Home  »  library  »  course  »  Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: III. The Elizabethan Age (1564–1616)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: III. The Elizabethan Age (1564–1616)

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)

The Historical Background
IT is difficult for us who live in an age whose dominating characteristic is democracy to realize to what extent and with what intensity the people of England indulged in a kind of hero-worship whose object was Queen Elizabeth. The tide of national life was running high and the enthusiasm of the nation found an outlet in display and pageantry. The Englishmen who “filled the spacious times of great Elizabeth with sounds that echo still” were themselves men of heroic mould. Looking backward with the eyes of Milton, we seem to see the England of this day as
  • “a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleeping, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks [says Milton] I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unsealing her long abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means.”
  • England under Elizabeth was indeed a “noble and puissant nation,” and not merely in a political sense; even more so was it a golden age in the realm of literature. It was as if the dormant experience which had been storing itself up in England since the time of Chaucer had suddenly aroused itself and awakened to a realization of its full power. This is a great age in poetry, in prose, and in drama, for it has given us a flock of singing birds whose lyric note still sounds sweetly; in prose it has given us the rich, if antiquated, style of Lyly, the clear thought of Sidney, and the terse epigrammatic expression of Bacon; and in the drama, head and shoulders above his distinguished company of fellow craftsmen, Shakespeare, who is “not of an age but for all time.”

    The centre about whom the courtiers and the writers of the day revolved was Queen Elizabeth. Spenser in the letter prefixed to his ‘Faerie Queene’ says: “In that ‘Faerie Queene’ I mean glory in my generall intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our souveraine the Queene, and her kingdom in Faerie Land.”

    Elizabeth was in fact the ‘Gloriana’ of a glorious age, and it is not the lowest praise that we give her when we say that, finding a realm in which religious intolerance and political uncertainty were rampant, she so steered her course between the Scylla of reformation and the Charybdis of political revolution that her administration has become synonymous with tolerance and peace. She found her island kingdom in grave danger of European vassalage; she left it independent of all European powers and respected by the world at large. She found a Church poised uncertainly between reaction and reform; she left it upon a firm foundation which since her day has never been seriously shaken. She was, indeed, a great character in a great age. Possibly in her, as in her subjects, the necessities of the time brought out the heroic in character and encouraged the magnificent in action. Certain it is that at no other time has the Crown shone with the reflected light of an intenser loyalty or of a deeper national devotion. The words which Shakespeare puts into the mouth of John of Gaunt in ‘Richard II.’ are but the echo of the thought of every loyal Englishman of the day of Queen Bess as he looked with pride upon

  • “This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle,
  • This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
  • This other Eden, demi-paradise
  • This fortress built by Nature for herself
  • Against infection and the hand of war,
  • This happy breed of men, this little world,
  • This precious stone set in the silver sea,
  • Which serves it in the office of a wall
  • Or a moat defensive to a house,
  • Against the envy of less happier lands.”
  • It was, indeed, “the envy of less happier lands” which produced most of the political complications of Elizabeth’s day, and she needed the skillful help of far-seeing and astute courtiers to guide the ship of state with safety. In Burghley, Essex, and Leicester, among others, she found such men, able statesmen who shared the Tudor conception of monarchy and were willing to further its ideals and to foster its aims. Elizabeth’s diplomatic refusal of the proffered hand of Philip of Spain without forfeiting his support or alienating his sympathies; her re-establishment of the ecclesiastical supremacy of the sovereign within the realm; her authorization of the use of the English language in the Book of Common Prayer in church services; her enforcing of the Oath of Supremacy upon the clergy—all of these problematical situations fraught with the possibility of grave international complications or internal strife, she managed with a caution and a skill which maintained peace abroad and at home, which created in the minds of her subjects a nation-wide conviction of her interest in their welfare, and which called from their hearts a feeling of gratitude for her concern in the common weal.

