The Age of Shakespeare (1558 – 1625 )

Non-Dramatic Verse

In this post, we will go over what is commonly referred to as the Shakespearean Age, which encompasses the time from Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 until James I’s death in 1625. These 67 years naturally fall into three categories: the first 21 years of the queen’s reign; the 24 years between the release of Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar and her demise; and the 22 years of James I’s rule. The first division corresponds to the period of preparation, or springtide, in Elizabethan literature; the second corresponds to the period of full fruition or summer; and the third corresponds to the period of decline, or autumn. Strictly speaking, the word Elizabethan should be applied to the first two divisions alone, whereas Jacobean is the legitimate classification for the third. However, from the standpoint of literary growth, there are compelling grounds to include both the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in the broad term we employ here-the Age of Shakespeare.

This time as whole ranks as one of the finest in the history of world literature, owing to its extraordinary fertility and the variety and splendour of its output, and its grandeur was the consequence of numerous cooperating reasons. As we study history, we see that a nation’s average mood can be lethargic and dull at times, and can be unusually vibrant and attentive at others. Men like Spenser, Bacon, and Shakespeare who developed from boyhood to youth in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign and matured in the concluding decades of the sixteenth century were lucky to live in a world where the tides of life were at their peak. There were influences at work everywhere that served to broaden thought, arouse emotions, dilate the imagination, and, through nurturing as well as stimulating creativity, to provide depth and vitality to the literature produced. England felt the full impact of the revival of learning, which was no longer restricted to the scholarly few at the universities and around the court because innumerable translations spread the treasures of the classics far and wide among the large miscellaneous public to whom the originals would have been sealed books. As a result, as has been well stated, ‘every breeze was dusty with ‘pollen’ from Greece, Rome, and Italy,’ and even the general environment was charged with the spirit of fresh learning.

Thus, a thirst for reading was developed, and an enormous impetus was given to the development of a sense of beauty and a developing appreciation for all that contributed to life’s enrichment. While the Renaissance stimulated the intellect and aesthetic faculties, the Reformation reawakened the spiritual nature; the same printing press that disseminated classical knowledge also distributed the English Bible; and the spread of religious interest was inextricably linked to a deepening of moral earnestness. Recent discoveries of new worlds beyond the seas, as well as the thrilling tales brought home by daring explorers such as Hawkins, Drake, Frobisher, and Raleigh, piqued popular curiosity and the appetite for adventure, sparked new ideas about a variety of subjects and contributed significantly to enlarging men’s mental boundaries. The country’s general wealth was also expanding, and for the first time in many years, it was blessed with internal peace. England had thrown off the yoke of a foreign power in the great rupture with Rome; the bloody feuds between Catholics and Protestants had been resolved; its discordant elements had been welded together into a united nation; and in the crisis that threatened its very existence—the collision with Spain—Englishmen found themselves burying minor differences in order to stand shoulder to shoulder in defence of their common country against an invading force. Thus, an ardent patriotism became one of the era’s defining characteristics, manifesting itself in a variety of ways—through a profound interest in England’s history, pride in England’s greatness, hatred of England’s adversaries, and lavish allegiance to England’s queen.


These are just a few of the circumstances that contributed to the spirit of Shakespeare’s age—a time when’men lived deeply, thought intensely, and wrote intensely.’ At such a time, when passions were high, speculation was rampant, and a large public was eager to respond to the call of genius, everything conspired to bring out the best in each man, and whatever the individual quality of his work, the breadth and multifacetedness of the life around him were certain to be reflected in it.

Elizabethan Poetry Before Spenser

We might consider the release of Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar in 1579 to be the start of the “golden age of Elizabethan literature.” While there was a lot of poetry written throughout the first part of the queen’s reign, there was not much of it that was worth reading. The contribution of Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst to an enormous endeavour titled A Myrroure for Magistrates contains by far the greatest poetry of the age. This arose from a publisher’s plan to expand on Lydgate’s Falles of Princes (see $16) by including a long series of ‘tragical narratives’ of notable Englishmen. There were several writers involved, but Sackville’s two poems (which first appeared in the edition of 1563)—the Induction (or general introduction to the entire) and the Complaint of Buckingham—are far superior to the remainder of the work. The noble but solemn

Induction, in particular, deserves special mention as the best single poem composed in England between Chaucer and Spenser. The Steele Glas (1576) by George Gascoigne  (1525-77) is notable as the first regular poetry satire in English.

Spenser’s Poetry

Edmund Spenser, the greatest non-dramatic poet of a period when the drama was the most natural literary form, was born in London in 1552 and educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School and at Cambridge, where he studied the classics and Italian literature and came under the influence of the university’s strong Protestant spirit. After a few years spent with relatives in Lancashire, he obtained work in the household of the Earl of Leicester, with whom he forged an intimate acquaintance through his nephew, Sir Philip Sidney. In 1580, he travelled to Ireland as secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton, the new Lord Deputy. Except for infrequent travels to London, the remainder of his life was spent in Ireland, in sad exile among a lawless people he despised. He found his only solace in the composition of his Faery Queene, after being repeatedly rejected in his efforts to get a post at the court and, with it, a means of returning to England. In October 1598, an insurrection broke out in Tyrone, where he lived; his castle was set on fire and plundered by an enraged crowd; he and his family narrowly escaped with their lives. He arrived in London at the end of the year, in poor health and depressed spirits, and died on 16th January 1599 in an inn in Westminster.

While Spenser’s popularity is primarily based on The Faery Queene, his minor poetry, which is prolific, would have been sufficient to establish him as the preeminent contemporary English poet. His Shepheardes Calender (1579) is a pastoral poem of the artifice, which the taste for everything classical that accompanied the revival of learning popularised throughout all European literature, and in which Spenser follows the models established by the late Greek poet Theocritus, Vergil in his Bucolica, and French and Italian Renaissance writers who imitated these. It is divided into twelve sections, one for each month of the year, and in it, under the guise of conventional pastoral imagery—that is, shepherds conversing and singing—the poet writes of his unfortunate love for a certain mysterious Rosalind, discusses various moral issues, and discusses contemporary religious issues from a strong Protestant perspective. Such traditional pastoral imagery was resurrected in Astrophel (1586), an elegy on the death of Sidney, to whom the Calender was dedicated. His Foure Hymnes in honour of love and beauty demonstrate his incredible ability to write harmonious verse. His Amoretti, a collection of 88 sonnets written in Petrarch’s style (such sonnet sequences in Petrarch’s style had gained considerable popularity in England as a result of widespread enthusiasm for Italian literature), chronicle the development of his love for Elizabeth Boyle, whom he married in 1594. This occasion inspired his Epithalamium, the finest of his lesser pieces and ‘by general agreement, the language’s most exquisite wedding song.

