THE ELIZABETHAN AGE OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.
By SIDNEY LEE, Litt.D.
Literary temper of Elizabethan England . 364
Foreign influences. 365
The work of Thomas Sackville. A Myroure for Magistrates, and Gorboduc . 366
Gascoigne's innovations 367
The classicists. Gabriel Harvey . 368
The "Areopagus." The classical fallacy, Spenser's Shepheards Calender .369
Lyly's Euphues . 370
Sidney's Arcadia. The English drama . 371
Puritan opposition to the drama. Gosson. Sidney's Apologie for Poetrie 372
Spenser's Faerie Queene. Lyly and the development of comedy. 373
Marlowe's tragedies . 374
Peele. Greene. Kyd . 375
Elizabethan lyrics and sonnets: Sidney. Watson . 376
Prose literature. Translation of the Bible. Hooker. Bacon. Pamphleteers: Nash. Dekker . 377
Shakespeare's career . 378
His reputation in his own day. His younger dramatic contemporaries, and the post-Shakespearean drama: Ben Jonson . 379
Chapman. Marston. Dekker. Heywood. Middleton . 380
Fletcher. Beaumont. Massinger. Webster. Ford. Shirley. 381
The achievements of the Elizabethan age of English literature. 382
THE ELIZABETHAN AGE OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.
THE literary temper of Elizabethan England was distinguished by a splendid vitality and vivacity, a rare catholicity of taste and width of outlook. Prose and poetry alike rang with a fervid enthusiasm for life in its most varied aspects. The nation's intellect was permeated by a wealth of ideas and aspirations which were new. The powerful individuality of Elizabethan literature is unmistakable, and in the work of Shakespeare it scaled heights unsurpassed in the literature of the world. But Elizabethan literature is misunderstood when it is studied in isolation. Very many of its ideas and aspirations were the common property of civilised Europe, however much they were coloured by the national idiosyncrasy. The enthusiasm for the Greek and Latin classics, the passion for extending the limits of human knowledge, the resolve to make the best and not the worst of life upon earth, the ambition to cultivate the idea of beauty, the faith in man's physical, moral, and intellectual perfectibility, the conviction that man's reason was given him to use without restraint-all these sentiments, which went to the making of Elizabethan literature, were the foundation also of the Renaissance literature of Italy, France, and Spain. Elizabethan literature cannot be rightly appreciated unless it be viewed as one of the latest fruits of the great movement of the European Renaissance. The Elizabethan was gifted with an exceptional power of assimilation. He studied and imitated foreign authors with amazing energy. At times the freedom with which the Elizabethans adapted, often without acknowledgment, contemporary poetry of France and Italy seems inconsistent with the dictates of literary honesty. Yet in spite of the eager wekome which was extended to foreign literary forms and topics, in spite of the easy tolerance of plagiarism, the national spirit was strong enough in Elizabethan England to maintain the individuality of its literature in all the broad currents. The fervour of his temperament was peculiar to the Elizabethan, and in most of his utterances his passionate idiosyncrasy fused itself with the varied fruits of his study. Dependence on foreign example, so far from checking the fervid workings of native
English literature in the sixteenth century was slow in proving its true capacity, though in its infancy the finest flower of the Renaissance literature of Italy and France lay at its disposal. In Italy, where of all the countries of western Europe the intellectual movement of the Renaissance matured earliest and flourished longest, the highest levels of literary achievement were reached long before sixteenth century England won any conspicuous literary repute. The Renaissance literature of France was junior to that of Italy, and its career was briefer and less distinguished. But the French Renaissance yielded a rich literary harvest while English Renaissance literature still lacked coherent form or aim. It is in the story of the Renaissance literature of Spain that the course of the Renaissance literature of England finds its closest parallel. The active career of Cervantes (1547-1616) was almost precisely conterminous with that of Shakespeare. In both Spain and England, too, the literary energy of the era devoted itself most earnestly to the same branch of literary effort ; the finest literary genius alike of Englishmen and of Spaniards at the close of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century was absorbed in the production of drama. In Spain and in England, alone among civilised nations, the literary Renaissance of the sixteenth century ran its course contemporaneously.
