The Frame of Order: An Outline of Elizabethan Belief Taken from Treatises of the Late Sixteenth Century

The Frame of Order: An Outline of Elizabethan Belief Taken from Treatises of the Late Sixteenth Century

The Frame of Order: An Outline of Elizabethan Belief Taken from Treatises of the Late Sixteenth Century

The Frame of Order: An Outline of Elizabethan Belief Taken from Treatises of the Late Sixteenth Century

Excerpt

Reading through a catalogue of English books printed in the second half of the sixteenth century is a tedious exercise, but an illuminating experience if we have tacitly assumed that Elizabethan literature consists chiefly of poetic drama, chronicles and lyrical miscellanies. Even when we make allowance for gaps in our records of Elizabethan printed books, and in particular for the number of plays which never reached print, the work commonly regarded as expressing the characteristic spirit of the age appears as a rather humble category in the full range of Elizabethan writing. By far the greater number of sixteenth-century books would be classified by a modern bookseller as non-fictional works: lives of great men, travel-books and accounts of voyages, scientific treatises in the fields of medicine, astronomy, navigation or husbandry, legal and political studies; but above all, sermons, homilies and religious tracts. Our immediate impression must be that the Elizabethan reading public was considerably more serious- minded than we should gather from acquaintance with the popular drama alone. Donne's seemingly perverse addiction to the topics and vocabulary of scientific and theological writers appears in a new light as we grasp the weight of intellectual interests to which more thoughtful Elizabethans were exposed. The record of books reprinted, a reliable indication of public demand, confirms the impression that Elizabethans expected serious instruction rather than entertainment of their reading. This does not mean that works of fiction--using the term to include poetry and drama--usually exhausted their popularity in a single edition. Sidney Arcadia, a good example of an Elizabethan best-seller, passed through one pirated and six authorised editions in a little more than three decades from 1588. It is difficult to make a fair comparison with a dramatic work, for the acting companies were understandably reluctant to sell their plays for publication; but the anonymous Mucedorus gratified its publisher by running into ten editions between 1598 and 1626. None of Shakespeare's plays had so distinguished a record in . . .

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