History of Literature





The Beginnings of Literature. Myths and Legends

Classical Myth

Myth and Mystery


Hebrew literature

Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) Literature. The Silver Age

Latin (Roman) Literature. Renaissance

Modern Italian Literature

The Middle Ages Literature

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Restoration

The Rise of the Novel

Cervantes and Spanish literature

The Enlightenment


Classicism and Naturalism

The 19th century - Prose

The 20th century - Modernism

The 20th century - The Political Novel

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

Michael Drayton
Philip Sidney
Walter Raleigh

Edmund Spenser "The Faerie Queene" BOOK I, BOOK II, BOOK III, BOOK IV, BOOK V, BOOK VI
Illustrations by Walter Crane

Thomas North
Richard Hakluyt
Richard Hooker

Francis Bacon "New Atlantis", "The Essays or Counsels"

John Lyly
Robert Greene
Thomas Sackville
Thomas Kyd
Nicholas Udall

William Shakespeare
PART I "Sonnets"
"Hamlet, Prince of Denmark"
"The Tragedy of King Lear"
PART IV "The Tragedy of Macbeth"
"Othello, the Moor of Venice"
PART VI "Romeo and Juliet"

Christopher Marlowe "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus"

Ben Jonson  PART I "Volpone", PART II "The Alchemist"

Thomas Dekker
Francis Beaumont
John Fletcher
George Chapman
John Marston
Thomas Middleton
John Webster
Cyril Tourneur

John Millais


Elizabeth I

The Renaissance in England reached its peak late in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) which, in spite of the work of revisionist historians, still seems a golden age. Almost all forms of literature flourished.

Poetry in the tradition established by
Wyatt and Surrey was carried on by the prolific Michael Drayton.

Some of the finest lyric poets were courtiers, like
Sir Philip Sidney, hugely admired by contemporaries for his personal qualities as well as his poetry, and Sir Walter Raleigh, who also wrote a history of the world while imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Drama rose in little more than one generation from modest beginnings to the supreme achievement of


Edmund Spenser  (d. 1599) is the herald of the Elizabethan Renaissance, a poet who first attracted attention as a student with his Petrarchian sonnets. He joined a noble household and became friendly with Sidney, to whom he dedicated his long pastoral poem, The Shepheard's Calendar, in 1579. Soon afterwards he started to write "The Faerie Queene", of which he completed only six of the planned twelve books. Its complex allegories make it difficult for the modern reader, and its greatest virtue is atmosphere: beautiful, musical language, a suggestion of magic in the air. It was written in a new metre, the 'Spenserian stanza', nine lines to a verse rhyming abab-bebec, the last line having six, rather than five, iambic feet. It was to be often copied.

Spenser is a poet's poet, generally admired by his successors and an inspiration to Milton, Keats and others.

Illustrations by Walter Crane

'There wont faire Venus often to enjoy
Her deare Adonis joyous company,
And reape sweet pleasure of the wanton boy;
There yet, some say, in secret he does ly,
Lapped in flowres and pretious spycery,
By her hid from the world, and from the skill
Of Stygian Gods, which doe her loue envy;
But she her selfe, when ever that she will,
Possesseth him, and of his sweetnesse takes her fill.'

Spenser, The Faerie Queene, bk. 3, canto vi, st. 46.


The sudden literary creativeness of the late Elizabethan period can be partly ascribed to the development of the language, which in the early 16th century was still relatively inflexible and dominated by foreign forms. The new confidence, spurred by national pride and increasing wealth, was no less evident in prose than in poetic drama.
Sir Thomas North's fine translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans proved a treasure trove for Shakespeare, while Richard Hakluyt wrote an invaluable history of the Renaissance voyages of exploration. The Chronicles (1577) of Holinshed (and others), the first full account of English history in English, provided the raw material for the history plays of Shakespeare and others.

Richard Hooker defended the Church of England in classic English prose, and the philosopher Francis Bacon "New Atlantis", "The Essays", who rose to be Lord Chancellor and Viscount St Albans, explored almost every area of human knowledge in his Essays and other works. He was regarded by 17th-century thinkers as the father of modern science and by some 19th-century critics as the real author of Shakespeare's plays, a notion still not entirely dead.

Francis Bacon
"New Atlantis",
"The Essays"

There was prose fiction - hardly novels - at first influenced by the tales of Boccaccio (Rabelais was as yet untranslated and known to only a few).
John Lyly's Euphues was written in the elaborate style called (after his book) 'euphuistic', in which verbal dexterity takes precedence over sense. The style was fashionable for a while, and was affected in conversation by ladies of the court, where Lyly, who was also a talented playwright, was an influential figure, but it is often excruciating to read. Robert Greene wrote a sequel to Euphues, among his many disparate publications. One of his stories gave Shakespeare, whom he famously attacked as an 'upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers', the plot for The Winter's Tale.


