The Elizabethan Literature demands from the general Historian something more than the incidental references which may suffice in other periods. In earlier days, he may draw upon Piers Plowman or Chaucer for evidence and illustrations of the prevalent social conditions; in the century following he may appeal to Milton and Bunyan to elucidate aspects of Puritanism. But the Elizabethan literature is in a degree quite unique, the expression of the whole spirit of the time, its many-sidedness, its vigour, its creative force; helping us to realise how it was that Elizabeth's Englishmen made Elizabeth's England. And this of course is beside the other fact that for the historian of literature per se there is no period quite so interesting and instructive, none of such vital importance in the evolution of English Letters.

[Birth of a National Literature]

In the five centuries since the Norman Conquest, ending in 1566, England had produced but one single poet of the front rank or anything approaching it, Geoffrey Chaucer. From the time when Edmund Spenser in 1579 delighted his contemporaries by the publication of the Shepherd's Calendar, she has never been without writers whose claim to eminence among poets can be at least plausibly maintained. Before very much the same date, English prose as a consciously artistic medium of utterance had hardly begun to be recognised; even Thomas More wrote his Utopia in Latin, and it was not translated into English till many years after his death. The possibility of an English Prose Style - written prose as distinguished from spoken oratory - had hardly presented itself except to the translators of Scripture and the Liturgy. Before the century closed, the world was enriched by the compact and pregnant sentences of Francis Bacon's Essays and the dignified simplicity of Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity. As with the Poets, so also the chain of masters of English Prose is unbroken from that day forward. But most sudden and startling of all the various developments was that of the Drama. It may be doubted if any critical observer in 1579 would have ventured even to suspect that the crowning glory of Elizabeth's reign was to be the work of playwrights; yet before she died the genius of Marlowe had blazed and been quenched, Hamlethad appeared on the boards, Jonson's "learned sock" had achieved fame; the men whose names we are wont to associate with the "Mermaid" had most of them already begun their career, even if they had not yet passed the stage of merely adapting, doctoring, and "writing up" for managers the stock-plays in their repertory. The Drama, proving itself the form of literary expression most perfectly adapted to the spirit of the age, absorbed the available literary talent as it has never done since.

Sudden as the outburst was however, it had been made possible by many years of wide and miscellaneous experiment, though little of any permanent intrinsic value had been actually achieved.

[Prose: before 1579]

Except for Ascham's Toxophilus, very few passages [Footnote: Such as may be lighted on for instance in "Sir John Mandeville," Mallory, and Hall's Chronicle.] of English prose notable as prose - that is, consciously essaying what is connoted by the term style - had been produced before Elizabeth's accession, apart from the liturgical, rhetorical, or controversial work of the clergy or clerical disputants. TheActs and Monuments of Foxe, popularly known as, the "Book of Martyrs," published in the first decade of the reign, showed the development of a power of vigorously dramatic narrative which should not be overlooked. The enormous popularity however which that work achieved was at least in part the outcome of the general sterility. Men had not yet learned to write, but they were ready to read even voraciously. Culture was in vogue. As things stood culture, in practice, meant and could mean little else than the study of Latin and Italian authors - Greek being still reserved for the learned - of whose works translations, some of notable merit, were very soon beginning to appear on the market. It was inevitably to these two literatures - the Latin and the Italian - that men turned in the first instance to find the models and formulate the canons of literary art; with only occasional divagations in the direction of France or Spain, countries which were scarcely a generation in advance of England. We remark that the old idea that for prose which was intended to live the true medium was still the one international literary language, Latin, died exceedingly hard; Bacon himself, great master though he was of his mother-tongue, maintaining it quite definitely. This pedantic attitude however was not involved in the idea of culture, and men welcomed with avidity an author who made his appeal to the non-academic public in vigorous English. The conversion even of the academic mind was close at hand.


The year 1579 is in the strictest sense an epoch in the history of English Literature; as witnessing the first appearance of a new and original force in English verse, and the first deliberate and elaborate effort in the direction of artistically constructed English Prose. In that year, John Lyly published his Euphues: the Anatomy of Wit, and Edmund Spenser his Shepherd's Calendar.


