The Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages
In the history of English literature, the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods are both referred to as “The Age of Shakespeare.” This epoch is known as the “Golden Age of Literature.” It runs from Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 to James I’s death in 1625. It was a time of peace, economic prosperity, stability, liberty, and great explorations. It was a time of both reflection and action. It was a period notable for the unprecedented development of art, literature, and drama. John Milton calls England, during this age, as “a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself, like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks.”
Let’s see the main characteristics of this age.
Political Peace and Stability
Elizabeth brilliantly framed and followed a policy of moderation and balance both inside and outside the country. With Scotland, a workable compromise was reached. The rebellious northern barons were subdued. As a result, she may be able to bring peace to traditionally troubled border areas. The English national life advanced quickly and steadily under her capable administration.
It was a time of great social satisfaction. Thousands of people were employed as industrial towns grew rapidly. The expansion of trade and commerce enriched England. The wealthy were taxed in order to help the poor. This created a conducive environment for literary activities.
It was a time of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Upon her accession, she discovered a nation divided against itself. The north was predominantly Catholic, while the south was predominantly Protestant. Scotland was a fervent supporter of the Reformation. Ireland adhered to its traditional religion. Elizabeth was the one who made the Anglican Church a reality. Anglicanism was a sort of middle ground between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Church was accepted by both Protestants and Catholics. The Queen’s policy of religious tolerance influenced all Englishmen, who were united in a magnificent national enthusiasm. The mind of man, now free from religious fears and persecutions, turned with a great creative impulse to other forms of activity. An atmosphere of all-pervading religious peace gave a great stimulus to literary activity.
Sense and Feeling of Patriotism
It was an age of patriotism. Queen Elizabeth loved England ardently and she made her court one of the most brilliant courts in Europe. The splendour of her court dazzled the eyes of the people. Her moderate policies did much to increase her popularity and prestige. Worship of the Virgin Queen became the order of the day. She was Spenser’s Gloriana, Raleigh‘s Cynthia, and Shakespeare’s “fair vestal throned by the West.” Even the foreigners saw in her “a keen calculating intellect that baffled the ablest statesmen in Europe.”
Elizabeth inspired all her people with the unbounded patriotism which exults in Shakespeare and with the personal devotion which finds a voice in the Faery Queen. Under her administration, the English national life progressed faster not by slow historical and evolutionary process. English literature reached the very highest point of literary development during her period.
Discovery, Exploration and Expansion
This is the most remarkable epoch for the expansion of both mental and geographical horizons. It was an age of great thought and great action. It is an age that appeals to the eye, the imagination and the intellect. New knowledge was pouring in from all directions. The great voyagers like Hawkins, Frobisher, Raleigh and Drake brought home both material and intellectual treasures from the East and the West. The spirit of adventure and exploration fired the imagination of writers. The spirit of action and adventure paved the way for the illustrious development of dramatic literature. Drama progresses in an era of action and not of speculation. It has rightly been called the age of the discovery of the new world and of man.
Influence of Foreign Fashions
The Elizabethans were captivated by Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance. Everyone wanted to go to Italy and stay for a while. People admired not only Italian books and literature, but also Italian manners and morals. As a result of imitating Italian classics, English literature was greatly enriched.
Contradictions and Set of Oppositions
It was an age of great diversity and contradictions. It was an age of light and darkness, of reason and of unreason, of wisdom and of foolishness, of hope and of despair. The barbarity and backwardness, the ignorance and superstition of the Middle Ages still persisted. Disorder, violence, bloodshed and tavern brawls still prevailed. Highway robberies, as mentioned in Henry IV, Part I, were very common. The barbarity of the age is seen in such brutal sports as bear-baiting, cock and bullfighting, to which numerous references are found in the plays of Shakespeare. Despite the advancement of science and learning people still believed in superstitions, ghosts, witches, fairies, charms and omens of all sorts.
Despite great refinement and learning, it was a time of simple morals. People were unconcerned about high moral and just principles. Bribery and international delays in the administration of justice were common ills. Material advancement was the primary goal of men in positions of power, whether by fair or foul means. Almost no public man of this era had a perfectly open heart, and even fewer had perfectly clean hands.
In spite of the ignorance and superstition, violence and brutality, easy morals and lax values, Elizabethan Age was an age in which men lived very much, thought intensely and wrote strongly.