By the accession of Elizabeth, medieval religious drama was in decline, but for some time European kings and great nobles had supported their own companies of actors. The earliest surviving plays were also probably performed privately. The first known English tragedy is Gorboduc, by
Thomas North and Thomas Sackville, a dull and static drama in inferior blank verse. Early tragedies are in general unsatisfactory, though a step forward was taken with Thomas Kyd's lurid 'revenge' drama. The Spanish Tragedy (1592), which continued to hold the stage throughout Shakespeare's time. Among comedies, Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1553) was written by Nicholas Udall, headmaster of Westminster School, and was probably designed for his boys. It is a rustic comedy in rough verse.

Similarly, Gammer Gurton's Needle, another knockabout comedy, was performed at Cambridge University in 1563. Companies of boy actors performed at the royal court. Boys playing women, as they still did in
Shakespeare's time, were probably more believable than boys playing the great heroes of antiquity, in plays by Lyly and others. Companies of professional actors, organized on the lines of a craft guild and supported by an aristocratic patron, at first performed in inn yards. That was to influence the design of Elizabethan theatres, the first of which, called simply The Theatre, was built in 1576.


There's no life portrait of Shakespeare
but this painting resembles the engraving
that formed the frontispiece of the First Folio

The work of the poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), comprising about 36 plays (one or two are disputed), 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems, is more admired than that of any other writer in the history of Western civilization.

Shakespeare's outstanding gifts are his ability to create vivid characters in profound psychological depth and his extraordinary command of language, both in blank verse and prose.

His imagination is immensely rich, and the subtlety of his characterization allows almost unlimited scope for interpretation by actors and directors.

Shakespeare studies have formed a major part of the Western cultural tradition for nearly 400 years and every generation finds something new and stimulating in him. He is universal.


In spite of diligent research by scholars,
Shakespeare the man is elusive. The known facts are few, encouraging endless speculation on the basis of his writings. His understanding of so wide a range of human experience inclines soldiers to think he must have been in the army, lawyers that he had studied law, doctors that he must have had some medical experience, etc.

He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, son of a successful merchant who fell on hard times. The son later restored the family fortunes. He probably attended the local grammar school, and in 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant with a daughter, Susanna. Twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born in 1585, but ultimately the marriage seems to have been unsatisfactory. He may have taught in a local school, but by 1592 he was associated, as writer and actor, with a company of actors in London. The company, in which he held shares, built its own theatre, the Globe, in 1599. In 1596
Shakespeare's application for a grant of arras was accepted, making him officially a gentleman. He bought a large house, New Place, in Stratford, and gradually cut down his business in London. He was buried in Holy Trinity, Stratford, and his last descendant, a granddaughter, died in 1670. Most of his poetry seems to have been written in 1593—94, when the London theatres were closed by plague. His plays, on the other hand, were written for performance, and he apparently took no interest in their printing. Othello was not printed until 1622 and some scripts were supplied from memory by the actors; moreover, no manuscript of Shakespeare's has survived. Problems concerning accuracy and dating have exercised scholars since the 18th century.

William Shakespeare


PART I "Sonnets",
"King Lear",
PART IV "Macbeth",
PART V "Othello",
"Romeo and Juliet"

Shakespeare began writing plays in the late 1580s, among the first being the three parts of Henry VI and their sequel, Richard III, which shows a growing grasp of his powers. In the early 1590s came the first of his Roman tragedies, Titus Andronicus, often dismissed as melodrama, but recently rising in reputation, and the early comedies, including The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labour's Lost, another play that has proved more interesting in recent years. Richard II (probably 1595), is an enthralling dry run for the great tragedies, but in the following years, apart from Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare concentrated mainly on comedy, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and (in about 1600) the enchanting Twelfth Night. The best of his English history plays, Henry IV, Parts I and II, featuring Sir John Falstaff, and Henry V, were written about 1596-99, Julius Caesar about 1599.

The first and probably the most famous of the great tragedies,
Hamlet, came soon afterwards, to be followed within the next five years by Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. These arc generally regarded as Shakespeare's greatest plays, though not necessarily the most popular. Some of his finest verse is to be found in Antony and Cleopatra, and the last of the Roman plays, Coriolanus (c.1607), is by some ranked close to the great tragedies.

Although only 43,
Shakespeare now entered his 'late' period. Cymbeline, the enigmatic The Winter's Tale and The Tempest are neither tragedy nor comedy, but a romantic mixture of the two. The Tempest, first performed in 1611, is traditionally regarded as his last complete play, but he appears to have co-operated with other playwrights on several subsequent productions.

Within a few years of
Shakespeare's death, two of his colleagues began to collect his plays. The collection, generally known as the First Folio, was published in 1623. It is a mark of his contemporary distinction, for no similar enterprise was launched for any other playwright. The work may be regarded as one of the most important publications in literary history. Not only does it provide texts which were as accurate as they could be in the circumstances, but it contains 16 plays of which no copy has survived in any other form. It also contains a poetic tribute by Ben Jonson, who describes his late colleague as 'not of an age, but for all time'.

William Shakespeare

'Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.'

Shakespeare, The Tempest, IV, i.