As in Spain, so in England Renaissance literature made some notable reconnoitring skirmishes before it gained the roads which led to decisive victory. Under Italian or French influence Henry VIII's courtiers sought to inaugurate a literary era in England in the first half of the sixteenth century. Blank verse and the sonnet, which were to play a large part in the Elizabethan epoch, were then first introduced from Italy. But the first harbingers of a literary revival in Tudor England proved disappointing heralds. Their utterances were for the most part halting. There was a want of individuality or definiteness in expression. The early Tudor experiments in poetry lacked harmony or complexity of tone. The prose was marked by a simple directness, which was often vigorous, but tended to monotony and tameness. It is even more worthy of remark that the work done by Surrey, Wyatt, Lord Berners, and their contemporaries practically ceased with their deaths. No one for the time being carried it further. The generation that followed the close of Henry VIII's reign was almost destitute of genuine literary effort.
Nor did the Elizabethan period of English literature begin with the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the English throne. Twenty-one years of her reign passed away before any literary works of indisputable eminence came to birth. There were occasional glimmerings of light in the course of the first two decades. Much was attempted which offered invaluable suggestion to later endeavours, but the stream of great literature did not
In the opening years of Queen Elizabeth's reign the most notable literary work came from the pen of Thomas Sackville (1536-1608), at the time a young barrister of three-and-twenty, who in later life devoted himself exclusively to politics. He came to hold the highest offices in the State, obtained the title of Earl of Dorset, and outlived Queen Elizabeth's long reign by five years. Sackville made two interesting contributions to English literature, which bore testimony to a craving for a finer workmanship and wider scope than existed already ; but his work stands practically alone. In the first place, he designed a long poem on the vicissitudes of great personages in English history who had reached violent ends. Sackville owed the main suggestion of his plan to Boccaccio, who had worked out a like scheme in Latin prose, while he drew from Dante and Virgil the machinery of a poet's imaginary visit to the regions which the souls of dead heroes inhabited. A Myroure for Magistrates showed, as far as Sackville's contributions to it went, a marked advance in poetic temper on any English poetry that had been produced since Chaucer's death. Sackville wrote only two sections of the long poem- the Induction and the story of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, a victim of Richard Ill's tyranny. Sackville's poetic aims are perhaps more remarkable than his powei's of execution. Some of the stiffness which is inevitable in new methods of poetic exposition is apparent in his phraseology and versification. But his sense of stately rhythm, and his fertile command of poetic imagery, went far beyond the range of any preceding sixteenth century poet in England.
From the historical point of view Sackville's second literary endeavour is perhaps more notable than his first. With another lawyer, Thomas Norton (1532-84), he collaborated in the production of the first regular tragedy in the English tongue, and was thus a herald of the most characteristic feature of Elizabethan literature. A rudimentary form of drama had long been current in England. The medieval miracle plays, which were for the most part oral presentations of biblical stories, had yielded in course of time to moralities, in which personifications of vices and virtues illustrated in action the unending struggles of good and evil for the dominion of man's soul. In the early sixteenth century the moralities had been largely supplanted by interludes, in which homely anecdote or farcical character was scenically portrayed. Of true dramatic art, with its subtlety of characterisation and its poetic capabilities, practically nothing was known in England when Elizabeth's reign opened. A crude endeavour by a schoolmaster, in a piece called Ralph Roister Doister, to adapt to English idiosyncrasies Plautus' comedy
Sackville's efforts stand practically apart in the history of Elizabethan literature. His contributions to A Myroure for Magistrates, were published in 1563. Gorboduc was written and acted in 1561, first printed in 1565. Sackville's literary career went no further; no certain promise of great poetry or prose characterised the work of such authors as were active at the moment when he laid down his pen. The torch that he had lighted found during many years few fitted to bear it after him. The versifiers Barnaby Googe (1540-94) and George Turberville (1540F-1610?) studied the classics and contemporary Italian literature with very small effect. Neither they nor Thomas Churchyard (1520 ?-l 604), who reached a patriarchal age, gained a footing except on the lowest slopes of Parnassus.
The work of George Gascoigne (1525P-77), which belongs to the same epoch, stands in a different category. The variety of endeavour lends his career historic interest. He sought new inspiration from Italy in directions which no one before had followed. From his pen came both a comedy and a tragedy which were directly adapted from the modern Italian drama. His comedy, The Supposes, is drawn from Ariosto ; his tragedy, Jocasta, from Lodovico Dolce. Ariosto's play is in prose, and if Sackville and Norton's tragedy first taught Englishmen the fitness of blank verse for the purposes of tragedy, Gascoigne's English presentation
Gascoigne died in 1577, and two years later Elizabethan literature definitely started on its great career. When the forward movement began, one form of foreign influence seemed likely to obstruct its progress. This obstacle had to be removed before the advancing army could command an open road. In cultured circles the zeal for classical study combined with the want of distinctive artistic quality in contemporary English verse to generate the fallacious belief that English poetry could only improve its quality by servile obedience to classical law or suggestion. The faith was universal that English drama was bound to respect the lines which Athens and Rome had glorified and which Italy and France had reinstated in authority.