As with the Canterbury Tales, The Faery Queene is a fragment, as only six of Spenser’s twelve planned works were published during his lifetime, with fragments of the seventh released after his death. Even so, it is one of the longest and greatest English poems in its current form. According to his own remark, his intention was for each of the twelve novels to stand alone and be self-contained, yet to be related as components of a larger comprehensive whole. His basic concept is detailed in his preface letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. The Fairy Queen celebrated her annual feast for twelve consecutive days, during which time a particular knight under her command conducted a particular adventure, each of which became the topic of a separate book. Meanwhile, Prince Arthur, whom he picked as his centre figure because he was the hero of the greatest British legend-cycle of chivalry, dreamed of the Fairy Queen and set out to find her, colliding along the way with the many knights engaged in their own adventures. This apparition of Arthur at a pivotal point in each of the stories was purposefully designed to serve as a link between various components of the vast design. Externally, The Faery Queene, like its principal models, the Italian romantic epics, is composed of traditional chivalric materials; giants, dragons, dwarfs, wizards, knights of superhuman prowess and courage, and distressed damsels of extraordinary beauty serve as its central characters; enchantments, tournaments, love passages, and endless fighting serve as the plot’s staples. However, Spenser’s brilliance was nourished by the Reformation as well as a passion for mediaeval romance and Renaissance culture, and, unlike his brilliant Italian mentor Ariosto, who wrote solely for amusement, his own great work is motivated by a lofty moral and theological goal. In other words, The Faery Queene is not merely a romance; it is a didactic romance, with the poet employing his stories throughout to deliver the lessons he desired. He accomplishes his goal by transforming romance into allegory. His twelve knights-errant are archetypes for Aristotle’s twelve cardinal virtues, and the adventures of each knight are structured to symbolically depict the experiences, conflicts, and temptations of each such virtue in the turmoil of the world, as well as its ultimate triumph over all its foes, with the aid of Arthur, the incarnation of Divine Power. Thus, the first book contains the Legend of the Knight of the Red Cross, or of Holiness; the second contains the Legend of Sir Guyon, or of Temperance; the third contains the Legend of Britomartis, or of Chastity; the fourth contains the Legend of Cambell and Triamond, or of Friendship; the fifth contains the Legend of Artegall, or of Justice; and the sixth contains the Legend of Sir Calidore, or of Courtesy. In addition to this ethical allegory, another type of allegory enters Spenser’s plan, which we may refer to as historical because it is directly concerned with the political and religious problems of the time; for the figures in his narrative are not merely personifications of moral and mental qualities, but frequently stand in for individuals or institutions representing or embodying the aforementioned qualities. Thus, the first volume tells the storey of the Red Cross Knight, who sets out to rescue Lady Una’s parents from the clutches of a gigantic dragon who has kept them imprisoned in a brazen castle for years. As a general allegory, this portrays the labour of True Religion in freeing Humanity from Satan’s control, while the knight’s allies and opponents represent the forces that aid and resist True Religion in its holy mission of liberation.

However, Spenser associates True Religion with English Protestantism, and True Religion’s adversaries with England’s political adversaries, the Papacy, and Rome’s political allies, most notably Spain and Mary of Scots; thus, the two lines of allegory merge, and the poem becomes both a vehicle for the poet’s teaching and a vehicle for his reading of contemporary movements and events. Given that many of the urgent challenges of Spenser’s day are no longer relevant, much of his poetry has mainly historical relevance. His symbolism is occasionally perplexing, inconsistent, and confusing. Many readers will agree that the continual incursion of symbolism strains the reader’s attention and detracts from the poem’s human relevance. However, because Spenser created this poem specifically to reflect his thoughts on a number of life’s fundamental concerns, the allegory must never be completely overlooked.

The Faery Queene

Faery Queene’s flaws are abundantly clear. It is handicapped by its severe artificiality. The ancient machinery of romance appears to be on the verge of collapsing in places under the strain of the new spiritual implications it is burdened with. Spenser is, on the whole, a fairly lethargic storyteller; he lacks dramatic force and rarely maximises his opportunity. On the other hand, his virtues are numerous and remarkable. He possesses an exquisite sense of beauty. He possesses extraordinary graphical ability. His writing is imbued with a great moral attitude, and the character of fundamental poetry—that quality that defies interpretation yet cannot be overlooked by any sympathetic reader—is palpable on nearly every page. This explains why Spenser has been dubbed ‘the poet’s poet’ and why, as we will see later, he had such a stimulating influence on the literature of the eighteenth-century romantic renaissance.

Notably, he was not just the finest non-dramatic poet of his generation; he was also the most comprehensively represented. All the cooperating forces that shaped Elizabethan England are woven into the fabric of his poem, which more than any other work of the period embodies the synthesis of the Renaissance and Reformation spirits. It is entrenched in the humanism of the classics and Italian literature, and it bears witness to Protestantism’s strong idealism and moral sincerity everywhere. Two minor points must be addressed before we conclude this epochal effort. To begin, it must not be assumed that the language in which it was written was Spenser’s genuine English. As a devout follower of Chaucer, he developed his own vernacular, which he purposefully rendered ancient. Second, just as his language was invented, so was the stanza he utilised, which is now universally known by his name. This is a nine-line -stanza with the rhyme scheme ababbcbcc, with the final line being an Alexandrine, or line with six iambic feet rather than five. The origins of this stanza are unknown, but Spenser likely added the Alexandrine to Chaucer’s eight-line stave (ababbcbc) in The Monkes Tale.

Other Poets from 1579 to 1625

Minor poets flourished during the Age of Shakespeare, but compiling a list of them here would be futile. It is vital, however, that we learn about the various styles of poetry that were written at the time, as well as about a handful of the individuals who contributed to the chorus of Elizabethan songs.

Following Tottel’s Miscellany, numerous collections with wonderfully fantastical titles followed, including The Paradyse of Daynty Devises (1576), A Handefull of Pleasant Delites (1584), An Arbor of Amorous Devises (1597), and the most renowned of them all, England’s Helicon (1597). (1600). These, like the more traditional song-books, have preserved for us numerous lovely bits of verse by authors whose names would have otherwise been forgotten. A particularly popular style of lyric was the sonnet, which, following its introduction from Italy by Wyatt and Surrey, quickly established itself as one of the recognised forms of English poetry. As we have seen, numerous writers embraced the Italian strategy of penning sonnets in sequences. One such sequence—Amoretti—has Spenser’s previously been mentioned; to this list, we can now add Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, Daniel’s Delia, Drayton’s Idea, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. All of these are love poems in the Italian tradition, tracing the movements and fluctuations of desire; nevertheless, while some of the experiences and thoughts are genuine, others are fabricated.

Another category of poetry that is historically significant due to the way it expresses the period’s strong patriotic sentiment is that inspired by national themes. Albion’s England (1586-1606) by William Warner is a 10,000-line poem that chronicles the history of England from Noah’s time to Elizabeth’s. Samuel Daniel wrote an eight-volume versed account of the Civil Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York (15951609). Michael Drayton, best known for his spirited ballad The Battle of Agincourt, has a more substantial, if not superior, claim to recognition as the author of England’s Heroical Epistles (1595), The Barons’ Wars (1603), and Polyolbion (1612-22), a thirty-volume poetical description of England that Drayton himself appropriately refers to as his ‘Herculean toil’. We must bear in mind that these poems sprang out of the same passionate interest in and love for England that drove scholars such as Stow, Harrison, and Holinshed into tedious historical inquiries and found dramatic embodiment in Shakespeare’s chronicle plays.

