Th century: Elizabethan LITERATURE
During the late 1400's, Middle English began to develop into Modern English. By the late 1500's, the English were speaking and writing English in a form much like that used today. A golden age of English literature began in 1485 and lasted until 1660. It coincided largely with the rule of the royal House of Tudor with its last monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. During this period, called the Elizabethan Age, English writers produced some of the greatest poetry and drama in world literature.
Several factors contributed to the brilliant literary output of the Elizabethan Age. One of the most important was the introduction of printing by William Caxton in 1476, which increased the amount of cheaper books and stimulated literacy and the demand for books. Another factor was the wealth pouring into London from distant colonies, which made London a great commercial and cultural center and attracted writers, painters, and musicians.
The whole period was shaped by Renaissance – a European movement, known also as humanism, which encouraged attention to the literature and art of classical Greece and Rome, forgotten for many centuries. Translations of Greek and particularly Roman literary works strongly influenced Elizabethan writers, including Sir Thomas More, the most prominent humanist writer of the Middle English period. His Latin prose narrative "Utopia" (1516) follows Greek philosopher Plato to explore and regret the reasons why kings fail to use the wisdom of philosophers.
The Elizabethan period brought great changes to poetry and prose and introduced new poetic and prosaic forms, including the essay from France and the sonnet from Italy.
Three chief forms of poetry flourished during the Elizabethan Age. They were (1) the lyric (a short poem that expresses a poet's personal emotions in a songlike style), (2) the sonnet (a 14-line poem with a certain pattern of rhyme and rhythm), and (3) narrative poetry telling a story in verse. Thomas Campion wrote many beautiful lyrics in his "Books of Airs" (1601 to about 1617). Thomas Wyatt and Henry Surrey used the sonnet in typically Elizabethan fashion and prepared the way for Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare, and others. Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser were the two great innovators of Renaissance poetry in the late 16th century Sidney initiated the sonnet cycle, or sequence, -- a group of sonnets based on a single theme or about one person. He used the sonnet cycle in his "Amoretti" (1595) to idealize womanhood, a favored motif in much of the poetry and drama of the period. The most famous sonnet cycle by Shakespeare is written to an unknown "dark lady." In addition to sonnets, Shakespeare and Spenser wrote narrative poems. Shakespeare based his "Venus and Adonis" (1593) on a Roman myth. Spenser borrowed heavily from medieval romances in his unfinished masterpiece, "The Faerie Queene" (1590, 1596, 1609).
English poets translated many works from other literatures. For example, the Earl of Surrey translated part of the "Aeneid", an epic poem by the ancient Roman author Virgil. This translation introduced blank verse (unrhymed lines of 10 syllables, with every other syllable accented) to English literature. Many poets adopted this form.
Elizabethan drama known for its passion and vitality is rated even higher than the poetry of the period. In 1576, James Burbage built England's first playhouse, called The Theatre, in a suburb of London; other playhouses followed suit. With Thomas Kyd and his "Spanish Tragedy" (1580s), who began the tradition of the chronicle play of the fatal deeds of kings, filled with scenes of violence, madness, and revenge, drama emerged into theatrical form. Between 1580 and 1642, when the Puritan Parliament closed the London theaters, theater flourished in London.
The leading Elizabethan playwrights were known as the "University Wits" because they had attended the famous English universities at Oxford or Cambridge. Christopher Marlowe, the most important dramatist among the Wits, wrote tragedies that center on strong personalities, including "Tamburlaine the Great" (about 1587) and "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" (about 1588).
Elizabethan tragedy and comedy alike reached the highest level in the world-renowned works of William Shakespeare, including "Hamlet," "King Lear," "Macbeth," "Richard III," "Midsummer Dream," and other masterpieces. Beyond his rich style, his complex plots, and his unrivaled projection of character, Shakespeare's understanding of the human condition has made him the representative figure of English literature for the whole world.
The Elizabethan Age produced most of the earliest works of prose fiction in English literature. Readers especially liked fanciful, elaborately told stories of love and adventure. They popularized a highly artificial and elegant style in pastorals (stories about the romantic adventures of shepherds). It is only natural that these works are largely forgotten today.
17th century: The Stuarts and the Puritans (1603-1660)
After the death of Elizabeth I and the next king, her cousin James VI of Scotland, his son Charles I ascended to the throne. Conflicts between the monarchy and Parliament worsened. Civil war broke out in 1642 between the king's followers, who were called Cavaliers, and Parliament's chief supporters, a religious and political group called the Puritans. In 1648, the Puritans won the war, beheaded Charles in 1649, and ruled England until 1660. The political situation influenced English literature of the period.
English prose started to emerge in full richness in the 17th century, with the "Authorized Version of the Bible", also called the "King James Bible" (1611). It is significant because its vocabulary, imagery, and rhythms, elegant yet natural style have influenced English writers ever since. Yet, there are few outstanding prose works written in that period, apart from philosophical essays and tracts written during the early and mid-1600's.
The XVII century poetry developed within two distinct tendencies represented by metaphysical and Cavalier poets. The first is exemplified by the poetry of John Donne, the leader, and his followers, who carried the metaphorical style to new heights. The second group, the Cavalier poets, were associated with the court of Charles I and included Thomas Carew, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Sir John Suckling.
The metaphysical poets used comparatively simple language, but they often created elaborate images called conceits. Donne wrote passionate love poetry until he converted from Roman Catholicism to the Anglican faith and became an Anglican priest in 1615. After his conversion, Donne wrote equally passionate poems to God. In contrast to the serious metaphysical poets, the Cavalier poets wrote dashing love poetry.
The last great poet of the English Renaissance in the mid-1660s was the Puritan writer John Milton. He wrote prose and verse on many subjects, but his greatest achievement is "Paradise Lost" (1667), an epic poem based on the story of Adam and Eve. The work, which became a classic of world literature, is noted for its rich and musical blank verse and vivid descriptions of heaven, hell, and the Garden of Eden.
Jacobean drama emulated Elizabethan drama, especially in such characteristics as violent action, spectacle, and the revenge theme. Satiric comedies were also popular, including the plays "Volpone" (1606) and "The Alchemist" (1610) in which Ben Jonson satirizes universal human failings such as greed, ignorance, or superstition, showing the influence of ancient Roman drama.
After James I died, the quality of English drama rapidly declined. In 1642, the Puritans ordered the closing of the theaters, claiming that plays were wicked. The order remained in effect for 18 years.