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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

§ 33. General unrest and high spirit

And, since the transition from the subject of vagabondage to that of crime is at all times cruelly facile, a word may be added as to an aspect of the age which cannot be neglected by the student of its physiognomy, more particularly as it is recognisable in its reflection in contemporary English drama. It was by no means unreasonable for a contemporary such as Harrison to disclaim what, to the eyes of Elizabethan England, might have seemed abnormal either in the character of the crimes which were frequently committed or of the punishments which they entailed. An examination of the themes of the English domestic tragedies which in the last decade of the sixteenth century, or thereabouts, harrowed the feelings of London audiences, bears out the statement that “horrible, merciles and wilfull murders,” such as are “not sildome seene on the continent,” were comparatively rare in contemporary England; the hankering after such sensations belongs to a rather later time, when “revenge” plays had passed into a more advanced stage, and Tourneur and Webster were fain to satisfy the appetite of their audiences for exotic horrors. Again, in the Elizabethan age, it is not difficult to notice, in the administration of penal justice, indications of a tendency to avoid an excess of brutal cruelty; various signally inhuman forms of execution or of bodily suffering or degradation added to execution were modified or fell out of use. Still, for a number of crimes regarded as specially heinous, there were special punishments calculated to excite the sensibilities or deepen the awe of spectators. Poisoners and heretics were burnt to death; and witches were liable to suffer the same punishment in lieu of death by hanging, the method of execution applied to felons and all other ordinary criminals. It will be remembered that but few persons suffered death on the charge of witchcraft under Elizabeth, and that it was only under the more rigorous act passed immediately after the accession of James (1604) that the fury of persecution found full opportunities for raging. There cannot, of course, be any sort of pretence that rational views on the subject of witchcraft and magic obtained in the reign of Elizabeth, or that the queen herself (who consulted Dee about Alençon’s condition) was more enlightened on this head than other English men or women. Of the dramatists, it may be roughly stated that in not a single one of them can be found any suggestion of a disbelief in the thing itself, even where a fraudulent use of it is exposed or derided. On offenders against religious law and social morality, a variety of formal penalties—in part symbolic, in part simply degrading—were inflicted, which alike suggest a desire on the part of the state or society to “improve” the opportunities afforded it; even before the ascendancy of puritanism, there were always practical moralists clamouring for a severer system of retribution. Yet, at the same time, a great laxity is observable in enforcing the penalties denounced by the law upon proved wantonness of life; and it is impossible to escape the impression that there existed a general consensus, from which even the clergy only slowly came to express clear dissent, that some allowance should be made to laymen in the matter of the sins they were “inclined to.” The whole significance of the licence of the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, which, in some respects, reflected the licence of the age, cannot be fully understood, unless this fact be borne in mind.

The darker side of the social condition of England in the Elizabethan age should not be overlooked by those who dwell upon the high aspirations and great achievements which have cast an enduring halo round it in the eyes of national historians and their readers. Nothing can be said here as to the defects—only too palpable, but not by any means to be construed as evidence of mere incuria—in the provision made for the protection of the public health against the dangers to which it was exposed, more especially in London, from the incursions of the plague, and, in a lesser degree, from those of other diseases. If, however, we confine ourselves to the moral sphere, the impression left by an open-eyed survey of the ordinary relations and conditions of life in this age is one of a dominating violence and turbulence; and this impression is confirmed by a study of the drama of which those relations and conditions largely make up the material. At the same time, this passionate unrest, and the impetus with which, in the midst of it, the age pressed on to the performance of its great tasks, explain, in some measure, how they were accomplished. The high spirit—often high in death as it had been in life—which the renascence and reformation ages had infused into their men and women, of all classes and beliefs, no doubt imparted something of recklessness to martyrdom as well as of ruthlessness in the infliction of suffering. But the final cause of this high spirit was the belief in things worth living for and worth dying for—a belief which lies at the root of mighty actions, and without which no nation has ever been great, and no dramatic hero heroic.