Yet in spirit, the work of writers like Milton and Browne is akin to that of the Elizabethans and they are, therefore, referred to as Elizabethan writers. As Saintsbury reminds us, all the seed of the whole period called Elizabethan was sown, and not a little of it had come up, before the Queen’s death ; and secondly, the quality of the period 1580-1660 is essentially one and indivisible. This usage has the advantage of keeping both sets of facts in view, and specially of directing attention to the characteristics of the first generation of the period, the generation which, as typified by Spenser, ended a little before the last days of Elizabeth’s own life closed.
The term ‘the Elizabethan Age’ is a very vague and flexible one. Strictly speaking, it may be said to be even misleading. Although titles like ‘Jacobean Age’ are also frequently used in literary criticism, the general practice is to regard the entire period from 1580 to 1660 as the Elizabethan age in spite of the fact that Queen Elizabeth reigned only during a small part of it. If we were to adhere strictly to historical dates, then the only two writers who are really and completely ‘Elizabethan’ are Marlowe and Spenser.
The most important influence on the Elizabethan age was that of the Renaissance. This was felt in England considerably later than, over the Continent because it, in fact, travelled through Germany, Italy and France to reach this country. Marlowe and Shakespeare wrote when the impact of the Renaissance was at its height and the same is tram of Spenser in so far as poetry is concerned. The most important upset of the Renaissance was the liberation of the human spirit from the binding restraints of the Middle Ages. Wonder and curiosity, which are the essentials of romanticism, were reawakened. There was a been interest in classical literature, to the extent that classical legends became popularly known, and in Shakespeare s plays, even person from lower life often make allusions to them. The Renaissance was humanistic in its trend and this humanism is an important characteristics of the literature of the day. The Renaissance had its own code of values. One of them was the concept of justly earned glorious fame, and we find that this is the ideal for which the heroes of Elizabethan literature, whether in prose or drama, strive. The most outstanding example of this is, of course, the lust of the Marlovian hero to achieve the impossible. Renaissance writers placed before them the ideal of the complete man. Whereas the renaissance encouraged the love of beauty, a balancing influence was exercised by the Reformation which encouraged the pursuit of virtue and righteousness.
Social and Political Background
By and large, the Elizabethan age was one of peace but it was not the type of peace which produces complacency or causes stagnation. This was caused by the fact that specially during the reign of Elizabeth I, there were constant threats of invasion from abroad. The reason for this was commercial rivalry, specially in exploiting newly discovered colonies, and the main enemy England bad to fear was Spain. English sea-captains were able to blunt the Spanish force by destroying their formidable Armada. Later, there was another factor which tended to produce a feeling of insecurity or, at least, aroused a fear that anarchy might follow the death of the Queen. These fears were, of course to prove completely unjustified. The Elizabethan age was one in which the nation made great economic strides. Trading settlements were founded abroad, including the famous East India Company. Curiously enough, even the Reformation led to great economic competition by encouraging the idea of thrift and by relating worldly prosperity to divine favour. One of the embittering phenomena of the age was the rise of Puritanism, specially in its fanatic and often hypocritical form. Satire at the expense of the Puritans is a recurrent feature of Elizabethan literature.
The Elizabethan age in literature is famous primarily for its poetry whether dramatic or non-dramatic but its achievement in prose, although less spectacular, is by no means negligible. The age produced many great prose writers, including Bacon at one end and Browne at the other. It is true, however, that no single prose writer of the time holds the same rank in prose that Spenser holds in poetry ; perhaps, indeed, no single writer, not even Dryden, ever has held that rank. For prose, the lower and less intense harmony, is the more varied and indefinitely adjustable instrument. And while it is conceivable that one man––indeed Shakespeare has very nearly done so ––should catch up and otter in hint and intimation at least, the whole sum of poetry, no one could do the like in prose. Here, too, the comparative newness of the form had its inevitable effect ; even the period of sheer experiment and exploration was not over when the sixteenth century ended. Very great advances had been made in both, and, above all, the antinomy of prose, the opposition, of the plain and ornate styles which was to dominate the rest of its history, was for the first time clearly posed and definitely worked out on either side. This could not have happened in the earlier period of mere or main translation as regards subject, of tentative accumulation of vocabulary and experimental adaptation of arrangement.
Although the drama of the age is predominantly poetic, there was also a considerable amount of non-dramatic poetry, even by dramatists line Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. The representative poet of the age, however, is Spenser. His contribution to English poetry cannot be over-estimated. His greatness as a poet does not depend entirely on the high estimation which the writers and readers of the day placed on the Faerie Queene. In fact, so far as Spenser’s epic is concerned, it had some detractors also. All the same, it is indisputable that Spenser practically created the diction and prosody of English poetry as both have subsisted in the main to the present day. He did not, of course, finish the creation. Shakespeare had to come, and Milton, at Last, before that was done ; but he did a great deal more than begin it. His versification had to receive not a little extension, and became an infinite process. Spenser is often called the ‘poets’ poet’, and the compliment is not an inappropriate one, for his influence on other poets, both of his own age and of succeeding ages, was considerable. Still, even though Shakespeare’s major output was dramatic, the impact of his poetry also was tremendous.
The Elizabethan age was, and continues to be, the most glorious period which English drama has ever seen. The achievement of the age in this respect was unique, for it was neither in the realm of reconstruction and recovery, nor of orderly extension, but really of innovation and even invention. Three entire centuries have failed to produce any new really fertile cross, or to import, in conditions suitable to the climate, any foreign form capable of standing comparison with that Elizabethan play, which shook itself into shape, a hundred minor hands, besides those of Marlowe and Shakespeare aiding, by the date of the production of Every Man in His Humour; The typical Elizabethan dramatist does not attempt to isolate action or situation merely ; his play is but a piece of the life of the actors––their life is but a piece of larger and ever larger lives. Nothing is superfluous, irrelevant, common, unclean ; everything may and shall go in. The intenser nature of the interests, of tragedy may give to the working of tragic plays a closer unify than that of comic ; the majesty or the pathos of some particular character may dwarf in presentation as in attention the episodes and the interludes ; but the principle is always the same.
Elizabethan Theatre Companies
The first public ‘playing-places’ in London were the Inns, the first recorded performances being in 1557 at the Boar’s Head, Aldgate, and the Saracen’s Head, Islington, Permanent theatres were built in areas outside the city jurisdiction, because of the strict City regulations of 1574. The first two public theatres, James Burbage’s Theatre, and Henry Laneman’s Curtain, were built in the Liberties on the north bank of the Thames in 1576, as was the first private theatre, Richard Farrant’s Blackfriars. Till 1608, no adult company normally played in a private theatre, but the King’s Men took over the Blackfriars in that year. Of the many children’s companies in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, the two most dominant were the Children of St. Paul’s, and the Children of the Chapel Royal. Elizabethan actors sought the patronage of some nobleman as much for prestige as a protection against the harsh laws relating to the theatrical profession. Although a company .adopted the livery of its patron, in other ways it was left to seek its own fortunes. One of the bat-known companies was the Chamberlain-King’s Men, to which Shakespeare himself belonged. The leading dramatists were attached more or less permanently to some theatre company and were therefore familiar with the talents of the actors for whom they created roles. The women’s parts were, of course, played by boys throughout the Elizabethan Age.