A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

4

Elizabethan drama (Shakespeare and his predecessors)

The English literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages is one of the great phenomena of European culture. The period was one of immense and concentrated literary activity. Nor did the activity end with the death of James I, convenient as that may be as a dividing line, for the work of the Cavalier poets as well as Paradise Lost was to follow. If we consider what was written in English between the birth of Spenser in 1552 and the death of Milton in 1674 we find ourselves confronted by a great concourse of major and minor writers of astonishing variety. It is necessary to pick one’s way through the mass of material with guide lines that are rough and ready. Even the convenient distinction between drama and poetry is imprecise. A very large proportion of the drama was in verse. The great dramatists were poets.

There was a group of young writers at the beginning of this period who have come to be known as the ‘University Wits’ because, after studying at Oxford or Cambridge, they moved to London to take up writing professionally. Greene, Lyly, Nashe, Lodge and Peele, as well as Marlowe, are classed among them. They represent an interesting cultural development in their attempt to put the fruits of their education before the public and to professionalize their enthusiasm for literature and ideas. They worked as prose-writers and poets as well as for the theatre, and so in some cases their names will recur later in our study. The blend of university culture and gentlemanly sophistication which some of them brought to bear on the popular theatre is significant, while Greene and Nashe may be credited with the achievement of marrying university culture and popular tradition.

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