The Globe Theatre


Although solitary literary geniuses are far from unknown, they are more often to be found in a place or period where literary talent is flourishing. Shakespeare was not the only good Elizabethan playwright. Whether these writers have been overrated because they are associated with Shakespeare, or underrated because he outshone them, is a moot point. The latter view seems closer to the truth. There was plenty of work for them in London, as the theatre was immensely popular. But it did have its opponents. Some elements of the Church, especially the Puritans, were against it on moral grounds. More important, the mayor and aldermen were hostile, and it was for that reason that theatres were built in Southwark, across London Bridge and out of the City's jurisdiction. Hundreds of people, locals and visitors, flocked across the river daily to the Elizabethan equivalent of the present West End, where they could choose between a play and less edifying entertainment such as bear baiting.


Christopher Marlowe
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus"

Christopher Marlowe (1564—93) was slightly ahead of Shakespeare in writing, splendid dramatic blank verse, as his first tragedy, Tamurlaine the Great, was probably written before 1587. It is an extremely violent and savage play, and the dialogue has sometimes been seen as overripe. Shakespeare, despite being an admirer of Marlowe, poked fun at the scene in which Tamburlaine goads the conquered kings who arc forced to pull his carnage:

'Holla, ye pampered Jades of Asia: What! Can ye draw but twenty miles a day!'.

Marlowe's later plays were better, especially The Jew of Malta, Edward II, which Shakespeare might have been proud of, and his last,
"The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus". He also translated Ovid and wrote a good deal of poetry, including the well-known song, 'Come live with me and be my love'. Marlowe was highly thought of in his time — a fellow playwright, George Peele, called him 'the Muses' darling' - but his private life was turbulent, even sinister.

He was thrown out of the Netherlands for forgery, was involved in a street fight in which a man was killed, and was finally himself murdered in a tavern brawl, apparently in a quarrel over the bill, though there is a suspicion of a connection with Marlowe's (probable) activities as a spy.


Ben Jonson
PART I "Volpone"
"The Alchemist"

Ben (short for Benjamin) Jonson (1572—1637) was also no stranger to violence. As a young man he was a highly regarded soldier and later narrowly escaped execution after killing a fellow actor in a duel; but he is a more attractive character than
Christopher Marlowe and, after Shakespeare, probably the finest playwright of the age. His first notable play, in which Shakespeare acted, was Every Man in his Humour, produced in 1598. Every Man out of his Humour was one of the first productions at the Globe. He also wrote tragedies and masques - courtly entertainments with music and dance designed by Inigo Jones, a celebrated English architect and stage designer - but comedy was his forte. He believed in Aristotle's unities of place, time and action, and was more learned, in a formal sense, than Shakespeare, but lacked his gift for character. Full of self-confidence, even for an Elizabethan, he could be scathing about his contemporaries, but had no doubts of Shakespeare's genius.

He wrote at least twenty plays, the finest of them in the decade 1605-14.
"Volpone" is a brilliant satire on greed set in Venice, in which the names of the characters reflect their natures: Volpone (fox), Mosca (fly), Corbaccio (crow), Corvino (raven), Voltore (vulture). "The Alchemist" mocks human gullibility and lets fly at types of whom Jonson disapproved, such as fanatical Puritans, as represented by Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome. Bartholomew Fair is a vigorous, pungent pageant of London life at the great annual fair held at Smithfield on St Bartholomew's Day.


The London playwrights inhabited a small, incestuous world. Their plays contain many comments on each other, sometimes good-natured, sometimes not, and they frequently collaborated. A prime example is
Thomas Dekker (d. 1632), the majority of whose works are collaborations, though the best, the lively London comedy A Shoemaker's Holiday, is his own.

Francis Beaumont (1584—1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625) were a well-established and immensely popular partnership who wrote over a dozen plays together.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a sort of English Don Quixote, and the tragi-comedy Phylaster are among their best, though the former is now thought to be exclusively
Beaumont's work. Fletcher also collaborated with many others, including Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. George Chapman wrote a number of somewhat slapdash comedies, among other works, and sometimes collaborated with John Marston, whose finest play was The Malcontent, a tragicomedy set in Italy (Marston's mother was Italian). Thomas Middletonn (1580-1627), remarkably versatile even by Elizabethan standards and a frequent partner of Dekker, is remembered especially for The Changeling, a tragedy written with another frequent collaborator, William Rowley (d.1626).


Jacobean drama was more exotic and more obsessive, less vigorous, less direct in its appeal, and less popular. Puritan influence was growing, and theatre depended more upon Court patronage. Nevertheless, it was far from worthless and encompassed at least one playwright of near genius, John Webster (d.?1632). A coach maker by trade, he wrote many plays in collaboration with Dekker and others, and his reputation today rests almost entirely on two plays, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, both written in about 1612. Critics have pointed out Webster's technical deficiencies, and others have objected to the gruesome and shocking events -the fifth act of The Duchess of Malfi is a kind of literary chamber of horrors — but Webster has passages of sublime poetry and can be seen as a powerful moralist. Shakespeare apart, these two plays have been revived in the 20th century more often than those of any other playwright of the period. (One advantage is that both have challenging female leading roles). Another notable Jacobean dramatist is Cyril Tourneur (d. 1626), a proponent of the 'revenge' tragedy, a famous example of which is Shakespeare's Hamlet.



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