We have referred to the Jacobean period of Shakespeare’s Age as the age of decline. This indicates that the Elizabethan inspiration had waned, its subject matter had been exhausted, and a tendency toward imitation had developed among the emerging generation. Meanwhile, a new sort of poetry was emerging with John Donne (1573-1631), whose work is largely associated with James’s reign, despite the fact that he was thirty years old at the time of Elizabeth’s death. Donne, a prominent divine and preacher, composed songs, sonnets, marriage poems, elegies, and satires that are all marked by a great deal of true poetic feeling, harsh metres, and those strained and humorous ideas and turns of words known as conceits’. His historical significance stems from the fact that he founded the metaphysical school of poetry, which we will discuss in further detail shortly.

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Drama

The Elizabethan Romantic Drama

Following the staging of Gorboduc, the quarter-century or so that followed was a period of considerable disarray in English play. On the one hand, some intellectuals aspired to naturalise the Senecan, or ‘classic,’ species of play, of which Sackville and others were proponents.

Norton’s tragedy served as an example, and their efforts were backed up by humanists such as Sir Philip Sidney, who believed that the only certain path to truly creative play was through careful copying of ancient models. On the other hand, knowing that their patrons were less concerned with finer details of art and more concerned with exciting plots and vigorous action, the writers and actors catering to the amusement of the miscellaneous unscholarly public abandoned the decorous Senecan conventions entirely and embarked on a series of experiments, all of them very crude, is a type of play based on entirely different ideas of construction. These experiments may be viewed as a logical development of the dramatic components of the older English theatre, as well as a groping in the dark for a more expansive and free form of art than was conceivable under the Senecan style’s constricted limitations. Thus, a transitory confrontation developed between humanists, who defended classical heritage and wanted to force it on the populace, and the English public’s strong national taste, which demanded something entirely different. Finally, national taste prevailed, and just prior to Shakespeare’s career as a playwright, the “romantic” style of theatre was firmly established. The establishment of romantic drama was the achievement of Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors, a group of university men who had been trained in the school of the classics, learned much about dramatic workmanship there, but who, while composition, abandoned their special principles of composition in favour of the free tradition of the popular stage.

Before delving into their work, however, it is necessary to establish a working understanding of the distinction between the so-called ‘classic’ and ‘romantic’ styles of play.

Concentrating on the aspects that are immediately relevant here, we can summarise the principles of classic theatre under three headings: (1) it was adamant on subject and tone unity, and as a result, it maintained the worlds of tragedy and comedy completely distinct. A tragedy had to be a tragedy from beginning to end; it had to maintain the proper tragic pitch and avoid all suggestion of familiarity; and no humorous episode could be included; a comedy had to be a comedy from beginning to end; (2) there had to be little or no dramatic action, with the incidents forming the plot occurring offstage and being reported to the audience through dialogue and set narrative; (3) in theorem These principles were derived, or more precisely, were supposed to be derived, from the practice of the Attic tragedy writers, and the teachings of the great Greek critic were supposed to be derived from the practice of the Attic Aristotle; however, they entered modern drama via the plays of the Latin poet Seneca, in which they were exhibited in their most severe form. The specific style of drama that the humanists aspired to construct is now obvious, and they can also comprehend the broad characteristics of the opposite type produced in its place by Shakespeare’s forerunners. For the romantic, or Shakespearean, drama (1) makes liberal use of variety in theme and tone, frequently combining tragic and comic incidents and characters in the same piece; (2) while it employs both action and narrative to advance the plot, it is essentially a drama of action, with nearly everything that occurs represented on stage; and (3) it rejects the three unities by (a) allowing the storey to extend over months and even years on occasion; (b) allowing the storey to change throughout the piece; and (c) allowing

Shakespeare’s Forerunners

It will be demonstrated that the work of those playwrights who came before Shakespeare paved the path for him by assuring the success of the open and flexible form of theatre that he would later adopt. They form a loose association and are usually referred to as the ‘university wits’. As this implies, they were all individuals of academic training who had come into direct contact with and absorbed the spirit of the new learning at one of the two great schools of scholarship. However, with one exception, they brought their abilities to the public stage, and it is obvious that their audience’s strong preferences influenced the type of play they produced. They are as follows: John Lyly (1554-1606); Thomas Kyd (1558-1594); George Peele (1556-97); Thomas Lodge (1558-1625); Robert Greene (1560-92); Christopher Marlowe (1564-93); and Thomas Nash (1567-1601).

It would be pointless to provide a list of these men’s theatrical works, and a more extensive assessment of their writings would be inconsistent with the purpose of this brief summary. Therefore, we must consider them collectively and accept the broad assumption that each contributed to the growth of the drama into the forms in which Shakespeare would take it up. A few further facts must be provided to two of them, due to their unique place in literary history and the direct influence they had on Shakespeare. Lyly and Marlowe are the two.

Lyly is best known as the author of the prose romance Euphues, which we will discuss in the following chapter. His theatrical work, which we must now deal with exclusively, consists of eight comedies, the best of which are Campaspe, Endymion, and Gallathea. These were all written for court performance, and their appeal is based not on plot, scenario, or even characterization, but on language—that is, on the dialogue’s wit, sharpness, originality, and grace. At a time when the public stage’s humour frequently devolved into coarseness and horseplay, Lyly contributed to the intellectualization of comedy. He anticipated Shakespeare in this, as well as in his skill at clever repartee and his constant use of puns, conceits, and other verbal fireworks. Shakespeare’s early comedies, such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, owe a great deal to his example. Shakespeare also learnt how to blend a courtly main plot with sequences of rustic mistakes and clownish foolery from Lyly (as in the two aforementioned plays). In these areas, Lyly established a precedent that others, including Shakespeare, followed, and he was unquestionably Shakespeare’s first master in comedy.

Marlowe’s historical significance is even more significant. A man of flamboyant imagination and immense though uncontrolled powers, who lived a wild Bohemian life and was killed in a drunken brawl while still young, he was by nature a lyric poet rather than a dramatist; yet his Tamburlaine the Great, Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II, despite the bombast and extravagance with which they are frequently marred, establish him as the pre-Sha He established the style of tragedy and chronicle play for his immediate successors with these works, and he also introduced blank verse (formerly reserved for classic plays and intimate representations) to romantic theatre and the public stage with them. It is obvious that Shakespeare, who must have known him well and most likely cooperated with him, was initially greatly inspired by him. His early blank verse is modelled like that of Marlowe. Venus and Adonis, his narrative poem, is influenced in part, if not entirely, by Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. His Richard III and Richard II are unmistakably modelled on Edward II’s style of chronicle drama. Even in The Merchant of Venice, numerous aspects indicate that Shakespeare was inspired by The Jew of Malta.