So soon as Elizabethan literature was emerging from darkness, a strenuous effort was made to restrain its free development by forcing on it classical fetters, from which there should be no release. Gabriel Harvey (1545 P-1630), a Cambridge tutor, who reckoned Spenser amongst his pupils and had a wide acquaintance among the cultivated nobility, imperiously ordered English poets to confine themselves to Latin metre as well as to Latin ideas. There had recently been developed in France a vernacular literature which deliberately fashioned itself on classical poetry. The comparative success of that movement, whose leaders took the corporate title of La Pléiade, seemed, at a time when the English poetic standard was low, to lend weight to Harvey's pedantic counsel. For a moment it appeared as if Harvey's advice were to prevail. At his instance a literary club was formed in London in 1579 to promote the naturalisation in English poetry of classical prosody.
The club, which was called " the Areopagus " and held its meetings at Leicester House, the home of the Earl of Leicester, was formed of men of rank and literary promise who had travelled in France and Italy and had acquired there their literary aspirations. Chief of these was Sir Philip Sidney, a man of great social eminence, in whom were concentrated all the aspirations of the Renaissance,-the love of art and letters, the philosophic curiosity, the yearning for novel experience. With Sidney there was associated the more imposing figure of Edmund Spenser, who was Harvey's old pupil and for a time served the Earl of Leicester as secretary. Much energy was spent by these and other eager disciples of Harvey on experiments in English hexameters, elegiacs, and sapphics. For a time both Spenser and Sidney seemed to accept the pedantic argument that accent and rhyme in English poetry were vulgar and ungainly, and that quantity was the only fit characteristic of verse. The clumsiness of the poetic endeavours which illustrated these principles happily proved their ineptitude and error. Spenser quickly acknowledged that poetry could only flourish if it were left free to adapt itself to the idiosyncrasy of a poet's mother-tongue. Sidney, too, as well as Spenser broke away from the toils of the classicists. A breach was essential to the healthy literary development of the country. It came as soon as Elizabethan poetry showed the real capacity of accent and rhyme.
The classical champions were slow to accept defeat. Their own incompetence brought about the ruin of their cause. The English hexameter which they eulogised as the finest vehicle of poetic expression readily lent itself to grotesqueness. Richard Stanyhurst's translation of the Aeneid (1582) into hexameters was deservedly laughed out of court, and its ludicrous clumsiness finally disposed of the claims of the classicists to regulate English literature. Twenty years later Thomas Campion in his Observations on English Poesie (1602) still persisted in denouncing rhyme, but he sufficiently confuted his own argument by the splendid harmonies of his own rhymed lyrics. George Chapman (1559 ?-1634<), a fine classical scholar, spoke the last word on the classical theory with admirable point in one of his earliest poems :
Sweet Poesy Will not be clad in her supremacy With those strange garments, Rome's hexameters, As she is English: but in right prefers Our native robes, put on with skilful hands- English heroics, to those antic garlands. (Shadow of Night, 11. 86-91.)
Spenser, whose muse rejected with some reluctance the trappings of Latin prosody, did more than any other writer to give Elizabethan literature at the outset its fitting cue. His Shepheards Calender, which was published in 1579, was the first great Elizabethan poem which was to stand the test of time. In it the poet offered ample evidence of foreign study. The twelve eclogues which it comprised were framed on foreign
In the same year as Elizabethan poetry gave sure promise of its great future in The Shepheards Calender, prose also made a notable advance. John Lyly (1554-1606), who was about the same age as Spenser, published the first volume of his moral romance of Euphues soon after The Shepheards Calender ; the second and concluding volume followed within a year. It was Lyly's endeavour to weave a moral or educational treatise into a work of fiction. The design showed originality and boldness, if absolute success were scarcely possible. The methods of fostering in " a gentleman or noble person" " virtuous and gentle discipline" barely lend themselves to romance. But the chief interest of Lyly's book lies, not in its subject-matter, but in its style. The author deliberately sought to invest English prose, for the first time in its history, with a distinctive mannerism. His sentences, which are evenly balanced, present an endless series of antitheses, with a slightly epigrammatic flavour. Alliteration is employed with some frequency, and there is a ceaseless flow of similes drawn from natural history. The quaint pedantry of Lyly's method owes a good deal to the affectations of earlier Spanish prose, especially the mannered prose of Guevara. But the English writer adheres to his self-imposed laws of composition with a persistent thoroughness that is unknown to his masters, and gives him substantial claim to the honours of original invention.