    In this age of strong personalities and of great figures, that of the Queen is perhaps the most striking. As Green says:

  • “She was at once the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn. From her father she inherited her frank and hearty address, her love of popularity and of free intercourse with the people, her dauntless courage and her amazing self-confidence. Her harsh man-like voice, her impetuous will, her pride, her furious outbursts of anger, came to her with her Tudor blood. She rated great nobles as if they were schoolboys; she met the insolence of Lord Essex with a box on the ear; she broke now and then into the gravest deliberations to swear at her ministers like a fish-wife. Strangely in contrast with these violent outbursts of her father’s temper stood the sensuous, self-indulgent nature she drew from Anne Boleyn…. She loved gaiety and laughter and wit. A happy retort or a finished compliment never failed to win her favor. She hoarded jewels. Her dresses were innumerable. Her vanity remained, even to old age, the vanity of a coquette in her teens. No adulation was too fulsome for her, no flattery of her beauty too gross…. But the Elizabeth whom they saw was far from being all of Elizabeth. Wilfulness and triviality played over the surface of a nature hard as steel, a temper purely intellectual, the very type of reason untouched by imagination or passion. Luxurious and pleasure-loving as she seemed, the young queen lived simply and frugally, and she worked hard. Her vanity and caprice had no weight whatever with her in state affairs. The coquette of the presence-chamber became the coolest and hardest of politicians at the council board: Fresh from the flattery of her courtiers, she would tolerate no flattery in the closet; she was herself plain and downright of speech with her counsellors, and she looked for a corresponding plainness of speech in return…. The versatility and many-sidedness of her mind enabled her to understand every phase of the intellectual movement about her and to fix by a sort of instinct on its highest representatives.”
  • The court at this period was the centre of national life, and the courtier the most conspicuous figure of the day. Display and adulation were ideals of personal and public life that were daily realized, and were as necessary to the existence of the sovereign as her food. Triumphant progresses through her realm satisfied her almost insatiable desire for public display and encouraged in the populace that respectful attitude towards royalty which even a strong democratic tendency cannot entirely remove. The fulsome adulation, the exaggerated compliment, the thickly coated praise of her person and her power which Elizabeth demanded incessantly and which she received in full measure from courtier, poet, and playwright, is a commentary upon the gorgeous superficiality of an age which at the same time has made some of the finest and most permanent contributions to English letters and to English political life.

    The age was a luxurious one in both diet and dress. One old chronicler of the day named Stubbes asserts that, “whereas in his father’s day, one or two dishes of good wholesome meat were thought sufficient for a man of worship to dine withal,” it was now the custom to see the table “covered from one end to the other, as thick as one dish can stand by the other,” and it was some time before the habit of eating and drinking between meals, “breakefasts in the forenoone, beverages, or nuntions after dinner,” disappeared. Nor were fashions in dress less extravagant than those of the dinner table. Shakespeare in his ‘Merchant of Venice’ describes a young baron who “bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany.” The fashions that prevailed at the English court were largely imported from the continent, and the young Englishman of fashion struttered about clad according to the latest whim of France or Spain, so that when European morals were added to the European custom, a censurer of the age described an “English man Italianate as a devil incarnate.” As might be expected, the women were even less conservative than the men in matters of custom, and supplemented nature to such a degree with the devices of the dressmaker’s art that a crabbed critic says that they were left “the smallest part of themselves.”

    The stage, too, reflected the love of gorgeous costumes of the day and actors aped the fashion of their betters in costume as well as in freedom of manners. This extravagant love of decoration and fondness for richness is reflected in some of the English prose of the period, notably in John Lyly’s ‘Euphues,’ in which balance of phrase and alliteration are incessantly used, and in which erudite allusions to little known classics are generously mingled with reference to the inexact and fabulous natural history of an unscientific age. Referring to Queen Elizabeth, Lyly for example says:

