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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 2. Contrast between the beginning and the end of the age

Queen Elizabeth, we remember, had sat on the throne during seventeen or eighteen eventful years before the first theatre was erected in her capital; the passing of the ordinance of the lords and commons which put a stop to the performance of any stage-play was, within a few weeks, followed by the actual outbreak of the great civil war. Long before her decease, the person of the English queen who had “swum to the throne through a sea of sorrow” had become, in very truth, the incarnation of the nation’s highest hopes; twoscore years had not gone by after Elizabeth’s death when the English parliament levied against the king an army “in defence of” him and itself. In the last decade of the sixteenth century, England, whose foes, a generation earlier, had judged her easy to conquer “because she wanted armor,” had successfully defied the Catholic reaction and the would-be world-monarchy of Spain; towards the middle of the seventeenth, the great war which had swallowed up all other European wars came to a close without England so much as claiming a voice in the settlement. Side by side with the series of events and transactions which prepared or marked these tremendous changes, the history of English drama and of English dramatic literature—hitherto a gradual growth, whether in the highways of popular life or in the tranquil habitations of scholars and their pupils—pursued its now self-assertive course. Those would err who, in this or in any other instance, should look for a perfect or precise correspondence between a particular chapter of a nation’s literary history and contemporary national affairs directly connected with the condition of its government and with its action as a state. But it is not the less certain that, in a national life in which an intensification of impetus and a concentration of purposes have declared themselves as they had in Elizabethan England, it becomes impossible for any sphere of literary activity—least of all one which, like the drama, directly appeals to popular sympathies and expressed approval—to remain in isolation from the rest.

Thus (to follow the rough division already indicated), during the earlier half of Elizabeth’s reign, while English literature could not be said to differ largely, in its general character, from that of the preceding generation, the drama, still moving slowly onward in more or less tentative forms, was only gradually finding its way into English literature at all. When, in 1581, Sir Philip Sidney, president of his own small Areopagus, composed An Apologie for Poetrie, in which he bestowed praise on a very restricted number of English poets, he had very little to say in the way of commendation of recent labours in the field of the drama; and, though among English tragedies he politely singled out Gorboduc for both compliment and criticism, he was more at his ease in censuring the “naughtie Play-makers and Stage-Keepers” who had brought English comic pieces into disrepute. But the creative literary impulse attested by Sidney’s immortal treatise was awakening the literary sense of a much wider public than that to which its appeal, at any point of time in his short life, could have been consciously addressed; and it had already given rise to a dramatic productivity which he could not foresee, but which had reached a considerable height at the time of his death. Thus, in this even more notably than in other spheres of the national literature, the process of growth was gradual; but, in the end, the shell was rapidly burst, and the new life issued forth into the vigour of freedom about the very time when the England of Elizabeth became conscious of its advance to a knowledge of its political purposes and of its means for accomplishing them.