British Literature - From The Renaissance To A United Kingdom in 1707 - Elizabethan and Jacobean Eras (1558-1625)

Elizabethan and Jacobean Eras (1558-1625)

The overlapping Elizabethan era (1558–1603: the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England) and Jacobean era (1567–1625: the reign of King James VI of Scotland, who also inherited the crown of England in 1603 as James I) saw the development of Britishness in literature. Since 1541, monarchs of England had also styled their Irish territory as a Kingdom, while Wales became more closely integrated into the Kingdom of England under Henry VIII. In anticipation of James VI's expected inheritance of the English throne, court masques in England were already developing the new literary imagery of a united Britain, sometimes delving into Roman and Celtic sources. William Camden's Britannia, a county-by-county description of Great Britain and Ireland, was an influential work of chorography: a study relating landscape, geography, antiquarianism, and history. Britannia came to be viewed as the personification of Britain, in imagery that was developed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

In the later 16th century English poetry was characterised by elaboration of language and extensive allusion to classical myths. Edmund Spenser (1555–99) was the author of The Faerie Queene, an epic poem and fantastical allegory celebrating the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I. The works of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) a poet, courtier and soldier, include Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poetry, and The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Poems intended to be set to music as songs, such as by Thomas Campion, became popular as printed literature was disseminated more widely in households (see English Madrigal School).

English playwrights were also influenced by Italian models: a conspicuous community of Italian actors had settled in London and Giovanni Florio had brought much of the Italian language and culture to England. Following earlier Elizabethan plays such as Gorboduc by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville and The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd that was to provide much material for Hamlet, William Shakespeare stands out in this period as a poet and playwright as yet unsurpassed. Shakespeare was not a man of letters by profession, and probably had only some grammar school education. He was neither a lawyer, nor an aristocrat as the "university wits" that had monopolised the English stage when he started writing. But he was very gifted and versatile, and he surpassed "professionals" as Robert Greene. Though most of his plays met with great success, it was in his later years, marked by the early reign of James I in England, that he wrote what have been considered his greatest plays: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest. Shakespeare also popularized the English sonnet which made significant changes to Petrarch's model.

At the end of the 16th century, James VI of Scotland founded the Castalian Band, a group of makars and musicians in the court, based on the model of the Pléiade in France. The courtier and makar Alexander Montgomerie was a leading member. Ane Schort Treatise conteining some Reulis and Cautelis to be observit and eschewit in Scottis poesie is a treatise to describe and propose the ideal standard for poets, written in 1584 by the 19-year old James VI of Scotland and first published in Edinburgh. However this Scottish cultural centre was lost after the 1603 Union of the Crowns when James shifted his court to London. From 1603, London was the unrivalled cultural capital of the isles.

The Renaissance in Wales was marked by humanism and scholarship. The Welsh language, its grammar and lexicography, was studied for the first time and biblical studies flourished. Welsh writers such as John Owen and William Vaughan wrote in Latin or English to communicate their ideas outside Wales, but the humanists were unsuccessful in opening the established practices of professional Welsh poets to Renaissance influences. From the Reformation until the 19th century most literature in the Welsh language was religious in character. Morgan Llwyd's Llyfr y Tri Aderyn ("The Book of the Three Birds") (1653) took the form of a dialogue between an eagle (representing secular authority, particularly Cromwell); a dove (representing the Puritans); and a raven (representing the Anglican establishment).

While historically Welsh literature in English might be said to begin with the fifteenth-century bard Ieuan ap Hywel Swrdwal, well into the nineteenth century English was spoken by few in Wales. The only significant Welsh poet in this period writing in English was George Herbert (1593–1633) from Montgomeryshire, though some see him as clearly belonging to the English tradition.

The earliest surviving examples of Cornish prose are Pregothow Treger (The Tregear Homilies) a set of 66 sermons translated from English by John Tregear 1555–1557.