Shakespeare’s Biography

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, on or about 23 April 1564. He was the son of a prominent town businessman who subsequently became the town’s High Bailiff or Mayor. Though there is no official record, it is almost clear that he attended the local Grammar School, an exceptional institution of its sort, where he was taught Latin and arithmetic. While he never became a knowledgeable man, his few years in school provided him with basic education. His father’s financial difficulties soon overcame him, and when he was about fourteen, he was removed from school in order to assist the family by earning money on his own. However, we know nothing about the nature of his employment. He married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior and the daughter of a well-to-do yeoman from the nearby village of Shottery, in his 19th year. This marriage was hurried and ill-advised, and it appears to have ended in dissatisfaction. He had three children: Susannah and twins Judith and Hamnet. Meanwhile, legend has it that he fell into bad company and was forced to flee from home following a deer-stealing incident in the woods of Charlecote Hall. This storey may or may not be true—we have no way of knowing. He likely left his native town a few years after his marriage – in 1587 – to pursue his fortune in London. At a time when the drama was rapidly gaining popularity due to the work of the University Wits, Shakespeare soon went to the stage, first as an actor, and subsequently as a playwright (but never ceasing to be an actor). A disparaging reference to him in a pamphlet published on his deathbed demonstrates that he was well-known as a prominent author in 1592. He remained in London for about two decades after this, working diligently, creating on average a pair of plays each year, and progressively increasing in popularity and fortune. He acquired shares in two of the main theatres of the day, the Globe and the Blackfriars, as well as real estate in Stratford and London. However, the years of affluence also brought domestic anguish. His father died in 1596; his younger brother Edmund, also an actor, died in 1607; and his mother died in 1608. He then retired to Stratford between 1610 and 1612, having purchased the town’s largest residence, known as New Place. His elder daughter had already married Dr John Hall (1607), who became a distinguished surgeon; on February 10, 1616, Judith married Thomas Quincy, whose father was a personal friend of the poet. Shakespeare’s health had deteriorated to the point of death at this time, and he died on 23 April of that year.
Shakespeare’s biography demonstrates unequivocally that, like Chaucer, he was a practical man of affairs. He arrived in London impoverished and without friends; he left it wealthy and respected; and his fortunes were entirely his own. This sheds considerable light not just on his personal nature, but also on his writings, which combine extraordinary abilities of creative imagination with and are bolstered by a wonderful sense of reality, strong common sense, and a broad and varied experience with the world. Of the learning evident in his plays, and about which much has been written, suffice it to say that it is not the learning of the trained and exact scholar—of a Bacon or a Ben Jonson—but rather the broad miscellaneous knowledge of many things that were naturally accumulated by an extraordinarily assimilative mind over years of contact with men and books at a time when all social interaction and all literature were saturated with classicism. Translations provided him with easy access to the treasures of ancient literature; the intellectual atmosphere in which he lived and worked was charged with new ideas and enormously stimulating; and Shakespeare was preeminently endowed with the fortunate faculty of giving the best possible account of everything that came to him.

Shakespeare’s Complete Works

Except for a few miscellaneous and dubious pieces, Shakespeare’s non-dramatic poetry consists of two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, in which the period’s classicism is evident, and a sequence of 154 sonnets, the first 126 addressed to a man and the remainder addressed to or referring to a woman. These sonnets have sparked unending debate, and much about them remains obscure. They pretend to chronicle a passionate history of catastrophic love and broken friendship, but we have no way of knowing if they are dealing with real or imagined events. The only certainty is that they include some of their era’s finest lyrical poetry.

The popularly accepted canon of Shakespeare’s dramatic output consists of 37 plays, albeit several of these are dubious in their authenticity, and in certain cases, it is obvious that his contribution to the dramas credited to him was confined to reworking previous material. His career as a stage playwright lasted approximately 24 years, beginning around 1588 and ending around 1612; we can therefore conclude that 12 years of it were spent in the sixteenth century and 12 years in the seventeenth century. Shakespeare critics have agreed to split these 24 years into four periods, and by placing the plays inside these periods in the order in which they were produced, we may trace the progression of his genius and craft, as well as the astonishing changes that occurred in his thought and style. As a result, I will list the titles of his plays in roughly chronological order, showing the distinctive spirit and technique that distinguish each period’s work.

1588–1593. Period of experimental and, to a large degree, pioneering work. Shakespeare’s apprenticeship begins with the editing of older works, including Henry VI in three parts and Titus Andronicus. This time includes his first comedies, which bear a strong Lyly influence, such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Two Night’s Dream; his first attempt at chronicle drama, which is seen in Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream of his work. His attention is focused entirely on the tremendous transformation that has occurred in the entire spirit evocative of Marlowe, Richard III, and a single very young tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The overall texture of this period’s work is extremely thin; the presentation of life is cursory; there is little depth of thought or characterisation; and the painting is conspicuously underdeveloped. The dialogue’s emphasis on rime, the rigidity of the blank verse, and the continual use of conceits and other affectations are only a few of its noteworthy technical aspects.

(ii) 1594-1600. The era of the great comedies and historical dramas. Richard II, King John, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, Parts I and II, Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew are among the works from this era.

The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night are some of the works. Shakespeare now sheds the influence of his early mentors; his writing becomes self-contained and demonstrates enormous growth in strength and technique. It is significantly more huge in size, and the knowledge of the world and of men’s motivations and passions that it constantly demonstrates is infinitely more profound. The characterisation and humour have developed a depth and penetrating quality, and the weight of thought has increased significantly. Shakespeare has likewise outgrown or is rapidly outgrowing, his earlier style’s immaturities. The crudeness, extravagance, and strain of youth are fading; prose and blank verse have entirely supplanted rime, and the blank verse itself has lost its stiffness and become open and flexible.

(iii) 1601-08. This is the era of tremendous tragedies and dismal or bitter comedy. All of Shakespeare’s abilities—dramatic, intellectual, and expressive—are at their peak during this period. This is the era of his magnum opuses. However, what is probably most apparent is the remarkable transformation that has occurred in the spirit of his work. His focus is devoted entirely to the darker side of human existence, and his plays are inspired by those destructive passions that undermine the moral order and cause disaster to innocent and guilty alike. Men’s crimes and vulnerabilities are central to his storylines, and even when he writes what are ostensibly comedies, the emphasis remains on evil, and the tone is either grave or angry. Julius Caesar, Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens are among the plays from this period.

(iv) 1608–12: Decade of late comedies and dramatic romances. Once again, we observe an abrupt and distinct shift in the tone of Shakespeare’s work. It is as though the dense clouds that have long hovered over his hypothetical world have dissipated, and the sky begins to clear approaching sunset. The tragic passion provides the foundation for these final plays, but evil is no longer allowed to have its way, but is subdued and overcome by the good. They maintain a really compassionate and gracious tone throughout. At the same time, they vividly demonstrate Shakespeare’s catastrophic fall. They are frequently careless in their composition and unsatisfying in their portrayal, while their style and versification pale in comparison to the prior decade’s work. This period includes three fully Shakespearean works: Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. These must be supplemented by two who are only partially his—Pericles and Henry VIII. Fletcher, his younger contemporary and buddy, completed the latter (see $34).

It is impossible to provide a conclusive answer to the much-contested subject of how much of Shakespeare’s work is a revelation of his life and character in a simple statement. We cannot, I am certain, accept the judgement of those who maintain that he was so entirely the mark in its successive stages were the result of his own experiences – whether, for example, he wrote tragedies because his life was tragic and then returned to comedy when his spirit was restored to peace – we do not know. When read chronologically, his plays provide a record of his intellectual and aesthetic development.

