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English Literature
The Elizabethan Age
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By Juliana Ribeiro Lopes and Allessandra Elisabeth dos Santos

       We tend to think that the Elizabethan age strictly refers to the reign of Queen Elizabeth. However, the beginning of this period officially started in 1485 with the end of the Wars of the Roses, and Queen Elizabeth only came to the throne in 1558.

       This age had considerable influences and to understand how it was created, it is especially significant to understand the Renaissance. Many relevant things which influenced the Renaissance occurred almost simultaneously. To begin with, the capture of Constantinople, in 1453, which made several Greek scholars take refuge in Italy, and as a consequence, there was the revival of classical learning: everything that was human began to be particularly important. Reason, rather than religion, became the guidance to rule human behavior in this age and the intellectuals of this period were called the Humanists. Then, with the invention of printing, the production of books increased as well as their spread. Afterwards, there was the development of commerce, leading to easier and more thriving trade, creating a new wealthy class: that of the merchants. Finally, there were the great voyages of discovery. In 1492, the voyage to the Americas opened European eyes to the existence of the New World.

       When the Wars of the Roses ended in 1485, a new English dynasty assumed power: the Tudors. Henry VII was the first to take power, followed by Henry VIII. Continuing with this power was so important to the Tudors, that even having been married six times, Henry VIII wanted to marry again so that he could try to have a son to succeed him. Needless to say that divorce was not allowed at that time, which is why Henry VIII came into open conflict with the Catholic Church. In summary, Henry VIII ended the rule of the Catholic Church in England. At this time, monks did not help the community as they were meant to do, for they seemed to take money from the poor; also, some monasteries were huge and owned vast areas of land, so Henry decided to shut down the monasteries of England. This movement was called the Reformation, which made dramatic changes in the way of thinking. England became Protestant and English identity as a nation had to be redefined religiously and politically. Due to the Reformation, England’s identity began to be distinct from Europe.

The Reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558 - 1603)


       Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, was born in Greenwich on September 7, 1533, the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth succeeded to the throne on her half sister’s death, Mary, in November 1558. She was a brilliant, well-educated and talented woman, fluent in six languages, whose 45-year reign is considered one of the most glorious in English History. She was very careful with public money and also very diplomatic; she knew how to deal with the Parliament, respecting their privileges and, as a result, assuring their loyalty. By pursuing moderate religious policies, she prevented the danger of open conflict between Protestants and Catholics. “Gloriana”, as she was called by Edmund Spenser, reduced taxes, broadened education and arts. She promoted sea power and colonial expansion, by stimulating commerce and exploration.

The Flowering of Elizabethan Literature

       Queen Elizabeth’s reign gave England some sense of stability and a considerable sense of national and religious triumph after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. All the energy and confidence born in this period found expression in literature.

       Up to that time, England had been far behind Italy, Spain and France in literature and the arts. The English poets could only follow foreign models. The most important one was the Italian sonnet form, which was changed later by Shakespeare.

       After ten years of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, William Shakespeare was already writing brilliantly and was already using a rich and varied vocabulary. There was a rapid growth in the number of foreign words which became part of the English language. New words came from over fifty other languages, including the languages of Africa, Asia, and North America.

       Others aspects of the expansion of language were: new formations of words by adding prefixes and suffixes, and by creating new compounds; and also, word-class conversion, which is the change of one class of words into another. This was a common feature of Shakespeare’s English.

       Poetry, both lyrical and dramatic, became the pastime of educated people, but drama was the dominant form of the age. The plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were popular with all levels of society. Other writers of the period include Edmund Spenser, Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson and Francis Bacon.

The Development of English Drama


       Theater in England began in the church: the necessity to convert people to Christianity led the church to perform plays (in English) based on the Bible. These plays were performed inside the church by the clergy themselves and the primary objective was to attract every person into attending the church by teaching Bible passages, incidents described in the Bible – usually miracles. Therefore, these plays are known as “the miracle plays”.

       As the theater evolved, the morality plays emerged. These plays were based on Biblical passages as well. However, they were not faithful to the Bible, since they did not intend to preach Christianity. The purpose was to teach manners and moral lessons. These plays were performed in the streets by members of guilds in carriages.

       Then, there were the interludes. These were plays with the only objective of entertaining the nobles. They were characterized by being short, presenting only one act; there were no religious influences and no moral lessons.


       Regarding its structure, Elizabethan theater was open-air, usually round, with an open area in front of the stage, called the pit. Doors were placed on each side of the stage as entry and exit points for actors and there was a high balcony used for scenes where characters were required to relate to others below. The buildings had an elevated area in front of the stage that was reserved for nobles, and some important people could even watch the plays from the stage itself.