  • “Infinite were the examples that might be alleged, and almost incredible, whereby she hath shown herself a lamb in meekness, when she had cause to be a lion in might, proved a dove in favor, when she was provoked to be an eagle in fierceness, requiting injuries with benefits, revenging grudges with gifts, in highest majesty bearing the lowest mind, forgiving all that sued for mercy, and forgetting all that deserved justice.
  • “O divine nature, O heavenly nobility, what thing can there more be required in a prince, than in greatest power to show greatest patience, in chiefest glory to bring forth chiefest grace, in abundance of all earthly pomp to manifest abundance of all heavenly piety? O fortunate England that hath such a Queen, ungrateful if thou pray not for her, wicked if thou do not love her, miserable if thou lose her.”
  • This habit of making an intricate pattern out of prose is something that had a strong influence upon the writing of English. It became in Elizabeth’s day a fashionable fad, but the lure of the repeated sound, of the balance of phrase, of the apt antithesis, is to be found so late as the prose of Ruskin (e.g., ‘Modern Painters’) and the verse of Swinburne (e.g., ‘Atalanta in Calydon’).

    The Literature of Discovery
    The age of the Tudors was the first great age of geographical discovery for England, though in the general widening of man’s knowledge of the earth Europe had already had a generous share. The history of geography is in a sense the story of the expansion of commerce and of the growth of empire. To follow these two trails would take us too far afield into the history of transportation and of colonization, but their literary significance cannot here be entirely passed over.

    The increasing luxury of private life and the display of public pomp which we have seen to be a characteristic of the age of Elizabeth were in large measure responsible for the encouragement given to adventurous seamen. Though the immediate impulse to these voyages was undoubtedly either that eternal wanderlust which stirs in the Anglo-Saxon breast a powerful curiosity to yield to the lure of the unknown, yet in the background there was a national restlessness, a desire for conquest, for wider freedom, and for vast dominions which would increase the area and wealth of a European power. There was also, in some hearts at least, an element of faint hope for the discovery of El Dorado, that fabled land of gold, the Mountains of Bright Stones, the Fountain of Youth, or some such will-o’-the-wisp that in days gone by had lured men past the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis, past the gates of the central sea, toward the Islands of the Blessed, toward Atlantis and the setting sun.

    The English sailors who went roving up and down the coastwise paths of island commerce and who helped to defeat the Spanish Armada were the descendants of the old Anglo-Saxon storm kings and of the turbulent, restless fighters of the Norman régime. They were also the ancestors of a numerous and sturdy band of explorers and colonizers who fly the flag of England on every sea and who have made it her proud boast that the sun never sets on her dominions.

    Richard Hakluyt (c. 1553–1616) has preserved for us contemporary accounts of ‘The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques, and Discoveries’ of the English nation in Shakespeare’s day. Actuated by the patriotic desire to record the adventurous exploits of his countrymen, and by a shrewd commercial insight into the sources of the wealth of nations, he collected and printed all the accounts he could find of voyages or exploring expeditions to Russia, Tartary, India, and the far East, and most important of all, to the New World. Among the interesting accounts thus preserved to us, we have ‘The Last Fight of the Revenge’ in which the death of Sir Richard Grenville is narrated, the loss of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, “devoured and swallowed up of the sea,” Raleigh’s discovery of Guiana, and the American adventures of Sir Francis Drake.

