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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

§ 3. Literary significance of the later years of Elizabeth’s reign

In the history of English dramatic literature, the last decade but one of the sixteenth century covers the literary beginnings of nearly all the poets of high original power whose activity as playwrights began before Shakespeare’s, and, possibly, some tentative dramatic efforts in which Shakespeare himself had a hand. In the last decade of the century, several of those whom, by an inaccurate use of the term, it was long customary to describe as “Shakespeare’s predecessors,” had passed away; when the new century opened, he was at the height of his creative energy, and the number of plays by him that had been acted amounted to more than half of the total afterwards included in the Shakespearean canon. Within the same ten years, some of the comic masterpieces of Jonson, and several other plays of relatively high importance, had been produced. Thus, the epoch extending from 1589 to the years on which falls the shadow of Elizabeth’s approaching end is marked out with signal splendour in the history of English dramatic literature, as, indeed, it is, though not throughout in the same degree, in that of English literature as a whole. Without, therefore, excluding from the scope of these remarks the period of the first two Stewart reigns, during which the drama, though still bringing “fruit to birth,” was already, in accordance with the law of mortality proclaimed by Dante, showing signs of decline and decay, we shall be justified in giving our chief attention to some of the characteristic aspects of political and social life in what may properly be designated as the Elizabethan age.