, beginning:

  Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold.

The second awakening factor was the widespread interest in nature and the physical sciences, which spurred many another Elizabethan besides Bacon to "take all knowledge for his province." This new interest was generally romantic rather than scientific, was more concerned with marvels, like the philosopher's stone that would transmute all things to gold, than with the simple facts of nature. Bacon's chemical changes, which follow the "instincts" of metals, are almost on a par with those other changes described in Shakespeare's song of Ariel:

  Full fathom five thy father lies;
       Of his bones are coral made;
  Those are pearls that were his eyes:
       Nothing of him that doth fade
  But doth suffer a sea-change
  Into something rich and strange.

The third factor which stimulated the Elizabethan imagination was the discovery of the world beyond the Atlantic, a world of wealth, of beauty, of unmeasured opportunity for brave spirits, in regions long supposed to be possessed of demons, monsters, Othello's impossible

          cannibals that each other eat,
  The anthropophagi, and men whose heads
  Do grow beneath their shoulders.

The New World

When Drake returned from his voyage around the world he brought to England two things: a tale of vast regions just over the world's rim that awaited English explorers, and a ship loaded to the hatches with gold and jewels. That the latter treasure was little better than a pirate's booty; that it was stolen from the Spaniards, who had taken it from poor savages at the price of blood and torture,--all this was not mentioned. The queen and her favorites shared the treasure with Drake's buccaneers, and the New World seemed to them a place of barbaric splendor, where the savage's wattled hut was roofed with silver, his garments beaded with all precious jewels. As a popular play of the period declares:

"Why, man, all their dripping pans are pure gold! The prisoners they take are fettered in gold; and as for rubies and diamonds, they goe forth on holydayes and gather 'hem by the seashore to hang on their children's coates."

Before the American settlements opened England's eyes to the stern reality of things, it was the romance of the New World that appealed most powerfully to the imagination, and that influenced Elizabethan literature to an extent which we have not yet begun to measure.

Foreign Influence

We shall understand the imitative quality of early Elizabethan poetry if we read it in the light of these facts: that in the sixteenth century England was far behind other European nations in culture; that the Renaissance had influenced Italy and Holland for a century before it crossed the Channel; that, at a time when every Dutch peasant read his Bible, the masses of English people remained in dense ignorance, and the majority of the official classes were like Shakespeare's father and daughter in that they could neither read nor write. So, when the new national spirit began to express itself in literature, Englishmen turned to the more cultured nations and began to imitate them in poetry, as in dress and manners. Shakespeare gives us a hint of the matter when he makes Portia ridicule the apishness of the English. In The Merchant of Venice (Act I, scene 2) the maid Nerissa is speaking of various princely suitors for Portia's hand. She names them over, Frenchman, Italian, Scotsman, German; but Portia makes fun of them all. The maid tries again:

Nerissa. What say you, then, to Falconbridge, the young baron of England?

Portia. You know I say nothing to him, for he understands not me, nor I him: he hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian; and you will come into the court and swear that I have a poor pennyworth in the English. He is a proper man's picture, but, alas, who can converse with a dumb show? How oddly he is suited! I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his behaviour every where.

When Wyatt and Surrey brought the sonnet to England, they brought also the habit of imitating the Italian poets; and this habit influenced Spenser and other Elizabethans even more than Chaucer had been influenced by Dante and Petrarch. It was the fashion at that time for Italian gentlemen to write poetry; they practiced the art as they practiced riding or fencing; and presently scores of Englishmen followed Sidney's example in taking up this phase of foreign education. It was also an Italian custom to publish the works of amateur poets in the form of anthologies, and soon there appeared in England The Paradise of Dainty Devices, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions and other such collections, the best of which was England's Helicon (1600). Still another foreign fashion was that of writing a series of sonnets to some real or imaginary mistress; and that the fashion was followed in England is evident from Spenser's Amoretti, Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, Shakespeare's Sonnets, and other less-famous effusions.


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