    Reading Recommended

    Chronology of Discovery and Exploration
  • 1256–1323Marco Polo, early voyager.
  • 1300–1372Sir John Mandeville: ‘Travels.’
  • c. 1305Mariner’s compass invented by Flavio Gioia.
  • c. 1410Roger Bacon suggests finding the Indies by sailing westward.
  • 1470–1521Magellan.
  • 1486B. Díaz sails around Cape of Good Hope.
  • 1492Christopher Columbus lands at San Salvador.
  • 1497–1498Vasco de Gama sails around Africa to India.
  • 1497Cabot discovers the coast of North America.
  • 1499, 1501, 1503Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci.
  • 1502Last voyage of Columbus.
  • 1511Discovery of the Moluccas.
  • 1513Ponce de Leon discovers Florida; Balboa discovers the Pacific Ocean.
  • 1516More’s ‘Utopia.’
  • 1520Strait of Magellan discovered.
  • 1522Circumnavigation of the earth.
  • 1534Cartier explores the St. Lawrence.
  • 1546–1601Tycho Brahe.
  • 1554?–1618Sir Walter Raleigh.
  • c. 1553–1616Richard Hakluyt, editor of voyages.
  • 1564–1642Galileo.
  • 1576–1578Frobisher tries to find the Northwest Passage.
  • 1600East India Company chartered.
  • 1601Australia discovered.
  • 1604French settlement at Port Royal, Nova Scotia.
  • 1607English colony at Jamestown.
  • 1608Champlain founds Quebec.
  • 1615Cape Horn discovered.
  • 1619Introduction of negro slavery into Virginia.
  • 1620Pilgrim Fathers land at Plymouth Rock.
  • 1626Peter Minuit founds Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island.
  • Science and Philosophy
    Though the nineteenth century is pre-eminently the age of science and is significant for the number and character of its revolutionizing inventions, earlier ages have had the obscurer task of struggling against limitations of knowledge and of material, against the bitter, powerful, and organized antagonism of the educated and the pious, and against the superstitious prejudice of the ignorant. From the astronomical revolution of Copernicus (1473–1543) to the enunciation of the theory of evolution by Wallace (1823–1913) and Darwin (1809–1882) is a long stretch of time, but it is a span that is filled with much that is interesting. A few names will serve to indicate how many sciences were beginning their development and how the problems of physical life and of material existence were presenting themselves to men who in some cases were willing to sacrifice reputation, position, and even life, for their beliefs.

    Before 1550, a medical school, including a chair of botany, had been founded at Padua; Vesalius (1514–1564), the first scientific anatomist, had carried on his researches; Luca Ghini (1490–1556) had founded the first botanical gardens at Pisa; Ambroise Paré (c. 1510–1590) had invented ligatures for arteries; Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), one of the greatest of astronomers, had discovered the variation of the moon; the microscope had been used as early as 1590; Galileo (1564–1642) had discovered the isochronism of the pendulum, constructed thermometers and telescopes, and discovered Jupiter’s satellites and the sun’s spots; Kepler (1571–1630) had formulated his first and second laws; and Harvey (1578–1657) had discovered the circulation of the blood.

    So much of the progressive conquest of nature was well under way before Francis Bacon (1561–1626) died as the indirect result of an experiment in cold storage. With Bacon’s political career, with his gradual rise to the position of Lord Chancellor and with his spectacular fall, we are not here concerned. Bacon took all knowledge for his province and sought in his ‘Advancement of Learning’ to give a view of scientific method and achievement as it was then understood. In his ‘New Atlantis’ he makes his contribution to the literature of ideal societies, of which St. Augustine’s ‘City of God,’ and Campanella’s ‘City of the Sun’ are continental precursors; but in England, Bacon had a forerunner in Sir Thomas More, whose ‘Utopia’ sought to give a picture of an ideal commonwealth where economic conditions were simple and just. Bacon in his ‘New Atlantis’ sketches out a similar picture of an intellectual community devoted very largely to scientific investigation, and his ‘Solomon’s House’ is founded for the “interpreting of nature and the producing of great and marvelous works for the benefit of man.” It is in his ‘Essays,’ however, that Bacon still interests the modern reader, and it is through them that he has had an appreciable influence upon the development of English prose. These “dispersed meditations” of his are the unstudied product of his rare leisure hours, the expression in simple prose of the pith of his philosophy of life—a philosophy which is compounded of insight into the workings of men’s minds, of an ill-concealed selfishness, and a shrewd worldly wisdom. The epigrammatic terseness of his phrases has made his ‘Essays’ much quoted and has given him a reputation as an aphorist which is out of proportion to his value as a moralist.

