The Renaissance Period in English literature is also called the Elizabethan Period or the Age of Shakespeare. The middle Ages in Europe were followed by the Renaissance. Renaissance means the Revival of Learning, and it denotes in its broadest sense the gradual enlightenment of the human mind after the darkness of the Middle Ages.
With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D. by the invasion of the Turks, the Greek scholars who were residing there, spread all over Europe, and brought with them invaluable Greek manuscripts. The discovery of these classical models resulted in the Revival of Learning in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The essence of this movement was that “man discovered himself and the universe”, and that “man, so long blinded had suddenly opened his eyes and seen”. The flood of Greek literature which the new art of printing carried swiftly to every school in Europe revealed a new world of poetry and philosophy. Along with the Revival of Learning, new discoveries took place in several other fields. Vascoda Gama circumnavigated the earth; Columbus discovered America; Copernicus discovered the Solar System and prepared the way for Galileo. Books were printed, and philosophy, science, and art were systematised. The Middle Ages were past, and the old world had become new. Scholars flocked to the universities, as adventurers to the new world of America, and there the old authority received a death blow. Truth only was authority; to search for truth everywhere, as men sought for new lands and gold and the Fountain of Youth—that was the new spirit, which awoke in Europe with the Revival of Learning.
The chief characteristic of the Renaissance was its emphasis on Humanism, which means man’s concern with himself as an object of contemplation. This movement was started in Italy by Dante, Petrarch and Baccaccio in the fourteenth century, and from there it spread to other countries of Europe. In England it became popular during the Elizabethan period. This movement which focused its interest on ‘the proper study of mankind’ had a number of subordinate trends. The first in importance was the rediscovery of classical antiquity, and particularly of ancient Greece. During the medieval period, the tradition-bound Europe had forgotten the liberal tone of old Greek world and its spirit of democracy and human dignity. With the revival of interest in Greek Classical Antiquity, the new spirit of Humanism made its impact on the Western world. The first Englishman who wrote under the influence of Greek studies was Sir Thomas More. His Utopia, written in Latin, was suggested by Plato’s Republic. Sir Philip Sidney in his Defence of Poesie accepted and advocated the critical rules of the ancient Greeks.
The second important aspect of Humanism was the discovery of the external universe, and its significance for man. But more important than this was that the writers directed their gaze inward, and became deeply interested in the problems of human personality. In the medieval morality plays, the characters are mostly personifications: Friendship, Charity, Sloth, Wickedness and the like. But now during the Elizabethan period, under the influence of Humanism, the emphasis was laid on the qualities which distinguish one human being from another, and give an individuality and uniqueness. Moreover, the revealing of the writer’s own mind became full of interest. This tendency led to the rise of a new literary form—the Essay, which was used successfully by Bacon. In drama Marlowe probed down into the deep recesses of the human passion. His heroes, Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus and Barabas, the Jew of Malta, are possessed of uncontrolled ambitions. Shakespeare, a more consummate artist, carried Humanism to perfection. His genius, fed by the spirit of the Renaissance, enabled him to see life whole, and to present it in all its aspects.
It was this new interest in human personality, the passion for life, which was responsible for the exquisite lyrical poetry of the Elizabethan Age, dealing with the problems of death, decay, transitoriness of life etc.
Another aspect of Humanism was the enhanced sensitiveness to formal beauty, and the cultivation of the aesthetic sense. It showed itself in a new ideal of social conduct, that of the courtier. An Italian diplomat and man of letters, Castiglione, wrote a treatise entitled Il Cortigiano (The Courtier) where he sketched the pattern of gentlemanly behaviour and manners upon which the conduct of such men as Sir Phillip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh was modelled. This cult of elegance in prose writing produced the ornate style called Euphuism by Lyly. Though it suffered from exaggeration and pedantry, yet it introduced order and balance in English prose, and gave it pithiness and harmony.