Euphues was received with enthusiasm, and stimulated a taste for a subtler and a more characteristic prose style than already existed, as well as for contemplative romance. Few writers achieved at a bound so high a reputation in cultivated society. The ladies of the Court were soon described as Lyly's scholars, and only those who could "parley
Euphuism" gained repute for refinement. Lyly's pedantic style lent itself readily to caricature and exaggeration. Contemporary prose soon rang with strained antitheses and grotesque allusions to precious stones, stars, fishes, and plants. But, notwithstanding the absurd extravagance of Lyly and his disciples, he pointed the way to that epigrammatic force of which Bacon in his Essays showed the English language to be capable.
The matter of Lyly's Euphues, despite its confused aim, also exerted a prolific influence on subsequent Elizabethan literature. Elizabethan romance was compounded of many simples, among which were conspicuous the post-classical Greek novel (notably the JEihiojnca of Heliodorus), the chivalric stories of the Middle Ages, and the novel and pastoral of Italy. Strongly marked features were derived from such foreign sources as these. Nevertheless, Elizabethan prose fiction readily assimilated Lyly's didacticism in addition. It was after Lyly's popular work had won public favour that Sir Philip Sidney, when in retirement from the Court, began his great fiction of Arcadia. Although Sidney was familiar with all foreign forms of romance, and directly imitated many of them, the ethical disquisitions which he grafted on his scheme were in Lyly's vein and proved his discipleship to Lyly. The Arcadia was not published till 1590, but it was freely circulated in manuscript seven or eight years previously, and its variety of topic, its wealth of adventurous episode, its poetic interludes, and its ludicrous situations, quickly rendered it, despite its length and frequent incoherence, a formidable rival to Lyly's earlier achievement. But Lyly's narrower scope more easily lent itself to imitation. The short romance, which was a popular literary feature of the decade following the publication of Euphues, drew thence such homebred sustenance as went to its making. The fertile novelists Robert Greene (1560?-92) and his disciple, Thomas Lodge (1558 ?-l625), were content to announce to the public their chief efforts as sequels or continuations of Lyly's romance. One of Greene's volumes was christened Euphues, his Censure to Philautus, 1587 ; another was called Menaphon : Camilla''« alarum to Slumbering Euphues. Lodge's familiar romance of Rosalynde, on which Shakespeare founded his play of As You Like It, bore the subsidiary title of Euphues'' Golden Legacy.
The year 1579, which witnessed the emergence of Elizabethan poetry in Spenser's Shepheards Calender and of Elizabethan prose in Lyly's Euphues, gave one other somewhat equivocal hint of the coming greatness. English drama had not passed the limits set by the efforts of Sackville and Norton and Gascoigne. The drama was making no artistic progress in England. Servile adaptations of classical tragedy, which Sackville's and Gascoigne's experiments initiated, seemed destined to encourage bombastic presentment of crime without poetic elevation. Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister, commonly called the earliest English comedy, had had a successor in 1560 in an even cruder farce called Gammer Gurton's Needle, the work of a Cambridge graduate
A section of the public saw in the primary principles of the drama a menace to public morals. Puritans identified theatres with paganism, and declared them to be intolerable in a Christian community. A bitter attack from the religious and ethical point of view quickly developed. In 1579 Stephen Gosson, one of the fanatical foes of the budding drama, published a virulent denunciation of plays, players, and dramatists; and he sought to give added weight to his onslaught by dedicating his work without permission to Sir Philip Sidney, who at the moment held a prominent place in fashionable and literary society. Sidney resented Gosson's sour invective. His knowledge of the classics taught him to regard the drama as an honoured branch of literature. By way of dissociating himself from Gosson's opinions he penned a reply to his jaundiced criticism, which gave a notable impetus to the liberal progress of contemporary literature.
In his Apologie for Poetrie Sidney did far more than defend the drama from fanatical abuse. He surveyed the whole range of poetic art and sought to prove that poetry is the noblest of all the works of man. In detail his treatise is open to censure. Reverence for the classical laws of dramatic composition shackled his judgment. He anathematised tragi-comedy and defended the classical unities. Nor did he foresee the greatness of the coming Elizabethan drama. On the other hand, he fully acknowledged the grandeur of Spenser's youthful genius, and made a stirring appeal to his countrymen to uplift themselves and look "into the sky of poetry." His work was published in 1580, and his exalted enthusiasm seems to lend him the voice of a herald summoning to the poetic lists the mighty combatants with whom the Elizabethan era was yet to be identified.