    Other minor writers of the period are John Lyly (1555?–1606) whose ‘Euphues’ has already been referred to, and Roger Ascham (1515–1568) whose ‘Schoolmaster’ is one of the earliest professional books on education. The age of Elizabeth, however, is not a great prose age. It is a period of lyric poetry of a high order and of dramatic achievement which has been unsurpassed. Its prose is too complex, too florid, too unwieldy for simple uses. It will be only after this instrument of expression has been submitted to the discipline of reason by the eighteenth-century writers that we will find it emerging refined, simplified, and adaptable as an effective instrument for the expression of ideas; but we will have to go beyond the age of Queen Anne in order to find it transformed still further into a vehicle for the expression of emotion in addition to thought. That will be the accomplishment of the Victorian age.

    Elizabethan Drama
    In order to understand the achievements of the Elizabethan dramatists one must realize the process of development through which the drama had gone and the conditions under which Shakespeare and his fellow-craftsmen were working. Two currents came together in the age of Shakespeare: one of these carried along the stream of the religious drama of the Middle Ages, which had gradually become popularized and secularized; the other carried on the classic tradition which had been preserved in the plays of Plautus and Terence. A tributary stream which increased the volume came from the chronicles and histories, and gave definite impetus at one time to the popularity of the chronicle and history play, frequently heroic in character.

    The social conditions under which the drama was produced had a great deal to do with its history. Little more than quarter of a century before Elizabeth’s death there were no theatres in London and in 1642 the representation of such plays was forbidden by law. In this short interval, then, there arises in England a dramatic literature which is as brilliant in its own way and as permanent as the contribution which the age of Pericles made to the literature of Greece. It will be long in the history of English literature before we come upon a period where as much of merit and enduring worth is produced within so short a span of years.

    The dramatists themselves were people of what we would call the middle class. They were in many cases actors before they were dramatists and belonged to a profession to which in that day a stigma was attached which perhaps was deserved only in the days of the Restoration Drama. Shakespeare himself served an apprenticeship in the theatre and, like his fellow-dramatists, knew both the craft of the stage and the psychology of his audience. In many cases the first work that these dramatists-in-training did was to revise old plays and to adapt them to the demands of a more modern audience. This practice, combined with the very general dependence upon “sources,” accounts for the apparent imitation by the Elizabethan dramatists of their own literature and that of the continent and the classic lands. But though Shakespeare drew freely from French and Italian works as well as from English books, his originality consists in the masterly way in which he transformed the bare suggestion or the crude outlines which he used as a basis, and his genius shows itself partly in knowing what to select and partly in knowing how to use what he had selected. Many of these Elizabethan dramatists collaborated in the writing of plays. Beaumont and Fletcher are the outstanding examples of a professional co-operation which had in itself much that was ideal.

    In the Elizabethan drama we see reflected nearly all the characteristics of the age: there is the incredibly quick development from small and obscure beginnings; there is an attainment coming nigh perfection in a variety of ways; there is a richness of diction, of character, of incident, becoming at times opulent or even extravagant; and there is, lastly, that unmistakable sense of originality which makes the age of Shakespeare and its literature one of the most individual in the whole course of the history of English literature.

    Elizabethan Dramatists
  • 1555?–1606John Lyly
  • 1556–1596George Peele
  • 1558–1594Thomas Kyd
  • 1558–1625Thomas Lodge
  • 1559?–1634George Chapman
  • 1558–1592Robert Greene
  • 1564–1593Christopher Marlowe
  • 1564–1616William Shakespeare
  • 1567–1601Thomas Nashe
  • c. 1570–1632Thomas Dekker
  • 1580–1627Thomas Middleton
  • c. 1570–1641Thomas Heywood
  • 1572–1637Ben Jonson
  • 1575?–1626Cyril Tourneur
  • 1575?–1634John Marston
  • 1579–1625John Fletcher
  • 1583–1640Philip Massinger
  • 1584–1616Francis Beaumont
  • 1586–c. 1640John Ford
  • 1596–1666James Shirley
  • c. 1580–1634John Webster
  • In studying Shakespeare, consult also