Euphues, and its companion volume Euphues and His England enjoyed a very remarkable if temporary vogue; running through numerous editions in the course of the ensuing fifty years. After that, it dropped. It is not surprising that it dropped. The work is tedious, prolix, affected, abounding in pedantry and in intellectual foppery. But its whole meaning and significance at the time when it was written are lost to us if we pay attention only to the ridicule which very soon fell upon it, to the mockery in Shakespeare's burlesques of Euphuism, or to Scott's later parody of it in the character of Sir Piercie Shafton. The everlasting antitheses, the perpetual playing with words, the alliterative trickery, the accumulation of far-fetched similes, the endless and often most inappropriate classical, mythological, and quasi-zoological allusions and parallels, are indeed sufficiently absurd and wearisome; and when "Euphuism" became a fashionable craze, its sillier disciples were a very fit target for jesting and mirth, very much as in our own day the humorists found abundant and legitimate food for laughter in the vagaries of what was known as "aestheticism". In both cases, the extravagances were the separable accidents, the superficial excrescences, of a real intellectual movement with a quite healthy motive. Euphues itself was a real and serious if somewhat misdirected effort at making a moralised culture fashionable, and at elevating; the English tongue into a medium of refined and polished expression. If the Euphuists included Armados among them, they numbered also their Birons and Rosalines. Though Lyly practised exuberances of verbal jugglery, he was not their inventor; they were a vice of the times, largely borrowed from foreign models; and Shakespeare himself, in moments of aberrant ingenuity, produced - not for laughter - samples which Lyly might have admired but could never have emulated.

[Sidney's prose works]

Lyly's work was a novel experiment in prose, without previous parallel; critical judgments were no very long time in detecting and condemning his extravagances. But the same intellectual motive was soon to find a more chastened and artistic expression in the work of one who was still but a literary experimentalist when he meet his death at Zutphen. When Sir Philip Sidney, that "verray parfit gentil knight," scholar, soldier, and statesman, if the unanimous appraisement of the best of his contemporaries is worth anything, wrote his Defence of Poesie, he had not indeed broken free from the trammels of academic theory; but it is a very often acute and always charming piece of critical work in scholarly and graceful language. More affected and generally inferior in style, but also still on the whole scholarly and graceful in its language, is his Arcadia, an example of the indefinitely constructed amorphous Romances out of which in course of long time the novel was to be evolved. The dwellers in that Arcady are as far removed from the nymphs and swains of Watteau's day as from a primitive Greek population; they behave as no human beings ever did or could behave; they belong in short to a particularly unconvincing kind of fairy-land, of which the vogue happily died out at an early stage. The Arcadia is not intrinsically a great book, nor can it be read to-day without a considerable effort; yet it must always be notable as not merely an experiment but a positive achievement in English prose style. Neither of these works was published till after 1590; but both must have been written before 1583.

[Hooker 1594]

It was not till the last decade of the reign had begun that the first great monument of English Prose appeared; nor is it surprising that, when it did come, it was an example of the Ecclesiastical or politico-ecclesiastical order. With the publication in 1594 of the first four books of Richard Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, the full claims of English as a great literary language were decisively established by his rhythmical, stately, and luminous periods. In their own field, Poets and Dramatists had already secured those claims; with the works of Marlowe, the earliest plays of Shakespeare, and the opening books of the Faerie Queene.

[Verse; before 1579]

While the Eighth Henry was still ruling England, Surrey and Wyatt, heedful of things Italian, had already discovered that verse-making was at any rate a delectable pastime for a gentleman of wit, especially if he had a love-affair on hand; a pastime certainly pleasing to himself and probably agreeable to his mistress. They made metrical experiments, introducing both the sonnet and blank verse. The example they set was followed by others, and Tottel's Miscellany, published towards the end of Mary's reign, shows that a considerable skill in this minor art had already been acquired, and not only by the two principal contributors, though the writers were still working within very narrow metrical limitations. In 1559 appeared the Mirrour for Magistrates, for the most part dull and uninteresting but containing in theInduction and the Complaint of Buckingham two contributions by Thomas Sackville (afterwards Lord Buckhurst) which are a good deal more than clever verse-making. But after one other experiment - the part-authorship of the first English Tragedy in blank verse, Gorboduc - Sackville deserted the Muses, for public affairs; in his later years becoming a leading member of Elizabeth's Council. The little verse that he left is of a quality to make us wish that he had written more: for there is in him at least a hint of some possibilities which were actualised in Spenser. But twenty years passed before the appearance of theShepherd's Calendar, during which it is probable enough that courtiers and lovers continued to practise, after the school of Surrey and Wyatt; nothing however was published that has survived, save the work of the universal experimentalist and pioneer George Gascoigne, who tried his hand at most forms of literary production, achieving distinction in none but a laudable respectability in all.