The Characteristics of  Shakespeare’s Works

Shakespeare’s plays, taken as a whole, are the greatest single body of work that any writer has produced to our literature. Its astounding variety is maybe their most notable trait. Other men have overtaken him at various points, but no one has ever matched him in terms of the breadth and flexibility of his abilities. He was equally at home in tragedy and comedy, and his genius encompassed innumerable aspects of both; he was supreme not only as a dramatist, but also as a poet to whom the worlds of high imagination and delicate fancy were alike open; and, while not himself a very profound or original thinker, he possessed in a superlative degree the faculty of digesting thought into phraseology so memorable and final that, as we all know, he is the most He was nearly completely free of dogmatism, and his tolerance was as broad as his worldview. He is unrivalled in the life of his characterisation; no one else has produced so many men and women that we accept and treat not as figments of a poet’s head, but as fully and entirely alive. It is also worth noting his singular grasp of the language’s resources; his vocabulary is estimated to be around 15,000 words, while Milton’s is just around half that size.

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The brilliance of Shakespeare’s work has a tendency to blind reviewers to his limitations and flaws, but these must, of course, be acknowledged in any assessment of him, or else we will lose sight of him. As broad as he was, he was ultimately a man of his day, and while his plays are notable for their general truth to what is permanent in human nature, his perception of human nature is that of an age that is extremely different from our own in many ways. He wrote rapidly, and evidence of hurried and ill-considered creation are frequently visible. Designing his plays specifically for the stage, and keen to ensure their success, he was willing to sacrifice character consistency and the finer standards of art in order to produce a telling theatrical effect. He reflects the low taste of the groundlings to whom he had to appeal in his occasional coarseness. His psychology is utterly basic and unconvincing at times; his manner is harsh; his wit is forced and weak; and his sad language is overblown. These, and other flaws, will be obvious to anyone who reads him critically. But, in the end, they are minor details in comparison to the outstanding talents that have propelled him to the top of the world’s dramatists.

Ben Jonson


Shakespeare’s era was characterised by a flurry of theatrical activity, and the list of his contemporaries in the annals of the theatre is lengthy. Among these, his friend BEN JONSON is the most important, not only because he was the greatest of them in terms of the strength and volume of his talent, but also because the purposes and ideas of his work were completely different from Shakespeare’s. He was born in London in 1573, educated at Westminster Grammar School, where he set the groundwork for his solid classical study, began acting around 1592, and began his career as a dramatist in 1598 with the satiric farce Every Man in his Humour. He wrote plays for both the court and the public theatre for many years. With the ascension of Charles I, his circumstances began to deteriorate, and he suffered from neglect, poverty, and ever-increasing ill-health for the rest of his life. He died in 1637, palsied and bedridden, having outlived Shakespeare by twenty-one years. Outside of the theatre, Jonson produced numerous translations and a significant number of other poetry. His plays are divided into three categories: court masques, historical tragedies such as Sejanus and Catiline, which are very learned, laborious, and dull, and – by far the most significant part of his output – his numerous comedies, the best of which are The Alchemist, Volpone or the Fox, and Epicoene or the Silent Woman. By examining these comedies, we can see the particular elements of Jonson’s brilliance and creativity right away, and we can comprehend what it means to say that he worked in a different field than Shakespeare, and on methods wholly his own. To begin with, he was a realist; that is, the world of his comedy is modern London life, with its manners, types, follies, and affectations, rather than the world of romance. He paints a vivid image of this world. But his goal is not simply to represent and, while doing so, to amuse; he takes his craft seriously and, according to the moral tasks of the theatre, attempts to correct and instruct as well. Thus, a specific ethical motive is generally apparent, and is frequently expressly stated in his work. As a result, his realism must be characterised further as didactic realism. In his building ideas, he condemns the lawlessness of the romantic drama and looks to Latin comedy as a model. Finally, his portrayal is founded on the assumption that each man is possessed and governed by some one special trait or’master passion,’ which (at least for the purposes of the stage) can be regarded as the backbone and essential aspect of his personality. As a result, Jonson seizes on this master passion, or ‘humour,’ as he calls it, and makes a whole character out of it, with the result that his men and women are not complex individuals, like Shakespeare’s, but rather types; while, reverting to the old morality method, he frequently labels or tickets them with names that immediately indicate their special ‘humours,’ such as Downright, Morose, and Wellbred. Pertinax, be subtle. Sir Epicure Mammon, you are a jerk. In Jonson’s comedies, intellect predominates; they are the result of learning, talent, and diligent effort rather than creative power, and they are ponderous and lacking in spontaneity and attractiveness, despite being amazingly intelligent and rich in vivid depictions of the life of the time. However, they are historically significant since Jonson was the true originator of what is known as the Comedy of Manners, and his influence on subsequent dramatists was enormous.

Other Shakespearean Dramatists

I shall identify only a handful of the lesser writers whose work spans the period from Shakespeare’s peak to the end. John Webster was a dramatist of gloomy intellect and immense power, while his morbid love of the violent and horrifying led him too often to sensationalism. His moments of tragic passion in White Devil and Duchess of Malfi are unparalleled outside of Shakespeare. John Ford has a similar predisposition for ugly subjects and abnormal emotions, but his sadness distinguishes his best work, such as The Broken Heart. The names Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher are inextricably linked, and they collaborated extensively, while Fletcher continued to write fluently for the nine years between his partner’s death and his own. Their moral tone is frequently harsh, its sentiment strained, and their characterization inadequate; nonetheless, they have many redeeming aspects, and plays such as Philaster and The Maid’s Tragedy successfully challenge comparison with anything in the romantic drama outside Shakespeare, Philip Massinger , a versatile writer, attained a pinnacle with his comedy A New Way to Pay Old Debts. James Shirley was born during the reign of Charles I, yet he is remembered here as “the last of a great race,” in the words of Charles Lamb. The deterioration of the play is visible in all of these writers, and even more, in minor persons whom we need not name. By the conclusion of the period, we discover that all of the previous creative ability has vanished, and that the stage has succumbed entirely to the age’s fast-spreading immorality; while even the formlessness of the blank verse employed is another sign of the general decay.

The Playhouses of Shakespeare’s Time

It is preferable for a theatre student to have some understanding of the theatrical conditions in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked. In the early days of the regular drama, plays were staged in inn yards and other open locations where a scaffold could be erected and spectators could be accommodated. In what was then the open fields of Shoreditch, two permanent playhouses were built in 1576: the Theatre and the Curtain. When Shakespeare arrived in London, these were the only playhouses in the city; but, by the conclusion of Elizabeth’s reign, there were at least eleven. These were not in London, because the local authorities would not allow them to be built within their bounds, but on the outskirts, primarily on the banks of the Thames on the Surrey side. Shakespeare was extremely closely associated with two of these playhouses—the Globe in Southwark and the Blackfriars, near the area now occupied by the Times office—as we have seen. The theatrical profession had previously been in disrepute, and in order to escape being labelled as ‘rogues and vagabonds,’ players had been compelled to get permits from nobles and other important patrons, and to enrol in companies as their servants. Thus, we hear about the Lord Leicester’s Servants (later the Lord Chamberlain’s), to which Shakespeare belonged, as well as the Lord Admiral’s Servants, the Queen’s Players, and so on. The playhouses were quite small, round or hexagonal in shape, and mostly made of wood. There was nothing luxurious about them, either in terms of architecture or appointments. The stage and the boxes, or “rooms,” as they were known, were covered in thatch, but the remainder of the structure was open to the elements. The boxes were frequented by the wealthier and more aristocratic audience members, some of whom, however, seized the luxury of sitting on the stage. There were no chairs in the ‘yard’ or pit for the groundlings. Into this yard ran the stage, a basic platform whose constrained proportions appear to our minds to turn the Elizabethans’ delight in marching armies and pitched conflicts into silliness. Some interesting aspects of the stage configurations are presented. There was almost no movable scenery; though it was beginning to appear towards the end of the Shakespearean period, it was not consistently employed until the theatres reopened after the Commonwealth. Stage properties, such as furniture, were freely used, and banners containing legends such as ‘This is Athens’ and ‘This is a wood’ were hung out to instruct the audience where the scene was supposed to be staged. Two notable aspects of Shakespearean theatre can be directly attributed to the absence of painted scenery: the constant movement in the location of the action, and the frequency of descriptive passages that appealed to the audience’ imagination. A modest structure at the back of the stage, consisting of a balcony and an open space beneath, was crucial to the performance’s economy. The balcony itself represented any elevated location, such as city walls or the upper section of a house; the space beneath, which could be curtained off, was used for a variety of purposes when any type of interior scene was necessary. Performances often began at three of the clock in the afternoon and lasted around two hours. There is every reason to suppose that the art of acting was refined to its pinnacle. On the Shakespearean stage, however, there were no actresses; women’s roles were played by boys and young men who had been specifically prepared for the occasion. These male actresses must have been quite intelligent, and when women began to appear on the English boards after the Restoration, there were people who grieved the shift, such as the diarist Pepys. However, we find it impossible to believe that such masculine actors could have successfully interpreted Shakespeare’s females.

