The “dark” Middle Ages were followed by a time known in art and
literature as the Renaissance. The word “renaissance” means “rebirth” in
French and was used to denote a phase in the cultural development of
Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries.
The wave of progress reached the shores of England only in the 16th
century. The ideas of the Renaissance came to England together with the
ideas of the Reformation (the establishment of the national Church) and
were called the “New Learning”. Every year numbers of new books were
brought out, and these books were sold openly, but few people could read
and enjoy them. The universities were lacking in teachers to spread the
ideas of modern thought. So, many English scholars began to go to Italy,
where they learned to understand the ancient classics, and when they
came home they adapted their classical learning to the needs of the
country. Grammar schools (primary schools) increased in number. The new
point of view passed from the schools to the home and to the market
Many of the learned men in Italy came from the great city of
Constantinopole. It was besieged and taken by Turks in 1453. All the
great libraries and schools in Constanstinople had been broken up and
destroyed. The Latin and Greek scholars were driven out of the city,
glad to escape with their lives and with such books as they could carry
away with them. Being learned men, many of them found a welcome in the
cities and towns in which they stopped. They began to teach the people
how to read the Latin and Greek books which they had brought with them
and also taught them to read the Latin and Greek books which were kept
in many towns of Europe, but which few people at that time were able to
Foreign scholars and artists began to teach in England during the reign
of Henry VIII. In painting and music the first period of the Renaissance
was one of imitation. Painting was represented by German artist Holbein,
and music by Italians and French men. With literature the case was
different. The English poets and dramatists popularized much of the new
learning. The freedom of thought of English humanists revealed itself in
antifeudal and even antibourgeois ideas, showing the life of their own
people as it really was. Such a writer was the humanist Thomas More.
Thomas More, the first English humanist of the Renaissance, was born in
London in 1478. Educated at Oxford, he could write a most beautiful
Latin. It was not the Latin of the Church but the original classical
Latin. At Oxford More met a foreign humanist, and made friends with him.
Erasmus believed in the common sense of a man and taught that men ought
to think for themselves, and not merely to believe things to be true
because their fathers, or the priest had said they were true. Later,
Thomas More wrote many letters to Erasmus and received many letters from
Thomas More began life as a lawyer. During the reign of Henry VII he
became a member of Parliament. He was an active-minded man and kept a
keen eye on the events of his time. The rich landowners at the time were
concentrating on sheep-raising because it was very profitable. Small
holders were not allowed to till the soil and were driven off their
lands. The commons (public ground) were enclosed and fields converted
into pastures. The mass of the agricultural population were doomed to
poverty. Thomas More set to work to find the reason of this evil. He was
the first great writer on social and political subjects in England.
Fourteen years after Henry VIII came to the throne, More was made
Speaker of the House of Commons. The Tudor monarchy was an absolute
monarchy, and Parliament had very little power to resist the king. There
was, however, one matter on which Parliament was very determined. That
was the right to vote or to refuse to vote for the money. Once when the
King wanted money and asked Parliament to vote him 800.000, the members
sat silent. Twice the King’s messengers called, and twice they had to
leave without an answer. When Parliament was called together again,
Thomas More spoke up and urged that the request be refused. After a long
discussion a sum less then half the amount requested by the King was
voted, and that sum was to be spread over a period of four years.
Thomas More was an earnest Catholic, but he was not liked by the priests
and the Pope on account of his writings and the ideas he taught. After
Henry VIII quarrelled with the Pope he gathered around himself all the
enemies of the Pope, and so in 1529 More was made Lord Chancellor
(highest judge to the House of Lords). He had not wanted the post
because he was as much against the king’s absolute power in England as
he was against the Pope. More soon fell a victim to the King’s anger. He
refused to swear that he would obey Henry as the head of the English
Church, and was thrown into the Tower. Parliament, to please the King,
declared More guilty of treason, and he was beheaded in the Tower in
The Works of Thomas More
Thomas More wrote in English and in Latin. The humanists of al1 European
countries communicated in the Latin language, and their best works were
written in Latin. The English writings of Thomas More include:
* Discussions and political subjects.
His style is simple, colloquial end has an unaffected ease. The work by
which he is best remembered today is “Utopia” which was written in Latin
in the year 1516. It has now been translated into all European
“Utopia” (which in Greek means “nowhere”) is the name of a non-existent
island. This work is divided into two books.
In the first, the author gives a profound and truthful picture of the
people’s sufferings and points out the socia1 evils existing, in England
at the time.