The implied challenge met with a notable response. During the decade 1580-90 there were new outbursts of activity in every direction. Both comedy and tragedy assumed for the first time in England a distinctive literary garb. Prose acquired dignity and ease. The sonnet and other forms of lyric poetry reached a new level of fervour, and the
Spenser's great poem would have rendered the epoch memorable, had it stood alone. It was admirably representative of contemporary ideals in life and literature. The poet, while frankly acknowledging indebtedness to Homer, Virgil, Ariosto and Tasso, professes to present a gigantic panorama of the moral dangers and difficulties that beset human existence. But the allegorical design was not carried out with rigour. The adventures in which Spenser's heroes engage are often drawn from chivalric or epic romance, and are developed with a freedom which ignores the allegorical intention. Spenser, too, was a close observer of the leading events and personages of Elizabethan history, and he wove into the web of his poetry personal impressions of contemporary personages and movements. Hardly anywhere else in Elizabethan poetry does the fervid loyalty of the Elizabethan to the Queen find more expansive utterance. But it is by its poetic style and spirit that the Faerie Queene, as a whole, must be judged. It is the fertility of the poet's imagination, the luxuriance of the poetical imagery, and the exceptional command of the music of words, which give the poem its true title to honour. The poetic fervour of the age, with its metrical dexterity and exuberant style of expression, reached its zenith in Spenser's great work, which proved a potent stimulus not only to poets of his own day but to a long array of their successors.
To Lyly, the author of Euphues, the marked development of comedy which characterised the decade after 1580 was chiefly due. Nearly all his nine comedies were written and produced between 1581 and 1593. With one exception they are in prose, though all are interspersed with simply worded songs which ring with easy harmonies. The form that comedy assumed in Lyly's hand seems mainly of the author's invention. Dramatic force is not a predominating feature. The_characters are mainly drawn from classical mythology : the plot is'slender ; there is little attempt at characterisation. Lyly's comedies are remarkable for the literary temper of the dialogue. The fantastic conceit, the clever word-play, the graceful similes, create an air of educated refinement which was new to dramatic composition in England. His example had far-reaching consequences. The witty encounters in verbal fence which distinguish many of Shakespeare's comedies bear the impress of Lyly's manner; and, although Lyly as a writer for the stage toys with life rather than interprets it, he revolutionised the native conception of comedy by investing its language with a literary charm.
While Lyly was creating an artistic tradition in realms of comedy, an even more impressive service was rendered to tragedy by another writer of greater poetic genius. Born only two months before Shakespeare, and dying before he had completed his thirtieth year, Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), the first English tragic poet, began and ended his literary
On lesser men than Shakespeare Marlowe's influence was conspicuous and immediate. Writers like George Peele (1558 ?-97?) and Robert Greene (1560 ?-92), who had already made some experiments in drama, seem to have hastily revised their effort in the light of Marlowe's example. Greene's Friar Bungay and Friar Bacon reflects something of the motive of Dr Faustus, though the two plays are worked out on different lines. Greene could not rise to Marlowe's sombre intensity, and the buffoonery of the old moralities corrupted his notions of stagecraft. Peele, like Marlowe, went to English history for a tragic plot. Peele's tragedy of Edward I, which was in all likelihood the offspring of Marlowe's Edward II, is unrelieved by artistic subtlety and defaced by political bias. The grandeur of Marlowe's style was difficult of approach, and, save Shakespeare, almost all who sought to emulate it, merely succeeded in echoing the bombast and crude rant with which Marlowe's work was mingled. Elizabethan audiences saw no defect in the sanguinary extravagances of Tamburlaine or The Jew of Malta, and many writers deliberately set themselves to better Marlowe's instruction in developing scenes of bloodshed and violence. Of these the chief was Thomas Kyd (1557 ?-95?), whose popular tragedies of horror, The Spanish Tragedy, and Jeronimo, emulated Marlowe's least admirable characteristics. Kyd clothed revolting incident in what a contemporary critic called " the swelling bombast of bragging blank verse," and his strident notes for a moment dominated public taste. But his triumph was short-lived. He was battling with the stream of progress, and suffered the inevitable penalty of neglect even before he died. The new artistic spirit of tragedy which Marlowe's best work inaugurated was not to be repressed.
It was in the last thirteen years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, 1590-1603, that Elizabethan literature shone in its full glory. In 1596 Spenser published the last completed books of his Faerie Queene, and his reputation was finally established. In all directions literary activity redoubled.