Another aspect of Humanism was that men came to be regarded as responsible for their own actions, as Casius says to Brutus in Julius Caesar:
The Fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Instead of looking up to some higher authority, as was done in The Middle Ages, during the Renaissance Period guidance was to be found from within. Lyly wrote his romance of Euphues not merely as an exercise in a new kind of prose, but with the serious purpose of inculcating righteousness of living, based on self-control. Sidney wrote his Arcadia in the form of fiction in order to expound an ideal of moral excellence. Spenser wrote his Faerie Queene, with a view “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle disposition”. Though we do not look for direct moral teaching in Shakespeare, nevertheless, we find underlying his work the same profoundly moral attitude.
(a) Elizabethan Drama
During the Renaissance Period or the Elizabethan Period, as it is popularly called, the most memorable achievement in literature was in the field of drama. One of the results of the humanist teaching in the schools and universities had been a great development of the study of Latin drama and the growth of the practice of acting Latin plays by Terence, Plautus and Seneca, and also of contemporary works both in Latin and in English. These performances were the work of amateur actors, school boys or students of the Universities and the Inns of Court, and were often given in honour of the visits of royal persons or ambassadors. Their significance lies in the fact that they brought the educated classes into touch with a much more highly developed kind of drama, than the older English play. About the middle of the sixteenth century some academic writers made attempts to write original plays in English on the Latin model. The three important plays of this type are Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister, John Still’s Grummar Gurton’s Needle, and Thomas Sackville’s Gorbuduc or Ferrex and Porrex—the first two are comedies and last one a tragedy. All these plays are monotonous and do not possess much literary merit.
The second period of Elizabethan drama was dominated by the “University Wits”, a professional set of literary men. Of this little constellations, Marlowe was the central sun, and round him revolved as minor stars, Lyly, Greene, Peele, Lodge and Nash.
The author of Euphues, wrote a number of plays, the best known of them are Compaspe (1581), Sapho and Phao (1584), Endymion (1591), and Midas (1592), These plays are mythological and pastoral and are nearer to the Masque (court spectacles intended to satisfy the love of glitter and novelty) rather than to the narrative drama of Marlowe. They are written in prose intermingled with verse. Though the verse is simple and charming prose is marred by exaggeration, a characteristic of Euphuism.
George Peele (1558-97?)
Formed, along with Marlowe, Greene and Nash, one of that band of dissolute young men endeavouring to earn a livelihood by literary work. He was an actor as well as writer of plays. He wrote some half dozen plays, which are richer in beauty than any of his group except Marlowe. His earnest work is The Arraignment of Paris, (1584); his most famous is David and Bathsheba (1599). The Arraignment of Paris, which contains an elaborate eulogy of Queen Elizabeth, is really a court play of the Masque order. David and Bathsheba contains many beautiful lines. Like Marlowe, Peele was responsible for giving the blank verse musical quality, which later attained perfection in the deft hands of Shakespeare.
Thomas Kyd (1558-95)
Achieved great popularity with his first work, The Spanish Tragedy, which was translated in many European languages. He introduced the ‘blood and thunder’ element in drama, which proved one of the attractive features of the pre-Shakespearean drama. Though he is always violent and extravagant, yet he was responsible for breaking away from the lifeless monotony of Gorboduc.