Lyly and Other Prose Fiction Writers

While the play was the primary creative vehicle for the Shakespearean Age, it was also active in the field of prose literature. It did not, in fact, produce what we term the novel, which is a long account about contemporary life and manners. This was not established in English literature until much after Shakespeare’s death, more than a century later. However, significant progress was achieved in other lines of fake narrative.

The activity of translators, who familiarised the reading public with Spanish and Italian romance, as well as Italian novelle, or short stories, provided some impetus in this direction. The final two are of secondary relevance since they are the sources from which Elizabethan dramatists, including Shakespeare, frequently relied for plot material. They were also adapted and reproduced, and several storey collections, such as William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, became popular.

The most notable prose romance of the period is the work of John Lyly, whose comedies, Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, and its sequel, Euphues and his England, have already been mentioned. The former was published in 1579, making it exactly contemporaneous with the Shepheardes Calendar; the latter was released the following year. The first part tells the storey of a wealthy, handsome, and clever young Athenian named Euphues, who sets out on his travels; arrives in Naples, where he becomes an intimate friend of a certain Philautus, with whom he has many long conversations on philosophical and ethical subjects; has several affairs of the heart, which fail; and eventually returns to Athens, leaving behind him a ‘pamphlet, or letter, addressed to his friend and described as ‘a It is a love storey, but there is no action, and what little storyline there is is just an excuse for lengthy lectures and moralising. In the second part, Euphues visits England and gives a long description of the country, court, and manners of the isle’, which is so unqualified in its praise that, if we only take it as true, we would be convinced that in Lyly’s time, our land was a paradise, and its inhabitants absolute embodiments of all the virtues. Euphues’ popularity was astonishing; in little more than a half-century, it went through 10 editions—a huge record at the time; everyone who read anything read it; and the ladies of the court used it as a moral guidebook, a guide to polite behaviour, and a model of elegance in speech and writing. Its enduring popularity is primarily due to its style. Enthusiasm for the classics, the impact of Italian and Spanish literatures, and a general desire to elevate and polish the common tongue resulted in a wide spectrum of bizarre attempts in English prose. Lyly’s fashion sense or “Euphuism, as it is known, is the most notable of these. It is distinguishable from other current efforts by great elaboration and artifice, as well as a variety of particular rhetorical tropes that give it a dimension of its own. It would take too much space to go over them all here, so I will just highlight the most crucial ones. Perhaps the most notable feature of Euphuism is the excessive use of balanced antithesis; for example, “As you may suspect me of idleness in giving ear to your talk, so you may convince me of lightness in answering such toys”; in which, as will be seen, suspect me’ and ‘convince me’, ‘idleness’ and ‘lightness’, ‘giving ear’ and ‘answering’, ‘talk’ and ‘toys This balanced antithesis is sometimes used with alliteration, as in ‘Although I have shrined thee in my heart as a loyal friend, I will shun thee hereafter as a trothless adversary,’ for example. Lyly also enjoys similes, wordplay, and punning, and has a penchant for ‘non’-natural history, or the natural history of myth and fable rather than science. To our astonishment, we read of a bird named Attagen “who never singeth any time after she is taken,” of a beautiful stone called Draconites found in the dragon, of a shrub called Dictannum “in which the wounded deer always finds an unfailing remedy,” and so on. Shakespeare uses the toad as an example of incredible pseudo-science when he describes it as ‘ugly and venomous,’ yet with a ‘beautiful jewel in his head.’

Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, completed around 1581 but not published until 1613, may be assigned second place in Elizabethan romance. To some extent, this work continues the traditions of earlier chivalric tales, although it owes much of its shape to the pastoral Diana of the Portuguese Montemayor and the Arcadia of the Italian Sannazaro. It is full with happenings, unlike Euphues, which has almost no tale. The adventures of the two friends, Pyrocles and Musidorus, while attempting to win the two Arcadian princesses, Philoclea and Pamela, provide the primary interest; however, a large number of other characters are introduced, each of whom becomes the centre of a separate storey, and episodes arise within episodes, adding to the plot’s complication and confusion. Though, unlike Lyly, Sidney does not overwork a few rhetorical elements, his style is exceedingly intricate and poetical, and, while striking and beautiful in moments, it gets tiresome in the long run due to its absolute lack of simplicity and restraint. Lodge and Greene, two of the pre-Shakespearean dramatists we have recognised, are also important romance authors. In general, they resemble Sidney in their use of conventional pastoralism’s people and machinery, but their style is heavily influenced by Lyly. Among their many other works, each wrote one book that is still of significance, not because of its basic virtues, but because of its relationship to Shakespeare. The raw ingredients for As You Like It came from Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues’ Golden Legacy; those for The Winter’s Tale came from Greene’s Pandosto, The Triumph of Time. He selected the law as his vocation; he was called to the he had also made his mark as an orator in the House of Commons. Thomas Nash, University Wits?, has a place somewhat apart, because at a time when the tendency in fiction was almost entirely towards romance, he gave a distinct lead in the direction of coarse realism. His Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton, a wandering narrative of adventure on the continent, is our oldest example of the picaresque novel,’ or novel of rascality—a genre of literature that was already popular in Spain and that Defoe would later pursue with great success.

Bacon and His Essays

We must not assume that Shakespearean English literature was purely a work of the imagination. England was now feeling the intellectual and creative stimulation of the Renaissance, which resulted in the production of a large number of written works dealing with many issues in which sensible people were engaged at the time. The majority of these fall under the purview of the special history of such subjects rather than the general history of literature. However, a few writers claim a place in our history, and among them is one of tremendous significance—Bacon, the main writing master of his day.

