1. When was it?


2. Who was writing?

John DonneEdmund Spenser
Sir Philip SidneyThomas Middleton
William ShakespeareChristopher Marlowe
Ben JohnsonJohn Lyly
Thomas NasheThomas Wyatt

3. History

Continuing from her father, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I oversaw a time of conquest and English dominance in Western Europe and beyond. With increased power, finance, and education, this was a time of enormous significance in English culture that was later labelled as ‘The Golden Age’, and was the foundation of ‘The English Renaissance’.
Elizabeth had inherited a strong country, but one experiencing foreign relations problems and internal religious power struggles. Help in the former came from Europe, where Spain’s establishment as a power reduced French and Italian influence. While England and Spain did battle, including reciprocal efforts to invade in 1588 and 1589, damage was mostly to the treasury. This was compensated by the exploration of the New World, where Spain and Britain both took swathes of land, building colonies and wealth through emigration, trade, and slavery.
General religious unity was established during the Elizabethan reign, albeit via brutal tactics. Henry VIII had separated England from the Catholic Church in 1534, creating the protestant Church of England (CoE), but his Catholic daughter Mary reverted to Vatican control. Elizabeth, a protestant, swept the deck, making following the CoE compulsory in 1559 and purging influential Catholics, often through banishment, imprisonment and execution. Hanging, beheading, and burning at the stake were all possible punishments for supporting the Pope. In 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots – a Catholic with a claim to the English throne – was beheaded, cementing Elizabeth’s power.
Culturally, it was an era in which European education and arts greatly improved. The Italian Renaissance was already established, and the printing press broadened access. Morality was still a major issue, exemplified by the London mayor attempting to close sinful playhouses in 1580, yet the fact such ‘crude’ or ‘low’ works existed showed the widening scope of art. Poets and playwrights could now become celebrities and, thanks to England’s international power, many Elizabethan writers became England’s first globally known writers.

4. Traits

Although English power was rising, it is worth noting that European life – especially ideas growing out of the Italian Renaissance – significantly affected English culture. References to Italian and other European royalty and legends, as well as the use of imported styles such as the sonnet, began to be noticeable in English writing. It was also Italians’ liking for plays, sparked by an interest in classical Greek and Latin performance works, that made plays fashionable in England.
The tone of writing during this period was lofty, with poets and playwrights often endeavouring to show merit in their skills, wordplay, and references (this can especially be seen in Shakespeare’s work, where characters speak in rhymes and frequent puns, and make references to classical works and tales). Yet appealing to wider tastes and classes was important, especially financially; thus, rather than being primarily about religion and royalty, writing began to venture into other areas and represent more aspects of life – although religion and royalty still remained common themes. Quite often problems or moral conundrums made up the basis of the plot, rather than traditional heroes and adventurers. Whilst laws of decency meant language could not get too base, crude remarks for the audience’s amusement were often hidden in clear double entendres.

5. Timeline

6. Examples

Astrophel and Stella 
by Sir Philip Sidney

Know Your Book

Title: Astrophel and Stella
Author: Sir Philip Sydney (Philip Sydney) (c. 1554-1586)
Published: c. 1580
Language: English
Genre: Poetry; sonnets
Synopsis: Across 108 sonnets and 11 songs, Astrophel (star lover) speaks to Stella (star) about love, passions and art. Making references to classical mythology, European royalty, and traditional science, Astrophel’s love for Stella is depicted as admiration cast from afar. This elicits thoughts about whether poetry and art can express fully his love.

Excerpt, Verse 6:

Some lovers speak, when they their muses entertain,
Of hopes begot by fear, of wot not what desires,
Of force of heavenly beams infusing hellish pain,
Of living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms, and freezing fires;
Some one his song in Jove, and Jove’s strange tales attires,
Broidered with bulls and swans, powdered with golden rain;
Another humbler wit to shepherd’s pipe retires,
Yet hiding royal blood full oft in rural vein.
To some a sweetest plaint a sweetest style affords,
While tears pour out his ink, and sighs breathe out his words,
His paper pale despair, and pain his pen doth move.
I can speak what I feel, and feel as much as they,
But think that all the map of my state I display,
When trembling voice brings forth that I do Stella love.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus 
by Christopher Marlowe

Know Your Book

Title: The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus
Author: Christopher Marlowe (c. 1564-1593)
Published: c. 1588
Language: English
Genre: Drama; play; tragedy
Plot: Feeling he has conquered most subjects, obsessive scholar Dr Faustus decides to try necromancy. Ignoring warnings from a good angel, and following a bad angel, Faustus summons a demon called Mephistophilis who convinces Faustus to make a deal with the devil. The deal gives Faustus 24 years use of Mephistophilis and magic, then eternity in Hell. Realising his mistake but unable to escape his bond, Faustus merely wastes his powers on pointless activities until it is time to die.
Setting: Wittenberg
Characters: Dr Faustus; Mephistophilis; Lucifer; Beelzebub

Excerpt from Scene 13, Lines 57-113:

Faustus: O Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to heaven!—Who pulls me down?—
See, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop of blood will save me: O my Christ!—
Rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!—
Where is it now? ‘tis gone:
And, see, a threatening arm, an angry brow!
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of heaven!
Then will I headlong run into the earth:
Gape, earth! O, no, it will not harbour me!
You stars that reign’d at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist,
Into the entrails of yon labouring clouds,
That, when you vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths;
But let my soul mount and ascend to heaven!
[The clock strikes the half-hour.]
O, half the hour is past! ‘twill all be past anon.
O, if my soul must suffer for my sin,
Impose some end to my incessant pain;
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!
No end is limited to damned souls.
Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?
Or why is this immortal that thou hast?
O, Pythagoras’ metempsychosis, were that true,
This soul should fly from me, and I be chang’d
Into some brutish beast!
All beasts are happy,
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;
But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell.
Curs’d be the parents that engender’d me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath depriv’d thee of the joys of heaven.
[The clock strikes twelve.]
It strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!
O soul, be chang’d into small water-drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!
[Thunder. Enter DEVILS.]
O, mercy, heaven! look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books!—O Mephistophilis!
[Exeunt DEVILS with FAUSTUS.]