[1579-90 Spenser and others ]

The Shepherd's Calendar/ by itself would give Spenser nothing more than a high position among minor poets; but with him verse reappeared as something more than an elegant exercise for courtiers, scholars or lovers. Above all, the Shepherd's Calendar gave unexpected proof of the metrical capacities and verbal felicities of the English language, though setting it forth to the accompaniment of an excessive use of archaic forms and expressions. Even that excess had its value as a protest against the pedantic precision of the Latinists, who were already indulging in a grotesque attempt to displace natural English metres by Ovidian and Horatian prosody. Spenser himself made some futile efforts in this direction; so did Sidney - sundry more or less ingenious examples are scattered about the Arcadia; but Sidney realised his error in time to write the Astrophel and Stella sonnets (about 1581-2), which though still somewhat stiff and academic might well have been the precursors of some noble poetry had the writer lived longer. As it is, his life and death form the noblest poem he has bequeathed to us.

Those sonnets also remained unpublished till some years later. The first three books of the Faerie Queene, which at once established Spenser for all time as a true poet of the highest rank, did not appear till 1590. In the interval, the English Drama was finding itself, and some of the dramatists were revealing that gift of song - in the restricted sense of the word - which was bestowed in such unparalleled measure on the later Elizabethans. To this decade belong songs by Lyly and Peele, Lodge and Greene, which have already caught the delicate daintiness and the exquisite lilt of Shakespeare's songs and a host of others found in the later songbooks - qualities of which there is little more than a rare hint here and there in the earlier Miscellanies, for all the bravery of such titles as A Paradise of Dainty Devises (1576): A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions (1578): or A Handefull of Pleasant Delites(1584).

[The Drama before Elizabeth]

The definite triumph of Christianity over Paganism killed the Drama of the old world, the Church deliberately setting its face against the theatre. But primitive popular instincts, embodied in the continued celebration, as holiday sports, of what had originally been pagan rites, kept in existence crude and embryonic forms of dramatic representation at the festival seasons; which after a time the ecclesiastics saw more advantage in adapting to their own ends than in suppressing. Hence arose the miracle plays or Mysteries (probably ministerium, not [Greek: mystaerion]) of the middle ages - representations chiefly of episodes in the Biblical narrative. These in turn suggested the Moralities, dialogues with action in which the characters were personifications of virtues or vices relieved, in consideration of the weakness of the flesh, by passages of broad buffoonery. Lastly in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries came the representation of what were called "Interludes," for the most part short farces of a very primitive order - probably the offspring of the aforesaid passages of buffoonery. These did not constitute a literary drama; but they kept the idea of dramatic representation in being, though no such thing as a theatre or building constructed for the purpose existed as yet. The performances were given either in Church, or, later, in a nobleman's hall, or in the courtyard of an inn. The "masque" or pantomimic pageant, without dialogue, was also a familiar spectacle of the later times, and remained an occasional feature of the drama in its development.

The revival of interest in the classics caused some attention to be paid to the Roman drama; and hence Italy led the way - as in all things literary - in producing imitations of the plays then known. These however hardly got beyond the stage of being mere imitations; though as models Terence and Seneca were superior to the compilers of miracle plays, something more was required than copying their works before a Drama worthy of the name could be evolved. But from about the middle of the sixteenth century, the dramatic instinct in England was struggling to find for itself new and adequate expression.

[Early Elizabethan Drama]

