Elizabethan Literature

By Christopher W. Taylor

According to Encyclopędia Britannica Online, prominent writers in literature in the Elizabethan Age in England were William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), Edmund Spenser (1552-99), Ben Jonson (1572-1637), Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), Roger Ascham (1515-68), and Richard Hooker (1554-1600) ("Elizabethan Literature," par. 1). Poetry was very popular in the Elizabethan Age, including the sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and dramatic blank verse. Drama also became a mainstay in this period, especially with Shakespeare's plays (par. 2).

William Shakespeare was born in Stratord, England, in 1564. He went to grammar school there and probably studied Latin rhetoric, logic, and literature (Miller, par. 2). After finishing grammar school at 15, he became an actor and playwright for several companies, including Pembroke's Men and the Chamberlain's Men (par. 6). Because of problems with the Plaugue, the theaters that Shakespeare closed down. As a result, Shakespeare began writing book-length poems, such as "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece." He also wrote his sonnets during this period. The theaters reopened in 1594, and he returned to writing plays (par. 7).   Plays written by Shakespeare are usually classified as tragedies (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Macbeth), comedies (e.g., The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Troilus and Cressida, and The Tempest), and histories (Richard III, Richard II, Henry VIII, and Henry V). In 1599, Shakespeare, along with other members of the Chamberlain's Men, invested in a new theater in London called "The Globe" (par. 8). Later, he also purchased another theater named "Blackfriars Gatehouse." Shakespeare's last play before he died in 1616 was Henry VIII (par. 9).

Little is known about the early years of Christopher Marlowe's life. In 1579, he entered King's College, Canterbury, and went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, a year later ("Marlowe, Christopher," par. 2). By 1587, Marlowe was in London writing plays and getting in trouble for his apparent bad behavior and "atheism" (par. 3). Marlowe first received recognition for his play writing after publishing Tamburlaine the Great. He also was known for translating texts such as Ovid's Amores (The Loves) (par. 4). In 1594, he, with Thomas Nashe, published Dido, Queen of Carthage. Other plays that Marlowe are known for are Faustus, Edward II, The Massacre at Paris, and The Jew of Malta (par. 5). Marlowe is particuarly known for developing dramatic blank verse in Tamburlaine (par. 6). This became " the staple medium for later Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic writing" (par. 6).

Edmund Spenser came from a family of little wealth. He first studied Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and music at Merchant Taylor's grammar school ("Spenser, Edmund," par. 1).  In 1569, Spenser enrolled at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. The same year he published translations to poetry written by the French poet Joachim du Bellay and the Italian poet Patriarch (par. 2-3). While at Cambridge, Spenser became acquainted with the Greek and Latin classics, such as Virgil's The Aeneid, and more modern Italian, French, and English literature that would inspire him in his writings (par. 4). The most important work by Spenser was The Faerie Queene, an allegorical poem inspired by earlier epic poetry (par. 4). Other important works by Spenser are The Shepheardes Calender and Epithalamion (par. 5).

Ben Jonson was educated at Westminster School by William Camden, the great classical scholar After attending school he served in the Elizabethan army in Flanders and returned to England in 1592 (Jokinen, par. 1). By 1597, he was an actor in the Philip Henslowe theatrical company. In the same year he was sent to prison for his involvement in the satire The Isle of Dogs. In 1598, Jonson's play Every Man in His Humour was performed by Shakespeare's Lord Chamberlain's Men at "The Globe" (par. 2). The sequel to this play, entitled Every Man out of His Humours, was first shown in 1599 (par. 3). In 1605, Jonson began writing masques, such as Masque of Blacknesse (1605) and The Masque of Owles (par. 6). Jonson's most famous works are his comedies written between 1605 and 1614: Volpone, or The Fox (1607), Epicoene: or, The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614). In 1616, he was appointed poet laureate (par. 7). Sad Shepherd's Tale (1641), Jonson's last play, was published posthumously (par. 11).

Sir Philip Sidney was born in 1554 in Penshurst, Kent, Engand. He enrolled at Shrewsbury School at age ten ("Sidney, Sir Philip," par. 1).  Later, he attended Christ Church, Oxford, for three years (par. 2). Sidney is best known for being a courtier, ambassador, poet, and scholar. In addition, he was "the embodiment of the Elizabethan ideal of gentlemanly virtue" (par. 11). His Astrophel and Stella is considered by many to be one of the best cycles of Elizabethan sonnets. Another work of his, The Defence of Poesie, is perhaps  the "finest work of Elizabethan literary criticism" (par. 7).

Roger Ascham attended Cambridge at age 14. There he earned an M.A. in 1537 and was elected a fellow of St. John's one year later. ( "Ascham, Roger," par. 2). He was especially known for his theories on education and his knowledge of the Greek language and classics. Between 1548-50 he served as Elizabeth I's tutor in Greek and Latin (par. 3). The Scholemaster (1570) was Ascham's famous book on education; it it, he discussed the psychology of education, methods for teaching composition of Latin prose, and the purpose of education in building a person's moral and intellectual character (par. 4).

 Richard Hooker, who was born in Devon, England, was most famous for his Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie. In this work he defended the Church of England from Catholicism and Puritanism ("Hooker, Richard," par. 1).


Works Cited

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Jokinen, Anniina. "The Life of Ben Jonson." Luminarium. 21 Apr. 2007  <http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/jonson/benbio.htm>

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