In the second book More presents his ideal of what the future society
should be like.
The word “utopia” has become a byword and is used in Modern English to
denote an unattainable ideal, usually in social and political matters.
But the writer H.G. Wells, who wrote an introduction to the latest
edition, said that the use of the word “utopia” was far from More’s
essentia1 quality, whose mind abounded in sound, practical ideas. The
book is in reality a very unimaginative work.
“Utopia” describes a perfect social system built on communist
While on business in Flanders, the author makes the acquaintance of a
certain Raphael Hythloday, a sailor who has travelled with the famous
explorer Amerigo Vespucci. He has much to tell about his voyages, Thomas
More, Raphael Hythloday and a cardinal meet together in a garden and
discuss many problems. Raphael has been to England too and expresses his
surprise at the cruelty of English laws and at the poverty of the
population. Then they talk about crime in general, and Raphael says:
“There is another cause of stealing which I suppose is proper and
peculiar to you Englishmen alone.”
“What is that?” asked the Cardinal.
“Oh, my lord,” said Raphael, “your sheep that used to be so meek and
tame and so small eaters, have now become so great devourers and so wild
that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves. The peasants
are driven out of their land. Away they go finding no place to rest in.
And when all is spent, what can they do but steal and then be hanged?”
The disastrous state of things in England puts Raphael Hythloday in mind
of a commonwealth (a republic) he has seen on an unknown island in an
unknown sea. A description of “Utopia” follows, and Raphael speaks “of
all the good laws and orders of this same island.”
There is no private property in Utopia. The people own everything in
common and enjoy complete economic equality. Everyone cares for his
neighbour’s good, and each has a clean and healthy house to live in.
Labour is the most essential feature of life in Utopia, but no one is
overworked. Everybody is engaged in usefu1 work nine hours a day. After
work, they indulge in sport and games and spend much time in “improving
their minds” (learning)-All teaching is free, and the parents do not
have to pay any schoo1 fees. (More wrote about things unknown in any
country at that time, though they are natural with us in our days.)
For magistrates the Utopians choose men whom they think to be most fit
to protect the welfare of the population. When electing their
government, the people give their voices secretly. There are few laws
and no lawyers at all, but these few laws must be strictly obeyed.
“Virtue,” says Thomas More, “lives according to Nature.” The greatest of
all pleasures is perfect health. Man must be healthy and wise.
Thomas More’s “Utopia” was the first literary work in which the ideas of
Cornmunism appeared. It was highly esteemed by all the humanists of
Europe in More’s time and again grew very popular with the socialists of
the 19th century. After More, a tendency began in literature to write
fantastic novels on social reforms, and many such works appeared in
SECOND PERIOD OF THE RENAISSANCE.
THE PREDECESSORS OF SHAKESPEARE
The most significant period of the Renaissance in England falls to the
reign of Queen Elizabeth. England’s success in commerce brought
prosperity to the nation and gave a chance to many persons of talent to
develop their abilities. Explorers, men of letters, philosophers, poets
and famous actors and dramatists appeared in rapid succession. The great
men of the so-called “Elizabethan Era” distinguished themselves by their
activities in many fields and displayed an insatiable thirst for
knowledge. They were often called “the Elizabethans”, but of course the
Queen had no hand in assisting them when they began literary work; the
poets and dramatists had to push on through great difficulties before
they became well known.
Towards the middle of the 16th century common people were already
striving for knowledge and the sons of many common citizens managed to
get an education. The universities began to breed many learned men who
refused to become churchmen and wrote for the stage. These were called
the “University Wits”, because under the influence of their classical
education they wrote after Greek and Latin models. Among the “University
Wits” were Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Sackville, John Lyly, George
Peele, Roberk Greene, Thomas Kyd and Thqmas Nashe; Christopher Marlowe
being the most distinguished of them. The new method of teaching
classical literature at the universities was to perform Roman plays in
Latin, Later the graduates translated these plays into English and then
they wrote plays of their own.
Some wrote plays for the court, others for the public theatres. But the
plays were not mere imitations. Ancient literature had taught the
playwrights to seek new forms and to bring in new progressive ideas. The
new drama represented real characters and real human problems which
satisfied the demands of the common people and they expected ever new
plays. Under such favourable circumstances there was a sudden rise of
the drama. The great plays were written in verse.
The second period of the Renaissance was characterised by the splendour
of its poetry.