Robert Greene (1560-1592)
He lived a most dissolute life, and died in distress and debt. His plays comprise Orlando Furioso, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Alphonsus King of Aragon and George a Greene. His most effective play is Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, which deals partly with the tricks of the Friar, and partly with a simple love story between two men with one maid. Its variety of interest and comic, relief and to the entertainment of the audience. But the chief merit of the play lies in the lively method of presenting the story. Greene also achieves distinction by the vigorous humanity of his characterisation.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
The dramatic work of Lodge and Nash is not of much importance. Of all the members of the group Marlowe is the greatest. In 1587 his first play Tamburlaine was produced and it took the public by storm on account of its impetuous force, its splendid command of blank verse, and its sensitiveness to beauty, In this play Marlowe dramatised the exploits of the Scythian shepherd who rose to be “the terror of the world”, and “the scourge of God”. Tamburlain was succeeded by The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, in which Marlowe gave an old medieval legend a romantic setting. The story of the scholar who sells his soul to the Devil for worldly enjoyment and unlimited power, is presented in a most fascinating manner. Marlowe’s Faustus is the genuine incarnation of the Renaissance spirit. The Jew of Malta, the third tragedy of Marlowe, is not so fine as Doctor Faustus, though it has a glorious opening. His last play, Edward II, is his best from the technical point of view. Though it lacks the force and rhythmic beauty of the earlier plays, it is superior to them on account of its rare skill of construction and admirable characterisation.
Marlowe’s contributions to the Elizabethan drama were great. He raised the subject-matter of drama to a higher level. He introduced heroes who were men of great strength and vitality, possessing the Renaissance characteristic of insatiable spirit of adventure. He gave life and reality to the characters, and introduced passion on the stage. He made the blank verse supple and flexible to suit the drama, and thus made the work of Shakespeare in this respect easy. He gave coherence and unity to the drama, which it was formerly lacking. He also gave beauty and dignity and poetic glow to the drama. In fact, he did the pioneering work on which Shakespeare built the grand edifice. Thus he has been rightly called “the Father of English Dramatic Poetry.”
The greatest of all Elizabethan dramatists was Shakespeare in whose hands the Romantic drama reached its climax. As we do not know much about his life, and it is certain that he did not have proper training and education as other dramatists of the period had, his stupendous achievements are an enigma to all scholars up to the present day. It is still a mystery how a country boy, poor and uneducated, who came to London in search of odd jobs to scrape a living, could reach such heights in dramatic literature. Endowed with a marvellous imaginative and creative mind, he could put new life into old familiar stories and make them glow with deepest thoughts and tenderest feelings.
There is no doubt that Shakespeare was a highly gifted person, but without proper training he could not have scaled such heights. In spite of the meagre material we have got about his life, we can surmise that he must have undergone proper training first as an actor, second as a reviser of old plays, and the last as an independent dramatist. He worked with other dramatists and learned the secrets of their trade. He must have studied deeply and observed minutely the people he came in contact with. His dramatic output must, therefore, have been the result of his natural genius as well as of hard work and industry.
Besides non—dramatic poetry consisting of two narrative poems, Venice and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and 154 sonnets, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays. His work as a dramatist extended over some 24 years, beginning about 1588 and ending about 1612. This work is generally divided into four periods.
This was the period of early experimental work. To this period belong the revision of old plays as the three parts of Henry VI and Titus Andronicus; his first comedies—Love’s Labour Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; his first chronicle play—Richard III; a youthful tragedy—Romeo and Juliet.
To the second period belong Shakespeare’s great comedies and chronicle plays – Richard II, King John, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, Part I and II, Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. These plays reveal Shakespeare’s great development as a thinker and technician. They show the maturity of his mind and art.
To the third period belong Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and sombre or bitter comedies. This is his peak period characterised by the highest development of his thought and expression. He is more concerned with the darker side of human experience and its destructive passions. Even in comedies, the tone is grave and there is a greater emphasis on evil. The plays of this period are—Julius Caesar, Hamlet, All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure; Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens.
To the fourth period belong the later comedies or dramatic romances. Here the clouds seem to have been lifted and Shakespeare is in a changed mood. Though the tragic passions still play their part as in the third period, the evil is now controlled and conquered by good. The tone of the plays is gracious and tender, and there is a decline in the power of expression and thought. The plays written during this period are—Cymbeline, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, which were completely written in collaboration with some other dramatist.