  • R. G. White: Bacon–Shakespeare Craze
  • E. Dowden: The Humor of Shakespeare
  • E. Dowden: Shakespeare’s Portraiture of Women
  • J. Weiss: The Court Fool
  • F. von Schlegel: Of Romance (Spenser and Shakespeare)
  • Ben Jonson: On Shakespeare
  • Ben Jonson: To the Memory of my Beloved Master, William Shakespeare
  • John Milton: On Shakespeare
  • Goethe: Wilhelm Meister’s Introduction to Shakespeare
  • Goethe: Wilhelm Meister’s Analysis of Hamlet
  • F. Guizot: The Example of Shakespeare
  • Sir Thomas North: Translation of ‘Plutarch’s Lives
  • R. Holinshed: Chronicles
  • The structure of the Elizabethan theatre was a necessary outgrowth of the stages of development through which the drama had passed. When the place of the church was taken by the public square, the theatre had made its first step toward independence. Whether it was the inn-courtyard or the bear-garden familiar to the sport-loving Elizabethan that provided the model for the first theatre, we do know that the earlier buildings were tall structures of wood and stone without a roof, and either round or octagonal in shape. At one side of the interior was a raised stage projecting toward the centre and surrounded by the “pit” which was occupied by the “groundlings.” The sides of this primitive theatre consisted of galleries protected by a narrow roof; the spectators even sat on the edges of the stage itself where they smoked and conversed as they pleased and even pelted the groundlings with nuts. The stage itself consisted of three sections of which the first was close to the audience; the second or middle stage could be curtained off if necessary from the front in much the same way as is the practice in vaudeville houses of the present day; and the third part or inner stage consisted of the back or innermost portion which was used when an interior was necessary. In addition to these three portions of the stage there was an upper section which could be used for a battlement, a balcony, or an upper window. Scenery was at first very meager, though the costumes were more or less elaborate. The parts of women were taken by boys, and actresses were unknown until after the Restoration.

    Elizabethan Theatres
  • 1575No theatres in London.
  • 1576“The Theatre” was built by James Burbage, north of the city wall. It was demolished December, 1598–January, 1599
  • ?1576“The Curtain” was built, north of the city wall, near “The Theatre.”
  • ?1587“The Rose,” a low, circular building, was erected on the Bankside, by Henslowe.
  • 1594After this date the “Swan” was built west of the “Bear Garden,” and, like it, was sometimes used for bear-baiting.
  • c. 1596The “Blackfriars” theatre, a small roofed building artificially lighted, was erected on the city side of the Thames. Shakespeare and Burbage acted in this theatre.
  • 1599“The Globe,” built on the Bankside, by Peter Street, was the theatre at which Shakespeare acted and at which his tragedies from ‘Julius Cæsar’ to ‘Coriolanus’ were produced. It was burned in 1613, rebuilt, and demolished in 1644.
  • 1599The “Fortune” theatre was built by Peter Street on the city side of the Thames, outside Cripplegate. The contract with its specifications has been preserved and gives us much information. This square building was burned in 1621 and rebuilt as a circular brick structure.
  • 1606The old circular “Bear Garden” was rebuilt by Peter Street, and was known for a time as the “Hope.” It was again rebuilt in 1613.
  • Edmund Spenser
    The greatest non-dramatic poet of the Elizabethan age was Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599), whose fine and melodious work has earned him the title of “The Poets’ Poet.” Looking back upon Chaucer from this vantage ground of a century and a half, one is immediately impressed with the progress which English poetry has made. Master of musical verse and unsurpassed teller of tales though he is, Chaucer, nevertheless, is far behind Spenser in certain qualities. The unusual sense of beauty which Spenser possesses sets him apart as an artist of the first rank. This æsthetic sensitiveness manifests itself partly in the choice of his metres, partly in the perfection of his melodious verse, and partly in the entrancing succession of glorious pictures which he draws from his luxurious and chivalric imagination. Added to this technical excellence and to this variety of subject-matter, there is in Spenser a lofty idealism and a pure delicacy of outlook for which one seeks in vain in his great predecessor.

    Spenser’s ‘Shepherds’ Calendar’ (1579), the best known of his minor poems, consists of twelve eclogues, one for each month of the year. These he uses as a convenient poetic device to lament the death of friends, to satirize tendencies of the day, to flatter the Queen, or to discuss religious subjects.