Lyrical poetry also became wide-spread in England. The country was
called a nest of singing birds. Lyrical poetry was very emotional. The
poets introduced blank verse and the Italian sonnet. The sonnet is a
poem consisting of fourteen lines. The lines are divided into two
groups: the first group of eight lines (the octave), and the second
group of six lines (the sestet). The foremost poet of the time was
Edmund Spenser. He wrote in a new, English, form: the nine-line stanza.
Edmund Spenser was born in London in 1552. Though his parents descended
from a noble House, the family was poor. His father was a free
journeyman for a merchant’s company. When Edmund came of age he entered
the University of Cambridge as a “sizar” (a student who paid less for
his education than others and had to wait on (to serve) the wealthier
students at mealtimes).
Spenser was learned in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French. His generation
was one of the first to study also their mother tongue seriously. While
at college, he acted in the tragedies of the ancient masters and this
inspired him to write poetry.
Spenser began his literary work at the age of seventeen. Once a
fellow-student introduced him to the famous Sir Philip Sidney, who
encouraged him to write (Sidney was the author of an allegorical romance
in prose called “Arcadia” that had become very popular as light reading
among the court-ladies of Queen Elizabeth). At the age of twenty-three,
Spenser took his M.A. (Master of Arts) degree.
Before returning to London he lived for a while in the wilderness of
Lancashire where he fell in love with a “fair widow’s daughter”. His
love was not returned but he clung to this early passion; she became the
Rosalind of his poem the “Shepherd s Calendar”. Spenser’s disappointment
in love drove him southward – he accepted the invitation of Sir Philip
Sidney to visit him at his estate. There he finished writing his
“Shepherd’s Calendar”. The poem was written in 12 eclogues. “Eclogue” is
a Greek word meaning a poem about ideal shepherd life. Each eclogue is
dedicated to one of the months of the year, the whole making up a sort
The publication of this work made Spenser the first poet of his day. His
poetry was so musical and colourful that he was called the poet-painter.
Philip Sidney introduced the poet to the illustrious courtier, the Earl
of Leicester, who, in his turn, brought him to the notice of the Queen.
Spenser was given royal favour and appointed as secretary to the new
Lord-lieutenant of Ireland. Thus he had to leave
England for good.
The suppression of Ireland provoked many rebellions against the English.
English military governors were sent confiscate the lands of the rebels
and to put English people on them. Spenser was sent to such a place near
Cork. He felt an exile in the, lonely castle of Kilcolman, yet he could
not help admiring the, changeful beauty of the place.
The castle stood by a deep lake into which flowed a river (the Mulla).
Soft woodlands stretched towards mountain ranges in the distance. The
beauty of his surroundings inspired Spenser to write his great epic poem
the “Faerie Queen” (“Fairy Queen”), in which Queen Elizabeth is
Sir Walter Raleigh who was captain of the Queen’s guard, came to visit
Spenser at Kilcolman. He was greatly delighted with the poem, and
Spenser decided to publish the first three parts. Raleigh and Spenser
returned to England together. At court Spenser presented his “simple
song” to the Queen. It was published in 1591. The success of the poem
was great. The Queen rewarded him with a pension of 50 pounds, but his
position remained unchanged. Poetry was regarded as a noble pastime but
not a profession; and Edmund Spenser had to go back to Ireland.
The end of his life was sorrowful. When the next rebellion broke out,
the insurgents attacked the castle so suddenly and so furiously that
Spenser and his wife and children had to flee for their lives. Their
youngest child was burnt to death in the blazing ruins of the castle.
Ruined and heart-broken Spenser went to England and there he died in a
London tavern three months later, in 1599.
THE “FAIRY QUEEN”
The poem is an allegory representing ihe court of Queen Elizabeth. The
whole is an interweaving of Greek myths and English legends.
Spenser planned to divide his epic poem into twelve books. The 12 books
were to tell of the warfare of 12 knights. But only six books of the
“Fairy Queen” were finished. The first two books are the best and the
most interesting. The allegory is not so clear in the rest.
Prince Arthur is the hero of the poem. In a vision he sees Gloriana, the
Fairy Queen. She is so beautiful that he falls in love with her. Armed
by Merlin he sets out to seek her in Fairy Land. She is supposed to hold
her annual 12-day feast during which
12 adventures are to be achieved by 12 knights. Each knight represents a
certain virtue: Holiness, Temperance, Friendship, Justice, Courtesy,
Constancy, etc., which are opposed to Falsehood, Hypocrisy and others in
the form of witches, wizards and monsters.