The plays of Shakespeare are so full of contradictory thoughts expressed so convincingly in different contexts, that it is not possible to formulate a system of philosophy out of them. Each of his characters—from the king to the clown, from the most highly intellectual to the simpleton—judges life from his own angle, and utters something which is so profound and appropriate, that one is astonished at the playwrigt’s versatility of genius. His style and versification are of the highest order. He was not only the greatest dramatist of the age, but also the first poet of the day, and one of the greatest of all times. His plays are full of a large number of exquisite songs, and his sonnets glowing with passion and sensitiveness to beauty reach the high water mark of poetic excellence in English literature. In his plays there is a fine commingling of dramatic and lyric elements. Words and images seem to flow from his brain spontaneously and they are clothed in a style which can be called perfect.
Though Shakespeare belonged to the Elizabethan Age, on account of his universality he belongs to all times. Even after the lapse of three centuries his importance, instead of decreasing, has considerably increased. Every time we read him, we become more conscious of his greatness, like the charm of Cleopatra,
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.
the appeal of Shakespeare is perennial. His plays and poetry are like a great river of life and beauty.
Ben Jonson (1573-1637)
Ben Jonson a contemporary of Shakespeare, and a prominent dramatist of his times, was just the opposite of Shakespeare. Jonson was a classicist, a moralist, and a reformer of drama. In his comedies he tried to present the true picture of the contemporary society. He also made an attempt to have the ‘unities’ of time, place and action in his plays. Unlike Shakespeare who remained hidden behind his works, Jonson impressed upon the audience the excellence of his works and the object of his plays. He also made his plays realistic rather than romantic, and introduced ‘humours’ which mean some peculiar traits in character, which obsess an individual and govern all this faculties.
Jonson was mainly a writer of comedies, and of these the four which attained outstanding success are Volpone; The Silent Woman; The Alchemist; and Bartholomew Fair. Two other important comedies of his, which illustrate his theory of ‘humour’ are—Every Man in His Humour and Every Man Out of Humour. The Alchemist, which is the most perfect in structure, is also the most brilliant realistic Elizabethan comedy. Volpone is a satirical study of avarice on the heroic scale. Bartholomew Fair presents a true picture of Elizabethan ‘low life’. The Silent Woman, which is written in a lighter mood, approaches the comedy of manners. Ben Jonson wrote two tragic plays. Sejanus and Cataline on the classical model, but they were not successful.
Ben Jonson was a profound classical scholar who wanted to reform the Elizabethan drama, and introduce form and method in it. He resolved to fight against cheap romantic effects, and limit his art within the bounds of reason and common sense. He was an intellectual and satirical writer unlike Shakespeare who was imaginative and sympathetic. His chief contribution to dramatic theory was his practice to construct plays based on ‘humour’, or some master passion. In this way he created a new type of comedy having its own methods, scope and purpose. Though he drew his principles from the ancients, he depicted the contemporary life in his plays in a most realistic manner. In this way Jonson broke from the Romantic tendency of Elizabethan drama.
(b) Elizabethan Poetry
Poetry in the Renaissance period took a new trend. It was the poetry of the new age of discovery, enthusiasm and excitement. Under the impact of the Renaissance, the people of England were infused with freshness and vigour, and these qualities are clearly reflected in poetry of that age.
The poetry of the Elizabethan age opens with publications of a volume known as Tottel’s Miscellany (1577). This book which contained the verse of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503?-1542) and the Earl of Surrey, (1577?-1547) marks the first English poetry of the Renaissance. Wyatt and Surrey wrote a number of songs, especially sonnets which adhered to the Petrarcan model, and which was later adopted by Shakespeare. They also attempted the blank verse which was improved upon by Marlowe and then perfected by Shakespeare. They also experimented a great variety of metres which influenced Spenser. Thus Wyatt and Surrey stand in the same relation to the glory of Elizabethan poetry dominated by Spenser and Shakespeare, as Thomson and Collins do to Romantic poetry dominated by Wordsworth and Shelley.