    Beautiful though his sonnets and his poetical hymns are, they pale before the ‘Faerie Queene.’ In this work, Spenser, like Chaucer in his ‘Canterbury Tales,’ planned more than he could achieve. His original intention was to write twenty-four books, portraying in a diffusive but picturesque allegory King Arthur and his knights in stories told at a twelve-day festival at the court of Queen Gloriana. Of the twenty-four books, Spenser completed only six, in which he celebrated the virtues of holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy. In addition to the moral allegory Spenser also attached a political significance to some of his characters, so that, for instance, the Faerie Queene represents Elizabeth, and Duessa thinly disguises Mary Queen of Scots. The poem, however, is most interesting when it is read merely as a story, and not as a political puzzle or a piece of theological propaganda sugar-coated with poetry.

    The stanza form in which the ‘Faerie Queene’ is written is not only beautiful in itself but important in history of prosody. It closely resembles the “ottava rima” of Ariosto and the Chaucerian stanza of ‘The Monk’s Tale’ with an additional line. Spenser’s stanza consists of eight pentameter lines, followed by a single hexameter, with the lines rhyming abab bcbc c. It is admirably constructed to avoid monotony and is especially suited to the long narrative poem which Spenser contemplated writing.

    Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) is one of the most charming of Elizabethan personalities. He is the ideal knight, the perfect gentleman, whose reputation depends rather upon what he was than upon what he wrote. His short life was nevertheless long enough to show forth abundantly those qualities of personal greatness which would shine in any age. His long pastoral romance, the ‘Arcadia,’ is a rambling tale, discursive and lacking in definite purpose or compact structure, but it has all the charm of that unreal land of shepherd and shepherdess which we find also in Lodge’s ‘Rosalynde,’ in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It,’ or later in the pictures of Watteau or Fragonard. Sidney, like Spenser and Shakespeare, also wrote sonnets, but as everyone in Queen Elizabeth’s day indulged in this poetic exercise, his achievement is somewhat overshadowed by the multiplicity of “sugar’d conceits” which have been preserved from that time.

  • 1558–1603Queen Elizabeth.
  • 1559Prohibition of political allusions in interludes.
  • 1564–1616Shakespeare.
  • 1572Massacre of St. Bartholomew.
  • c. 1576First permanent English theatre built.
  • 1578Holinshed’s ‘Chronicles’ published.
  • 1579North’s ‘Plutarch’ published.
  • 1581Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie.’
  • c. 1586Kyd’s ‘Spanish Tragedy.’
  • 1586Licensing and censoring of plays established.
  • 1587–1588Marlowe’s ‘Tamburlaine.’
  • 1588Defeat of the Spanish Armada.
  • 1588–1590Martin Marprelate controversy.
  • 1590Lodge’s ‘Rosalynde.’
  • 1590Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene,’ Books 1–3.
  • 1593Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis.’
  • 1598Shakespeare’s Sonnets written before this date; published in 1609.
  • 1598Meres, in his ‘Palladis Tamia,’ mentions twelve of Shakespeare’s plays. (See complete list with dates.)
  • 1598Death of Burghley.
  • 1601Execution of Essex.
  • 1603Florio’s translation of Montaigne.
  • 1604English actors appear at Fontainebleau.
  • 1605Gunpowder Plot.
  • 1613Globe theatre burns.
  • 1616Shakespeare dies.
  • 1620–1630German translations of English plays are acted in Germany.
  • 1623First folio edition of Shakespeare’s works.
  • 1632Second folio edition of Shakespeare’s works.
  • 1637Plays cannot be published without the players’ consent.
  • 1642Theatres closed at the beginning of the Civil War.
  • Reading Recommended
  • 1552?–1599Edmund Spenser
  • 1554–1586Sir Philip Sidney
  • 1563–1631Michael Drayton
  • 1572–1631John Donne
  • 1572–1637Ben Jonson