Never before or since was the country so prolific in lyric and sonnet. Foreign influences are here especially apparent. French and Italian poetry was pillaged for ideas and phraseology. But there was a simplicity and sweetness of melody in the best of the short Elizabethan poems, even where the ideas and phraseology came from a foreign source, which must be assigned to native genius. The poetic spirit was widely distributed.
Writers like Thomas Nash (1567-1601) or Thomas Dekker (1570P-1641 ?), who applied most of their energy to prose, showed in rare outbursts of verse genuine lyric intensity. The habit of writing lyrics spread high and low through all ranks of society ; and the success of the amateurs rivalled that of professional writers. Politicians and men of action like the Earls of Essex and Oxford and Sir Walter Ralegh (1552 P-1618) could occasionally turn as harmonious a lyric stanza as any of the young poets who devoted themselves to literature exclusively. The subject-matter of the Elizabethan lyric is mainly limited to amorous emotion, but there is an occasional tendency to reflexion on sterner topics. Indeed one of the most voluble and honey-tongued of Elizabethan poets, Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), developed a reflective faculty in verse which gives him some claim to rank with Wordsworth. How widely extended was the taste for lyrical utterance may be gauged by the ample miscellanies of brief poems which repeatedly came from the printing-press at the end of the period. All conditions of men figured among the contributors. At least two of these collections, England's Helicon, 1600, and Davison's Poetical Rhapsody, 1602, provide banquets of lyrical masterpieces.
The sonnet, the most difficult of all poetic forms in which to attain excellence, proved a more perilous attraction to poetic aspirants than the lyric. Sonnet-sequences of love, such as Sidney inaugurated in England in his Astrophel and Stella, and Thomas Watson developed in his 'EKA-TOMHA6IA (1582), and in his Tears of Fonde (1593), engaged an army of pens during the last decade of Elizabeth's reign. Few of the great poets of the day escaped thé sonneteering contagion. Daniel 'and Drayton, Lodge and Constable, helped to swell the sonneteering chorus. Spenser and Shakespeare were drawn into the current and paid ample homage to the fashionable vogue. Like Sidney and Watson, the later Elizabethan sonneteers followed with fidelity foreign models, and most of them treated the sonnet as a literary exercise rather than a vehicle for the expression of personal feeling. The work of Petrarch and Tasso among Italians, of Ronsard and Desportes among Frenchmen, was the begetter of fully two-thirds of the quatorzains which saw the light in Elizabethan England. Spenser's long sonnet-sequence which he called Amoretti owed much to French and Italian poetry, and very sparse fragments of it bear adequate testimony to his great capacity. Among the Elizabethan examples only Shakespeare's Sonnets maintain for any space exalted levels of lyric melody or meditative energy. Like other Elizabethan sonnets, they owe a large debt to the vast sonneteering literature of sixteenth century Europe ; but their supreme poetic quality sets on that literature a glorious crown.
The close of the Queen's reign also witnessed a wonderful expansion of the scope of prose literature. The literary fervour which distinguished the poetry of the epoch infected Elizabethan prose. Whatever the
In the lower ranks of literary endeavour prose also filled a large space. Pamphleteers abounded and supplied something of the place held by the modern journalist. Thomas Nash (1567-1601) was the most original personality among occasional writers in prose. He was a professional controversialist, and no subject that could be turned to polemical uses was foreign to his pen. He satirised contemporary society and all whom he believed to be impostors with effusive vigour and frankness. Though he expressed unmeasured scorn of the current practice of imitating foreign masters, the luxuriant bluster of Rabelais and Aretino strongly appealed to him. He was addicted, as he confessed, to a swelling and boisterous mode of speech, which at times descended to burlesque effects. But in spite of his reckless gasconading the literary spirit was always strong in him; and in his prose romance of Jack Wilton he produced a novel of adventure, the first of its kind in English, which has lasting literary value. Dekker subsequently carried on a part of Nash's work in quieter tones. His numerous tracts, describing the darker side of London life, are clothed in an untamable volubility. But his prose is thoroughly Elizabethan in the glow of humorous insight and vivacity with which it is illumined.
More impressive than any other feature of the literary history of the closing years of Elizabeth's reign was the rise to fame and fortune of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and the final elevation of the drama to the first place in the literature of the age. The general trend of Shakespeare's career was not unlike those of many contemporaries who followed the dramatic profession. The son of a village tradesman, he received the ordinary education in Latin which was available to all boys of the lower and middle classes in the grammar-school of Stratford-on-Avon, his native place. After vain endeavours to gain a livelihood in the country, he made his way to London soon after he came of age, and opened in a very humble capacity a life-long association with the theatre. There is little doubt that at the outset he thought to win distinction as an actor. But his literary instinct quickly diverted him to the writing of plays.
