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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

§ 7. Her attitude towards the Religious Problem

Of greater significance is the attitude of queen Elizabeth towards the religious problem of the age, in so far as the treatment of it contributed to shape the destinies of her kingdom. For herself, she at no time showed herself moved by any strong religious impulse, or obedient to the dictate of conclusions reasoned out so as to have taken a firm root in her mind. But the circumstances of her birth and early years drew her, perforce, into association with the great religious movement which, as it swept over a large part of Europe, absorbed so many currents of thought and feeling, so many passions and so many interests, that whoever was not against it must be for many of its axioms, and that she, for instance, was left no choice as to a series of opinions which, at all events, it behoved her to make her own. When, after suffering persecution tanquam ovis (more or less), on account both of her birth and of her faith, she succeeded to her ill-starred sister’s throne, she thanked the lord mayor for the city of London’s welcoming gift of a Bible as for “the jewel that she still loved best.” To the tenets—elastic in one direction, unyielding in the other—of which the Scriptures (as distinct from a larger body of traditional authorities) were regarded as the symbol, she adhered firmly throughout her reign; and, in so doing, she rightly read the signs of the times and the convictions which were more and more widely taking hold of her people. The social changes, in this instance, came to the aid of the religious. In a population among which, already in the days of Elizabeth’s youth, a well-instructed middle class—made up, mainly, of country gentry and town merchants, and with a not inconsiderable infusion of smaller tradesmen and yeomen—was fast becoming the dominant social element, the Scriptures in the vernacular, together with a few popular commentaries and expositions, were certain, if read at all, to be read widely; and any attempt to interfere with their circulation must prove futile. Again, the generation which was in its prime when queen Elizabeth came to the throne consisted of the men whose childhood had coincided with the times of the first rise of the English reformation; while some who were to be numbered among that generation’s leaders had spent part of their adolescence in the continental homes of the new learning. Inevitably, too, those regions of England which naturally lay most open to influences from abroad were, together with the capital and (in a special way) the universities (Cambridge in particular), the home counties, including Kent, of which, during many a generation, it might fairly be said that they were wont “to think to-day what all England would think to-morrow.”

Queen Elizabeth no more shared the ardour of many contemporaries of her own youth than she understood the temper of those puritans of the combative sort who grievously ruffled her serenity in her mature years. Far from being timid by disposition, she had been inured to caution by experience; and, during the earlier half of her reign, while her foreign policy, under the guidance of Burghley, continued to be, in the main, though not, of course, absolutely, a defensive policy, she manifested no intention of moulding the church of which she had become the supreme governor in the forms either of an aggressive protestantism or of a rigid Anglican exclusiveness. With the former current of thought, she had no sympathy, either moral or intellectual; and to that opposed to it, she came to incline more largely in her later years, doubtless because she, as honestly as the two Stewart kings who followed her, believed that the exercise of authority furnished a sufficient answer to searchings of heart and stirrings of mind into which it was not given to her to enter. In those later days, however, much success had brought with it many illusions; and, as Ben Jonson told Drummond, the late queen “never saw her self after she became old in a true glass.”

The dramatists of the Elizabethan age, taken as a whole, exhibit the willingness for conformity and the instinctive abhorrence of nonconformity which satisfied the queen’s conception of a national religion. They were, of course, directly interested, and, on various occasions, personally implicated, in the perennial struggle of the stage against puritanism, of which a full account will be given in a later chapter, and which, in its final phase, if their traditional loyalty to church as well as state be taken into account, might be regarded by them as a campaign for altar as well as hearth. In the earlier part of the period under survey, their own protestantism, where it obtrudes itself with unmistakable intention, still wears a militant and aggressive aspect, and is of the demonstrative anti-papist and anti-Jesuit variety; this character it exhibits even in later times, on occasions when there was a sudden revival of the old dread of the machinations of Rome in association with the designs of Spain. Nothing is more notable in Shakespeare than his detachment, even in a play which, like King Henry VIII, brought him into near contact with it, from this kind of popular current of feeling; though, on the other hand, nothing could be more futile than to seek in his plays for signs of a positive leaning towards the church of Rome, such as, in different ways and degrees, is shown by Chapman, Massinger and Shirley.