THE AGE OF SHAKESPEARE
(Some critics have questioned the concept of “English Renaissance" and prefer to speak about “Elizabethan, Jacobean and Cromwellian literatures” or "Early Modern Literature". They highlight the achievements of previous literature and question the influence of Italian Renaissance)
-1455-1485: War of the Roses (dynastic war between the houses of York and Lancaster). Lancaster won: as a result, the House of Tudor ruled for over a century (1485-1603).
- Henry VIII (1509-1547). Break with Roman Catholicism. Protestant Alliances.
- Elizabeth I (1158-1603). The Virgin Queen. Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588). Francis Drake. Peaceful and prosperous reign after centuries of turmoil (Hundred Years’ War, War of the Roses)
- After Elizabeth I died, the Scottish House of Stuart took over, uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland with James I of England (VI of Scotland) who reigned between 1603 and 1625 in what is called the “Jacobean Era”. Beginning of colonies.
DRAMA was the most important form of literary expression of this period, and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616), the most important figure not only of this period but of English literature as a whole. Called England’s national poet and “The Bard of Avon”, he was a playwright, an actor, a poet and part-owner of the company (“The Lord Chamberlain’s Men”, later “The King’s Men”) and the theatre (“The Globe”, round with the stage in the middle) where his plays were performed. William Shakespeare is widely considered to be the greatest writer in the English language and is generally seen as the greatest dramatist the world has known. His plays (written between 1590 and 1612) have been translated into most major languages and are studied in schools and universities around the world. What are the reasons for his popular and critical success?
- He was able to write his plays for a very diverse audience. Most of his plays were adaptations from known sources (classical plays or stories), which means that his audience could follow the plot easily; they also had plenty of action (At the end of Hamlet, for example, the following characters die: Hamlet, his father, his mother, his uncle, Laertes, Ophelia and Polonius) and humour (farce, slapstick), which meant that all types of audiences could follow them.
- Universal themes, still relevant to modern-day life (the fragility of human condition, the individual versus society, love, fate, free will...)
- Several levels of meaning: the texts are clear to follow but complex to understand in depth.
- Use of language: extremely rich and varied (puns, double meanings, references, literary figures). Creator of neologisms (“excellent, obscene, homicide, hint”. It has been said that one in ten words in English was created by Shakespeare). Great use of blank verse (regular rhythm, no rhyme, typically iambic pentameter) Unfortunately, the English language has changed a lot since Shakespeare’s time, which means that his language is difficult to follow even for native speakers.
- Comedies: (light-hearted tone, happy ending, multiple plots, love stories, remember that female characters were played by male actors: ambiguity): The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest…
- Histories (based on real kings from the 12th-16th cent): Henry IV, Henry V…
- Tragedies (heroes who fall from grace due to a fall in their character, anti-hero): Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello...
- Sonnets: 154 sonnets addressed to either a “dark lady” (a married woman for whom the author feels strong physical attraction) or a “fair youth” (a young man the author also loves). Controversial texts (Platonic love, bisexuality, literary convention?)
Other Renaissance playwrights:
o Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Shakespeare’s predecessor and contemporary. Wild reputation. Author of Doctor Faustus.
o Ben Jonson (1572-1637). A classicist who followed traditional rules. Characters as archetypical ‘humours’ (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic). The Alchemist.
- Elizabethan Era: Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Poet, author of The Faerie Queene (1590), an epic poem celebrating, through fantastical allegory, the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I. Gentle poetry.
- JOHN DONNE (1572-1631) was part of a group called the Metaphysical poets who wrote passionate poetry full of daring metaphors. Influenced by continental Baroque, and taking as his subject matter both Christian mysticism and eroticism (“To his mistress going to bed” “Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy, Until I labour, I in labour lie”), Donne uses unconventional or "unpoetic" figures (sometimes called “metaphysical conceits”), such as a compass, a flea biting two lovers or the exploration of his wife’s body compared to the discovery of America (“Oh, my America, my new-found land!”) to reach surprising effects. The paradox is a constant in this poetry whose fears and anxieties also speak of a world of spiritual certainties shaken by the modern discoveries of geography and science, one that is no longer the centre of the universe.
- Thomas More (1478-1535) a humanist, opposed to the Reform, executed by Henry VIII, author of Utopia (1516).
- Francis Bacon (1561-1626): Philosopher and scientist.