With the Educational revival, it would appear that schoolmasters occasionally caused their pupils to act scenes, in Latin or perhaps at times in a translated version, from Terence: and it is not surprising to find that what is recognised as the first English Comedy was written by a schoolmaster for his boys to perform. Ralph Roister Doister derived from the Latin model, and is in doggerel couplets. It was the work of Nicholas Udall who was Master of Eton and afterwards of Westminster; but whether it was produced in the earlier or later period is not certainly known. At any rate it preceded the accession of Queen Mary.Gammer Gurton's Needle, dated 1553, holds the second place in point of time; and Gorboduc otherwise known as Ferrex and Porrex, the first English blank-verse tragedy, the work of Sackville and Norton, was acted in 1561. From this time, we have notices of the production of a considerable number of plays of which it may be assumed that they were exceedingly crude, being either very formless experiments derived from the interludes or else direct imitations or translations of Latin or Italian plays; to which Gascoigne contributed his share. A nearer approach to the coming Comedy is found in the plays of John Lyly preceding his Euphues. By this time dramatic performances had achieved such popularity that the City Fathers were scandalised - not indeed without reason - by their encroachments on the more solid but less inviting attractions of Church Services; and by banishing them from the City precincts caused the first regularly constructed theatres to be established outside the City bounds in Shoreditch: a departure which no doubt tended to the more definite organisation of the Actor's profession. As the Eighties progressed, a higher standard of dramatic production was attained by the group of "University" play wrights - -Peele, Greene, Nash, and others; wild Bohemian spirits for the most part, careless of conventions whether moral or literary, wayward, clever, audacious; culminating with Marlowe, whose first extremely immature play Tamburlaine, was probably acted in 1587 when he was only three and twenty; his career terminating in a tavern brawl some six years later. By that time (1593) it is certain that Shakespeare, born in the same year as Marlowe, was writing for the managers; though none of his known work can with confidence be dated earlier than the year of Marlowe's death. The great age of the Drama had begun.

[The younger generation]

It will have become apparent from this survey that, although we talk with very good reason of the Elizabethan Age of English Literature, the Queen had been reigning for thirty years, the great political crisis of her rule had been reached, the Armada had perished, before any single work had been written, or at any rate published, which on its merits - judged by the criteria of an established literature with established canons - would have entitled its author to a position of any distinction on the roll of fame. Up to 1589, the most remarkable productions had been: in prose, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Lyly's Euphues; in verse, some lines of Sackville, and the Shepherd's Calendar. Even when we have added to these Sidney's Sonnets and his Arcadia - written but not published - the significant fact remains that he, as well as Spenser and Lyly, was not born till the second half of the century had begun: and all three were older than any of the group of dramatists who are named as Shakespeare's precursors. Spenser was actually the eldest of all the men whose writings shed lustre on the great Queen's reign: and Spenser himself had not attained to the full maturity of his genius - had not, at least given its fruits to the world - at the hour of England's triumph. Had he died in the year of Zutphen, "Colin Clout" would have ranked little if at all higher than "Astrophel." Further: save for Sidney and Marlowe, who were both cut off prematurely, and Spenser himself who died at forty-six, the work of all the greater Elizabethan writers - Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson, Bacon, Hooker, Raleigh, Middleton, Drayton - lies as much in the time of James as in that of Elizabeth; while a whole group of those to whom the same general title is applied - Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Ford, Massinger - belong in effect wholly to the later reign.

Broadly speaking therefore it is worth noting that state-craft, soldiering, seamanship, affairs of a very practical character, absorbed the keen brains and the abundant energies of the earlier generation; even for the men born in the fifties, like Raleigh and Sidney, literature (except with Spenser) held a quite secondary place. But no sooner is the National triumph ensured than the younger generation displays in the literary field characteristics essentially the same as those whereby their elders had raised England in war and in politics to the first rank among the nations.

For years to come, for the first time certainly in English History, literature in one form or another appropriates the best work of the best brains. There are men of ability in politics, but no giants: or if one of the giants, like Bacon, divides his attention between the two fields, the best half of it goes to literature. Yet it is essentially the same spirit which works in the great men of Elizabeth's closing years as in the great men of her youth and of her maturity.

[Pervading Characteristics]

The quality which conditions the whole English character through the period is an exuberant, often even a riotous energy, a vast imaginativeness, which breeds in the first place an immense daring, saved from degenerating into mere recklessness by a coolness of head in emergencies which is singularly marked. Whether we look at Elizabeth, Cecil, and Walsingham, or at Hawkins and Drake and Frobisher, or broadly at the actions of the rank and file, these characteristics are apparent. They are no less patent in the poets.