Francis Bacon, the second son of a notable lawyer and statesman, was born on January 22, 1561. His wit and precocity drew the queen’s attention as a child, and she jokingly referred to him as her “young lord keeper”—his father being the Keeper of the Great Seal of England at the time. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was sent to Paris in the suite of the English ambassador in preparation for a future as a statesman. After his father died in 1579, he was left to fend for himself; he selected the law as a vocation, was admitted to the bar in 1582, and became Queen’s Counsel in 1589. By this point, he had built a name for himself as an orator in the House of Commons.

Following James I’s ascension, he gained quickly in favour and money. In 1603 he was knighted; in 1613 he became Attorney General; in 1616 he became Privy Councillor; in 1617 he became Lord Keeper; in 1618 he became Lord Chancellor and Baron Verulam; and in 1621 he became Viscount St. Albans. Then there was a loud crash. He was impeached before the House of Lords on multiple counts of official malfeasance, and he was sentenced to a £40,000 fine, imprisonment at the king’s pleasure, and lifelong exile from parliament and court. This sentence, however, was never carried out, and he was eventually granted a royal pardon. He spent the last few years of his life in intellectual endeavours before dying in 1626 as a result of complications from a cold contracted while conducting a scientific experiment. His personality was riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. He considered himself to be “born for the service of mankind,” and honestly intended to devote his magnificent powers to the growth of knowledge that would lead to the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” In practise, however, he made many sacrifices for the sake of wealth and power, as well as the realisation of his irrational desires, while his moral teaching too frequently resolves itself into the narrowest practicality and utilitarianism. His biggest writings, Advancement of Learning and Novum Organum (New Organ or instrument), in which he sets forth and illustrates the inductive or ‘Baconian’ technique of examining nature, placing him at the forefront of the world’s epoch-makers. However, these belong to the history of science and philosophy, not general literature. His main contribution to general literature is his small collection of Essays, or Counsels Civil and Moral, which was first published in 1597 and was greatly expanded in 1612 and 1625. The drafting of these Essays was undoubtedly inspired by the Essais of the great French thinker Montaigne, but the subject matter and style are totally Bacon’s own. It should be noted that, like Montaigne, he employs the term “essay” in its original etymological form, which is wholly Bacon’s. It should be observed that, like sensibility, which is now nearly extinct, and as comparable to assay—a trial or attempt. As a result, the Essays are only meant to be used as a guide “dispersed reflections or informal comments on the issues addressed, as opposed to full treatises Thoroughly practical in nature, they are preoccupied for the most part with the conduct of life in private and public affairs, and thus with matters that concern men’s business and bosoms.” Their distinguishing characteristics are extraordinary insight and sagacity; they are loaded with the ripest wisdom of experience, perhaps more than any other book of the same size in any literature; but we must never forget that the wisdom which they instil is, on the whole, of a distinctly worldly kind. Though, according to his first biographer, Bacon “did rather drive at a masculine and clear expression than at any fineness or affectation of phrases” in writing them, his style is marked by the general ornateness, fondness for imagery, and love of analogy and metaphor, which were all very fashionable at the time. It is also heavily Latinised. But its most notable feature is its amazing brevity and epigrammatic intensity. Bacon had an almost unrivalled ability to cram his thoughts into the smallest possible area, and we might thus describe his Essays as ‘unlimited riches in a little place,’ to use a term from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta.

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Other  Prose of the Period


The varied interests of the time are well represented in the prose literature of the time. Many writers cultivated history, including Raleigh in his vast and uncritical History of the World (1614); Bacon in his judicial History of Henry VII’s Reign (1622); Foxe in his thoroughly untrustworthy Acts and Monuments or Book of Martyrs (1563); and Raphael Holinshed in his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland—a work that Shakespeare frequently referred to in his historical plays. The literature of travel naturally blossomed at a time when the spirit of adventure was strong, and one particularly notable work, Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation, may be given as an example. A great deal of important work was done in the field of theology, and while this does not properly concern us here, the masterly Ecclesiastical Polity (1594-97) of RICHARD Hooker may be mentioned in passing for the sake of its style, which, while still over-rhetorical and involved, is generally plainer and simpler than most contemporary prose. In this perspective, we should consider the Authorised Version of the Bible (1611), which has had a tremendous influence on English writing since its publication. From the beginning of people’s interest in the forms and 76 point of view of literary history, there is also enormous significance in the development of the literature of criticism, as this demonstrates the principles of literature as an art. Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie is the most well-known of these early treatises (about 1581). William Webbe’s Discourse of English Poetrie (1586) and George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie are two more important works in this genre (1589).

The Shakespearean Age – Prose

Lyly and Other Prose Fiction Writers

While the play was the primary creative vehicle for the Shakespearean Age, it was also active in the field of prose literature. It did not, in fact, produce what we term the novel, which is a long account about contemporary life and manners. This was not established in English literature until much after Shakespeare’s death, more than a century later. However, significant progress was achieved in other lines of fake narrative.

The activity of translators, who familiarised the reading public with Spanish and Italian romance, as well as Italian novelle, or short stories, provided some impetus in this direction. The final two are of secondary relevance since they are the sources from which Elizabethan dramatists, including Shakespeare, frequently relied for plot material. They were also adapted and reproduced, and several storey collections, such as William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, became popular.

The most notable prose romance of the period is the work of JOHN LYLY, whose comedies, Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, and its sequel, Euphues and his England, have already been mentioned. The former was published in 1579, making it exactly contemporaneous with the Shepheardes Calendar; the latter was released the following year. The first part tells the storey of a wealthy, handsome, and clever young Athenian named Euphues, who sets out on his travels; arrives in Naples, where he becomes an intimate friend of a certain Philautus, with whom he has many long conversations on philosophical and ethical subjects; has several affairs of the heart, which fail; and eventually returns to Athens, leaving behind him a ‘pamphlet, or letter, addressed to his friend and described as ‘a It is a love storey, but there is no action, and what little storyline there is is just an excuse for lengthy lectures and moralising. In the second part, Euphues visits England and gives a long description of the country, court, and manners of the isle’, which is so unqualified in its praise that, if we only take it as true, we would be convinced that in Lyly’s time, our land was a paradise, and its inhabitants absolute embodiments of all the virtues. Euphues’ popularity was astonishing; in little more than a half-century, it went through 10 editions—a huge record at the time; everyone who read anything read it; and the ladies of the court used it as a moral guidebook, a guide to polite behaviour, and a model of elegance in speech and writing. Its enduring popularity is primarily due to its style. Enthusiasm for the classics, the impact of Italian and Spanish literatures, and a general desire to elevate and polish the common tongue resulted in a wide spectrum of bizarre attempts in English prose. Lyly’s fashion sense or “Euphuism, as it is known, is the most notable of these. It is distinguishable from other current efforts by great elaboration and artifice, as well as a variety of particular rhetorical tropes that give it a dimension of its own. It would take too much space to go over them all here, so I will just highlight the most crucial ones. Perhaps the most notable feature of Euphuism is the excessive use of balanced antithesis; for example, “As you may suspect me of idleness in giving ear to your talk, so you may convince me of lightness in answering such toys”; in which, as will be seen, suspect me’ and ‘convince me’, ‘idleness’ and ‘lightness’, ‘giving ear’ and ‘answering’, ‘talk’ and ‘toys This balanced antithesis is sometimes used with alliteration, as in ‘Although I have shrined thee in my heart as a loyal friend, I will shun thee hereafter as a trothless adversary,’ for example. Lyly also enjoys similes, wordplay, and punning, and has a penchant for ‘non’-natural history, or the natural history of myth and fable rather than science. To our astonishment, we read of a bird named Attagen “who never singeth any time after she is taken,” of a beautiful stone called Draconites found in the dragon, of a shrub called Dictannum “in which the wounded deer always finds an unfailing remedy,” and so on. Shakespeare uses the toad as an example of incredible pseudo-science when he describes it as ‘ugly and venomous,’ yet with a ‘beautiful jewel in his head.’

Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, completed around 1581 but not published until 1613, may be assigned second place in Elizabethan romance. To some extent, this work continues the traditions of earlier chivalric tales, although it owes much of its shape to the pastoral Diana of the Portuguese Montemayor and the Arcadia of the Italian Sannazaro. It is full with happenings, unlike Euphues, which has almost no tale. The adventures of the two friends, Pyrocles and Musidorus, while attempting to win the two Arcadian princesses, Philoclea and Pamela, provide the primary interest; however, a large number of other characters are introduced, each of whom becomes the centre of a separate storey, and episodes arise within episodes, adding to the plot’s complication and confusion. Though, unlike Lyly, Sidney does not overwork a few rhetorical elements, his style is exceedingly intricate and poetical, and, while striking and beautiful in moments, it gets tiresome in the long run due to its absolute lack of simplicity and restraint. Lodge and Greene, two of the pre-Shakespearean dramatists we have recognised, are also important romance authors. In general, they resemble Sidney in their use of conventional pastoralism’s people and machinery, but their style is heavily influenced by Lyly. Among their many other works, each wrote one book that is still of significance, not because of its basic virtues, but because of its relationship to Shakespeare. The raw ingredients for As You Like It came from Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues’ Golden Legacy; those for The Winter’s Tale came from Greene’s Pandosto, The Triumph of Time. He selected the law as his vocation; he was called to the he had also made his mark as an orator in the House of Commons. Thomas Nash, University Wits?, has a place somewhat apart, because at a time when the tendency in fiction was almost entirely towards romance, he gave a distinct lead in the direction of coarse realism. His Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton, a wandering narrative of adventure on the continent, is our oldest example of the picaresque novel,’ or novel of rascality—a genre of literature that was already popular in Spain and that Defoe would later pursue with great success.

Bacon and His Essays

We must not assume that Shakespearean English literature was purely a work of the imagination. England was now feeling the intellectual and creative stimulation of the Renaissance, which resulted in the production of a large number of written works dealing with many issues in which sensible people were engaged at the time. The majority of these fall under the purview of the special history of such subjects rather than the general history of literature. However, a few writers claim a place in our history, and among them is one of tremendous significance—Bacon, the main writing master of his day.

Francis Bacon, the second son of a notable lawyer and statesman, was born on January 22, 1561. His wit and precocity drew the queen’s attention as a child, and she jokingly referred to him as her “young lord keeper”—his father being the Keeper of the Great Seal of England at the time. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was sent to Paris in the suite of the English ambassador in preparation for a future as a statesman. After his father died in 1579, he was left to fend for himself; he selected the law as a vocation, was admitted to the bar in 1582, and became Queen’s Counsel in 1589. By this point, he had built a name for himself as an orator in the House of Commons.

Following James I’s ascension, he gained quickly in favour and money. In 1603 he was knighted; in 1613 he became Attorney General; in 1616 he became Privy Councillor; in 1617 he became Lord Keeper; in 1618 he became Lord Chancellor and Baron Verulam; and in 1621 he became Viscount St. Albans. Then there was a loud crash. He was impeached before the House of Lords on multiple counts of official malfeasance, and he was sentenced to a £40,000 fine, imprisonment at the king’s pleasure, and lifelong exile from parliament and court. This sentence, however, was never carried out, and he was eventually granted a royal pardon. He spent the last few years of his life in intellectual endeavours before dying in 1626 as a result of complications from a cold contracted while conducting a scientific experiment. His personality was riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. He considered himself to be “born for the service of mankind,” and honestly intended to devote his magnificent powers to the growth of knowledge that would lead to the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” In practise, however, he made many sacrifices for the sake of wealth and power, as well as the realisation of his irrational desires, while his moral teaching too frequently resolves itself into the narrowest practicality and utilitarianism. His biggest writings, Advancement of Learning and Novum Organum (New Organ or instrument), in which he sets forth and illustrates the inductive or ‘Baconian’ technique of examining nature, placing him at the forefront of the world’s epoch-makers. However, these belong to the history of science and philosophy, not general literature. His main contribution to general literature is his small collection of Essays, or Counsels Civil and Moral, which was first published in 1597 and was greatly expanded in 1612 and 1625. The drafting of these Essays was undoubtedly inspired by the Essais of the great French thinker Montaigne, but the subject matter and style are totally Bacon’s own. It should be noted that, like Montaigne, he employs the term “essay” in its original etymological form, which is wholly Bacon’s. It should be observed that, like sensibility, which is now nearly extinct, and as comparable to assay—a trial or attempt. As a result, the Essays are only meant to be used as a guide “dispersed reflections or informal comments on the issues addressed, as opposed to full treatises Thoroughly practical in nature, they are preoccupied for the most part with the conduct of life in private and public affairs, and thus with matters that concern men’s business and bosoms.” Their distinguishing characteristics are extraordinary insight and sagacity; they are loaded with the ripest wisdom of experience, perhaps more than any other book of the same size in any literature; but we must never forget that the wisdom which they instil is, on the whole, of a distinctly worldly kind. Though, according to his first biographer, Bacon “did rather drive at a masculine and clear expression than at any fineness or affectation of phrases” in writing them, his style is marked by the general ornateness, fondness for imagery, and love of analogy and metaphor, which were all very fashionable at the time. It is also heavily Latinised. But its most notable feature is its amazing brevity and epigrammatic intensity. Bacon had an almost unrivalled ability to cram his thoughts into the smallest possible area, and we might thus describe his Essays as ‘unlimited riches in a little place,’ to use a term from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta.

Other  Prose of the Period

The varied interests of the time are well represented in the prose literature of the time. Many writers cultivated history, including Raleigh in his vast and uncritical History of the World (1614); Bacon in his judicial History of Henry VII’s Reign (1622); Foxe in his thoroughly untrustworthy Acts and Monuments or Book of Martyrs (1563); and Raphael Holinshed in his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland—a work that Shakespeare frequently referred to in his historical plays. The literature of travel naturally blossomed at a time when the spirit of adventure was strong, and one particularly notable work, Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation, may be given as an example. A great deal of important work was done in the field of theology, and while this does not properly concern us here, the masterly Ecclesiastical Polity (1594-97) of Richard Hooker may be mentioned in passing for the sake of its style, which, while still over-rhetorical and involved, is generally plainer and simpler than most contemporary prose. In this perspective, we should consider the Authorised Version of the Bible (1611), which has had a tremendous influence on English writing since its publication. From the beginning of people’s interest in the forms and 76 point of view of literary history, there is also enormous significance in the development of the literature of criticism, as this demonstrates the principles of literature as an art. Sydney’s Apologie for Poetrie is the most well-known of these early treatises (about 1581). William Webbe’s Discourse of English Poetrie (1586) and George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie are two more important works in this genre (1589).

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