A golden age of English literature commenced in 1485 and lasted until 1660. Malory’s Le morte d’Arthur was among the first works to be printed by William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England in 1476. From that time on, readership was vastly multiplied. The growth of the middle class, the continuing development of trade, the new character and thoroughness of education for laypeople and not only clergy, the centralization of power and of much intellectual life in the court of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and the widening horizons of exploration gave a fundamental new impetus and direction to literature. The new literature nevertheless did not fully flourish until the last 20 years of the 1500s, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Literary development in the earlier part of the 16th century was weakened by the diversion of intellectual energies to the polemics of the religious struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, a product of the Reformation.
The English part in the European movement known as humanism also belongs to this time. Humanism encouraged greater care in the study of classical antiquity and reformed education as to make literary expression of paramount importance for the cultured person. Literary style, in part modelled on that of the ancients, soon became a self-conscious preoccupation of English poets and prose writers. Thus, the richness and metaphorical profusion of style at the end of the century indirectly owed much to the educational force of this movement. The most immediate effect of humanism lay, however, in the dissemination of the cultivated, clear, and sensible attitude of its classically educated adherents, who rejected medieval theological mis-teaching and superstition. Of these writers, Sir Thomas More is the most remarkable. His Latin prose narrative Utopia (1516) satirizes the irrationality of inherited assumptions about private property and money and follows Plato in deploring the failure of kings to make use of the wisdom of philosophers. More’s book describes a distant nation organized on purely reasonable principles and named Utopia (Greek for “nowhere”).
The poetry of the earlier part of the 16th century is generally less important, with the exception of the work of John Skelton, which shows a curious combination of medieval and Renaissance influences. In the last quarter of the 16th century, the two greatest innovators of the new, rich style of Renaissance poetry were Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, both educated Elizabethan courtiers.
Sidney, universally recognized as the model Renaissance nobleman, outwardly polished as well as inwardly conscientious, inaugurated the vogue of the sonnet cycle in his Astrophel and Stella (written 1582?; published 1591). In this work, in the elaborate and highly metaphorical style of the earlier Italian sonnet, he celebrated his idealized love for Penelope Devereux, the daughter of Walter Devereux, 1st earl of Essex. These lyrics profess to see in her an ideal of womanhood that in the Platonic manner leads to a perception of the good, the true, and the beautiful and consequently of the divine. This idealization of the beloved remained a favoured motif in much of the poetry and drama of the late 16th century; it had its roots not only in Platonism but also in the Platonic speculations of humanism and in the chivalric idealization of love in medieval romance.
The greatest monument to that idealism, broadened to include all features of the moral life, is Spenser’s uncompleted Faerie Queene (Books I-III, 1590; Books IV-VI, 1596), the most famous work of the period. In each of its completed six books it depicts the activities of a hero that point toward the ideal form of a particular virtue, and at the same time it looks forward to the marriage of Arthur, who is a combination of all the virtues, and Gloriana, who is the ideal form of womanhood and the embodiment of Queen Elizabeth. It is entirely typical of the impulse of the Renaissance in England that in this work Spenser tried to create out of the inherited English elements of Arthurian romance and an archaic, partly medieval style a noble epic that would make the national literature the equal of those of ancient Greece and Rome and of Renaissance Italy. His effort in this respect corresponded to the new demands expressed by Sidney in the critical essay The Defence of Poesie, originally Apologie for Poetrie (written 1583?; posthumously published 1595). Spenser’s conception of his role no doubt conformed to Sidney’s general description of the poet as the inspired voice of God revealing examples of morally perfect actions in an aesthetically ideal world such as mere reality can never provide, and with a graphic and concrete conviction that mere philosophy can never achieve. The poetic and narrative qualities of The Faerie Queene suffer to a degree from the various theoretical requirements that Spenser forced the work to meet.
In a number of other lyrical and narrative works Sidney and Spenser displayed the ornate, somewhat florid, highly figured style characteristic of a great deal of Elizabethan poetic expression; but two other poetic tendencies became visible toward the end of the 16th and in the early part of the 17th centuries. The first tendency is exemplified by the poetry of John Donne and the other so-called metaphysical poets, which carried the metaphorical style to heights of daring complexity and ingenuity. This often-paradoxical style was used for a variety of poetic purposes, ranging from complex emotional attitudes to the simple inducement of admiration for its own virtuosity. Among the most important of Donne’s followers, George Herbert is distinguished for his carefully constructed religious lyrics, which strive to express with personal humility the emotions appropriate to all true Christians. Other members of the metaphysical school are Henry Vaughan, a follower of Herbert, and Richard Crashaw, who was influenced by Continental Catholic mysticism. Andrew Marvell wrote metaphysical poetry of great power and fluency, but he also responded to other influences. The involved metaphysical style remained fashionable until late in the 17th century.
The second late Renaissance poetic tendency was in reaction to the sometimes-flamboyant lushness of the Spenserians and to the sometimes-tortuous verbal gymnastics of the metaphysical poets. Best represented by the accomplished poetry of Ben Jonson and his school, it reveals a classically pure and restrained style that had strong influence on late figures such as Robert Herrick and the other Cavalier poets and gave the direction for the poetic development of the succeeding neoclassical period.