His period of probation was not short. He did not leap at a bound to fame and fortune. It was probably not till 1591, when he was twenty-seven years of age, and had already spent six years in London, that his earliest original play, Love's Labour's Lost, was performed. It showed the hand of a beginner ; it abounded in trivial witticisms. But above all there shone out the dramatic and poetic fire, the humorous outlook on life, the insight into human feeling which were to inspire Titanic achievements in the future. Soon afterwards, he scaled the tragic heights of Romeo and Juliet, and he was rightly hailed as the prophet of a new world of art. Thenceforth, he marched onward in triumph.
Shakespeare's work was exceptionally progressive in quality, few authors advanced in their art more steadily. His hand grew firmer, his thought grew richer as his years increased; and, apart from external evidence as to the date of production of his plays, the discerning critic can determine from the versification, and from the general handling of the theme, to what period in his life each composition belongs. The comedies of Shakespeare's younger days often trench upon the domains of farce; those of his middle and later life approach the domain of tragedy. Tragedy in his hands markedly grew, as his years advanced, in subtlety and intensity. His tragic themes became more and more complex, and betrayed deeper and deeper knowledge of the workings of human passion. Finally, the storm and stress of tragedy yielded to the placid pathos of romance. All the evidence shows that, when his years of probation ended, he mastered in steady though rapid succession every degree and phase of excellence in the sphere of drama, from the phantasy of À Midsummer-Night's Dream to the unmatchable humour of Falstaff, from the passionate tragedies of King Lear and Othello to the romantic pathos of Cymbeline and The Tempest.
Shakespeare was no conscious innovator. The topics to which he applied himself were rarely quite new. The chronicle play, which dramatised episodes of English history, had already engaged other pens.
He based his comedies on popular Italian novels, most of which had furnished material for plays, not merely in England, but in Italy and France, before he took up his pen. His Roman tragedies all dealt with well-tried themes. But in the result his endeavours bore little resemblance to those of his contemporaries. The magic of his genius transmuted all he touched. His wealth of thought and his supreme command of language invested all his efforts with an originality and freshness which no contemporary approached.
The amount of work which Shakespeare accomplished in the twenty years of his active professional career (1591-1611) amply proves his steadiness of application and the regularity with which he pursued his vocation. His energy brought him rich pecuniary rewards. Returning to his native place as soon as his financial position was secure, he purchased there the chief house in the town, New Place, and obtained other lands and houses. No mystery attaches to Shakespeare's financial competency. It is easily traceable to his professional earnings-as author, actor, and theatrical shareholder-and to his shrewd handling of his revenues. His ultimate financial position differs little from that of his fellow theatrical managers and actors.
Shakespeare died at Stratford on Tuesday, April 23, 1616, probably on his fifty-second birthday. The epitaph on his monument in the chancel of Stratford-on-Avon Church bears convincing testimony to the reputation he acquired in his own day. "With his death," it is there stated, "quick Nature died." All contemporary art was declared to stand in the relation of a page-boy or menial towards his masterly achievements. The supremacy which was frankly allowed him in his own day has been amply vindicated by modern criticism.
Many attempted to wield Shakespeare's bow after his death, but none succeeded. The history of the post-Shakespearean drama of James I's and Charles I's reigns is a tale of degeneracy and decadence. A bountiful endowment with the poetic spirit of the age, an occasional flash of rare dramatic insight, an improved trick of stagecraft, were poor substitutes for Shakespeare's magical intuition, for his sustained command of dramatic expression, for what Coleridge calls his " omnipresent creativeness." In his lifetime the ranks of the dramatists were greatly widened, and numerous younger contemporaries of his energetically pursued the profession of dramatist when he was laid in his grave. But, compared with Shakespeare, even the most accomplished Elizabethan dramatists are dwarfed saplings in the presence of a giant oak.
Of the younger generation of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Ben Jonson (1573 P-1637) was the first to enter the dramatic arena, which he was one of the last to quit. Of strongly conservative temper, Jonson deliberately sought to stem the tide of the Shakespearean canons, which freely defied the old dramatic unities and declined to recognise any artificial restriction on the presentment of living experience on
George Chapman (1559 P-1634), the translator of Homer, worked as a playwright somewhat in Jonson's groove, but he showed less vivacity or knowledge of life. Chapman's tragedies are obtrusively the fruits of studious research. He is by natural affinity a gnomic poet or philosopher who inclines to cryptic utterance. His plays often resemble a series of dignified and weighty soliloquies, in which the dramatist personally addresses himself to the audience in a succession of transparent disguises.