Spenser imitated antique verse. One of the features of those verses was
the use of “Y” before the past participle, as “Yclad” instead of “clad”
(“dressed”). He was the first to use the nine-line stanza. In this verse
each line but the last has 10 syllables, the last line has 12 syllables.
The rhymed lines are arranged in the following way: a b a b b c b c c.
A gentle knight was pricking on the plain, a
Yclad in mighty arms and silver shield, b
Wherein old dints of deep wounds did remain, a
The cruel marks of many a bloody field; b
Yet arms till that time did he never wield; b
His angry steed did chide his foamy bit, c
As much disdaining to the curb to yield; b
Full jolly knight he seemed, and fair did sit, c
As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fit. c
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE DRAMA.
THE THEATRES AND ACTORS
The development of the drama in England was in close connection with the
appearance and development of the theatre. Since ancient times there
existed in Europe two stages upon which dramatic art developed. The
chief place of performance was the church, and second to it was the
market place where clowns played their tricks.
The church exhibited Bible-stories, called “Mysteries”; they also had
“Miracles” which were about supernatural events in the lives of saints.
Both, the miracles and mysteries were directed by the clergy and acted
by boys of the choir on great holidays. It has become a tradition since
then to have men-actors for heroines on the English stage.
Early in the 15th century characters represented human qualities, such
as Mercy, Sin, Justice and Truth, began to be introduced into the
miracle plays. The plays were called “Moral plays” or “Moralities”. They
were concerned with man’s behaviour in this life. The devil figured in
every ply and he was the character always able to make the audience
laugh. Moralities were acted in town halls too.
It was about the time of King Henry VIII, when the Protestants drove
theatricals out of the church, that acting became a distinct profession
in England. Now the actors performed in inncourt yards, which were
admirably suited to dramatic performances consisting as they did of a
large open court surrounded by two galleries. A platform projected into
the middle of the yard with dressing rooms at the back, There was planty
of standing room around the stage, and people came running in crowds as
soon as they heard the trumpets announcing the beginning of a play. To
make the audience pay for its entertainment, the actors took advantage
of the most thrilling moment of the plot: this was the proper time to
send the hat round for a collection.
The plays gradually changed; moralities now gave way to plays where
historical and actual characters appeared. The popular clowns from the
market-place never disappeared from the stage. They would shove in
between the parts of a play and talk the crowds into anything.
The regular drama from its very beginning was divided into comedy and
tragedy. Many companies of players had their own dramatists who were
As plays became more complicated, special playhouses came into
existence. The first regular playhouse in London was built in what had
been the Blackfriars Monastery where miracle plays had been performed
before the Reformation. It was built by James
Burbage and was called “The Theatre” (a Greek word never used in England
before). Later, “The Rose”, “The Curtain”, “The Swan” and many other
playhouses appeared. These playhouses did not belong to any company of
players. Actors travelled from one place to another and hired a building
for their performances.
The actors and their station in life.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the laws against the poor were very
cruel. Peasants who had lost their lands and went from town to town in
search of work were put into prison as tramps. Actors were often accused
of being tramps, so trave1ling became impossible. The companies of
players had to find themselves a patron among the nobility and with the
aid of obtain rights to travel and to perform. Thus some players called
themselves “The Earl of Leicester’s Servants”, others-“The Lord
Chamberlain’s Men”, and in 1583 the Queen appointed certain actors
“Grooms of the Chamber” All their plays were censored lest there be
anything against the Church or the government.
But the worst enemies of the actors were the Puritans. They formed a
religious sect in England which wanted to purity the English Church from
some forms that the Church retained of roman Catholicism. The ideology
of the Puritans was the ideology of the smaller bourgeoisie who wished
for a “cheaper church” and who hoped they would become rich one day by
careful living. They led a modest and sober life. These principles,
though moral at first sight, resulted in a furious attack upon the
stage. The companies of players were actually locked out of the City
because they thought acting a menace to public morality.
The big merchants attacked the drama because players and playgoers
caused them a lot of trouble: the profits on beer went to proprietors of
the inns and not to the merchants; all sorts of people came to town,
such as gamblers and thieves, during the hot months of the year the
plague was also spread strolling actors. Often apprentices who were very
much exploited by the merchants used to gather at plays for the purpose
of picking fights with their masters.
Towards the end of the 16th century we find most of the playhouses far
from the city proper.
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