The last great poet of the English Renaissance was the Puritan writer John Milton, who, having at his command a thorough classical education and the benefit of the preceding half century of experimentation in the various schools of English poetry, approached with greater maturity than Spenser the task of writing a great English epic. Although he adhered to Sidney’s and Spenser’s notions of the inspired role of the poet as the lofty instructor of humanity, he rejected the fantastic and miscellaneous machinery, involving classical mythology and medieval knighthood, of The Faerie Queene in favor of the central Christian and biblical tradition. With grand simplicity and poetic power Milton narrated in Paradise Lost (1667) the machinations of Satan leading to the fall of Adam and Eve from the state of innocence; and he performed the task in such a way as to “justify the ways of God to man” and to express the central Christian truths of freedom, sin, and redemption as he conceived them. His other poems, such as the elegy Lycidas (1637), Paradise Regained (1671), and the classically patterned tragedy Samson Agonistes (1671), similarly reveal astonishing poetic power and grace under the control of a profound mind.
Renaissance Drama and Prose
The poetry of the English Renaissance between 1580 and 1660 was the result of a remarkable outburst of energy. It is, however, the drama of roughly the same period that stands highest in popular estimation. The works of its greatest representative, William Shakespeare, have achieved worldwide renown. In the previous Middle English period there had been, within the church, a gradual broadening of dramatic representation of such doctrinally important events as the angel’s announcement of the resurrection to the women at the tomb of Christ. Ultimately, performances of religious drama had become the province of the craft guilds, and the entire Christian story, from the creation of the world to the last judgment, had been reenacted for secular audiences. The Renaissance drama proper rose from this late medieval base by a number of transitional stages ending about 1580. A large number of comedies, tragedies, and examples of intermediate types were produced for London theaters between that year and 1642, when the London theaters were closed by order of the Puritan Parliament. Like so much nondramatic literature of the Renaissance, most of these plays were written in an elaborate verse style and under the influence of classical examples, but the popular taste, to which drama was especially susceptible, required a flamboyance and sensationalism largely alien to the spirit of Greek and Roman literature. Only the Roman tragedian Lucius Annaeus Seneca could provide a model for the earliest popular tragedy of blood and revenge, The Spanish Tragedy (1589?) of Thomas Kyd. Kyd’s skillfully managed, complicated, but sensational plot influenced in turn later, psychologically more sophisticated revenge tragedies, among them Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Christopher Marlowe began the tradition of the chronicle play, about the fatal deeds of kings and potentates, a few years later with the tragedies Tamburlaine the Great, Part I (1587), and Edward II (1592?). Marlowe’s plays, such as The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (1588?) and The Jew of Malta (1589?), are remarkable primarily for their daring depictions of world-shattering characters who strive to go beyond the normal human limitations as the Christian medieval ethos had conceived them. These works are written in a poetic style worthy in many ways of comparison to Shakespeare’s.
Elizabethan tragedy and comedy alike reached their true flowering in Shakespeare’s works. Beyond his art, his rich style, and his complex plots, all of which surpass by far the work of other Elizabethan dramatists in the same field, and beyond his unrivalled projection of character, Shakespeare’s compassionate understanding of the human lot has perpetuated his greatness and made him the representative figure of English literature for the whole world.
Shakespeare’s comedies, of which perhaps the best are As You Like It (1599?) and Twelfth Night (1600?), depict the endearing as well as the ridiculous sides of human nature. His great tragedies—Hamlet (1601?), Othello (1604?), King Lear (1605?), Macbeth (1606?), and Antony and Cleopatra (1606?)—look deeply into the springs of action in the human soul. His earlier dark tragedies were imitated in style and feeling by the tragedian John Webster in The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613-1614).
In Shakespeare’s last plays, the so-called dramatic romances, including The Tempest (1611?), he sets a mood of quiet acceptance and ultimate reconciliation that was a fitting close for his literary career. These plays, by virtue of their mysterious, exotic atmosphere and their quick, surprising alternations of bad and good fortune, come close also to the tone of the drama of the succeeding age.
Late Renaissance and 17th Century
The most influential figure in shaping the immediate future course of English drama was Ben Jonson. His carefully plotted comedies, satirizing with inimitable verve and imagination various departures from the norm of good sense and moderation, are written in a more sober and careful style than are those of most Elizabethan and early 17th-century dramatists. Those qualities, indeed, define the character of later Restoration comedy. The best of Jonson’s comedies are Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610). Professing themselves his disciples, the dramatists Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher collaborated on a number of so-called tragicomedies (for example, Philaster, 1610?) in which morally dubious situations, surprising reversals of fortune, and sentimentality combine with hollow rhetoric.
The outstanding prose works of the Renaissance are not so numerous as those of later ages, but the great translation of the Bible, called the King James Bible, or Authorized Version, published in 1611, is significant because it was the culmination of two centuries of effort to produce the best English translation of the original texts, and also because its vocabulary, imagery, and rhythms have influenced writers of English in all lands ever since. Similarly sonorous and stately is the prose of Sir Thomas Browne, the physician and semiscientific investigator. His reduction of worldly phenomena to symbols of mystical truth is best seen in Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor), probably written in 1635.