At least eight other able playwrights of Jonson's generation sought, on the other hand, to continue the Shakespearean tradition, and they at times echoed, albeit hesitatingly, their master's wondrous powers of speech. They were all faithful followers of the common contemporary practice of collaboration, and it is not always easy to disentangle one man's contribution to a single play from another's.
John Marston (1575 P-1634), who began his career as a satirist, was in comedy a shrewd and cynical observer of human life, while as a tragic writer he could occasionally control the springs of pity and terror. Thomas Dekker (1570 P-1641 ?) for the most part brought on the stage the society of his own time. He was far more realistic than most of his fellows, and a more truthful portrayer of character. His sentiment was more sincere. But he had smaller faculty of imagination. His language, if simpler, was less glowing or stimulating. Thomas Heywood (d. 1650 ?) and Thomas Middleton (1570 P-1627) energetically competed with Dekker and Marston for public favour. Each, in one work, at least-Heywood in his Woman Killed With Kindness, and Middleton notably in his Changeling-proved that he cherished a great conception of dramatic art. Heywood excelled Dekker in dramatic handling of domestic episode. Middleton sought to turn to dramatic account picturesque
None of these dramatists, save perhaps Heywood, achieved marked success in the theatre. Only John Fletcher (1579-1625), and Philip Massinger (1583-1640), inherited in permanence any substantial share of Shakespeare's popularity. Shakespeare's place at the head of the dramatic profession was filled on his retirement by Fletcher, who made his earliest reputation as a writer of plays in a short-lived partnership with Francis Beaumont (1607-11). Beaumont's career closed before that of Shakespeare, and Fletcher continued his work either alone or with other collaborators, of whom the most constant was Massinger. Fletcher's alliance with Beaumont produced rich fruit in The Maid's Tragedy, and in the tragi-comedy of Philaster (c. 1611), to both of which Beaumont was the larger contributor. Fletcher was better fitted to excel in comedy than in tragedy, and it is his brilliant dialogue and sprightly repartee that mainly gave his dramatic work distinction. His tragic endeavours revealed splendid powers of declamation, but wanted sustained intensity of feeling. Massinger shared many of Fletcher's characteristics, but excelled him in his appreciation of stage requirements, and at times intensified the passing interest of his work by making his plots or characters reflect episodes of current political history. The merits of Fletcher's and Massinger's labours are, however, those of a declining epoch. They show intellectual agility rather than intellectual fertility. Their picturesque utterance inclines to over-elaboration, and there is a steadily growing tendency to mannerism and artifice. Moreover their moral tone is enfeebled. Although Shakespeare is invariably frank and outspoken on moral questions, the moral atmosphere of his work is throughout manly and bracing. Fletcher and Massinger play havoc with the accepted laws of morality, and present vice in all manner of insidious disguises.
Another contemporary dramatist of unquestioned eminence, John Webster (1580 P-1625 ?) gave similar proofs of decadence. Webster concentrated his abundant energies on repulsive themes : his plots centre in fantastic crimes, which lie out of the range of art and life. But Webster, of all Shakespeare's successors, approached him nearest in tragic intensity.
The last flickers of light which can be traced to the Elizabethan dramatic spirit are visible in the tragic genius of John Ford (fl. 1639) and in the miscellaneous ability of James Shirley (1596-1666). Ford's tragic romance of the Broken Heart was produced in 1633. It more closely accords with the classical canons of construction than with the Shakespearean, but the high poetic strain echoes the deep harmonies of Shakespearean tragedy. The name of James Shirley, who died in 1666 from fright and exposure during the Great Fire of London,
The Elizabethan age of English literature was one of such exuberant energy that only by slow degrees could the impetus exhaust itself. For a short space the highest intellectual and artistic ambitions of the English people had consciously or unconsciously concentrated themselves on literature. Before the second decade of the seventeenth century closed other interests supervened ; questions of supreme political moment distracted and finally absorbed the nation's attention. But the spirit of the Elizabethan era had then done its work. It had given birth to a mass of poetry and prose which ranks in literary merit with the products of the greatest literary epochs in the world's history. Above all, it produced Shakespeare, whom the unanimous verdict of all civilised peoples pronounces to be the greatest of dramatic poets.