Other important figures in Elizabethan theatre include Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), Thomas Dekker (c. 1572 – 1632), John Fletcher (1579–1625) and Francis Beaumont (1584 – 1616). Marlowe's subject matter is different from Shakespeare's as it focuses more on the moral drama of the renaissance man than any other thing. Marlowe was fascinated and terrified by the new frontiers opened by modern science. Drawing on German lore, he introduced the story of Faust to England in his play Doctor Faustus (c.1592), a scientist and magician who is obsessed by the thirst of knowledge and the desire to push man's technological power to its limits. He acquires supernatural gifts that even allow him to go back in time and wed Helen of Troy, but at the end of his twenty-four years' covenant with the devil he has to surrender his soul to him. Beaumont and Fletcher are less-known, but they may have helped Shakespeare write some of his best dramas, and were popular at the time. One of Beaumont and Fletcher's chief merits was that of realising how feudalism and chivalry had turned into snobbery and make-believe and that new social classes were on the rise. Beaumont's comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), satirizes the rising middle class and especially of those nouveaux riches who pretend to dictate literary taste without knowing much literature at all.

After Shakespeare's death, the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) was the leading literary figure of the Jacobean era. Jonson's aesthetics hark back to the Middle Ages and his characters embody the theory of humours. According to this contemporary medical theory, behavioral differences result from a prevalence of one of the body's four "humours" (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) over the other three; these humours correspond with the four elements of the universe: air, water, fire, and earth. However, the stock types of Latin literature were an equal influence. Jonson therefore tends to create types or caricatures. However, in his best work, characters are "so vitally rendered as to take on a being that transcends the type". He is a master of style, and a brilliant satirist. Jonson's famous comedy Volpone (1605 or 1606) shows how a group of scammers are fooled by a top con-artist, vice being punished by vice, virtue meting out its reward. Other major plays by Jonson are Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614).

A popular style of theatre during Jacobean times was the revenge play, popularized by John Webster (1578-1632) in plays like The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613).

At the Reformation, the translation of liturgy and Bible into vernacular languages provided new literary models. The Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized King James Version of the Bible have been hugely influential. The King James Bible, one of the biggest translation projects in the history of English up to this time, was started in 1604 and completed in 1611. It represents the culmination of a tradition of Bible translation into English from the original languages that began with the work of William Tyndale (previous translations into English had relied on the Vulgate). It became the standard Bible of the Church of England, and some consider it one of the greatest literary works of all time.

The Book of Common Order was translated into Scottish Gaelic by Séon Carsuel (John Carswell), Bishop of the Isles, and printed in 1567. This is considered the first printed book in Scottish Gaelic though the language resembles classical Irish. Also in 1567 William Salesbury's Welsh translations of the New Testament and Book of Common prayer were published. William Morgan's translation of the whole Bible followed in 1588 and remained the standard Welsh Bible until well into the 20th century. The Book of Common Prayer and Bible were translated into Manx in the 17th and 18th centuries. A tradition of Manx carvals, religious songs or carols, developed. Religious literature was common, but secular writing much rarer.

Philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) wrote the utopian novel New Atlantis, and coined the phrase "Knowledge is Power". Francis Godwin's 1638 The Man in the Moone recounts an imaginary voyage to the moon and is now regarded as the first work of science fiction in English literature.

Besides Shakespeare the major poets of the early 17th century included the Metaphysical poets John Donne (1572–1631) and George Herbert (1593–1633). Influenced by continental Baroque, and taking as his subject matter both Christian mysticism and eroticism, Donne's metaphysical poetry uses unconventional or "unpoetic" figures, such as a compass or a mosquito, to reach surprise effects. For example, in "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", one of Donne's Songs and Sonnets, the points of a compass represent two lovers, the woman who is home, waiting, being the centre, the farther point being her lover sailing away from her. But the larger the distance, the more the hands of the compass lean to each other: separation makes love grow fonder. The paradox or the oxymoron is a constant in this poetry whose fears and anxieties also speak of a world of spiritual certainties shaken by the modern discoveries of geography and science, one that is no longer the centre of the universe. George Chapman (?1559-?1634) wrote a couple revenge tragedies, but is remembered chiefly for his famous translation in 1616 of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey into English verse. This was the first ever complete translations of either poem into the English language. The translation had a profound influence on English literature and inspired a sonnet from John Keats. The highly popular tale of the Trojan War had previously only been available to English readers only in Medieval epic retellings, such as Caxton's Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.

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