The Elizabethan age was a period of expansion in knowledge, commerce, religious freedom, and human opportunities. The defeat of the Armada freed England from fear of Spanish domination and made her mistress of the sea.
England was vivified by the combined influence of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Knowledge was expanding in every direction and promising to crown human effort with universal mastery. The greater feeling of individuality was partly due to the Reformation, which emphasized the direct responsibility of each individual for all acts affecting the welfare of his soul.
Elizabethans were noted for their resourcefulness, their initiative, their craving for new experiences, and their desire to realize the utmost out of life. As they cared little for ideas that could not be translated into action, they were particularly interested in the drama.
Although the prose covers a wide field, it is far inferior to the poetry. Lyly’s Euphues suffers from overwrought conceits and forced antitheses, but it influenced writers to pay more attention to the manner in which thought was expressed. The flowery prose of Sidney’s Arcadia presents a pastoral world of romance. His Apologie for Poetrie is a meritorious piece of early criticism. While Hooker indicates advance in solidity of matter and dignity of style, yet a comparison of his heavy religious prose with the prayer of the king in Hamlet or with Portia’s words about mercy in The Merchant of Venice will show the vast superiority of the poetry in dealing with spiritual ideas. Bacon’s Essays, celebrated for pithy condensation of striking thoughts, is the only prose work that has stood the test of time well enough to claim many readers to-day.
Poetry, both lyric and dramatic, is the crowning glory of the Elizabethan age. The lyric verse is remarkable for its wide range and for beauty of form and sentiment. The lyrics include love sonnets, pastorals, and miscellaneous verse. Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the songs in his dramas are the best in this field, but many poets wrote exquisite artistic lyrics.
Edmund Spenser is the only great poet who was not also a dramatist. His Faerie Queene fashions an ideal world dominated by a love of beauty and high endeavor.
The greatest literary successes of the age were won in writing plays for the stage. In England the drama had for centuries slowly developed through Miracle plays, Moralities, and Interludes to the plays of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson. These three are the greatest Elizabethan dramatists, but they are only the central figures of a group.
The English drama in the hands of Sackville imitated Seneca and followed the rules of the classic stage. Marlowe and Shakespeare threw off the restraints of the classical unities; and the romantic drama, rejoicing in its freedom, speedily told the story of all life.