Another original writer belonging to the early Elizabethan group of poets who were mostly courtiers, was Thomas Sackville (1536-1608). In his Mirror for Magistrates he has given a powerful picture of the underworld where the poet describes his meetings with some famous Englishmen who had been the victims of misfortunes. Sackville, unlike Wyatt and Surrey, is not a cheerful writer, but he is superior to them in poetic technique.
The greatest of these early Elizabethan poets was Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586). He was a many-sided person and a versatile genius—soldier, courtier and poet—and distinguished himself in all these capacities. Like Dr. Johnson and Byron he stood in symbolic relation to his times. He may be called the ideal Elizabethan, representing in himself the great qualities of that great age in English history and literature. Queen Elizabeth called him one of the jewels of her crown, and at the age of twenty-three he was considered ‘one of the ripest statesmen of the age’.
As a literary figure, Sidney made his mark in prose as well as in poetry. His prose works are Arcadia and the Apologie for Poetrie (1595). With Arcadia begins a new kind of imaginative writing. Though written in prose it is strewn with love songs and sonnets. The Apologie for Poetrie is first of the series of rare and very useful commentaries which some English poets have written about their art. His greatest work, of course, is in poetry—the sequence of sonnets entitled Astrophel and Stella, in which Sidney celebrated the history of his love for Penelope Devereax, sister of the Earl of Essex,- a love which came to a sad end through the intervention of Queen Elizabeth with whom Sidney had quarrelled. As an example of lyrical poetry expressing directly in the most sincere manner an intimate and personal experience of love in its deepest passion, this sonnet sequence marks an epoch. Their greatest merit is their sincerity. The sequence of the poet’s feelings is analysed with such vividness and minuteness that we are convinced of their truth and sincerity. Here we find the fruit of experience, dearly bought:
Desire; desire; I have too dearly bought
With price of mangled mind. Thy worthless ware.
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who should my mind to higher prepare.
Besides these personal and sincere touches, sometimes the poet gives a loose reign to his imagination, and gives us fantastic imagery which was a characteristic of Elizabethan poetry.
The greatest name in non-dramatic Elizabethan poetry is that of Spenser, who may be called the poet of chivalry and Medieval allegory. The Elizabethan Age was the age of transition, when the time-honoured institutions of chivalry, closely allied to Catholic ritual were being attacked by the zeal of the Protestant reformer and the enthusiasm for latters of the European humanists. As Spenser was in sympathy with both the old and the new, he tried to reconcile these divergent elements in his greatest poetic work—The Faerie Queene. Written in the form of an allegory, though on the surface it appears to be dealing with the petty intrigues, corrupt dealings and clever manipulations of politicians in the court of Elizabeth, yet when seen from a higher point of view, it brings before us the glory of the medieval times clothed in an atmosphere of romance. We forget the harsh realities of life, and lifted into a fairy land where we see the knights performing chivalric deeds for the sake of the honour Queen Gloriana. We meet with shepherds, sylvan nymphs and satyrs, and breathe the air of romance, phantasy and chivalry.
Though Spenser’s fame rests mainly on The Faerie Queene, he also wrote some other poems of great merit. His Shepherd’s Calendar (1579) is a pastoral poem written in an artificial classical style which had become popular in Europe on account of the revival of learning. Consisting of twelve parts, each devoted to a month of the year, here the poet gives expression to his unfruitful love for a certain unknown Rosalind, through the mouth of shepherds talking and singing. It also deals with various moral questions and the contemporary religious issues. The same type of conventional pastoral imagery was used by Spenser in Astrophel (1586), an elegy which he wrote on the death of Sidney to whom he had dedicated the Calendar. Four Hymns which are characteried by melodious verse were written by Spenser in honour of love and beauty. His Amoretti, consisting of 88 sonnets, written in the Petrarcan manner which had become very popular in those days under the influence of Italian literature, describes beautifully the progress of his love for Elizabeth Boyle whom he married in 1594. His Epithalamion is the most beautiful marriage hymn in the English language.
