Much prose fiction was written during the Elizabethan Age. We have seen that Lyly’s Euphues and Sidney’s Arcadia contain the germs of romance. Two of the novelists of the sixteenth century, Robert Greene (1560?-1592) and Thomas Lodge (1558?-1625), helped to give to Shakespeare the plots of two of his plays. Greene’s novel Pandosto suggested the plot of The Winter’s Tale, and Lodge’s Rosalind was the immediate source of the plot of As You Like It.
Although Greene died in want at the age of thirty-two, he was the most prolific of the Elizabethan novelists. His most popular stories deal with the passion of love as well as with adventure. He was also the pioneer of those realistic novelists who go among the slums to study life at first hand. Greene made a careful study of the sharpers and rascals of London and published his observations in a series of realistic pamphlets.
[Illustration: A BLIND BEGGAR ROBBED OF HIS DRINK. From a British Museum MS.]
Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) was the one who introduced into England the picaresque novel in The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jacke Wilton (1594). The picaresque novel (Spanish, picaro, a rogue) is a story of adventure in which rascally tricks play a prominent part. This type of fiction came from Spain and attained great popularity in England. Jacke Wilton is page to a noble house. Many of his sharp tricks were doubtless drawn from real life. Nashe is a worthy predecessor of Defoe in narrating adventures that seem to be founded on actual life.
In spite of an increasing tendency to picture the life of the time, Elizabethan prose fiction did not entirely discard the matter and style of the medieval romances. All types of prose fiction were then too prone to deal with exceptional characters or unusual events. Even realists like Greene did not present typical Elizabethan life. The greatest realist in the prose fiction of the Elizabethan Age was Thomas Deloney (1543?-1600), who chose his materials from the everyday life of common people. He had been a traveling artisan, and he knew how to paint “the life and love of the Elizabethan workshop.” He wrote The Gentle Craft, a collection of tales about shoemakers, and Jack of Newberry, a story of a weaver.
The seventeenth century produced The Pilgrim’s Progress, a powerful allegorical story of the journey of a soul toward the New Jerusalem. Mrs. Aphra Behn (1640-1689), dramatist and novelist, shows the faults of the Restoration drama in her short tales, which helped to prepare the way for the novelists of the next century. Her best story is Oroonoko (1658), a tale of an African slave, which has been called “the first humanitarian novel in English,” and a predecessor of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.