       So far, the drama presented its rules of unity, inherited from the Greek plays: time, space and action. The Elizabethan drama ruptured with these rules. The plays were now allowed to tell a story that happens in over 24 hours, in different places (rooms, cities or countries) and that has more than one main plot. A great example is Othello, by William Shakespeare, which starts in Venice and ends in Cyprus. The tragedy lasts several days and concerning action, it presents many plots happening simultaneously.


       Othello, The Moor of Venice, has four main characters: Othello, his wife Desdemona, his lieutenant Cassio, and his ensign Iago. The play is based on human nature features such as: love, jealousy, revenge, betrayal, and racism. In this stage piece, racism is strongly emphasized in the passages regarding Othello.

       In this part, Othello is referred as a “black ram” and also as “the Devil” (represented by tradition as black), which shows that Othello’s complexion is a matter of importance.

       Racism is easily identified in the passage above, when Iago refers to Othello by Barbary horse, also mentioning that Othello would not be qualified enough to give Brabantio noble grandchildren; he would have coursers, race-horses, and jennets, Moorish ponies, as heirs.

       In the previous section, Iago comments on Othello’s intelligence while he addresses him as an ass, insinuating he is less intellectually capable.

       In other passages, Othello is addressed in a less aggressive way. For instance, when Brabantio discovers the union between his daughter and the General and calls him a “thing” in a humiliating speech, or even when Iago implies that Othello is not a very stable person and affirms: “these Moors are changeable in their wills.”

The Elizabethan Prose

       The Elizabethan age is a literary period extremely marked by its poetry and drama. However, some works in prose indeed existed. Since poetry and drama were more developed than prose in that time, the latter does not have as much recognition as the other two genres.

       Despite the need to be mastered, the Elizabethan prose does present some works as good results: the essays by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the narratives of Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), the prose narratives (which was influenced by the emergence of the bourgeois class), and the most important contribution to the Elizabethan prose: the translation of the Bible into English by King James I, known as the King James’ Bible.

       Although there are some prose masterpieces in that period, the prose styles only came easily to authors in the following age.

Edmund Spenser (1552 - 1599)


       Called the poet’s poet for his impressive control of the poet’s craft and creative imagination, Edmund Spenser was an important English poet and a Poet Laureate. He attended school on a scholarship set up for poor boys called Merchant Taylors’ School and later went to Cambridge University. Soon, after leaving Cambridge, he published The Shepherd’s Calendar, a work that consists of twelve poems (representative of the twelve months) which describe the beauties of the countryside.

       He gained recognition with this work, but his masterpiece was The Faerie Queene, which he wrote in tribute to Queen Elizabeth, encouraged by Sir Walter Raleigh. He wrote it in the called Spenserian stanza, a stanza that he created, which consists of eight lines in iambic pentameter and the ninth line has two extra syllables. Such a line is called an Alexandrine.

       Spenser also wrote to his wife, Elizabeth Boyle, a famous sequence of sonnets called Amoretti.

Cristopher Marlowe (1564 - 1593)


       He grew up in Canterbury and went to school in Cambridge, where it is said he started doing secret governmental work. He died very young at the age of twenty-nine in a brawl at a tavern. For six years he wrote magnificent dramas in which he perfected blank verse (later used by Shakespeare) and that include Dr. Faustus, a story used by the German poet Goethe in Faust and also in Gounod’s opera Faust.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 - 1618)


       Sir Walter Raleigh was an English explorer, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and also a writer. He wrote about his journeys to America, and when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for thirteen years, he wrote a lengthy History of the World. Marlowe and Raleigh wrote a famous pair of lyrics in English Literature called The Passionate Shepherd to His Love and The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd. “The first pastoral pictures a perfect idyllic love and expresses the Elizabethan ideal of courtship” (PRIESTLEY, 1963), while the second one shows a very realistic and practical nymph.

Ben Jonson (1572 - 1637)


       “Next to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson was the most important dramatist of the Elizabethan era” (PRIESTLEY, 1963). He was the first English dramatist to publish his plays. His plays show that he was a distinguished scholar and also his critical opinion about men and their actions. In his poems, however, he shows appreciation to true beauty and nobility.

Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)


       He was not only a man of letters and science but also a politician. After leaving Cambridge declaring that the educational system failed to challenge his mind, he turned to travel, private study and law. When King James I ascended to the throne, he became Lord Chancellor and was titled baron and viscount. Although his success was fast, he had a lot of political enemies, and for this reason, he was accused of accepting bribes. For that, he was banished from Parliament, fined and imprisoned. It was the end of his political career, eventually devoting his life to writing and scientific experiment. He is considered the first essayist in English literature.


CARTER, Ronald and McRAE, John. 1998. History of Literature in English: Britain & Ireland. London and New York: Routledge.



PRIESTLEY, J.B. 1963. Adventures in English Literature. 8. ed. New York: Mary Rives Bowman, 4 v.



BALCH, Clayton. 1971. William Shakespeare’s Othello: Woodbridge: Apollo Books.

The History Of English Literature