The publication of Spenser’s Shepherd Calendar in 1579 as marking the opening of the golden age of Elizabethan age.”—Hudson . The Elizabethan Age (1558-1625) is generally regarded as the greatest in the history of English literature. Historically, we note in this age the tremendous impetus received from the renaissance, reformation, and from the exploration of the new-world.
Such an age of thought, feeling and vigorous action, finds its best expression in the development of drama which culminating in Shakespeare, Jonson and University Wits. Though the age produced some excellent prose works, it is essentially an age of poetry, but both poetry and drama were permeated by Italian influence, which was dominated in English literature from Chaucer to the Restoration. The literature of this age is often called the literature of the Renaissance.
The age also gives the non-dramatic poets; the center of this group is Spenser, whose Shepherd Calendar and Fairy Queen marked the appearance of the first national poet since Chaucer’s death in 1400; then comes Chapman who is noted for his completion of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, and for his translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Sidney, besides his poetry Astrophel and Stella, wrote his prose romance Arcadia and the Defense of the Possie, one of the earliest classical critical essay.
The Elizabethan Age is the golden age of English drama. It was now that plays came to be divided into five acts and a number of scenes. Strictly speaking the drama has two divisions: comedy and tragedy, but in this age, a mixed mode of drama was developed called Tragicomedy, a type of drama which intermingled with the both standard of tragedy and comedy.
Characteristic of the age:
The most characteristic feature of the age was the comparative religious tolerance. The frightful accesses of the religious was known as “The Thirty Years war.” The whole kingdom divided again itself—the north was largely Catholic, while the Southern counties were as strongly Protestants. It was in age of comparity social contentment. The rapid increase of the manufacturing towns gave employment to thousands who had before being idle and discounted. It was an age of dreams, of adventure, of unbounded enthusiasm. A new literature creates a new heaven to match men’s eyes. So, dreams and deeds increase side by side and the dream is ever greater than the deed. The age of Elizabeth was a time of intellectual liberty, of growing intelligence and comfort among all classes, of unbounded patriotism, and of peace at the home and abroad.
Sonnet in England was imported from abroad. It was Wyatt who introduced the sonnet in England. Wyatt’s lead was accepted by Surrey whose sonnets were likewise published after his death, in the Miscellany. Wyatt was much under the spell of his model Petrarch, and out of his thirty-two sonnets, seventeen are but adaptation of Petrarch’s. surrey in a new form for his sonnets, which later was to be adopted by most of Elizabethan sonneteers, the most prominent of whom was Shakespeare. Surrey’s sonnets have a tenderness and grace, occasional lyrical melody, and genuine-looking sentiments which are absent from Wyatt’s. It was left for Thomas Watson to recall first the attention of the readers to the sonnet after Wyatt and Surrey.
The Italian plan of writing sonnets in sequences was adopted by Spenser also. His Amoretti, a series of 88 sonnets describe the progress of his love for Elizabeth Boyle, whom he married in 1594. It is with Sidney’s work that the popular vogue of the sonnet began. The vogue remained in full swing till the end of the 16th C. Sidney’s most important was his sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella which appeared in 1591. It comprised one hundred and eight sonnets and eleven songs. It is Sidney told the story of his unrequited love for Penelope. Sidney’s sentiments in his sonnet sequence are partly real and partly conventional. A critic avers that “Sidney writes not because it a pleasant and accomplished thing to do but because he roust. His sonnets let out of the blood.”
Formally considered, Sidney’s sonnets are different from both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan kind. He does not always adhere to the same pattern. Samuel Daniel was another poet who wrote sonnets to b in the fashion, without conviction and probably, without a real mistress to sing. His sonnets in Delia are merely chill appeals but the language of these sonnets is usually pure and their versification correct. Michael Drayton’s collection Idea hardly gives the impression of a true passion, shows the little delicacy, and is often vulgar yet he is versatile and more than once ingenious to the point of the fantastic. Constable’s sonnets have the charm of delicate fancy and scholarly elegance. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a class by themselves. The collection is unequal and some of sonnets are merely “clever,” being fashionable exercise in quibbles and conceits common to the generality of the sonneteers. But the best of them are worthy of the great poet, and in their high imaginative quality. Felicity of diction and lyrical music, are unequalled in Elizabethan poetry.
There were not many theatres during the Elizabethan Age (1568-1625). At the time of Shakespeare there not probably more than public theatre in English, all in London and they were built according to the design of inn yards of the period which had been found marvelously convenient presentation of plays. The theatres of that time were circular and octagon in shape. The main part of the auditorium was the large round pit without a roof, in which the poor people stood. Such people were generally fir the common message at that time were called “Groundings” and Encircling this bit, round the walls, were three balconies covered on the top but not in the front and containing seats.
In the Elizabethan theatres stage was large jutting for into the pit, and was without scenery but the most meager presentation. Hence, it made no difference that people stood at the side of the stage as well as in front. The scenery was created in the imagination of the audience by the words of the Characters on the play. In the absence of the curtains, the end of a scene was frequently shown by rhyming lines. Just as the scenery had to be put into the play, so had entrances and exists to be arranged as part of the play. The stage floor was generally equipped a trap door for the sudden appearance and disappearance of the ghost and spirits. At the back of the stage was a recess and this was curtained and would be shut off when desired. Above the recess was balcony which served for castle walls and upper room and other such scenes. It appears that this too could be curtained off.
The young “bloods’ of the day actually hired stools round the stage itself. No women were allowed to act by law. Consequently, the women’s parts were taken by the boys with unbroken voices. Plays were not acted in the period costumes. Thus, all Shakespeare’s plays were first acted in Modern Dress. It must not be forgotten that the language of the plays fits in with the Elizabethan costumes worn by the actor’s originally. Although there was no scenery yet the costumes were quite lavish. On days when the theatre was open, a flag was shown from the torrents and when the play is about to begin, a trumpet was sounded.
The Pre-Shakespearean university dramatists are known as “University wits”, they are so called because they were associated with the university of Cambridge or Oxford. The constellation consists minor stars like Kyd, Lyly, Peele, Greene, Lodge and Nash, all of whom revolved round the central son Marlowe. These university men usually actors as well as dramatists. They knew the stage and the audience and in writings their plays they remembered not only the actor’s part but also the audiences love for stories and brave spectacle. Their training begins as actors and then they revised old plays and finally become independent writers. They often worked together, as Shakespeare works with Marlowe and Fletcher either in revising old plays or in creating new ones they had a common score of material and characters and so we find frequent repetition of names in their plays.
They were romantic in their attitude and represented the spirit of the Renaissance. They were Bohemian in characterization. They likes Bohemian life in the Grub Street of their day. Their contribution to the literature is as follows:
- They contributed to the formulation of the romantic comedy which blossomed forth in the hands of Shakespeare. However, the early comedies lacked humour.
- They, in spite of their lose plots, made some advance in plot construction and in harmonizing the different threads of their stories into a perfect whole.
- They prepared the ground for the historical plays.
- They had fondness for heroic themes like Tamberlaine.
- They prepared the way for the later tragedies.
- They added poetry to dramatic production
- They made definite improvement in the art of characterization.