[displayed in the Drama and other fields]

Thus if we consider the tragedies of the period, their tremendous audacity is perhaps their most prominent feature. The stage reeks with blood and reverberates thunder, to an extent which could not fail to become merely grotesque but for the immense pervading vitality. These men could and did venture upon extravagances and imbue them with a terrific quality, when in weaker hands they would have become ridiculous. For anything less than the vibrating energy of Marlowe, the final scene of his Faustus would have sunk to burlesque. A cold analysis of the plot of Hamlet or Macbeth would suggest mere melodrama. A Shakespeare or a Marlowe had no hesitation in facing tasks which offered no mean between great success or great failure. Nor was the audacity in their choice of subjects more remarkable than in their methods, their defiance of recognised canons. Just as the seamen had ignored the convention of centuries, creating a new system of naval tactics and a new type of navy, so the Tragedians brushed aside the academic convention, creating new dramatic canons and a new type of drama. The innovation in the structure of comedy was no less daring, since it proceeded on parallel lines. And here again the same quality of superabundant vitality is equally prominent. But it is to be noted that while the Elizabethan vitality would have made the drama great in spite of its audacity, the greatest productions are distinguished from the less great precisely by that peculiar sanity which stamped the master-spirits of the time. As it is with the dramatists, so is it with the rest. The same fulness of life is apparent in the luxuriance of Spenser's imagination, and in the spontaneity of half a hundred anonymous song-writers, the same audacity in Raleigh, embarking on his History of the World, and in Bacon, assuming all knowledge to be his province, while affirming and formulating the principles of Inductive Reasoning in substitution for the Deductive methods by which the Schools had lived for centuries. Wherever the critic turns his glance, he can find no sign of the Decadent. In every field of life, in politics, in war, in religion, in letters, the Elizabethan was virile even in his vices. His offences against morals or against art were essentially of the barbaric not the effete order; as the splendours of his productions were the natural beauties of plants nurtured in the open, not in the hothouse.

[Breadth of view]

Other aspects of the national character could be readily inferred from the prevalent tone of this literature. Toleration as a political principle was not yet recognised: tolerance as a private attitude of mind was very prevalent. The Jesuit and the extreme Puritan, the doctrinal propagandists who would endure no deviation from their own standard, were thoroughly unpopular, and managed to put themselves outside the field of consideration; the immense bulk of the nation was in sympathy with neither the one nor the other, and it is only to the extremists that the men of letters show a direct antipathy. Catholics can make a presentable case for the theory that Shakespeare himself was a "crypto-Catholic," though the case is not more than presentable. Rome is abhorrent to Spenser, yet it is apparent that many of his ethical conceptions are infinitely nearer akin to those of mediaeval Catholicism than of the current Puritanism. Hooker, most earnest of Christians, was also the most liberal-minded of men. Jonson was half a Catholic. All were manifestly men of deep religious feeling, but none can be associated with any religious party. When England was pitted as a Protestant Power against a Power aggressively determined on the eradication of Protestantism, it was inevitable that the prevailing sentiment should be increasingly Protestant; on the whole, it is surprising that there should have been so little bigotry in it. The public inclination was to be tolerant of all but the intolerant, and that attitude is reflected in all the literature of the time, except the specifically partisan writings of controversialists.


So also another note of the day was the general patriotism, national pride, or insularity; the sentiment which made the Catholics themselves, even when they were most under suspicion and had most cause to welcome an opportunity for rebellion, ready and eager to fall into line and resist the invader who was to liberate them. Again the poets gave voice to the national feeling, none more emphatically or more admirably than Shakespeare himself. Patriotic lines might of course be written for the sake of the gallery's inevitable applause; but Shakespeare's panegyrics of England are absolutely and unmistakably whole hearted, and it may be doubted if in all his plays he presented any single character with a more thorough and convincing sympathy and appreciation than his Henry V., the incarnation of English aggressiveness.

[The Normal Types] Finally, what manner of men and women they were who peopled the England that Shakespeare knew, we can see from the men and women whom Shakespeare drew. The types manifest themselves; the normal and the exceptional are readily distinguishable. The normal type is keen of wit, impulsive; it is observable for instance that both men and women habitually - almost invariably - fall in love unreservedly at first sight; generous for the most part; in action prompt and more often than not over-hasty, but resourceful - the women more resourceful than the men. It is a commonplace of course to remark that his types are types for all time; but different types are more prevalent at one time than another, and the inference is that Shakespeare's prevalent types were the prevalent ones of his own day. Hamlet, Brutus, Cleopatra, belonged to eternal but not to normal types; Hotspur and Mercutio, Rosalind and Cordelia - even if the latter were glorified examples - were obviously normal. For in play after play, whether as leading or as minor characters, they recur again and again; and more than that we find the same characteristics - presented no doubt with less incisiveness and less brilliancy - reappearing in the Dramatis Personae of the whole Elizabethan group. Such were the gentlemen of England who fought the Spaniard and overthrew him; such were their sisters and their wives.