The greatness of Spenser as a poet rests on his artistic excellence. Though his poetry is surcharged with noble ideas and lofty ideals, he occupies an honoured place in the front rank of English poets as the poet of beauty, music and harmony, through which he brought about a reconciliation between the medieval and the modern world. There is no harsh note in all his poetry. He composed his poems in the spirit of a great painter, a great musician. Above all, he was the poet of imagination, who, by means of his art, gave an enduring to the offsprings of his imagination. As a metrist his greatest contribution to English poetry is the Spenserian stanza which is admirably suited to descriptive or reflective poetry. It is used by Thomson in The Castle of Indolence, by Keats in The Eve of St. Agnes, by Shelley in The Revolt of Islam and by Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. On account of all these factors, Spenser has been a potent influence on the English poets of all ages, and there is no exaggeration in the remark made by Charles Lamb that “Spenser is the poets’ poet.”
(c) Elizabethan Prose
The Elizabethan period was also the period of the origin of modern English prose. During the reign of Elizabeth prose began to be used as a vehicle of various forms of amusement and information, and its popularity increased on account of the increased facility provided by the printing press. Books on history, travel, adventures, and translations of Italian stories appeared in a large number. Though there were a large number of prose-writers, there were only two-Sidney and Lyly who were conscious of their art, and who made solid contributions to the English prose style when it was in its infancy. The Elizabethan people were intoxicated with the use of the English language which was being enriched by borrowings from ancient authors. They took delight in the use of flowery words and graceful ,grandiloquent phrases. With the new wave of patriotism and national prestige the English language which had been previously eclipsed by Latin, and relegated to a lower position, now came to its own, and it was fully exploited. The Elizabethans loved decorative modes of expression and flowery style.
John Lyly (1554-1606)
The first author who wrote prose in the manner that the Elizabethans wanted, was Lyly, whose Euphues, popularized a highly artificial and decorative style. It was read and copied by everybody. Its maxims and phrases were freely quoted in the court and the market-place, and the word ‘Euphuism’ became a common description of an artificial and flamboyant style.
The style of Euphues has three main characteristics. In the first place, the structure of the sentence is based on antithesis and alliteration. In other words, it consists of two equal parts which are similar in sound but with a different sense. For example, Euphues is described as a young man “of more wit than wealth, yet of more wealth than wisdom”. The second characteristic of this style is that no fact is stated without reference to some classical authority. For example, when the author makes a mention of friendship, he quotes the friendship that existed between David and Jonathan. Besides these classical allusions, there is also an abundance of allusion to natural history, mostly of a fabulous kind, which is its third characteristic. For example, “The bull being tied to the fig tree loseth his tale; the whole herd of dear stand at gaze if they smell sweet apple.”
The purpose of writing Euphues was to instruct the courtiers and gentlemen how to live, and so it is full of grave reflections and weighty morals. In it there is also criticism of contemporary society, especially its extravagant fashions. Though Puritanic in tone, it inculcates, on the whole, a liberal and humane outlook.
Sidney’s Arcadia is the first English example of prose pastoral romance, which was imitated by various English authors for about two hundred years. The story related in Arcadia in the midst of pastoral surrounding where everything is possible, is long enough to cover twenty modern novels, but its main attraction lies in its style which is highly poetical and exhaustive. One word is used again and again in different senses until its all meanings are exhausted. It is also full of pathetic fallacy which means establishing the connection between the appearance of nature with the mood of the artist. On the whole, Arcadia goes one degree beyond Euphues in the direction of Sfreedom and poetry.
Two other important writers who, among others, influenced Elizabethan prose were: Malory and Hakluyt. Malory wrote a great prose romance Morte de Arthur dealing with the romantic treasures of the Middle Ages. It was by virtue of the simple directness of the language, that it proved an admirable model to the prose story-tellers of the Renaissance England. Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages and other such books describing sea adventures were written in simple and unaffected directness. The writer was conscious of only that he had something to tell that was worth telling.